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A buyer’s guide to climbing shoes


A colorful bouquet of climbing shoes
A colourful bouquet of climbing shoes

For beginners, finding the right climbing shoes can be an extremely daunting task. What should you look out for when buying climbing shoes? What is the correct size? Should they really be so tight that they hurt? And what’s all this about „pre-tensioning“? And then the decision between hook-and-loop fasteners or shoelaces… *ugh*

We will try to shed some light on these issues for you.

Let’s start with the different properties of climbing shoes:

Different ways to fasten them

There are three different kinds of fastening options for climbing shoes:

  • Shoelaces have the advantage that they can be fastened with precision, however, putting them on and taking them off again takes a bit longer. This can be somewhat impractical, especially for bouldering.
  • Quicker to fasten are the hook-and-loop fastened shoes. However, one disadvantage is that they may tend to break faster.
  • The third option for climbing shoes are slippers. They don’t have any type of fastening (or maybe just an additional hook-and-loop fastener) and basically fit like socks. Therefore, they have to fit perfectly and will feel extremely tight – especially in the beginning. As a result, they are not particularly suitable for beginners.

The material

Climbing shoes are usually made from synthetics or leather. As always, both have their advantages and disadvantages. Leather will widen somewhat more than synthetic materials, but due to this fact, it will also mould itself better to your feet. Synthetics are more stable, but can also cause increased foot odour.

Important note: The unique properties of human sweat can cause certain dyes to run, especially in more intense coloured shoes, which can then temporarily stain your feet blue, yellow or red. However, this is not a sign of poor quality. In fact, the opposite is true. Since climbing shoes, which are usually worn directly against the skin, are deliberately left free from harmful substances and adhesives, the dyes are not able to stick to the shoe so well. As mentioned above, this can lead to the colour running when it comes into contact with certain types of sweat.

Pre-tensioning and downturn

Scarpa Booster
Scarpa Booster

The focus of climbing shoes is usually to get the strength of the entire foot concentrated into the toes. This can be achieved by either building up tension in the sole through the heel (pre-tensioning) or by sculpting the sole so that the force is collected in the big toe. These soles will have a characteristic curvature (downturn).

In general, we can say that the more tension a shoe is capable of building, the more aggressive it is. You need aggressive climbing shoes for overhangs or to stand on very small ledges. In general, we can also say that the more aggressive the shoe, the less comfortable it will be. So if the holds of your climbing routes or your boulders aren’t going beyond the vertical and are not seriously tiny, you can treat your feet to more comfortable shoes.

  • Flat shoes are more suitable for beginners than those with pre-tensioning or downturn

Plastic plate

There are shoes which have an additional plate in their soles. This distributes the load over a larger area and thereby makes standing easier. On the other hand, a large part of the foot’s sensitivity is lost as a result. Soft shoes (without a plate) mould themselves to the ledges and are almost glued to the rock. With a bit of experience, you can instantly feel whether your foot will hold. However, standing on a hold is a bit more strenuous.

  • The plate distributes your weight to make standing easier at the expense of foot sensitivity

Heel area

What is a "hook"?
What is a „hook“?

If you just want to climb using ropes at first, the heel area is not so important. In bouldering, it plays a role for certain moves, namely “hooks”. This means that you don’t stand on a ledge with your toes, but rather, you jam your heel into it. However, this technique is rarely needed in easier bouldering routes. Regardless of whether you want to do bouldering or climbing, it is vital that the heel doesn’t press into the Achilles tendon, even after prolonged use. This depends on the size of the shoes, as well as the model. The key here is to try them out.

  • A tight fitting heel area is especially important for “hooking” during bouldering.

So much for the theory. But how do you find the perfect climbing shoes?

Deciding on a shoe

Pre-tensioning and downturn
Pre-tensioning and downturn

The most fundamental questions to ask when buying climbing shoes are:

  • Requirements: should the shoes be more comfortable (beginners or long, multipitch route touring) or aggressively tight (very small foot placements, overhangs)?
  • Pre-tensioning: are you climbing demanding routes (strong pre-tensioning) or vertical routes with a slight overhang (slight or no pre-tensioning)?
  • Heel area: Is the shoe for bouldering? Then go for a tighter heel.

The right size

After all of this, you need to find the correct size. Here are a few pointers that can help you:

La Sportiva tend to be very big and often wide. If your usual size is EU 38, you can easily start at EU 36.5 or even EU 36. With Scarpa, you can also subtract 1.5 to 2 from your usual EU size. Evolv and Five Ten are pretty close to the size of your normal, everyday shoes.

  • La Sportiva: -1.5 to -2.0 from your normal EU shoe size.
  • Scarpa: -1 to -2.0 from your normal EU shoe size.
  • Evolv and Five Ten: approximately the same as your normal EU shoe size.

Roman, Egyptian, Greek

Three different foot forms
Three different foot forms

When looking for a fitting shoe, you should consider that not every climber has the same foot form. There are three different types. If the big toe is the longest, it is called an “Egyptian” foot form; if the second toe is the longest, it is called a “Greek” foot form; and if both are approximately the same, it is called a “Roman” foot form. It is therefore possible that certain shoe models or manufacturers simply won’t fit you. In those cases, it is better to try on an entirely different shoe, instead of different sizes.
Many manufacturers already have a wealth of information about their shoes on their homepages. On the Red Chili or Rock Pillars websites, you can find very detailed information on which shoe is best for which foot form.

Trying them on

The most important thing when trying on climbing shoes is taking enough time to do so. While wearing them, you should especially focus on whether you feel pain in the heel or the toes. Step onto ledges (stairs, steps) several times – sometimes just with the tips of the toes, sometimes a bit sideways. Walk around a bit – are you in pain? Or is there too much space somewhere? Of course, climbing shoes are not “comfortable” in the conventional meaning of the word, but you shouldn’t faint with pain just from trying them on either.
Even though most climbing shoes widen a bit with time, in the beginning it isn’t a good idea to buy especially tight fitting shoes. Also note that, when trying them on, your feet can widen up to half a size during the course of a day – therefore, you should try on the shoes during the time of day you intend to use them (which is usually in the evening).

  • Take your time, pick the right time of day
  • Step onto small ledges, walk around with the shoes. Watch out for pain and too much space in the shoes
  • Don’t buy painful shoes!

If you have further questions or don’t know which product to choose, our customer service team will be glad to assist you. They are available during the week from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. and can be reached by phone at 03 33 33 67058 or via e-mail.

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Bergfreundin Erika Spengler

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  1. […] advice on buying the right climbing shoes can be found in our blog post A buyer’s guide to climbing shoes and our climbing shoe sizing guide. This is where you can find some useful information on the right […]

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