A buyer’s guide to climbing shoes

Table of contents

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

For beginners, finding the right climbing shoe 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 fastener and shoelaces… *ugh

We will try to shed some light on this issue for you.

Lets start with the different properties of climbing shoes:

The different ways to fasten it

As for this, there are three different kinds:

  • Shoes with shoelaces have the advantage that they can be fastened pretty precisely, however, putting them on and taking them off takes a bit longer. Especially for bouldering this is somewhat impractical.
  • Faster are the hook-and-loop shoes. A disadvantage is, however, that the hook-and-loop fasteners will sometimes break faster.
  • The third model are slippers. They don’t have any type of fastening (or just an additional velcro strip) and basically fit like socks. Therefore, they have to fit perfectly and will fit extremely tight – especially in the beginning. Therefore, they are not very suitable for beginners.

The material

Climbing shoes usually consist of plastic or leather. As always, both have their advantages and disadvantages. Leather will widen somewhat more than plastic, but due to this it will also adjust itself better to the foot. Plastic is a bit more stable, but can also cause increased smelling.

Important note: The individual make-up of human sweat can cause certain dyes, especially more intense dyes, to run, 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 of harmful substances and adhesives, the dyes cannot stick to the shoe as well. This can lead to the colour running when it comes into contact with certain types of sweat.

The pre-tensioning and downturn

Scarpa Booster
Scarpa Booster

The focus of climbing shoes is usually getting the strength of the 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 the force is collected in the big toe. These soles will have the characteristic curvature (downturn). If you want to learn more about pre-tensioning and downturn, we’ve got an extensive article on that. You can find it here.

In general you can say that, the more tension a shoe builds up, the more aggressive it is. You need aggressive climbing shoes for overhangs or if you have to stand on very small ledges. In general, you 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 vertical and are not seriously small, you can get your feet more comfortable shoes.

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

Plastic plate

There are shoes which have an additional plate in their soles. It distributes the burden on a bigger area and thereby facilitates standing. Although a large part of the feeling is lost. Soft shoes (without plate) mould itself to the steps and are almost glued to the rock. With a bit of experience, you can directly feel whether your foot will hold, however, standing is a bit more exhausting.

  • The plate distributes the weight and thereby facilitates standing at the expense of feeling

Heel area

What is a "hook"?
What is a “hook”?

If you just want to climb with a rope initially, the heel area is not that important. In bouldering it is important for certain moves, namely, the “hooks”. That means that you aren’t standing on the step with your toes, but jam your heel into it. However, this move is rarely needed in easier bouldering. Regardless of whether you want to do bouldering or climbing – it is important that the shoe won’t press into the Achilles tendon, even after prolonged use. This depends on the size of the shoe as well as on the model. Here, testing is important.

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

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

Deciding on a shoe

Pre-tensioning and downturn
Pre-tensioning and downturn

The most important questions for buying shoes are first:

  • Requirements: Should the shoe be more comfortable (beginners or long, multipitch route touring) or aggressively tight (very small foot placements, overhangs)?
  • Pre-tensioning: Are you climbing difficult roofs (with pre-tensioning) or rather vertical/slight overhang (no or slight pre-tensioning)?
  • Heel area: Is the shoe for bouldering? Then a tighter heel.

The right size

After that, you need to find the correct size. There are a few pointers that can help you:

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

  • La Sportiva: -1.5 to -2.0
  • Scarpa: -1 to -2.0
  • Evolv, Five Ten: approximately the same as normal shoes

Roman, Egyptian, Romanian

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, they are called “Greek feet” and if both are approximately the same, it is called “Roman feet”. It is therefore possible that certain 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 have already put a wealth of information about their shoes on their homepages. On the sites of Red Chili or Rock Pillars you can find very detailed information in which shoe is best for which foot form.

Trying them on

The most important thing when trying on climbing shoes is taking enough time. While wearing them you should especially focus on whether you feel pain in the heel or the toes. Stand on edges (stairs, steps) several times – sometimes just with the tip, sometimes a bit sideways. Walk around a bit – are you in pain? Or is there a lot of air somewhere? Of course, climbing shoes are not “comfortable” in the general meaning – but you shouldn’t faint with pain just from trying them on.
Even though most climbing shoes widen a bit, especially in the beginning it isn’t a good idea to buy especially tight fitting shoes. Also, caution when trying them on: The feet widen up to half a size during the day – therefore, the shoes should be tried on 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 on small steps, walk around with the shoes. Watch out for pain and air in the shoe
  • Don’t buy painful shoes!

If you have further questions or don’t know which product to choose, our customer service 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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Alpinetrek-Expert Erika Spengler

Alpinetrek-Expert Erika Spengler

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