So you’ve been bitten by the climbing bug and want to get your own gear. Shoes are great place to start, since they’re the contact point between your feet and the wall (and let’s be honest, rental shoes can be kind of gross). They’re arguably the most important piece of gear that affects your performance in the gym or on rock, so you want to be sure you get a pair that suits your needs and fits you perfectly.
First up: the shape of shoes
If you’re looking at climbing shoes for the first time, you might feel overwhelmed by the number of options. You’ll see everything from flat slipper-like shoes to ones that look like upside-down bananas.
Different shoe shapes put your foot in different positions that can give you advantages across types of terrain. Flatter shoes are often stiffer and provide more support for your foot on vertical or less than vertical (slabby) walls. Downturned shoes are often softer and better at grasping foot holds, which are common in steeper terrain and modern bouldering gyms.
If I were choosing my first shoe today, I’d pick a neutral profile (flatter) shoe if I was going to be route climbing (climbing on a rope) or a moderate profile (slightly downturned) shoe if I was going to be mostly bouldering.
“One of the biggest mistakes I see from new climbers is rushing into shoes that are too aggressive. You can climb really hard in neutral shoes, and by the time you wear them out, you’ll have a better idea of what you’re looking for in a more aggressive pair.” – Ian, MEC Calgary climbing staff
How tight should climbing shoes fit?
You may have heard a rumour that you’re supposed to get the smallest climbing shoe size you can possibly squeeze your feet into. This rumour may have been true a decade ago, before shoes were constructed to modern standards, but it’s no longer the case. Advances in climbing shoe technology mean you can now wear your shoes “comfortably” (comfortable is a relative term – keep reading for details) without losing performance.
Climbing shoes should fit like a glove, without any major air pockets or dead space around your toes, forefoot or heels. A properly sized climbing shoe will generally cause your toes to curl a little bit.
Flatter, neutral shoes are designed to be worn with your toes gently curled, while moderate to aggressive downturned shoes are made to be worn with more dramatically curled toes. At the most aggressive range, toes will be bent over to almost 90 degrees at the toe knuckle – not recommended for new climbers. Curled toes are stronger than flat toes and will help you stand on small foot holds. You never want your toes to be so curled that it feels like you’re standing on your toenails – that’s a sure sign that your shoes are too small. In contrast, a shoe that’s too large will shift when you’re standing on small foot holds.
“If there’s a climbing wall in store, ask to try out shoes on the wall. You can test out the inside (big toe) and outside (little toe) edges, which are the primary shoe contact points, and see how stable and supportive the shoe feels on different holds.” – Raymond, MEC North York climbing staff
What do well-fitting climbing shoes feel like?
Climbing shoes that fit well will hug your feet snugly without any painful areas or hot spots. If you feel any pain anywhere, the shoes are either too small or the wrong model for you. They should be comfortable to climb in, but don’t expect them to feel like your favourite pair of runners – they’re not meant for standing in while belaying or walking around at the crag.
Climbing shoes are designed for climbing, and if they fit well, you’ll be focusing on your climbing, not your foot pain. If you pull on your shoe and hear a suction-like sound as they pop into place, chances are you found the perfect shoe.
“It’s hard to tell how well climbing shoes fit just by looking at them – it really comes down to how they feel. I can tell they fit well when people describe them as fitting like a sock or that they’re evenly tight everywhere.” – Ian, MEC Calgary climbing staff
How much do climbing shoes stretch?
Don’t depend on stretching to find the right fit. A properly fitted climbing shoe shouldn’t need to stretch any significant amount. All climbing shoes, regardless of what they’re made of, will form to your foot as the upper softens over time. While it’s true that leather can stretch if you size it too small, keep in mind that climbing shoe sole rubber doesn’t stretch… the shoe will never get longer. If the shoe is too short, it will be always be too short.
What size climbing shoes should you get?
Finding the right size is important and half-size differences really do count. Often, the correct size for climbing shoes will be smaller than your running shoes, but this isn’t always the case. Confusing, right? To help you out, each climbing shoe description on mec.ca has a bullet point with suggestions about what size to start with in relation to your street shoes. The same size shoe can fit differently between brands or even between models of the same brand.
If you live near an MEC store, I definitely recommend stopping by to try on as many models of climbing shoes as you can. Some stores even have a climbing wall you can try them out on. Nothing beats trying shoes in person to find the right fit (staff can give advice too). If you’re not close to a store, though, use these tips to narrow down the options and sizes.
“It’s a good idea to try on climbing shoes at the end of the day, when your feet are at their largest size.” – Raymond, MEC North York climbing staff
How to care for your climbing shoes
Once you find the perfect pair of climbing shoes, you’ll want to make sure they last. There’s a tendency for climbers to slip their heels out of shoes, then walk around the gym standing on the backs of their shoes. This compresses the heel and causes it to bag out and lose the shape it was designed to have. My tip? I bring a pair of flip flops, slip-on sandals or running shoes to the gym to wear between routes or when my feet need a break.
After a climbing session, let your shoes dry out before you put them away. You wouldn’t leave your sweaty gym clothes in your bag until next session – you shouldn’t do that to your shoes either. Store your shoes in a cool, dry area. Leaving shoes in the sun or a hot car can cause the glues to soften, which can lead to delamination of the sole or rand (rubber around the toes).
How long do climbing shoes last?
Lastly, let’s talk about durability. Climbing holds, whether they’re gym holds or real rock, are textured and abrasive – that’s what grabs onto the rubber of the shoes. When your feet slip, little chunks of rubber are torn off. Don’t expect your shoes to last forever. As you gain experience and improve your technique, you’ll find your shoes last a bit longer as you place your feet more precisely.
“To extend the life of your shoes, put in the time and effort to develop deliberate and laser-precise footwork – doing so also makes you a better climber.” – Khoi, MEC Vancouver climbing staffer
As an experienced climber with over 10 years of climbing, I usually get a maximum of about six months (climbing around four to five days a week) out of a pair of shoes. Don’t fret – once the rubber has worn out, you can get your shoes resoled to like-new status and get another chunk of time out of them. Ask at your local MEC or climbing gym for a reputable climbing shoe resoler near you.