How to choose climbing shoes

Climbing shoes fit differently than any other type of shoes you own. You want them to support your foot, allow lots of sensitivity and stick to surfaces without skidding off. Consider these things when selecting a pair of rock shoes for indoor climbing, sport climbing and tackling longer routes outside. Some overall pointers:

  • Climbing shoes should fit snug, but like a firm handshake, not a painful squeeze.
  • Beginners, crack climbers and those on long routes may opt for stiffer, flatter shoes.
  • Sport climbers and boulderers often want softer, more curved shoes.
  • Lace-up shoes can be micro-adjusted for a good fit (nice on all-day routes).
  • Shoes with Velcro closures are fast to take off when bouldering or cragging.
  • Women’s climbing shoes tend to be narrower, and usually have a higher arch and instep.

If you can, try on shoes in person and use the store’s climbing facilities to try out a few moves. See if you can balance on a very small hold and try standing on both the inside and outside edges of your feet. When you’re shopping online for climbing shoes from MEC, you can narrow down your options by filtering by the materials, stiffness, profile and more.

What’s a good fit for climbing shoes?

When it comes to shoes for beginner climbers, a comfortable fit is best. A comfortable shoe is one that is snug without causing any pain or hotspots. After breaking in new shoes, usually through a few sessions at the climbing gym, your toes should have a gentle bend and be touching the end of the shoe. Gaps around the heel or under the arch can cause the shoe to slip and slide around when you heel hook or cam your toes into a crack.

More advanced climbers will usually want a tighter, performance fit. With this tighter fit, you’ll want to take your shoes off regularly during the day to let your toes stretch and relax. They should feel snug and like a firm handshake, but not like a painful squeeze. Ideally, you want to be thinking about climbing when you climb, not about how much your feet and toes hurt.

Tips for fitting climbing shoes

  • Try on shoes at the end of the day, when your feet are slightly larger.
  • Climbing shoes should feel snug all around your foot, without gaps or dead space that will reduce sensitivity. Gaps around the heel or under the arch can cause the shoe to slip and slide around when you heel hook or cam your toes into a crack.
  • Beware of shoes that are too short. The upper may stretch, but the shoes won’t actually get longer as you break them in.
  • Pay attention to the back of the heel. Stand on your toes to make sure the shoe doesn’t press painfully on your Achilles tendon.
  • Each brand has their own sizing. Check our product descriptions for suggestions on where to start compared to the size of shoes you usually wear.
  • Try on lots of different shoes! The best shoe is the one that fits you best, so take your time and try out several pairs.
Climbing indoors on an overhang section of the wall

What to know about different materials

All climbing shoes will mould and form to your feet, but some materials will stretch more than others:

  • Leather uppers will stretch the most, and may become loose or baggy over time. The benefit? They’re the most breathable (and the least stinky) option.
  • Lined leather shoes and fully synthetic uppers will stretch the least. They’ll maintain a shape close to their original form.

One important thing to keep in mind: rubber does not stretch. The rubber sole and rand (the rubber that wraps around the toe) helps keep the shape of the shoe. It will give a little but it will not get longer. If a shoe is too short when you first buy it, it will always be too short.

What shape of shoe should you choose?

The shape of a shoe will influence how comfortable it feels and how it performs.

Neutral profile

A flat shoe with a more symmetrical shape. If you set the shoe on a flat surface (without your foot in it) most of the sole area will touch the surface, with just a slight arc around the arch.

Neutral shoes are great for: Beginner climbers in the gym or outside. Climbing long, multi-pitch routes or climbing cracks or lower-angle slabs.

Neutral profile for climbing shoes
Examples of shoes with a neutral profile

Moderate profile

Curved shoes with a more pronounced arc and generally some asymmetry to their shape. They allow precision when you place your foot by directing your weight and force toward the big toe and to the edges of the shoe. This shaping lets you balance on thin holds, using just your toes.

Moderate shoes are great for: Climbing vertical to gently overhanging sport climbs, or highly technical trad climbs – this range of shoes is typically stiffer and well suited for thin footholds or very edgy climbs. Moderate profile shoes are also great if you want a single shoe to cover the widest range of climbing styles.

Examples of shoes with a moderate profile
Examples of shoes with a moderate profile

Aggressive profile

Shoes with a distinct asymmetric, hooked shape and a visibly down-turned toe use the tension the shape creates to actively push your toes forward and centre your weight over your big toe. This allows you to grasp footholds with your toes and extend your body powerfully on steep or overhanging sections of a climb.

Aggressive shoes are great for: Climbing steep routes or bouldering in the gym or outdoors. Also for advanced climbers looking for a specific shoe to add to their shoe quiver. These are not generalist shoes – they are highly specific performance shoes designed to give a slight advantage in certain terrain (typically steeper).

Examples of shoes with an aggressive profile
Examples of shoes with an aggressive profile

What about climbing shoe stiffness?

Stiffer, supportive shoes usually have a thin layer of plastic (the midsole) that runs the entire length of the shoe. They’re great for beginners and for long outdoor routes where you’ll be wearing them for hours at a time. Stiff shoes support your feet and prevent fatigue as you build up the muscles in your feet and toes.

As you get stronger, you might want to progress to a softer shoe. Climbing on steep or overhanging rock is more difficult in stiffer shoes because you can’t flex your foot to wrap it around holds and grab or hook them with your feet. Shoes with a thinner or shorter midsole are softer and more flexible. Soft shoes are excellent on smooth slabs of rock where you have to smear your shoe rubber against the texture of the rock for purchase. They also excel on steep, overhanging pitches and training walls.

Softer shoes suit intermediate and advanced climbers who’ve built up some foot strength and technique that lets them hook and grab holds with their feet. They can be uncomfortable on long routes and routes that require you to torque your feet into cracks. They can also start to feel uncomfortable if you’re climbing with the extra weight of a pack.

Close up of a person putting on climbing shoes outdoors; the closure on the shoes is Velcro

Laces vs. Velcro closures

Lace up shoes are often the most comfortable, as they can be worn loose or snug. You can tighten down the toes without the heels, or vice versa, for a truly customized fit. But they are less convenient to take off and put on if you’re moving from boulder to boulder or after you’ve finished a route. Laces that reach right to the toe are great for getting a precise fit, but they can get in the way or cause pain with technical climbing moves like toe hooks.

Velcro closures found on slipper-style shoes are convenient to put on and take off, something that’s common when you’re sport climbing and bouldering. They offer a good blend of comfort and performance. Slipper-style shoes are typically softer to suit steep or aggressive climbing and bouldering.

How rubber thickness and softness affects performance

All climbing shoes offer good grip, but some rubber tends to be softer, which is great for smearing moves on bare slabs of rock or for lighter climbers. Harder rubber tends to be better for edging on very small or incut holds. Softer rubber will wear faster and is a little less durable than harder rubber.

The thickness of the rubber also influences performance. Thicker rubber adds stiffness and reduces sensitivity, so you’ll find rubber thicknesses of 4mm and above on very stiff shoes or those designed for beginners. Thicker rubber will last longer, so a climber who is developing technique and precision with their footwork will benefit from a slightly thicker sole. More advanced climbers looking for supple, flexible shoes may opt for sole thicknesses of less than 4mm.

How do women’s climbing shoes fit?

Women’s feet are generally narrower than men’s, and usually have a thinner Achilles tendon, lower ankle bone notches, and a higher arch and instep. Shoes that sit high on the back of your heel may dig into your Achilles tendon. To accommodate that, women’s climbing shoes usually have a narrower heel cup, lower cut around the ankle bones, and lower volume through the forefoot. Women’s shoes are also great for men with narrower feet.

MEC climbing gear package

Need a harness along with your rock climbing shoes? See the details for the 10% off climbing gear package from MEC.