Climbing shoes

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.

  • Climbing shoes should fit tight, but like firm handshake, not a painful squeeze.
  • Leather stretches over time, lined leather stretches less, and synthetic materials tend to hold their shape.
  • 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.

How tight should climbing shoes fit?

When it comes to climbing shoes for beginners, a comfortable fit is best. A comfortable shoe is one you can wear for most of the day, and that you can walk short distances in without hobbling. After breaking in new shoes, usually through a few sessions at the climbing gym, your toes might just be feathering the end of the shoe. There may even be a small gap between your toes and the tip of the shoe.

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. Once you’ve worn and broken in your shoes a bit, your toes might be gently curled or just feathering the front of the shoe. 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.

MEC Ambassador Tosh Sherkat climbing indoors

Materials and stretch

Climbing shoes with leather uppers will stretch the most, up to 1 full size. If you want a performance fit, your toes could have a curl when the shoes are new, but not a curl that’s so painful that you can’t stand in them for a minute or two.

Lined leather shoes may only stretch about ½ size. They offer a more consistent fit, but take longer to break in. Even if you want a performance fit, if your toe knuckles are popping out of the shoe, they are probably too small.

Synthetic materials offer minimal stretch and their shape won’t change much. Size them as you want them to feel when climbing. If they aren’t comfortable when you try them on, they won’t get much better over time.

Shape and Shoe profile

Different types of climbing shoe profiles

Left to right: examples of a flat shoe profile, curved shoe profile and hooked shoe profile.

The shape of a shoe will also influence how comfortable it feels and how it performs. A flat shoe with a more symmetrical profile is nice if you’re climbing long, multi-pitch routes or climbing lots of cracks. 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.

Curved shoes will have 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 toe and to the edges of the shoe. This shaping lets you balance on thin holds, using just your toes or the outside or inside edge of your foot.

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 push down forcefully with your toes on and extend your body powerfully on steep or overhanging sections of a climb.

Climbing shoe sizing tips

  • 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.
  • Try on shoes at the end of the day, when your feet are slightly larger.
  • Watch out for shoes that are too short. The upper will stretch, but the shoes won’t actually get longer as you break them in.
  • Pay attention to the back of the heel. Stand on you toes to make sure the shoe doesn’t press painfully on your Achilles tendon.
  • Each brand has their own sizing. Start with your regular shoe size and size up or down to get a good fit
  • 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.

Stiffness and different styles of climbing

For your first pair of shoes, stiffer is usually better. Though it’s important that any shoe flexes in a way that’s comfortable and natural for your foot.

Stiffer 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 encounter lots of different moves. 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 little to no midsole between your feet and the rubber 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. The also excel on steep, overhanging pitches and training walls. They suit intermediate and advanced climbers who’ve built up some foot strength and technique that lets them hook and grab holds with their feet. Softer shoes 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.

Rock climber getting upside down in Squamish

Laces vs. Velcro closures

Pile of climbing shoes

Lace up shoes are often the most comfortable, as they can be worn loose or snug. You can loosen them during a long day of climbing, and they usually have a more relaxed fit that works for long days. But they are less convenient to take off and put on if you’re moving from boulder to boulder or walking to the base of a new 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. This style of climbing shoe should fit snugly to begin with, so you can adjust the fit as they stretch. They are prone to stretching out, so most people wear them only while on the rock, not for walking around. Slipper-style shoes are typically softer to suit steep or aggressive climbing and bouldering.

Outsole rubber

Most manufacturers have their own proprietary rubber compound. All climbing shoes offer good grip, but some rubber tends to be softer, which is great for smearing moves on bare slabs of rock. 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. A common feature is to combine compounds to place harder rubber around the rim of the sole with a pocket of softer rubber in the middle.

The thickness of the rubber also influences performance. Thicker layers add stiffness and reduce sensitivity, so you’ll find rubber thicknesses of 4mm and above on shoes 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.

Women’s climbing shoes

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. Shoes that have a rand up to the top of the shoe can rub the sides and back of you heel. When trying shoes, pay close attention to where the shoe touches your ankle bones and the back of you heel, otherwise all the same sizing tips apply.

MEC climbing gear package

MEC Ambassador Alannah Yip climbing in Squamish

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