“What are the best climbing shoes?” is a great question to start with when looking for some new rubber, but don’t ever forget to add on the phrase “for me”. Because out of all the different categories of climbing gear you can buy like ropes, quickdraws, belay devices or even harnesses – climbing shoes are truly the most personally unique. You may have heard other climbers give their opinions, magazines give their reviews, or even what your favourite climber uses and recommends, and whilst these opinions shouldn’t be discredited, they are not the be-all-and-end-all. In this article we’ll cover the key aspects that answer the question of what truly the best climbing shoes for you are, so that you can make the best choice of what to wear on your feet while climbing.
Climbing Shoe Fit
Without a doubt the first question that needs to be addressed is what fits your foot best. You may have your favourite brand in mind, know what your favourite climber uses, know all about the performance functions of certain model of shoes, but they won’t mean much unless that model fits your foot. To boil it down to its simplest form we use the term “volume” – do you have a narrow or low volume foot, or do you have a wide or high-volume foot. The reason why the words “narrow” and “wide” are a bit misleading though is because those terms make you think about your feet laterally and not vertically. Some people’s feet might not be that wide laterally but may have quite a lot of vertical volume and hence put them into a “high-volume” shoe for example.
A good brand of climbing shoe will usually create different models with different fits to cater for everyone, although we have known brands in the past to be well known for one type of fit. An even better brand will have multiple shoes in the same technical category to cater for different shaped feet, this way no one misses out. Most will have some sort of chart or symbol to indicate what fit or “last” a climbing shoe model has. When you’re on the hunt for the “best climbing shoe”, it’s a great idea to allocate a bit of time just to try on a bunch of models and see where they sit in that brands volume chart. That way you’ll get a good understanding of what other models you should be looking at and how to narrow the range of the shoes you should be looking at.
Climbing Shoe Function
You might be fooled into thinking that the “function” of a climbing shoe has more to do with the type of climb – slab, steep, smeary, edgy, indoor, outdoor etc., but it first has to do with you and how you climb. For example, typically smaller and lighter climbers with shorter feet and toes can be quite comfortable climbing in a super soft style of climbing shoe. Whereas if you’re a taller or heavier climber with long feet and toes, you may benefit from a more structured and supportive shoe. This is particularly evident in newer climbers while your feet are developing. Experienced climbers will typically have more structural range in what they can get good performance out of and therefore be more concerned with the style of the actual climb to dictate the shoe and not themselves.
The style in which you use your feet also can make an impression on what is the best climbing shoe for you. Even on the same climb, different climbers can approach their footwork completely differently. Some like to find multiple smears and make many foot movements to gain the next handhold so a soft structured shoe will be best, while others look only for good edges and require more edging power to make longer moves. When you are climbing, start to pay attention to this nuance in your climbing and you’ll start to know what models to steer towards when looking for your next shoe.
Now that we have covered the personal aspects that dictate the types of climbing shoes with functions that will benefit you, we can look at the standard functions of rock climbing shoes as how they’re most discussed. Typically, there are two main variables with climbing shoes that tell you what they are made for – how asymmetric they are and how soft or supportive they are.
Climbing Shoe Shape
One of the purposes of a climbing shoe being asymmetrical is to help with fit and the other is to help with power transfer. Starting with the subject of fit, look at your foot and its shape. Is your foot the longest close to the centre toes or at the big toe? If it is the latter, then you are likely to get a better fit from a more asymmetric shoe. If all your toes are more similar in length then the best climbing shoe for you might a less asymmetric or “squarer” shape.
Moving onto power transfer or pure performance, your big toe is obviously the strongest toe on your foot, so you want to concentrate your power there, but some foot shapes are better at accommodating this than others. An asymmetric shoe is basically trying to get more of your body weight onto a smaller section of the shoe and to position your foot in a way that gives it the most power, over your big toe. Both are great for performance – you get more friction on smaller holds and you get more power out of your feet. However, do remember that sometimes asymmetry comes at a cost, comfort. If you’re new to climbing or you want to climb for a long time, then a straight lasted shoe is a much better choice. If you’ve been climbing for several years and you want to climb short and hard, then a more asymmetrical shoe is probably what you’re after.
Climbing Shoe Structure
Like climbing shoe shape and asymmetry, the structure of climbing shoes sits on a sliding scale from very stiff and supportive to soft and pliable. A stiff and supportive shoe gives you more support and power of sure footholds, they also give your feet structure, so they don’t have to do so much work. A soft shoe will be able to get more friction as they can bend out and get more rubber contact on the wall. Both can be good in either different scenarios or for different climbers.
Once you’ve established your main preferences with climbing shoe shape and structure, then you can get into the more nitty-gritty performance functions of certain models of climbing shoes. Things like heel stability and shape for heel hooking, top toe-rand performance for toe hooking, no-edge style rubber for more contact etc. are all examples of performance features. But they should only be considered once you’ve narrowed down your range by the fit and shape first.
Climbing Shoe Quality
After climbing shoe fit and function, the next priority on the list of working out the best climbing shoe for you is quality, and in the move to produce less waste and be more environmentally friendly, this has become more important than ever. The reason being is that a good quality climbing shoe will not only give you better performance, but it will also be able to withstand more resoles. Climbing rubber is soft and, honestly, can wear out quickly. Hence, getting your shoes resoled is not only great for extending the life of your favourite shoes, but also better for the environment too. Good quality shoes will be able to take multiple resoles and will save you money in the long run. So, the more expensive pair of shoes might not only feel better on your feet, but they might actually work out cheaper.
If you're on the hunt for the next climbing shoe, we hope this article has really helped you focus on the important aspects of what makes a climbing shoe the best climbing shoe for you. Above all just remember that the best climbing shoe for you has half to do with the performance and quality of the shoe itself, and half to do with you and what you need. It's certainly not a one-size-fits-all. With patients, research and some trying on though you will not only have happier feet but also be able to climb better as well.
By: Matt Eaton