A Beginner's Guide to Choosing Rock Climbing Shoes

Bouldering, my favorite! (M. Botos)
Choosing your first pair of climbing shoes can be a challenge with all of the options out there. After climbing on and off (more "off" lately!) for six years, I’ve narrowed the field down to a few brands I know I can count on to make shoes that fit my feet. But when you’re just starting out climbing, there are a few things to keep in mind when you’re shopping for climbing shoes.

What type of climbing – bouldering, sport, crack, trad, etc. – will you do most often?
You might not have a preference as a beginner, but the more you climb, the more you'll learn. It's important to buy the right shoes for the type of climbing you do and many climbers own multiple pairs for different disciplines. If you enjoy cragging all day or prefer to be comfortable, look for more flexible shoes with flatter toes and a thicker heel. If you're into steeper, harder climbing, you'll want a slightly curled toe box and a tighter toe fit to give you maximum control. If you're into bouldering, a more down turned shoe with thinner sole and a curled toe will work best.

Bottom line? Don't be fooled into thinking that the most aggressive shoe out there is best for you in the beginning. Frequent climber Haley recommends cheaper, less aggressive shoes until you've mastered footwork. Generally, shoes with thicker soles will help you feel more solid on the wall and they tend to last longer, which is ideal when you're learning.

The Scarpa Technos have been my go-to shoes for
a while now. I get the perfect fit with the lace-up style.
Which style is best - velcro, lace-up or slippers?
After climbing on and off for six years, I still can't find a hard and fast answer to this question. I prefer velcro closures on aggressive shoes so I can easily take them off, but love getting the perfect fit and tightness with lace-up shoes. Even with velcro shoes that fit well, it's still not the same, and as a result, I prefer laces to velcro. In general, lace-up styles like the Scarpa Techno and La Sportiva Mythos models are best for beginners.  I've used both for aggressive bouldering as well. Slippers are comfortable and easy to get on and off, but aren't as stiff, and friend Angela from Go Vertical mentioned they're harder to fit. It'll take time for you to learn what your preference is, but if you're a beginner, start with lace-ups.

What kind of materials do you want?
Climbing shoe uppers are usually synthetic or leather and every climber has a material preference based on a number of factors. First, if you want your shoes to stretch and mold to your feet, leather uppers are best. Synthetic shoes don't stretch as much. Second, synthetic shoes tend to hold odor more than leather shoes, especially if they're worn without socks, which I recommend. If you prefer synthetic shoes, look for pairs with perforated uppers to allow your feet to breathe. Finally, of course, if you're vegetarian or vegan, you'll want to look for a completely synthetic shoes.

What are the different parts of a climbing shoe?
I covered this briefly in my beginner's guide to resoling, but in general, this page has a great description of each part. As a beginner, the most important parts of the shoe to understand are the midsole and toe box, as they're key to a good fit.

What should you do when you're ready to shop for shoes?
Gearing up with my velcro La Sportiva Muira VS. I haven't
worn these shoes since this picture was taken...
two years ago.(M. Botos)
If you plan to buy climbing shoes online, when you're shopping for your first pair, know what brands fit you. The best way to do that is to try a bunch of shoes on. Different brands fit differently and even going with your normal shoe size doesn't always work. Avid climber Josh recommends expecting to size down, which I agree with. I wear a size 10 shoe and have climbing shoes ranging from the equivalent of an 8 1/2 to a 9 1/2. If your favorite brand is based in Europe, you might need to learn more about European sizes too.

Regardless of what size you end up with, climbing shoes should be tight. They're meant to feel like an extension of your foot. But "tight" doesn't mean "tight enough to make your feet turn numb after 20 minutes.” Climber Maijalisa's first shoes were so uncomfortable that she referred to them as #deathchambers. There's a fine line between an increase in climbing performance because of a snug, well-fitting shoe and a decrease in performance due to an ill-fitting, uncomfortably tight shoe. Friend Adam said it best:

"...if you're dropping 100 clams on rubber socks you wanna enjoy the sport, not get sucked into a crap fit cuz your 5.13b climbing broseph told you so."

Generally, avoid having open space between your toes and the inside of the shoe you choose because your feet will move around when you climb. Your heel also shouldn't move, but make sure the shoes don't pinch your Achilles tendon. I haven't worn my La Sportiva Muira VS in two years because the tops of the shoes push down on my big toes, causing some pretty serious pain if I'm not careful. That's why it's important to try before you buy. If you live in an area where rock climbing festivals like the New River Rendezvous happen, some companies will let you demo shoes for a day.

Climbing friends, any tips I missed? Beginners, any other questions you have about choosing the right climbing shoes or where to shop? Leave a comment!


Adventure Strong said…
I'm about to get back into rock climbing after years off. It's good to refresh this info so thanks for the handy post.
Katie said…
awesome, so glad it was helpful!
Kate C said…
Nice post! I love telling the story about the first pair of climbing shoes I ever bought. I went to a climbing shop and a bunch of guys tried to sell me these purple lace-up shoes with ruffles. I was like "huh-uh guys! I'm a REAL climber! Don't sell me any of these crap-tastic girlie shoes." and went with a pair very similar to the RENTALS I was using. Turns out, those purple ruffly shoes were Sportiva Mythos - some of the best all-around climbing shoes on the planet. A year later I was back at the store begging for a pair of those purple ruffly shoes, and they've been my favorites for the 10 years of climbing since. :)
Katie said…
Such an awesome story, Kate! It's funny, I have a pair of La Sportiva Muiras that have little flowers on them, and those little flowers were a real turn-off at first. It bugs me when companies assume that all girls want pink/purple flowers/ruffles/ribbons/bows on our gear! But really, all that matters is if the shoes fit, right? Thanks for sharing!
RockShoeHQ said…
This is great stuff! I also think that <a href="www.rockshoehq.com/beginners/>this</a> is a great guide for beginners! No such thing as too much information!
Adam Wharmby said…
Hi im just getting into learning climbing and want to buy a pair of climbing shoes to start out, ive tried some shoes on and they seem to make my toes curl up , is this right or not. thanks
Katie said…
Adam - It sounds like they're a bit tight...I'd go a size up or try a different pair that are a different shape. Perhaps they're too downturned for you? What pair are they?
Adam Wharmby said…
Hi Katie thanks for replying to my post. The shoes are Scarpa thunder shoes they seem to be a good fit everywhere else and are a good fit around the sides and on the heel I did try some other makes on but they weren't that good a fit at all especially around the heel as the scarpa thunder ones.
Fred Casey said…
I found this blog very informative and I would like to see some more blogs on this topic.
Useful Rock Climbing Knots From essentialclimbinggear.com
Katie L said…
Thanks so much, Fred! I don't believe I'm enough of a knot expert to write a post about it, but I'll reach out to people I know to see if anyone's willing to do a guest post on the topic.