Climbing shoes fit totally differently than your normal street shoes, which can make it a challenge to select the right ones. While there is a common myth that climbing shoes “should hurt,” that is certainly not true. So, how should climbing shoes fit?
Climbing shoes should fit snugly – not too tight or too loose. Beyond that, it largely comes down to personal preference, how long you’ll be wearing them, what types of climbing you’ll be doing, and so forth. Keep in mind that all climbing shoes will relax and stretch at least a little bit.
In this article, we’ll look at the different considerations to keep in mind when fitting your rock climbing shoes.
Climbing Level/Shoe Type
Climbing shoes come in three main types: neutral, moderate, and aggressive. Neutral climbing shoes have the most relaxed fit and are generally the most comfortable. As such, they are best for beginners, but they can also be useful for more advanced climbers who need comfortable all-day shoes.
Moderate climbing shoes have a slightly downturned shape which makes them ideal for many types of technical climbing. They are slightly less comfortable in general, but they are well-suited for many different types of climbing (except the most overhung/technical routes/problems).
Aggressive climbing shoes are very downturned, fitting more snugly and less comfortably than other types of shoes. These shoes put your feet in a strong position to tackle overhanging sport climbs and boulder problems, but they aren’t as versatile as neutral or moderate shoes.
How Long You’ll Be Wearing the Climbing Shoes
As outlined above, some types of climbing shoes are much more comfortable than others, so even advanced climbers who are doing all-day multi-pitch climbs might choose a comfy neutral shoe over a tighter, more technical shoe. Since aggressive shoes are typically quite tight, most climbers will only wear them for shorter boulder problems, single-pitch sport climbs, or gym climbing where they will take the shoes off between climbs.
There are many different models of climbing shoes, so no matter your foot shape you can likely find one that’s comfortable. Try on a variety of different shoes to find a pair that allows your toes to lie flat or ‘comfortably’ curved (bent, but not smashing your toe knuckles against the top of the shoe), snugly fits around your heel, doesn’t pinch your Achilles tendon when you point your toe, and doesn’t have dead space anywhere in the shoe. Essentially, a climbing shoe should fit more like a rigid sock than a street shoe.
Closure Method and Shoe Material
There are several different aspects of climbing shoe construction that can affect the fit, but the two main things are the closure method and the material of the shoe itself.
Climbing shoes either have laces, velcro straps, or small elastic pieces that allow you to slip the shoe on and off without fussing with laces or straps.
Laced climbing shoes are the most versatile, since the laces typically go almost all the way down to your toes. You can tighten the laces down for a difficult climb and then loosen them when your feet get hot and swell, for easier pitches, to walk off a climb, etc.
Velcro strap climbing shoes are convenient since you can quickly take them on and off, but you still have some level of control over the tightness of the shoe.
Slip-on climbing shoes are the lowest profile, which makes them good for crack climbing. And, since they aren’t as stiff as other types of shoes, they are good training tools since your feet will get strong fast. However, you have no control over the tightness.
Climbing shoes can also be made from unlined leather (which often stretches up to a full size and can stain your feet), lined leather (stretches about a half size), or synthetic materials (only slight stretching and softening).
The Bottom Line: Try Them On
It’s best to simply try on a variety of climbing shoes at the store, or order a few different sizes and models and return the ones you don’t like. Remember that you will likely not be wearing socks with your shoes, so look for a shoe that fits your bare foot snugly while keeping in mind the potential for stretching. Ideally, try on climbing shoes in the afternoon after you’ve done some type of physical activity, as your feet swell throughout the day and after activity.
Above all, buy climbing shoes that do not have dead space between the ends of your toes and the end of the shoe – you’ll have a very hard time climbing as the toe will fold up and you’ll slip right off small holds.