I knew I was officially a climber when I bought my first pair of approach shoes. A climbing-specific style of footwear, approach shoes offer a unique combination of hiking shoes, climbing slippers, and sometimes even mountaineering boots. Because approaches can vary from a walk down a paved sidewalk, scrambling fourth or fifth class, or a multi-day, multi-terrained slog with a 60-pound load, approach shoes are a diverse bunch. To make sure to get a shoe that caters to your specific needs, check out our comparison table and buying advice. Below you’ll find our top approach shoes of 2017.
Weight: 1 lb. 13 oz.
Sole: Stealth C-4
What we like: The best all-around approach shoes on the market.
What we don’t: Stiff sole detracts from sensitivity between rock and foot.
Women's: Five Ten Guide Tennie
After getting my start in the La Sportiva Boulder X and moving onto the Scarpa Crux, I have now settled on the Five Ten Guide Tennie as my favorite all-around approach shoe. This model performs better on technical rock than any approach shoe out there: the beveled toe allows the shoe to perch on small edges almost with the precision of climbing slippers. And with climbing rubber both on the sole and top and a generally slimmed down toe box, these shoes perform well in cracks too. As its name states, it’s a great choice for guides (or even recreational climbers) who want one shoe to approach and climb in.
The Five Ten Guide Tennie hikes impressively too, though they do take a while to wear in. I find the sole overly thick and stiff, making for less sensitivity between foot and rock, and have had difficulty trusting the shoe’s stickiness. More, the outsole does not perform well on wet rock, slippery leaves, ice, or switching from snow to rock, due to Five Ten’s Dotty tread. That said, the renowned Stealth C4 rubber—the same that Five Ten uses on its dedicated climbing shoes—provides amazing traction on rock, while smearing, or hiking up steep slabs... Read in-depth review
See the Five Ten Guide Tennie
Weight: 1 lb. 9 oz.
Upper: Mesh, PU rand
Sole: Vibram Megagrip Traverse
What we like: Very protective and lightweight.
What we don’t: A lot of mesh impacts long-term durability.
Women's: La Sportiva TX3
La Sportiva’s TX trifecta combines features from approach shoes, mountaineering shoes, and mountain running shoes to create a lineup that ranges from lightweight cragger (TX2) to durable Gore-Tex hiker (TX4). On this list we’ve picked the middle-of-the-road, jack-of-all-trades model as our favorite: the TX3. This approach shoe offers an ideal combination of protection, low weight, and breathability, making it suitable for everything from short approaches and carrying on your harness to long hikes with heavy loads. The Vibram Megagrip Traverse rubber is high quality and one of the stickiest we’ve reviewed. And the shoe sports details such as a smooth area under the toes for smearing and an in-cut heel for downhill braking on technical terrain.
The TX3 receives rave reviews for its breathability. The synthetic mesh upper lets air in and out freely without absorbing water, but such a lightweight upper will always come at the expense of protection. No matter how you slice it, a mesh upper compromises durability and therefore the TX series shoes will not last long as models with thicker and less breathable uppers. Additionally, because of its permeability, I would hesitate to buy this shoe if I knew I’d be using it primarily to travel across snow to approach climbs.
See the La Sportiva TX3
Weight: 1 lb. 11.8 oz.
Upper: Suede, mesh
Sole: Vibram Vertical Approach
What we like: A comfortable, inexpensive, and lightweight all-rounder.
What we don’t: The rubber on the sole is pretty unimpressive.
Women's: Scarpa Crux
After three pairs of the La Sportiva Boulder X below, I graduated to the Scarpa Crux. These are very similar shoes but edge out the Boulder X in terms of weight, flexibility, and durability. I have worn them on heinous side-hill slogs under a heavy load, on moderate climbs such as the classic Wolf’s Head in the Wind River Range, and just about everything in between. I found that the Crux stretch out a lot less than the Boulder X’s, likely owing to their suede construction and the Kevlar webbing that attaches the laces to the midfoot, providing structure and the ability to snug the laces very tight. Due to this constriction, the Crux’s proved more durable over the long run.
The sticky sole on the Crux’s, however, is nothing to write home about. In fact, my sole wore down to a smooth surface while the upper was still in great shape. The tread is very similar to that of the Boulder X, but the rubber is of lesser quality. Additionally, the shoes are only moderately good climbers and certainly better at smearing than edging. For those wearing the shoe in warmer climates, the Crux also is sold with a canvas upper.
See the Scarpa Crux
Weight: 1 lb. 5.2 oz.
Sole: Vibram Megagrip
What we like: Comfy liner and lightweight build.
What we don’t: One of the pricier shoes on the list.
Women's: Arc’teryx Acrux SL
The Arc’teryx Acrux SL certainly stands out among the crowd with its unique design (Arc’teryx almost never seems to mimic other companies and instead thinks outside of the box). The first thing to note with the Acrux SL is the low weight: at 10.6 ounces per shoe, it is one of the lightest shoes on our list (SL stands for superlight, after all). The minimalist nature of the Acrux makes it perfect for technical-rock approaches and for carrying up and over a climb. Second, the Acrux SL combines a tongueless inner liner with a seamless one-piece upper. The liner provides a snug fit, keeping out debris and eliminating hot spots, so much so that some climbers mention feeling as though they could have worn the shoes without socks. Meanwhile, the upper creates a protective, hydrophobic shell. Aside from the high cost, it’s pretty much the whole package in an approach shoe.
As far as the sole goes, Arc’teryx didn’t reinvent the wheel. Similar to that of Five Ten’s Guide Tennie, the Acrux sole is constructed of highly sticky rubber with a smooth climbing zone at the toe, shallow, circular lugs covering the midsole, and heel tread for traction and braking. Overall, this type of sole underperforms on wet or soft terrain but is in its element on rock. Arc’teryx offers this shoe in a Gore-Tex version, but aside from the area around the laces, the shell in the standard version is water resistant and more breathable.
See the Arc'teryx Acrux SL
Weight: 2 lbs. 2 oz.
Sole: Vibram Idro-Grip V-Smear
What we like: Sticky rubber and a great price.
What we don’t: Heavy and bulky.
Women's: La Sportiva Boulder X
The La Sportiva Boulder X’s were my first pair of approach shoes and I loved them. They were extremely comfortable, excelled on the trail, climbed third and fourth class well, boasted insanely sticky rubber, and were cheap. I owned three pairs in succession. For an entry-level, all-around approach shoe, the Boulder X was exactly what I needed.
However, as I got into higher levels of climbing, I grew more particular about how I wanted my approach shoes to perform and the Boulder X’s no longer made the cut. The leather stretched so much when wet that my wide feet swam and twisted around in the toe box, and as a result every pair I wore developed a tear where the rand meets the leather. What little edging power the shoes had was diminished by this lack of support. I wanted to wear aluminum crampons with these shoes, but found their sole overly bulky and awkward to attach to crampons. Additionally, the shoes were heavier and bulkier than I would prefer to wear on my harness. That said, if you’re in search of an entry level shoe that is a beast on the trail, one of the most comfortable and supportive in the game, offers great traction on rock, and won’t cost you an arm and a leg, the Boulder X should be at the top of your list.
See the La Sportiva Boulder X
Weight: 2 lbs. 6 oz.
Sole: Vibram Alpine Approach
What we like: Powerful and durable shoe for mountain environments.
What we don’t: This shoe is not one you’ll want on your feet on fifth class terrain.
Women's: Salewa Mountain Trainer GTX
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: Salewa’s Mountain Trainer GTX does not climb well. If you’re looking for a shoe to transition from the trail to fifth class terrain, this heavy, bulky Gore-Tex shoe is not the one. But that’s about all it doesn’t do well.
For their guided trips up the Grand Teton in Wyoming, Jackson Hole Mountain Guides’ shoe of choice is the Mountain Trainer GTX. This says a lot: these shoes are absolutely built for the mountains. With the breathable Gore-Tex liner, durable construction, and high level of protection, the Mountain Trainer GTX shoe is in its element on technical terrain such as loose scree, dirt, and kicking steps in snow. And for hikers interested in exploring more technical terrain with a lighter weight and more form fitting shoe, this is an excellent choice. The heel cup and comfort are exceptional, transforming your feet into mountain climbing machines.
See the Salewa Mountainer Trainer GTX
Weight: 2 lbs. 0.4 oz.
Sole: Vibram Megagrip
What we like: Big-time support and protection at a reasonable weight.
What we don’t: Most of the time, a low-top approach shoe will suffice.
If you’re looking for an approach shoe that can hold its own on snow, hike dozens of miles with a heavy load, and is nimble enough to perform well on fourth and low-fifth class, look no further. La Sportiva’s TX4 Mid is a unique approach-shoe-meets-mountaineering-boot design. It’s lightweight and streamlined with great responsiveness and stickiness, but also has the support and durability of a dedicated hiker.
The TX4 Mid GTX would be my shoe of choice for terrain where ideally I would want to be wearing a mountaineering boot. I might be covering a lot of terrain, including steep snow. Maybe I’m leaving my shoes at the bottom of the climb, rappelling down to them at the end of the day, or maybe I’m hauling a bag on the climb and a little added weight and bulk isn’t an issue. Or perhaps you’re climbing a route like the Brenner-Moschioni on Guillaumet in Patagonia, which requires carrying a heavy load miles to basecamp, donning crampons, kicking steps in steep snow on the approach, carrying the shoes in your backpack on the climb, and rappelling steep snow couloirs on the descent. A mountaineering boot would be the optimal footwear for the job, but thanks to the TX4 Mid GTX, we can have similar performance in a lighter package (lighter, in fact, than many low-top models).
Don’t be fooled though, this shoe is not a mountaineering boot. It does not offer the insulation that a boot would give, nor the same stiffness and protection from rocks and roots. When opting for a hybrid, a bit of compromise is always involved. But if you’re trying to find a suitable option for toeing the line between lightweight alpinism and mountaineering, the La Sportiva TX4 GTX is a serious contender.
See the La Sportiva TX4 Mid GTX
Weight: 1 lb. 10 oz.
Upper: Suede, mesh
Sole: Vibram Ibex
What we like: Great for hiking and scrambling.
What we don’t: Climbing performance is limited.
Women’s: Vasque Grand Traverse
Many shoes on the list are specialists: they hike well or scramble well, and are either tough or breathable, but rarely both. However, the Vasque Grand Traverse is one of the best all-rounders here, and particularly for those don’t intend to do much serious climbing in them. The design is reminiscent of a lightweight hiking shoe but with a burly rubber toe cap and sticky traction that holds impressively well on rock. And with a combination of leather and mesh on the upper, the shoe is both decently durable and breathable in warm weather.
We took the Grand Traverse out on a multi-day backpacking trip in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park and came away extremely impressed. Despite feeling a little flimsy for carrying an overnight pack, we had only two harmless ankle turns during three days of scrambling over rocky terrain. The shoes aren’t heavily cushioned by any means, but we found them to be comfortable over many miles each day. And although the tread certainly isn’t ideal for wet conditions, it was excellent over for the dry and rocky Canyon Country. The Vasque Grand Traverse isn't a climbing approach shoe for technical rock like the Five Ten Guide Tennie or others, but it’s a terrific hiker and scrambler... Read in-depth review
See the Vasque Grand Traverse
Weight: 13.2 oz.
Upper: Cotton canvas
What we like: The best shoe for toting up multi-pitch routes on your harness.
What we don’t: Not up to the task for long or technical hikes.
Women's: Evolv Cruzer
The Evolv Cruzer is similar, in many ways, to Arc’teryx’s Arakys below. It’s lightweight, the heel folds down for a quick on-and-off crag slipper, and the sticky rubber holds onto rock and gets you to the base of your climb. However, at half the cost and with casual canvas in cool colors, it just edges out the Arakys for our favorite crag shoe.
The important thing is that the Evolv Cruzer isn’t trying to be anything but itself. It doesn’t claim to be durable, and it surely isn’t. It doesn’t claim to be supportive, which is clear just from one look. However, it does claim to be lightweight, and clipped to your harness, this is our shoe of choice for carrying up multi-pitch routes with short approaches and slabby descents (think Squamish or Tuolumne). Additionally, given its low profile and sticky rubber sole, the Cruzer can actually handle a fair amount of scrambling to get to the base of your route. At $75, for many climbers it’s worth having a pair of Cruzers in your quiver. Bring them out on those summer days when you’re climbing more than hiking, or need a shoe that can handle the après-climb scene at the micro brewery with style.
See the Evolv Cruzer
Weight: 1 lb. 14 oz.
Upper: Suede, synthetic tongue
Sole: Vibram Spyder II
What we like: One of the best hikers in our lineup.
What we don’t: Mediocre edging and smearing abilities.
When I think of climbing in Washington’s Enchantments, I think of the Scarpa Zen. In this range, you might be hiking up to 10 miles to get to a climb, and certainly swapping your approach shoes for climbing shoes to tackle 5.11 routes up the pristine granite peaks. In this instance, you don’t require an approach shoe that climbs well, but it certainly needs to be able to handle long and technical trails and a bit of third class scrambling.
Approach shoes generally don’t excel at durability. However, constructed more as a hiker than a climber, the Scarpa Zen is one of the most durable shoes in our lineup. It offers sturdiness and support for miles of hiking under heavy loads—you aren’t likely to stub your toes in these shoes, and they’ll kick steps in snow as well as a mountaineering boot (on that note, with the Zen’s beefy suede construction, they’re a good shoe for cold weather). This makes the Zen a great choice for climbs with long approaches that you might be rappelling (and therefore not needing to carrying the bulky shoes on your harness), or similar to the Sportiva TX4 Mid, instances where you need to prioritize stiffness and supportiveness over climb ability. The Zens are exceptional for big wall aid climbing as well.
See the Scarpa Zen
Weight: 1 lb. 11.6 oz.
Sole: Vibram Reptail
What we like: Sticky rubber, great fit, and tough.
What we don’t: Not good for crack climbing.
Women's: Salewa Firetail 3
Salewa’s new Firetail 3 approach shoe is a modern and nimble alternative to the burly Mountain Trainer above. Weighing 1 lb. 11.6 ounces, the shoe is 10 ounces lighter than the Mountain Trainer and doesn’t give up a whole lot in terms of trail comfort and durability. Traction is excellent even in the wet—we really put the Firetail to the test on a trip in southeast Alaska—and the mesh upper breathes well without compromising on tear resistance.
Similar to the Mountain Trainer, the Salewa Firetail 3 isn’t the strongest climber on our list. While the Vibram rubber is plenty sticky on rock and edges well, the shoe’s square toe box lacks precision for crack climbing. On the upside, the wide fit makes the Salewa more comfortable than a climbing-focused model, and the large toe cap is great for kick stepping in snow. All in all, we think the Firetail 3 hits a great mix of weight and performance for long approaches and semi-technical climbs... Read in-depth review
See the Salewa Firetail 3
Weight: 1 lb. 9 oz.
Upper: Suede, mesh
Sole: Vibram Reptilia SR
What we like: An amazing climber that actually hikes very well.
What we don’t: Durability is sacrificed to make such a streamlined, technical shoe.
Women's: Scarpa Gecko
On the opposite side of the Scarpa spectrum from the Zen lies the Gecko, a slimmed down shoe that excels at climbing far more than hiking. The shoe is lightweight and low profile, and the sole underneath the toe box is stiff and aggressive, designed for smearing and technical edging. The shoes sport over-the-toe rubber for cracks as well.
On the flip side, this rigid construction doesn’t bode well for long days on the trail. People have found that their feet quickly tire in the stiff Gecko and support is minimal (part of the problem with keeping weight very low). Additionally, the Geckos are decidedly not breathable due to the water resistant, suede upper. In choosing between Scarpa approach models, grab the Zen for long hikes and the Gecko for more technical climbs—and the Crux above as a do-all approach shoe.
See the Scarpa Gecko
Weight: 1 lb. 13.4 oz.
Upper: Nubuck leather
Sole: Stealth S1
What we like: Lightweight, supportive, and responsive hiking shoe.
What we don’t: Does not climb well.
Women's: Five Ten Camp Four
Similar to the Scarpa Zen, the Five Ten Camp Four is a comfortable and supportive approach shoe for hiking on all types of terrain. The Camp Four offers superior ankle protection, and the Stealth S1 sole sports large oval lugs that provide excellent traction, especially in soft, wet terrain (think East Coast approaches). Adding to their comfort, the Five Ten features an Ortholite foam sock liner that absorbs sweat, controls moisture, and provides padding to boot.
However, also similar to the Zen, we found that the climbing ability of the Five Ten Camp Four is quite limited. The shoes are bulky, stiff, and fail to edge or smear well. Additionally, the Zen is a relatively high volume shoe with a very roomy forefoot, so responsiveness and close contact with the rock is limited. In a sense, the Camp Four is an excellent hiker and a great approach shoe to consider even if you’re not a climber, and will shine over rocky and wet terrain.
See the Five Ten Camp Four
Weight: 1 lb. 8.4 oz.
What we like: A Stealth rubber sole on a running shoe body is great for rocky approaches.
What we don’t: Low performance and durability on technical terrain.
Women's: Adidas Outdoor Terrex Solo
Adidas certainly is a brand to watch in the outdoor scene. They seem to have their finger squarely on the pulse of what’s cool, joining forces with Five Ten and stacking their athlete team with some of the best. So when Adidas decided to make an approach shoe, they approached Yosemite legends Alexander and Thomas Huber for help with design and the Terrex Solo was born.
The Terrex Solos have some characteristics of a trail runner with the lace bungee and breathable mesh upper. However, with a Stealth rubber sole, a rubber toe cap, and a larger volume, these shoes perform well on rocky and technical terrain as well. Hybrids can’t do it all though—some might say the Terrex Solo is too clunky for a trail runner and not durable enough for an approach shoe. Although Adidas hails the mesh as abrasion resistant, it’s certainly not as tough as leather.
We like these shoes most for summertime approaches and rocky scrambles when snow has melted and the trail is dry. We like them for descents—Adidas put offset loops on the heel to make them hang nicely on a carabiner from your harness. We even like them for long endurance days – technical trail runs or third and maybe fourth class scrambles. However, when the rock steepens into fifth class terrain, the Terrex Solos fail to perform as well as other shoes on this list.
See the Adidas Outdoor Terrex Solo
Weight: 1 lb. 3 oz.
Sole: Vibram Megagrip
What we like: Packs small and light for descending off of routes; durable too!
What we don’t: These shoes just aren’t very versatile.
Women's: Arc’teryx Arakys
Arc’teryx markets the Arakys as an ultralight shoe that is best worn while approaching crags and boulders, and while getting a beer in town afterwards. These shoes certainly have technical components (it is Arc’teryx, how could they not?) like a Vibram Megagrip sole and the same Adaptive Fit Technology liner and shell found in the Acrux above. However, we would not recommend these shoes for long, technical approaches with a heavy pack.
Where the unique Arakys shine is at the base of the crag. They easily transition on and off, have a one-hand buckle closure, are barefoot friendly, and sport a collapsible heel, making the shoe into a comfortable belay slipper. These shoes would also be great for an area like Squamish, where approaches are minimal and most long routes require you to haul your shoes up with you for the descent. Additionally, given their slipper fit, the Arakys actually climb insanely well.
One thing you can always count on with Arc’teryx: these shoes are well made. The Arakys are just as durable as they are lightweight, so don’t expect them to blow out as quickly as the lightweight Evolv Cruzer. That’s great news, especially considering they’re double the price.
See the Arc'teryx Arakys
Weight: 1 lb. 10.4 oz.
Upper: Suede, mesh
What we like: Affordable; made for long hikes and occasional running.
What we don’t: Lacks technical prowess.
The Verto III from The North Face is a hybrid shoe that combines the cushioning and flexibility of a trail runner with the sole and durability of an approach shoe. The design is a little busy, and there is a lot of stitching that has us worried about potential failure, but for tame objectives or if you like to mix in some running, these shoes are worth a look.
Aggressively priced at $120, the Verto III is a solid budget option for the casual user. The breathable mesh upper is great for moving fast, and a suede vamp beefs up protection along the sides from rocks. This shoe can’t compete with the stability of the Five Ten Guide Tennie or Scarpa Crux, but the heel-stability technology and an additional layer of cushioning provides a high level of support for moving quickly.
See The North Face Verto III
|Five Ten Guide Tennie||$140||1 lb. 13 oz.||Leather||Stealth C-4||No|
|La Sportiva TX3||$135||1 lb. 9 oz.||Mesh, PU rand||Vibram Megagrip Traverse||No|
|Scarpa Crux||$120||1 lb. 11.8 oz.||Suede, mesh||Vibram Vertical Approach||No|
|Arc’teryx Acrux SL||$170||1 lb. 5.2 oz.||Nylon||Vibram Megagrip||No (available)|
|La Sportiva Boulder X||$110||2 lbs. 2 oz.||Leather||Vibram Idrogrip V-Smear||No|
|Salewa Mountain Trainer GTX||$199||2 lbs. 6 oz.||Leather||Vibram Alpine Approach||Yes|
|La Sportiva TX4 Mid GTX||$190||2 lbs. 0.4 oz.||Leather||Vibram Megagrip||Yes|
|Vasque Grand Traverse||$120||1 lb. 10 oz.||Suede, mesh||Vibram Ibex||No|
|Evolv Cruzer||$75||13.2 oz.||Cotton canvas||Trax||No|
|Scarpa Zen||$150||1 lb. 14 oz.||Suede, synthetic||Vibram Spyder II||No|
|Salewa Firetail 3||$139||1 lb. 11.6 oz.||Mesh||Vibram Reptail||No (available)|
|Scarpa Gecko||$180||1 lb. 9 oz.||Suede, mesh||Vibram Reptilia SR||No|
|Five Ten Camp Four||$150||1 lb. 13.4 oz.||Nubuck leather||Stealth S1||No (available)|
|Adidas Outdoor Terrex Solo||$120||1 lb. 8.4 oz.||Mesh||Stealth||No|
|Arc'teryx Arakys||$150||1 lb. 3 oz.||Nylon||Vibram Megagrip||No|
|The North Face Verto III||$120||1 lb. 10.4 oz.||Suede, mesh||Vibram||No|
- Hiking vs. Climbing
- Styles of Approach Shoes
- The Mid-Height Approach Shoe
- Outsoles and Traction
- Fit and Sizing
- Stiffness and Stability
- Toe Protection and Grip: Rubber Rands
- Upper Materials
- Approach Shoe Care
- Why You Might Not Need An Approach Shoe
We’ve come back to this concept time after time throughout these reviews, and yet here it is again, distilled. Approach shoes are a combination of a climbing slipper and a hiking boot, made to both climb well and hike well. However, with the great variety of shoes to choose from, there are some that hike better than they climb, and some that climb better than they hike.
Shoes that hike better than climb generally have a larger profile and are stiffer. You’ll mostly be using them on technical trail, off trail, or on snow while approaching a climb, then trading them for climbing shoes once on the rock. Shoes that climb better than hike will likely be a bit more lightweight and responsive, and sport edges and toe box rubber that make for delicate connection with technical rock. For more on maximizing the functionality of your shoe, check out the sizing and fit category below.
When buying an approach shoe, make sure you consider your intended use. For example, if you’re hiking long distances over snow and rock, you will want a different shoe than if you commute five minutes to the crag and need to be able to slip your shoes on and off all day. Below we break down this usage into a number of helpful categories.
Approach trails have a reputation for being rather steep, unmaintained, and technical. You might encounter wet terrain, scree, or need to navigate boulder fields, all with a load on your back. If your approaches are on the longer side, or you’re venturing into the mountains for days on end, we recommend a highly durable shoe that is built to protect your feet and provide support for the long haul. Approach shoes in this category include the Scarpa Zen, Scarpa Crux, Arc’teryx Acrux, and Vasque Grand Traverse.
Fifth Class Terrain
Some climbers are adamant that their approach shoes climb well, whether they’re guiding clients day after day up mid fifth class routes or linking up moderate climbs and ridgelines in the alpine. The shoe of choice for this sort of use will provide enough support and protection on the trail while being snug and low profile enough to climb well on steep rock. Approach shoes in this category include the Five Ten Guide Tennie, Scarpa Gecko, and La Sportiva TX3.
When climbing in areas with short approaches and descents off the backside—think Squamish and Tuolumne—it’s helpful to have a shoe that is small and light enough to hang off your harness during the climb, but also one that can get you down safely on the deproach. If you’re skilled enough, a pair of flip-flops might do. However, for more protection and traction and just slightly more ounces, a lightweight approach shoe is the solution. Approach shoes in this category include the Evolv Cruzer and Arc’teryx Arakas.
If you’re headed to an alpine climbing area such as the Bugaboos or North Cascades, you’ll want a shoe that can handle snow as well as rock. Additionally, you’ll want your shoe to be able to handle a pair of lightweight crampons for firmer snow. Soles like that on the Five Ten Guide Tennie are decidedly not made for snow, but many soles are. Also consider a higher-profile, sturdy boot that can kick steps in snow effortlessly. Mid-height boots are great for snowy conditions as well. Approach shoes in this category include the La Sportiva TX4 Mid and Salewa Mountain Trainer.
If you’re a sport climber or a boulderer, or a trad climber who simply crags, consider whether or not you need an approach shoe. That said, there are several companies that make approach shoes specifically for cragging, with easy on/off and heels that fold down for a quick slipper. Additionally, craggers might consider shoes that would serve other purposes, such as a hiking shoe or a trail runner. Approach shoes in this category include the Evolv Cruzer, Arc’teryx Arakas, and Adidas Terrex Solo.
Approach shoes are specifically designed for climbers as a replacement to the hiking boot, so what’s with the mid-height approach shoe? Climbers may opt for a mid-height model for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you need more ankle stability or protection, whether you’re carrying heavy loads over tricky terrain or preventing ankle rolls. Perhaps you want a lightweight hiking boot but crave the sticky rubber of an approach shoe. Perhaps you plan on traveling over snow a great deal and want to keep snow out of your boot while having a sturdy attachment point for a pair of crampons. Or, perhaps you’re a big wall climber who needs more support when standing in aiders for days on end.
The mid-height approach shoe can be used to level up—both weight-wise and stability-wise—from a typical approach shoe, or level down from a hiking boot. For example, when the hiking is technical and weight is less of an issue (i.e. you’re not planning on carrying your boots on a climb), the mid-height shoe is an excellent choice. Approach shoes in this category include the La Sportiva TX4 Mid, Five Ten Camp Four Mid, and Five Ten Guide Tennie Mid.
The sole of an approach shoe can tell you a lot about what it’s designed for. There are three main areas to an approach shoe sole: the toe box, the midfoot, and the heel brake area. Starting with the toe box, approach shoes all have a large rubber rand that surrounds the front, sides, and top of the toes, mimicking a climbing shoe. And approach shoes that are made to edge and smear well will have a smooth patch on the sole underneath the toe, allowing for close and responsive contact with the rock.
Moving to the midfoot and heel brake, the outsole design here can vary quite a bit between models. Generally, the dotty style found on shoes such as the Five Ten Guide Tennie or the Arc’teryx Acrux provides great surface area on rock, but fails to perform on wet or snowy terrain. On the other hand, models with more sharp tread on the midfoot are made to provide a high amount of traction on wet and snowy terrain, but are generally more clunky on technical rock. Lastly, most approach shoes will have a heel brake, made of thin strips of sticky rubber for traction and downhill braking. Some shoes lack a heel brake, some lack a technical patch on the toe, and all will have slight variations in the midfoot rubber. Pay attention to each of these features to make sure you purchase an approach shoe that meets your specific needs.
Approach shoes designed to edge well are styled quite differently than their peers. Ideally, their rubber rand will come flush to the sole for a seamless edge like a climbing shoe. Even to an uninformed eye, this edge will look different from one that is made up of layers of cushioning. For example, the La Sportiva TX3 and the Five Ten Guide Tennie are superior edging shoes, while the sole and cushioned layers of the La Sportiva Boulder X makes it a clunky edging shoe.
Shoes that edge well also have a bit of flexibility to them. You’ll want to be able to get your heel above your toe, and feel your toe’s contact with the rock, in order to climb well in an approach shoe. A shoe like the Scarpa Gecko does this well, whereas a shoe like the Salewa Mountain Trainer simply is not designed for such climbing.
With a few exceptions, climbers generally limit their endeavors to days when conditions are dry and warm. In the world of approach shoes, breathability is a far more important factor than waterproofing. However, waterproofing is a nice security blanket if your climbing takes you into the mountains. The extra protection that comes with a waterproof and breathable membrane inserted into the shoe is great for creek crossings, surprise rainfall, or crossing show. However, the extra layer adds weight and impacts breathability pretty significantly, hence why there are very few Gore-Tex models on our list. If you know you’re looking for a waterproof approach shoe, however, we’ve found GTX models to work consistently well, including the Salewa Firetail 3 GTX, La Sportiva TX4 Mid GTX, and Salewa Mountain Trainer GTX.
In terms of breathability, approach shoes constructed with a mesh upper are going to breathe better than the suede or leather versions, and far better than the GTX models. Canvas shoes such as the Evolv Cruzer or the Scarpa Crux canvas model fall somewhere in the middle of the breathability spectrum. There certainly is a tradeoff, however: highly breathable shoes like the Adidas Terrex Solo are not as durable or protective as their leather counterparts (the La Sportiva Boulder X, for example), and will shred in cracks much quicker. The La Sportiva TX3 offers a unique combination: a mesh upper surrounded by a protective rubber rand.
Additionally, shoes with a mesh upper are far more permeable to small debris such as sand, dirt, and snow. If breathability is your main concern when choosing an approach shoe, go with a mesh model. However, if you want to preserve the features that make an approach shoe what it is—a level of stiffness, protectiveness, and durability—opt for a shoe with a leather, suede, or canvas upper.
The weight of an approach shoe matters both when it’s on your foot and when it’s in your backpack or hanging on your harness. Hiking mile after mile with less than a pound on each foot is going to feel far less strenuous than if you had a two-pound boot on each foot, and the same goes for carrying the shoes.
Consider the weight of an approach shoe especially if you’re spending just as much time carrying them as wearing them on your feet. Most likely, the more this ratio tends towards carrying over hiking, the lighter a shoe you should consider (the Evolv Cruzer, for example). However, there are always trade-offs in shaving weight. The lighter your approach shoe, the less protection, stability, and durability it likely offers. If your approaches require a high amount of performance from your shoes, don’t streamline too much.
There always is a compromise when choosing the size of your approach shoe. Some prefer to size their shoes to fit snugly so that they are responsive and stable on technical rock. Some prefer to size their approach shoes more like a hiking shoe, with a bit of room for the toes to move around for downhill slogs and over long distances as the feet swell.
Most approach shoes are constructed with a to-the-toe lacing system, so it is possible to provide your toes with more or less room depending on the activity. Because of this, we recommend sizing your shoe comfortably with the ability to cinch the laces down tightly. Additionally, make sure you buy a model that fits the width of your foot well. Different brands fit differently. For example, La Sportiva shoes are known to be rather narrow, whereas Scarpas generally fit wider feet.
In general, the more stiff and stable an approach shoe is, the heavier and bulkier it will be, and the worse it will perform on technical rock. However, most approach shoes (with the exception of slimmed-down models such as the Evolv Cruzer) do retain a degree of stiffness thanks to built-in shanks or internal supports. These features are part of what separate an approach shoe from a super flexy cross trainer or road running shoe, and make it a great shoe of choice for technical trail, talus fields, and snow crossings.
All of the shoes on our list, even the lightweight Evolv Cruzer, have a rand that extends over the toe box, providing protection from stubbed toes and additional traction on rock. Many of these shoes have full, wrap-around rands, providing this level of protection and traction around the entire foot. The larger the rand—both in height and in area covered around the foot—the more durable the shoe and the better it will perform in cracks. However, more rand also contributes to more weight and less breathability.
The type of material used in a shoe’s upper—the fabric that connects to the rubber outsole—correlates directly with its durability, water resistance, and breathability. Most often, a shoe will be made with synthetic (typically nylon), mesh, leather, or a mix. Below we spell out the pros and cons for the most common materials used for approach shoes.
Mesh woven nylon as well as open mesh nylon panels are becoming increasingly common in approach shoe construction as manufacturers seek to shave weight from their models. This type of upper certainly aids in breathability and cutting weight but detracts from the waterproofing, durability, protection, and climbability of the shoe.
The majority of approach shoes, similar to climbing shoes, are made with a leather upper. Without getting too deep into technicalities, suede, leather, and Nubuck are all derived from the same material and generally perform similarly. On approach shoes, this leather will be lighter and more flexible than the typical glossy full leather you might see on an old hiking boot. Of all upper materials, leather will provide the most protection, durability, and water resistance. However, it’s the least breathable. Occasionally, as in the case of the Scarpa Gecko or the Scarpa Crux, leather and mesh will coexist to provide both breathability and durability.
Leather also tends to stretch. Because approach shoes aren’t sized as tightly as climbing shoes, approach shoes will not stretch as noticeably. However, especially when wet, full leather models such as the La Sportiva Boulder X certainly will expand, leading to a less supportive fit. On the flipside, as these all-leather models dry, they will conform more to the size of your foot (if they dry while on your foot), and fit even better.
A few shoes included on our list are made of canvas: the unique Evolv Cruzer and Scarpa’s Crux canvas version. Canvas is far less durable and water resistant than leather, but provides a high level of breathability, and is great for summer environments where you’re not putting your shoe through the wringer.
Much can be done after purchase to ensure the longevity and performance of approach shoes. Below, we offer three suggestions for shoe care.
Keep Them Clean
Your shoes are getting you through some tough environments, and mud, bits of sand or dirt, and wet terrain can all add up. At the end of a day out, feel free to give the shoes a spray down with the hose if need be, leaving them out to dry completely. Turn your shoes on their sides and stuff them with newspaper to speed up drying. Additionally, throughout the day or at the day’s end, take out the insole and give your shoes a good shake—all that sand and dirt can accumulate and abrade the material quickly if not taken care of.
If you have approach shoes with a leather upper, it is wise to treat them with a leather conditioning/waterproofing product. If not treated, leather can absorb water, making it heavy and more prone to stretch and shrink. Nikwax and Gear Aid both have a full line-up of products that will do the trick.
Seam Gripping the Seams
Climbers often apply seam grip to the seams of their climbing shoes (where the rand meets the leather and the stitches in the leather) to reinforce them against abrasion from cracks. This simple practice drastically increases the lifespan of a pair of climbing shoes. You can perform the same practice with approach shoes, especially if planning on using the shoes for technical climbing and jamming. Additionally, if you’re using your shoes for big wall aid climbing, the toes will blow out extremely quickly, and can be reinforced as well. Gear Aid products such as Seam Grip or Freesole can be applied to these wear-and-tear areas upon purchase and many times thereafter.
The outdoor world is full of gear, and there’s always something else to acquire. But let me ask you this: Can you hike up a hill with your current pair of trail runners or hiking shoes? Heck, can’t you hike up a hill in your flip flops? The vast majority of climbers spend most of their time cragging or bouldering, and generally, any moderately technical shoe (or a skilled user of a not-so-technical shoe) will do the trick. Approach shoes absolutely have their time and place, and we appreciate the extra protection around the foot, but be sure to question yourself before you start thinking that you need a pair.
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