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 4th or 5th class, or a multi-day, multi-terrained slog with a 60-pound load, approach shoes are a diverse bunch. Below we break down the top approach shoes of 2020, from ultralight crag shoes to mid-height waterproof models. To make sure you get a shoe that caters to your specific needs, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Best Overall Approach Shoe
hWeight: 1 lb. 10 oz.
Sole: Vibram Megagrip Traverse
What we like: Leather upper is more durable and comfortable than the mesh TX3 for only a small weight penalty.
What we don’t: In hot summer conditions, breathability can be limited.
La Sportiva’s popular TX series combines features from climbing shoes, mountaineering boots, and mountain running shoes, ranging from the superlight TX2 to the durable TX5 GTX boot. Of this venerable grouping, we like the balanced TX4 best. It offers a standout combination of protection, low weight, and durability, and is suitable for everything from toting up a climb on your harness to long hikes with heavy loads. The Vibram rubber is super high-quality and among the stickiest we’ve tested for both climbing and hiking. Further, the TX4 (along with all of the shoes in the TX series) is made with a wide toe box for exceptional comfort on the trail.
Until recently, we had the TX3 ranked here, a highly similar shoe that is more breathable due to its synthetic mesh upper. However, such a lightweight material comes at the expense of protection and durability. We love our TX3s but have bored holes in the mesh on three pairs in the last two years, and because of the air permeability, we hesitate to bring them along for approaches involving significant snow. It’s true that the leather on the TX4 is slightly less breathable and may soak up water during extended exposure to the elements, but it’s also much tougher while only adding an ounce of weight to the equation. Both are top-notch approach shoes and the TX3 is ideal for summer missions, but overall, we give the slight nod to the more versatile TX4... Read in-depth review
See the Men's La Sportiva TX4 See the Women's La Sportiva TX4
A Close Second
Weight: 1 lb. 10.4 oz.
Sole: Stealth C4
What we like: Climbs exceptionally well and highly durable.
What we don’t: Stiff sole detracts from sensitivity, and not our favorite for hiking.
Five Ten’s Guide Tennie is credited with pioneering the approach shoe category, and decades later it remains one of our favorite all-around designs. What sets the shoe apart is its performance on technical rock: the durable suede upper offers a close fit, and the beveled climbing toe and edging platform perch on small edges with nearly the precision of a climbing shoe. With sticky rubber both on the sole and the top of the toe box, it also climbs well in cracks. And the latest Guide Tennie is a few ounces lighter than the older version, though we still prefer the La Sportiva TX2 for true ultralight endeavors.
As with the previous model, the Guide Tennie takes some time to wear in, and the thick and stiff sole may initially feel like a pair of bricks on your feet. Additionally, the outsole does not perform well on wet rock, slippery leaves, ice, or when switching from snow to rock, owing to the rounded Dotty tread. But with extra cushion around the ankle on the updated model, plus a synthetic/suede combo upper for greater breathability, the new Guide Tennie certainly is a better hiking shoe than before. For guides wearing their approach shoes on 5th-class terrain or climbers wanting a long-lasting approach shoe with superb traction on rock, this is our top pick... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Five Ten Guide Tennie See the Women's Five Ten Guide Tennie
Best Budget Approach Shoe
Weight: 13.2 oz.
Upper: Cotton canvas
What we like: Great update of the old classic, light and affordable.
What we don’t: Not up to the task of long or technical hikes.
Evolv’s Cruzer is ubiquitous among climbers, known for being one of the lightest and simplest approach shoes ever made. The original model long has been our shoe of choice for crag days, carrying up multi-pitch routes with slabby descents, and even mellow scrambles close to the car. Evolv recently updated this classic shoe, building it on a trail-running last, adding a liner and padding throughout the upper, and widening the rubber rand around the toe box. In sum, the Cruzer Psyche is a better (and surprisingly lighter) shoe than its predecessor. It’s supportive and durable enough to be considered trail-worthy (just avoid long, technical hikes or carrying a heavy pack) while maintaining the minimalist attributes that sold us on the Cruzer in the first place.
The Cruzer isn’t the lone ultralight option—La Sportiva’s TX2 and Scarpa’s Gecko Air certainly are strong contenders—but it has all the features we look for in a crag shoe. The heel folds down for a quick on-and-off slipper, and a microfiber lining provides comfort for bare feet. To top it off, the Cruzer Psyche is roughly half the cost of the TX2 and Gecko Air, making it our favorite budget approach shoe on the market in 2020.
See the Men's Evolv Cruzer Psyche See the Women's Evolv Cruzer Psyche
Best Approach Shoe for Hiking
Weight: 2 lbs. 6 oz.
Sole: Vibram Mtn Trainer Evo
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 5th-class terrain.
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 5th-class terrain, this heavy, bulky Gore-Tex shoe is not the one. But that’s about all it doesn’t do well, which leaves a lot of terrain up for grabs.
For guided trips in the rugged Tetons of Wyoming, Jackson Hole Mountain Guides’ shoe of choice is the Mountain Trainer GTX. This says a lot: these shoes truly are built for the mountains. With a breathable Gore-Tex liner, durable construction, and high level of protection, the Mountain Trainer GTX shoe is most in its element on technical terrain such as loose scree, dirt, and kicking steps in snow. Even for non-climbers interested in exploring the alpine with a lighter and more form-fitting shoe, the Salewa Mountain Trainer is an excellent choice. The heel cup and comfort are exceptional, helping transform your feet into mountain climbing machines.
See the Men's Salewa Mountain Trainer See the Women's Salewa Mountain Trainer
Best of the Rest
Weight: 1 lb. 14.4 oz.
Sole: Vibram Vertical Approach / Megagrip
What we like: A comfortable, inexpensive, and lightweight all-rounder.
What we don’t: Not our favorite outsole design.
The Crux is Scarpa’s most popular all-around approach shoe. It's capable enough to handle anything from heinous side-hill slogs under a heavy load to moderate climbs such as the classic Wolf’s Head in the Wind River Range. We prefer it over La Sportiva’s equally popular Boulder X below, which feels clunky by comparison. And because the suede upper stretches a lot less than the Boulder X—thanks in large part to the Kevlar webbing that connects the laces to the midfoot—the Crux has a more consistent and secure fit.
Overall, we give the edge to the outsole designs by La Sportiva and Five Ten above, but the Crux’s Megragrip compound is a step in the right direction. Its climbing performance is middle-of-the-pack: proficient at smearing but subpar on edges. Further, the soles on our previous-generation Crux wore through rather quickly, revealing the cushioning layers underneath while the uppers were still in great shape. Time will tell if the newer version has a similarly short lifespan. Take note that Scarpa also makes the more breathable and lightweight Crux Air, which keeps the same sole and overall design as the Crux, but clocks in just over 1.5 pounds for the pair... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Scarpa Crux See the Women's Scarpa Crux
Weight: 1 lb. 5.2 oz.
Upper: Ripstop mesh
Sole: Vibram Megagrip
What we like: A unique trail runner/approach shoe hybrid.
What we don’t: Cushioning detracts from stability and sensitivity.
The unique Arc’teryx Konseal FL is a hybrid climbing/running shoe that appeals to the fast-and-light crowd. It combines the support, traction, and close fit of an approach shoe with the agility and spring of a trail runner, making it an excellent choice for quick alpine scrambling. The Vibram Megagrip sole is similar to that of La Sportiva’s top models, and the heel brake offers more bite on wet terrain than the Five Ten Guide Tennie. And with a springy foam heel, mesh upper, and low 10.5-ounce weight per shoe, the Konseal is nimbler and more confidence-inspiring for running than most approach shoes.
What does the Konseal FL give up with its hybrid design? With a trail runner dose of cushioning, you’ll gain bounce and save weight, but sacrifice some of the stiffness and protection of a full-blown approach shoe. Further, with a nylon mesh upper, you won’t get the same durability, waterproofing, and precision fit as a leather shoe. Take note that the Konseal FL also comes in a GTX model for $185, as well as a suede AR version (also $185) that's built to carry heavy loads while tackling technical terrain. But for quick missions and mountain scrambling, we prefer the FL for its lightweight, breathable, and comfortable design.
See the Men's Arc'teryx Konseal FL See the Women's Arc'teryx Konseal FL
Weight: 1 lb. 3.6 oz.
Sole: Vibram Megagrip Traverse-Lite
What we like: A great shoe for toting up walk-off routes.
What we don’t: Minimal support, lacking in durability.
The TX2 is not only the lightest member of the La Sportiva TX family—it’s one of the lightest models on our list. At 9.8 ounces per shoe, it’s a minimalist design but packs a surprising number of thoughtful features. It’s more breathable than the Cruzer Psyche above and closer to a trail-running shoe than most (we’ve seen mountain endurance enthusiasts put in mile after mile on the trail in the TX2s). Further, when the hiking leads to long, moderate scrambles on rock, these shoes make the transition swimmingly, with added rigidity in the toe box and Vibram’s proven sticky rubber.
The knock against the TX2 is that it isn’t particularly durable, especially when pushed to its limits. La Sportiva does make a leather version of this popular shoe—for a few more ounces you’ll get an increased lifespan and slightly better protection. That said, both the leather and mesh versions have a thin midsole and sole that lack support and longevity, falling far short of the TX3 and TX4. But for strong feet or those who love the minimalist design, the TX2 can go just about anywhere. And with an elastic loop for streamlined carry on your harness, these are some of the best shoes on this list for hauling up climbs with walk-off descents.
See the Men's La Sportiva TX2 See the Women's La Sportiva TX2
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.
For climbers that are just starting out, or old hands looking for a value option, look no further than the La Sportiva Boulder X. This shoe is extremely comfortable, excels on the trail, climbs 3rd and 4th class well, and boasts insanely sticky rubber. And don’t be fooled by the price tag—these shoes can often be found online for as little as $80.
What are the downsides of the Boulder X? The shoe is too heavy to carry on a harness, doesn’t edge well on 5th-class terrain, and the bulky soles don’t take aluminum crampons well. Moreover, the leather upper stretches so much when wet that we’ve had issues with our feet twisting in the toe box, resulting in a tear where the rubber rand meets leather. That said, if you have wide feet and want an entry-level shoe that is a beast on the trail, the Boulder X should be near the top of your list.
See the Men's La Sportiva Boulder X See the Women's La Sportiva Boulder X
Weight: 1 lb. 11 oz.
Upper: Suede, mesh
Sole: Vibram Reptilia HG / Indo-Grip
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.
Scarpa’s goal with the Gecko was to make a slimmed-down, high-performance approach shoe that hits the middle ground between lightweight climber and rugged hiker. Overall, we think they did a pretty good job: the toe box is designed with climbing in mind, you get over-the-toe rubber for jamming in cracks, and even the sole is aggressive for smearing and technical edging. Additionally, a cushioned EVA midsole makes the Gecko relatively comfortable on the trail as long as your load isn’t too heavy.
At $175, the Gecko is relatively expensive, and we’re not sure it’s worth the hefty price tag. It falls in the same weight category as the La Sportiva TX4, our top pick, but swings to the other end of the spectrum performance-wise: it’s deft on steep rock but too rigid, narrow, and flat for long days on the trail. Overall, unless climbing performance is your primary concern, we think the TX4 is a more versatile option. And keep in mind that Scarpa also makes the Gecko Air and Gecko Air Flip, two stripped-down and extremely lightweight approach shoes.
See the Men's Scarpa Gecko See the Women's Scarpa Gecko
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.
The La Sportiva TX4 Mid GTX is our shoe of choice for terrain where you might want a mountaineering boot but aren’t willing to carry the weight. Perhaps you’re climbing a route like the Beckey-Chouinard in the Bugaboos, which requires hauling a heavy load miles to basecamp, kicking steps in steep snow on the approach, toting your shoes up the rock climb, and descending steep snow to return back to camp. A mountaineering boot would be ideal for the job, but thanks to the TX4 Mid GTX, you can have similar performance in a lighter package.
How does the TX4 Mid compare with the low-top version above? To start, the Mid comes with a Gore-Tex insert, which makes it the preferred option for snow travel, although the non-waterproof shoe breathes a bit better and dries out faster. Further, the boot model sits comfortably over the ankles for a boost in protection and stability over challenging terrain. Lastly, the Mid is 6.4 ounces heavier for the pair. Both TX4 models are plenty tough for most backcountry uses, but if you prefer a high-cut fit for hauling heavy loads into the mountains, check out the burly TX5 Mid GTX hiking boot.
See the Men's 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.
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 or muddy conditions, it was excellent in 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 Men's Vasque Grand Traverse See the Women's Vasque Grand Traverse
Weight: 2 lbs. 2 oz.
Upper: Suede, mesh
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 we think of climbing deep in the Eastern Sierra (the Whitney Cirque, for example), we think of the Scarpa Zen Pro. Here, you might be hiking 10 miles to the base of a climb, then swapping your approach shoes for climbing shoes to tackle 5.10 routes up pristine granite peaks. For such an approach, you don’t need a shoe that climbs well, but it certainly needs to be able to handle long and technical trails and a bit of 3rd-class scrambling. Scarpa’s Zen Pro is just that: it’s a shoe made with attention to support, durability, and comfort on the trail.
The Zen Pro is designed to take a beating, with beefy suede uppers, a large rubber rand, and PU-injected reinforcements along the base for added abrasion resistance. Further, its midsole provides a large dose of support. All of these features do come at a cost: at 2 pounds 2 ounces, the Zen Pro is one of the heaviest shoes on our list, and is not sensitive or streamlined enough to climb technical rock well (we don’t recommend it for carrying on your harness up and over a climb either). But when you need a solid, durable hiker with exceptional traction on rock, the Zen Pro is an excellent choice.
See the Men's Scarpa Zen Pro See the Women's Scarpa Zen Pro
Weight: 1 lb. 10.8 oz.
Sole: Pomoca Speed MTN
What we like: External “shell” pattern means these shoes are breathable, durable, and supportive.
What we don’t: Sole is not as grippy as we would like.
Salewa’s Wildfire approach shoe is a modern and nimbler alternative to the burly Mountain Trainer above. Weighing 1 pound 10.8 ounces for the pair, it’s a whopping 11 ounces lighter and doesn’t give up a whole lot in terms of trail comfort, durability, or protection. The “EXA Shell” lends support for your foot and protects the mesh upper, while still allowing the shoe to breathe well. If you’re planning on carrying a particularly heavy pack or spending a lot of time on snow, consider the Mountain Trainer. Otherwise, the Wildfire allows you to drop weight and add agility to your approach.
Similar to the Mountain Trainer, however, the Salewa Wildfire isn’t the strongest climber on our list. While it’s great on the trail, we find that the Pomoca Speed MTN rubber doesn’t quite measure up to the grip of Vibram Megagrip or Stealth compounds on rock, and the shoe’s roomy and stiff build lacks precision for smearing and edging. But unless you plan to climb 5th-class terrain in your approach shoes, we find that the Wildfire hits a great mix of weight and performance for long approaches and semi-technical terrain. Keep in mind that Salewa also makes this shoe in a waterproof GTX version and a more climbing-specific (read: snugger-fitting) “Edge” model (both retail for $170).
See the Men's Salewa Wildfire See the Women's Salewa Wildfire
Weight: 1 lb. 11.2 oz.
Sole: Vibram Megagrip
What we like: Exceptional durability in a lightweight package.
What we don’t: Overkill for sub-alpine terrain.
Billed as their premium approach shoe, Scarpa’s Mescalito is designed to take a beating on technical alpine terrain, mile after mile. This new shoe from Scarpa doesn’t skimp on protection, with a leather upper and stiff Vibram rubber outsole. In many ways, it performs similarly to the Salewa Wildfire above—providing excellent support and traction on everything from snow and mud to talus—but its suede upper means it’s a more durable and protective shoe overall. This shoe is decidedly built to last and likely will be a favorite among guides and mountain devotees.
The Mescalito isn’t remarkably heavy, but it’s not an agile shoe like the Arc’teryx Konseal FL or La Sportiva TX3. If fast-and-light scrambles are your style, you’ll likely find that the Mescalito feels too reminiscent of a hiking boot. But with premium Italian craftsmanship and a great mix of climbing and hiking features, it’s is a great choice for alpine objectives when you don’t necessarily want the weight and bulk of a lightweight mountaineering boot. And if you’re in the market for a little more boot, Scarpa also makes the Mescalito Mid GTX, a mid-height, waterproof version similar to the La Sportiva TX4 Mid GTX above.
See the Men's Scarpa Mescalito See the Women's Scarpa Mescalito
Weight: 1 lb. 6 oz.
What we like: Breathable and lightweight without sacrificing on-trail protection.
What we don’t: Long-term durability is a question mark.
Black Diamond threw their hat into the approach shoe ring in late 2019 with four models for men and women: the lifestyle/crag-focused Session and Circuit, the climbing-centric Technician, and the versatile Mission LT. The Mission is our favorite in the lineup: it’s a breathable, comfortable workhorse made for long days of hiking and easy rock scrambling. Put simply, it’s the most trail-ready shoe from BD to date. And when you get to the crag, it can easily be attached to your harness and toted up the climb.
Unlike many of the leather models here, the Mission is built with a knit upper for breathability, with a one-piece construction that lends durability to the design. Tack on a sock-like liner (similar to the discontinued Arc’teryx Acrux) and you also get a close fit and good overall protection from sand and debris. And at only 1 pound 6 ounces for the pair, the Mission LT is very competitive with the lightest shoes on our list, including the La Sportiva TX2 and Arc’teryx Konseal FL. We've ranked it here because long-term durability is still a big question mark (and we’ve had quality issues with some of BD’s shoes in the past), but we’re eager to see how the Mission LT holds up to regular abuse.
See the Men's Black Diamond Mission LT See the Women's Black Diamond Mission LT
Weight: 1 lb. 8.2 oz.
Sole: Stealth PH
What we like: A casual approach shoe with a sticky rubber sole.
What we don’t: Not durable or protective enough for most climbing.
Five Ten’s Access shoe is true to its name. With high levels of comfort, support, and protection, this model is in its element when accessing rock—but its performance stops there. Discerning eyes will know at first glance: featuring a conspicuously small rand, non-marking rubber from Five Ten’s biking collection, and lacing that does not extend to the toe, the Access simply is not made for climbing. Sure, on the foot of a skilled climber it might be sufficient for padding up moderate slab, but the knit upper is sure to provide very little protection, stability, or durability when shoved into cracks (we recommend a shoe like Five Ten’s Guide Tennie instead).
That said, we see the Access worn a great deal at the sport crag, in the boulders, or on the way to the gym. And its lightweight nature and athletic styling certainly makes it a better tool for the job than clunkers like the La Sportiva Boulder X or Scarpa Zen Pro. Further, it’s a great fit for when you need to bring your shoes along for the descent, as the flexy build stuffs well into a pack and the 1.5-pound weight is on the lighter end for approach shoes. All in all, the Access Knit is not a highly performance-oriented approach shoe. But with “outdoor chic” styling, it can play double-duty as an around-town shoe better than most. Of note: this shoe has a “technical” fit and Five Ten recommends going up a half size.
See the Men's Five Ten Access See the Women's Five Ten Access
Weight: 2 lbs. 11.6 oz.
Sole: Vibram Cube
What we like: Great for snowy approaches; heel bail takes semi-automatic crampons.
What we don’t: Heavy and lacks the climbing prowess of an approach shoe.
La Sportiva’s Trango Tech is an intriguing addition to this list, sliding into our final spot this year as a burly approach shoe for mountainous terrain. For climbing in regions like Alaska or Patagonia—where a route might contain equal parts snow, ice, and rock—the Trango Tech provides a great middle ground between a low-top approach shoe and true mountaineering boot. Like an approach shoe, it’s flexible and sensitive enough to be both comfortable on the trail and on low-5th-class terrain. On the other hand, with a mid-height build and heel bail, the Tech offers better stability and crampon compatibility than any approach shoe here.
The Trango Tech’s mid-height build and significant bump in weight mean it’s too heavy and bulky of a shoe for most summer objectives, especially when you’re carrying your gear up and over a climb. Additionally, with the Gore-Tex lining, you’ll compromise in breathability compared to a shoe like the TX4 above. But for snowy approaches to alpine rock, the Tech could be Sportiva’s best solution yet: an ultra-lightweight mountaineering boot that can still hike and climb like an approach shoe. Further, it’s a great mid-height option for hikers looking for a rock- and snow-ready boot (perfect for a granite-covered hike like the John Muir Trail)... Read in-depth review
See the Men's La Sportiva Trango Tech See the Women's La Sportiva Trango Tech
|La Sportiva TX4||$140||1 lb. 10 oz.||Leather||Vibram Megagrip Traverse||No|
|Five Ten Guide Tennie||$120||1 lb. 10.4 oz.||Suede||Stealth C4||No|
|Evolv Cruzer Psyche||$79||13.2 oz.||Cotton canvas||Trax||No|
|Salewa Mountain Trainer GTX||$200||2 lbs. 6 oz.||Leather||Vibram Mtn Trainer Evo||Yes|
|Scarpa Crux||$130||1 lb. 14.4 oz.||Suede||Vibram Approach/Megagrip||No|
|Arc'teryx Konseal FL||$155||1 lb. 5.2 oz.||Ripstop mesh||Vibram Megagrip||No|
|La Sportiva TX2||$130||1 lb. 3.6 oz.||Mesh||Vibram Megagrip Traverse||No|
|La Sportiva Boulder X||$120||2 lbs. 2 oz.||Leather||Vibram Idro-Grip V-Smear||No|
|Scarpa Gecko||$175||1 lb. 11 oz.||Suede, mesh||Vibram Reptilia / Indo-Grip||No|
|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|
|Scarpa Zen Pro||$179||2 lbs. 2 oz.||Suede, mesh||Vibram Spyder II||No|
|Salewa Wildfire||$130||1 lb. 10.8 oz.||Mesh||Pomoca Speed MTN||No|
|Scarpa Mescalito||$169||1 lb. 11.2 oz.||Suede||Vibram Megagrip||No|
|Black Diamond Mission LT||$140||1 lb. 6 oz.||Synthetic||BlackLabel-Mountain||No|
|Five Ten Access Knit||$130||1 lb. 8.2 oz.||Knit||Stealth PH||No|
|La Sportiva Trango Tech GTX||$269||2 lb. 11.6 oz.||Synthetic||Vibram Cube||Yes|
- What is an Approach Shoe?
- Approach Shoe Uses
- The Mid-Height Approach Shoe
- Outsoles and Traction
- Fit and Sizing
- Stiffness and Stability
- Toe Protection
- Upper Materials
- Approach Shoe Care
An approach shoe is a specialized type of footwear for climbers, mountain scramblers, and hikers who often find themselves on rocky terrain. They are stiffer than a hiking shoe or trail runner, closer-fitting to boost precision, and have generous rubber rands for protection. But most importantly, they’re designed with ultra-sticky rubber soles (similar to a climbing shoe) for great grip on rock. In short, no other style of shoe comes close to the level of protection, traction, and stability that an approach shoe provides on more technical terrain.
All that said, just because you’re a climber doesn’t necessarily mean you need an approach shoe. For short, easy walks to the crag, you can get away with a pair of running shoes or sandals. Heck—in Rifle, you can practically belay from your car. But for long approaches to the crag, adventurous multi-pitch missions, or big treks into the alpine, approach shoes are an indispensable addition to your climbing kit.
With climbing becoming a more and more diverse discipline (including everything from alpine scrambling and rock climbing to bouldering and gym climbing), approach shoes have followed suit. Some designs are stiffer, more streamlined, and more protective for performance on technical rock, while others prioritize breathability and flexibility for the trail. Others still are made specifically for cragging or light descents. Thus, when buying an approach shoe, you’ll first want to consider your intended use: on what sort of terrain do you typically travel? We break the possible uses down into four categories below.
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 Pro, Salewa Mountain Trainer GTX, and La Sportiva TX4.
Some climbers are adamant that their approach shoes climb well, whether they’re guiding clients day after day up mid-5th-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. Look for lightweight and stiff shoes, with edges and toe box rubber that provide delicate connection with the rock. Popular approach shoes in this category include the Five Ten Guide Tennie, Scarpa Gecko, and La Sportiva TX4.
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 Psyche and La Sportiva TX2.
If you’re headed to an alpine climbing area such as the Bugaboos or North Cascades, you’ll want a shoe that offers traction on snow as well as rock. Dotty rubber soles like that on the Five Ten Guide Tennie are decidedly not made for snow, whereas those with sharper tread or deeper lugs offer more bite. Also consider a higher-profile, sturdy design that can kick steps in snow effortlessly, such as many mid-height boots. Finally, those using strap-on crampons will want a relatively stiff shoe (leather is better than mesh) for a secure attachment. Approach shoes in this category include the La Sportiva TX4 Mid and La Sportiva Trango Tech (see our in-depth review here).
If your approach is just a short walk to the crag or boulders, consider whether or not you need an approach shoe. For many, a running shoe or sandal could suffice. That said, there are several companies that make approach shoes specifically for cragging, with features like easy on/off and heels that fold down for a quick slipper. Additionally, craggers might consider shoes that can serve multiple purposes, such as a hiking shoe or a trail runner. The La Sportiva TX2 and Evolv Cruzer Psyche are a couple of our favorite cragging approach shoes.
Approach shoes are specifically designed for climbers as a replacement for hiking boots, 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 more coverage along with a sturdy attachment 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. 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 and La Sportiva Trango Tech.
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, most approach shoes 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 La Sportiva TX4 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, like the Salewa Mountain Trainer, 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.
For the majority of users that wear their approach shoes exclusively for hiking and moderate scrambling, edging is a non-issue. But for those who are proficient enough to climb technical terrain in the same shoes they hike in, a stable edging platform is essential. Most shoes in this category have a flat rubber patch under the big toe, providing a smooth and responsive platform for edging. Not only that, but climbers will want to look for models where the rubber rand comes flush to the sole (as seen in the Five Ten Guide Tennie and the Scarpa Gecko). This provides a seamless, stiff edge like that of a climbing shoe. Even to the uninformed eye, this edge will look different from one that is made up of layers of cushioning, like that of La Sportiva’s Boulder X.
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 snow. 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 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 fall somewhere in the middle of the breathability spectrum. There certainly is a tradeoff, however: highly breathable shoes like the La Sportiva TX2 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 climbing pack 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 La Sportiva TX2, 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 or models fit differently. For example, La Sportiva's TX shoes are known to be rather wide, whereas the Scarpa Gecko has a snug fit.
Most approach shoes have built-in shanks or internal supports to provide a degree of stiffness. This construction differentiates these shoes from light trail runners, though they are a far cry from the full shank of a mountaineering boot. In general, the more technical your terrain, such as snow, scree, or steep trail, the more you will benefit from a stiffer approach shoe (examples include the Salewa Mountain Trainer or Scarpa Zen Pro). A stiff shoe might be less comfortable in the short term, but over the long term it will keep your foot from flexing and straining to support itself.
All of the shoes on our list—even the lightweight Evolv Cruzer Psyche—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, extending 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 and on rocky trails. On the flipside, 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 mesh or knit material, leather, or a mix. Below we spell out the pros and cons for the most common materials used in approach shoes.
Mesh-woven nylon, open mesh panels, and knit uppers are becoming increasingly common in approach shoe construction as manufacturers seek to shave weight from their models. These airy synthetic uppers certainly aid in breathability and cutting weight, but detract from the waterproofing, durability, protection, and climbability of the shoe. In the end, we love mesh or knit shoes during the summer months, but they’re not ideal for wet or snowy terrain or particularly technical climbing.
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 Vasque Grand Traverse, 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 flip side, 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.
One shoe included on our list is made of canvas: the unique Evolv Cruzer Psyche. Canvas is far less durable and water resistant than leather, but provides a high level of breathability. We like it most for snow-free summer environments where you’re not putting your shoe through the wringer.
Approach shoes aren’t cheap, and much can be done after purchase to ensure their longevity and performance. 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 (over the stitching and where the rand meets 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 you’re planning on using the shoes for technical climbing. Additionally, when aid climbing, expect your shoe’s toes to blow out extremely quickly if not reinforced. Gear Aid products such as Seam Grip or Freesole can be applied to these wear-and-tear areas upon purchase and many times thereafter.
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