Combining the features of hiking shoes, climbing slippers, and even mountaineering boots, approach shoes are in a category of their own. For climbers, they’re an essential piece of footwear that provides stability and traction on rock but comfort for miles on the trail. And because approaches can take on so many different forms—from walking to the crag to scrambling 4th or 5th class or embarking on a multi-day slog—approach shoes are a diverse bunch. Below we break down the top approach shoes of 2020, including ultralight crag shoes, nimble climbers, and mid-height waterproof models.
Table of Contents
- Our Approach Shoe Picks
- Approach Shoe Comparison Table
- Approach Shoe Buying Advice
Weight: 1 lb. 10 oz.
What we like: Leather upper fits well and is impressively durable.
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
Weight: 1 lb. 4 oz.
Upper: Cotton canvas
What we like: Lightweight and affordable.
What we don’t: Not very durable or capable on rough terrain.
Evolv’s Cruzer Psyche is ubiquitous among climbers, known for being one of the lightest and most affordable approach shoes ever made. The original Cruzer has long been our shoe of choice for crag days, carrying up multi-pitch routes with slabby descents, and even mellow scrambles close to the car. The upgraded Psyche model is even more capable, with a trail-running last, increased padding throughout the upper, and a larger rubber rand around the toe box—all for a low 1 pound 4 ounces. And the cherry on top: it’s the most affordable shoe here at only $79.
The Cruzer Psyche isn’t the lone ultralight option available—La Sportiva’s TX2 and Arc’teryx’s Konseal LT certainly are strong contenders—but it is the only shoe priced under $100. And more than the TX2 and Konseal LT, it has all the features we look for in a crag shoe, including casual styling, a heel that folds down for a quick on-and-off slipper, and microfiber lining that’s comfortable against bare feet. Of course, you do get what you pay for and we don’t recommend the Cruzer Psyche for a big days on the trail, but most climbers will find it more than sufficient for short walks to the crag or boulders.
See the Men's Evolv Cruzer Psyche See the Women's Evolv Cruzer Psyche
Weight: 1 lb. 8.6 oz.
What we like: A high-performance shoe for technical climbing and mountain scrambling.
What we don’t: Expensive and less durable than the TX4.
If you’ve been around climbing for long enough, chances are you remember the La Sportiva Ganda. A favorite of experienced climbers and guides, the streamlined Ganda was the shoe to wear while climbing 5th-class rock. Now, after a multi-year hiatus, the new TX Guide brings a high-tech approach shoe back into Sportiva’s lineup, and we like it a lot. Compared to the TX4 above, the Guide is lighter, leaner and more sensitive, and stickier too—in other words, it’s a far better option for technical climbing and scrambling. Remarkably, it’s also soft and flexible (touted as having the cushioning of a mountain runner), which is great for comfort and speed on the trail.
It’s important to note that the TX Guide is built on a different last than other models in the TX lineup, which is considerably narrower in the toe box. Further, you do give up some durability with the mesh upper, and the Guide’s sticky sole won’t hold up quite as well as stiffer rubber compounds. But compared to other shoes typically favored for technical climbing (like the Five Ten Guide Tennie and Black Diamond Technician below), the TX Guide is noticeably more cushioned. Not everyone will need such a high-performance shoe (or want to pay for it either), but if you’re inclined to long days of mountain scrambling with some technical climbing and running mixed in, the TX Guide can’t be beat.
See the Men's La Sportiva TX Guide See the Women's La Sportiva TX Guide
Weight: 2 lbs. 2.8 oz.
What we like: Powerful and durable shoe for mountain environments.
What we don’t: Narrow fit isn’t great for everyone; too heavy and clunky for climbing.
Straight out of Montebelluna, Italy—otherwise known as the boot-making capital of the world—Salewa’s Mountain Trainer 2 GTX is an approach shoe truly designed for the mountains. With the wraparound protection of a full rubber rand, a waterproof Gore-Tex membrane, and durable Vibram sole, the Mountain Trainer is more akin to a tank than a race car, and the shoe you want on your feet for off-trail travel involving talus slopes, kicking steps in snow, boulder-hopping, and more. Even for non-climbers interested in exploring the alpine with a lighter and more form-fitting shoe, the Salewa Mountain Trainer 2 is an excellent choice.
With a recent update, the new “2” is 15 percent lighter and more flexible than the original version. However, 2 pounds 2.8 ounces is still heavy for a pair of approach shoes, and the bad news is that Salewa might have slimmed down the Mountain Trainer a little too much. The updated model is very narrow, and an integrated stretch gaiter at the tongue makes it difficult to slip on. Finally, keep in mind that with any waterproof shoe, you’ll give up some breathability (the Mountain Trainer 2 is also available in a non-GTX version for $170). But for the right environments or as a lightweight substitute for a mountaineering boot, you can’t beat the durability and protection the Salewa provides. It’s also worth noting that the outgoing Mountain Trainer (no “2”) can still be found online at a discount while supplies last.
See the Men's Salewa Mountain Trainer 2 See the Women's Mountain Trainer 2
Weight: 1 lb. 4 oz.
What we like: A casual and comfortable approach shoe with a unique bootie-like fit.
What we don’t: Outsole rubber is not super sticky.
Approach shoes have become so ubiquitous amongst climbers that it’s common to see them not just at the crag, but at the brewery, the gym, and everywhere in between. But models like the TX4 and Mountain Trainer above can be fairly overbuilt (read: uncomfortable) for daily use. Black Diamond’s Session, on the other hand, is built with casual intentions, combining urban styling and a soft, bootie-like upper with all the features we look for in an approach shoe. The result is a wildly comfortable and easy-wearing shoe that both looks good and plays hard.
One of our favorite features of the Session is the heel, which includes an elastic stretch that makes the shoe easy to pull on and off without bothering with the laces. The heel also folds down for use as a slip-on, which is a great feature for gym climbing, bouldering, and myriad around-home uses. And the Session holds its own among approach shoes too, with a durable rubber sole, protective toe caps, and webbing loops at the heel for tagging up a climb. Keep in mind that BD’s BlackLabel-Street rubber is designed for use on pavement, so the Session is built to last but offers less grip on rock than more performance-oriented shoes. Of note: Black Diamond also makes the Circuit, a similar lifestyle shoe that forgoes the stretchy sock-like upper and retails for $100.
See the Men's Black Diamond Session See the Women's Black Diamond Session
Weight: 1 lb. 10.4 oz.
What we like: Climbs exceptionally well and highly durable.
What we don’t: Poor traction on wet or loose terrain; very stiff for hiking.
Five Ten’s Guide Tennie is credited with pioneering the approach shoe category, and decades later it remains one of the most popular 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, although we still prefer the La Sportiva TX2 for true ultralight endeavors.
All that said, held up against more modern designs like the TX4 above and Black Diamond Technician and Arc’teryx Konseal FL below, the Guide Tennie feels somewhat dated and limited. It’s brick-like feel is onerous while hiking, and the dotted rubber across the entire length of the sole falls significantly short on wet rock, slippery leaves, ice, or when transitioning from rock to snow. In short, if you’re willing to pay $15-35 more, a number of shoes match the Guide Tennie in climbing performance and far surpass it on the trail. But we’re not here to argue with Guide Tennie devotees, and there’s no denying that this shoe fares extremely well on 5th-class terrain... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Five Ten Guide Tennie See the Women's Five Ten Guide Tennie
Weight: 1 lb. 5.2 oz.
Upper: Ripstop mesh
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 also comes in an FL GTX model for $185, as well as the ultralight LT (featuring a fold-down heel for cragging) and the suede AR that's built to carry heavy loads while tackling technical terrain. But for quick missions and mountain scrambling, we prefer the FL for its great mix of weight and performance... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Konseal FL See the Women's Arc'teryx Konseal FL
Weight: 1 lb. 14.4 oz.
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.
In terms of outsoles, we give the edge to the dotted tread design of the La Sportiva and Five Ten above, but the Crux’s updated Megagrip compound is a step in the right direction. With a sharper tread, its climbing performance falls middle-of-the-pack—proficient at smearing but subpar on edges—but the Crux performs well on softer terrain like wet leaves and snow. And particularly for summer climbing or those who carry their shoes up the wall, Scarpa also makes the more breathable and lightweight Crux Air, which keeps the same sole and overall design as the Crux but clocks in at just over 1.5 pounds for the pair. Finally, it’s also worth noting Scarpa’s new-for-2020 Kalipe, a slightly softer shoe with more wide-reaching, everyday appeal... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Scarpa Crux See the Women's Scarpa Crux
Weight: 1 lb. 6.2 oz.
What we like: A synthetic option that shines on technical rock.
What we don’t: Not very comfortable for long days of hiking.
Shortly after debuting their climbing-shoe lineup, Black Diamond threw their hat into the approach shoe ring with four models: the lifestyle/crag-focused Session and Circuit, the hiking-focused Mission LT, and the Technician here. The Technician here is a very capable and well-priced shoe for technical scrambles, competitive with the likes of the TX Guide above and Scarpa Gecko below. Clearly intended for climbing, it features a flat sole for precision on the rock, dotted rubber on the forefoot, and a streamlined toe box to keep your foot in place on small edges. And we’ve fallen in love with Black Diamond’s EnduroKnit upper, which is breathable and far more durable than you’d expect from a synthetic weave.
Keep in mind that with such a climbing-centric design, you do give up a fair amount of comfort on the trail. Shoes like the TX Guide and Crux above have a softer, rockered sole to help your stride stay springy, and their roomier toe boxes do a much better job accommodating swollen feet (inevitable after a long day of hiking). But if scrambling is the name of your game (take, for example, dawn patrol on the Flatirons) and you like to keep hiking to a minimum, the Technician is a great tool for the job, beating out the clunkier Five Ten Guide Tennie and more expensive Gecko below. Finally, we recommend that most people size up a half to full size, unless you’re looking for a tight, climbing-shoe-like fit.
See the Men's Black Diamond Technician See the Women's Black Diamond Technician
Weight: 1 lb. 3.6 oz.
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. Further, it lacks the beefy outsole and cushion that you’ll want for long days on the trail, 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.
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.
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 $169, 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. As such, we put it in the same class as the Black Diamond Technician above, but with a more durable upper and big jump in weight. In the end, you’ll need to decide if you’re willing to stomach the extra 5 ounces and $34 for the leather build.
See the Men's Scarpa Gecko See the Women's Scarpa Gecko
Weight: 1 lb. 6 oz.
What we like: Breathable and lightweight without sacrificing on-trail protection.
What we don’t: Sock-like liner makes it difficult to get on.
Black Diamond’s Technician is a great approach shoe for technical climbing, but the Mission LT will be a better choice for the majority of climbers. The most versatile shoe in BD’s lineup, the Mission LT is a breathable, comfortable workhorse made for long days of hiking and easy rock scrambling. On the bottom of the shoe, you get a rockered sole (great for ease of walking) and a tread that balances rock traction in the forefoot with sharper lugs in the back for wet and loose terrain. So far, we love the Mission LT’s one-piece EnduroKnit upper and have been surprised with its durability (especially compared to the TX3), although you’ll get a bit more abrasion resistance and water wicking with the Konseal FL’s ripstop mesh (one of our favorite synthetic uppers).
One unique design feature of the Mission LT is its sock-like liner, which we’ve come to both love and hate. On one hand, you get a close fit and great overall protection from sand and debris. The downside, however, is that the shoe is a bear to get on, giving us pause in wearing it on shorter missions to the crag or boulders. But for full days of hiking when you’re not removing your shoes between every pitch, the Mission LT shines and is more trail-ready than most. Further, at a competitive 1-pound-6-ounce weight, it’s a great shoe to throw in your backpack or attach to your harness for the long walk down. Like the Technician above, most users find that they need to size up a half size in order to achieve the right fit... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Black Diamond Mission LT See the Women's Black Diamond Mission LT
Weight: 2 lbs. 0.4 oz.
What we like: Big-time support and protection at a reasonable weight.
What we don’t: No heel welt and less versatile than a low-top approach shoe.
Like the Salewa Mountain Trainer 2 GTX above, the La Sportiva TX4 Mid is a great option when you want the support and protection of 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 with a shoe like the TX4 Mid GTX, you can have similar performance in a lighter package.
The TX4 Mid is roughly the same weight as the Mountain Trainer 2 above but tacks on a mid-height cut for more support on tricky ground. In the end, it’s a better shoe on rock but the Salewa gets the edge for us when it comes to wet terrain like mud and snow. Compared to the low-top TX4, the Mid’s Gore-Tex insert adds a great deal of protection, although the non-waterproof shoe breathes a bit better and dries out faster. Further, the Mid is 6.4 ounces heavier for the pair. BBoth TX4 models are plenty tough for most backcountry uses, but if you prefer an even more capable boot, including a heel welt for attaching a semi-automatic crampon, check out the La Sportiva Trango Tech below.
See the Men's La Sportiva TX4 Mid GTX
Weight: 2 lbs. 2 oz.
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 it’s not sensitive nor streamlined enough to climb technical rock well (it’s not our first choice for toting on our harness 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.
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 2 above. Weighing 1 pound 10.8 ounces for the pair, it’s a whopping 8 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 2, 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.
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 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 (Scarpa also makes the Mescalito KN, which is lighter at 1 lb. 8.6 oz. and features a breathable nylon upper). But with premium Italian craftsmanship and a great mix of climbing and hiking features, the suede Mescalito 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: 2 lbs. 11.6 oz.
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.
Climbers love to push the limits of approach shoes, but some terrain—think the North Cascades or Patagonia—quite simply demands more from your footwear. It’s a tough sell to find a boot that’s capable (and comfortable) on easy trail, glacier, and rock, but La Sportiva’s Trango Tech checks the boxes better than most. Like an approach shoe, it’s flexible and cushioned enough to lend comfort mile after mile, and the lightweight build won’t weigh your pack down too much on the climb. 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 tall collar 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. And finally, we’ve found that the Tech suffers in terms of durability, especially when held up against comparable mountaineering boots (keep in mind that Sportiva now makes a slightly heavier leather version to address this downfall). But for long snowy approaches to alpine rock, the Tech could be Sportiva’s best solution yet. Further, it’s a great option for hikers looking for a comfortable boot with the added performance of semi-automatic crampon compatibility... Read in-depth review
See the Men's La Sportiva Trango Tech See the Women's La Sportiva Trango Tech
|La Sportiva TX4||$140||All-around/climbing||1 lb. 10 oz.||Leather||Vibram Megagrip Traverse|
|Evolv Cruzer Psyche||$79||Cragging||1 lb. 4 oz.||Canvas||Trax|
|La Sportiva TX Guide||$159||Climbing/all-around||1 lb. 8.6 oz.||Mesh||Vibram Megagrip/Idrogrip|
|Salewa Mountain Trainer 2||$200||Mountain||2 lb. 2.8 oz.||Suede||Vibram Mtn Trainer Evo|
|Black Diamond Session||$120||Cragging/all-around||1 lb. 4 oz.||Knit||BlackLabel-Street|
|Five Ten Guide Tennie||$120||Climbing/all-around||1 lb. 10.4 oz.||Suede||Stealth C4|
|Arc'teryx Konseal FL||$155||All-around/climbing||1 lb. 5.2 oz.||Synthetic||Vibram Megagrip|
|Scarpa Crux||$130||All-around||1 lb. 14.4 oz.||Suede||Vibram Approach/Megagrip|
|Black Diamond Technician||$135||Climbing||1 lb. 6.2 oz.||Knit||BlackLabel-Mountain|
|La Sportiva TX2||$130||Cragging/all-around||1 lb. 3.6 oz.||Mesh||Vibram Megagrip Traverse|
|La Sportiva Boulder X||$120||All-around||2 lb. 2 oz.||Leather||Vibram Idrogrip V-Smear|
|Scarpa Gecko||$169||Climbing/all-around||1 lb. 11 oz.||Suede||Vibram Reptilia / Idrogrip|
|Black Diamond Mission LT||$140||All-around||1 lb. 6 oz.||Knit||BlackLabel-Mountain|
|La Sportiva TX4 Mid GTX||$190||Mountain/all-around||2 lb. 0.4 oz.||Leather||Vibram Megagrip|
|Scarpa Zen Pro||$179||All-around/mountain||2 lb. 2 oz.||Suede||Vibram Spyder II|
|Salewa Wildfire||$130||All-around||1 lb. 10.8 oz.||Mesh||Pomoca Speed MTN|
|Scarpa Mescalito||$169||All-around/mountain||1 lb. 11.2 oz.||Suede||Vibram Megagrip|
|La Sportiva Trango Tech||$269||Mountain||2 lb. 11.6 oz.||Synthetic||Vibram Cube|
- What is an Approach Shoe?
- Approach Shoe Categories
- Outsoles and Traction
- Fit and Sizing
- Stiffness and Stability
- Toe Protection
- Upper Materials
- Approach Shoe Care
- The Mid-Height Approach Shoe
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—at a crag like 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, light descents, or everyday use. We’ve broken down the market into four main categories: all-around, climbing, cragging, and mountain.
All-around approach shoes are your standard designs, built to tackle the mix of trail and rock that stands between you and your climbing objective. These designs are comfortable and supportive for long days of hiking, offer traction on both rock and wet terrain, and are roomy enough to accommodate foot swelling. While many shoes in this category can hold their own on technical rock (for these features, see our “Climbing” category below), their design prioritizes performance on the approach—this is most epitomized in the sole, which often features a versatile combination of a climbing zone, smooth lugs, and aggressive heel. All-around shoes come in both leather and synthetic (often knit or mesh) uppers, so you can decide whether you want to prioritize durability or breathability. And finally, if you’ll be hauling your shoes up a multi-pitch climb for the descent, it’s worth considering this category’s more lightweight options. Some of our favorite all-around shoes include the La Sportiva TX3 and TX4, Scarpa Crux, and Arc’teryx Konseal FL.
Some climbers favor an approach shoe over a climbing shoe for easy-to-moderate climbing like scrambling in the Flatirons, guiding clients up mid-fifth-class routes, or moderate ridgelines in the alpine. More comfortable than a climbing shoe but more precise than a standard approach shoe, designs in our climbing category place a priority on technical-rock performance with low-profile builds, flat and stiff soles with dotted rubber (often forgoing a heel brake), and a precise toe edge that provides delicate connection with the rock. Because they carry many of the features of a climbing slipper, scrambling shoes lack support, comfort, and traction for long sections of trail, and aren’t our first choice for those looking for a one-quiver option. Popular approach shoes in this category include the La Sportiva TX Guide, Black Diamond Technician, and Scarpa Gecko.
If you’re headed to an alpine climbing area such as the Bugaboos or the North Cascades, you’ll want an approach shoe that can handle snow and technical cross-country terrain. Many of the shoes in our all-around category can get the job done, but dedicated designs will provide better stability and protection with beefier leather uppers, sharper tread and deeper lugs, mid-height builds, and built-in waterproofing. Further, those using strap-on crampons will want a relatively stiff sole and upper (leather is better than mesh), and a raised collar will provide more comfort and security. Approach shoes in our mountain category include the Scarpa Zen, La Sportiva TX4 Mid, La Sportiva Trango Tech GTX.
For most climbers, heading to the crag or boulders means a short walk on a trail, followed by a day of climbing in one location. The sticky rubber sole and stiff build of an approach shoe might come in handy for rock hopping, but once you’re at your destination you’ll want a comfortable shoe that’s easy to get on and off (we’ll often bring a pair of flip flops to the crag for this very reason). As such, approach shoes in our cragging category (also ideal for bouldering) are on the more casual side, with features like a knit or canvas upper, microfiber liner for comfort against bare feet, and a heel that folds down for a quick slipper. Cragging shoes can also be a good fit for multi-pitch climbs when you want a lightweight shoe to haul up the climb for use on the descent. The Evolv Cruzer Psyche and Black Diamond Session are two of our favorite cragging-specific approach shoes.
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 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 2, 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 2 GTX.
Recently we’ve seen an increase in the use of synthetic materials for approach shoe uppers, with models like the La Sportiva TX2 and TX3, Arc’teryx Konseal FL, and Black Diamond Mission LT and Technician. Although you get very little water resistance from these shoes, it’s important to remember that their mesh and knit uppers wick water far better than leather and do not grow heavy when wet. As a result, they also dry out more quickly after a full dousing. For this reason, we think synthetic materials are a great option for summer travel when wet feet aren’t a threat to your safety. That said, we still opt for leather shoes (like the TX4) for most approaches in the mountains.
In terms of breathability, approach shoes constructed with a mesh or knit upper are going to breathe better than suede or leather versions, and far better than GTX models. Canvas shoes such as the Evolv Cruzer Psyche 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), although this notion has recently been challenged by technologies such as Black Diamond’s EnduroKnit and Arc’teryx’s ripstop mesh (as seen on the Konseal FL). These two materials in particular have impressed us with their combination of breathability and abrasion resistance.
Additionally, shoes with a mesh upper are far more permeable to small particles such as sand, dirt, and snow. This will depend on the size of the holes in the mesh, however, and a shoe like the mesh TX3 will be much more vulnerable than the mesh Konseal FL. Further, additional features like a sock-like liner (as seen on Black Diamond’s Mission LT)—or even the addition of a short gaiter—will aid in keeping trail debris at bay. Long story short: mesh shoes are your best bet for warm-weather approaches, but some models will be more compromised than others. And if you’re truly looking for the best in protectiveness and durability, we’d recommend 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. Many designs in our climbing category are made to fit snugly so that they are responsive and stable on technical rock. Shoes in our all-around and mountain categories should fit 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 shoes in our mountain category like the Salewa Mountain Trainer 2 GTX). A stiff shoe will be less comfortable on easy trail and during high mileage days (it’s for this reason that we hesitate to recommend approach shoes to hikers), but on uneven terrain it will keep your foot from flexing and straining to support itself.
Additionally, the stiffer an approach shoe is, the better it will perform on technical rock (within reason, of course). To illustrate this point, imagine edging on a small hold while wearing a pair of running shoes. In our mind’s eye, the soft cushioning compresses, the shoe doesn’t hold its form, and your foot scrapes off the hold. Now, perch on that same edge with a stiffer, more precise approach shoe. The rubber doesn’t compress much and the sole maintains a solid platform. For this reason, many of the shoes in our climbing category (the Black Diamond Technician and Scarpa Gecko, to name a few) have rigid midsoles and soles. Again, you’ll have to find the right balance for your needs as stiff shoes can feel clunky and onerous on the trail for many.
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, wraparound 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.
However, as we’ve mentioned a few times above, there are some synthetic uppers that manage to achieve many of the benefits of leather while maintaining a high degree of breathability. Particularly, Black Diamond’s EnduroKnit (as seen on the Session, Mission LT, and Technician) and Arc’teryx’s ripstop mesh (on the Konseal FL) are impressively durable and protective, so much so that we’ve come to think of these shoes as being in the same class as leather shoes like the La Sportiva TX4 and Scarpa Crux. They also come with the added benefit of being able to wick water and dry out quickly, whereas leather can grow heavy when wet.
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, 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.
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 (which, granted, is more of a mountaineering boot than an approach shoe).
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