We love rock climbing shoes, and we bet you do too. The good news for climbers is that there are more styles and quality products to choose from than ever before. Time-tested classics like the La Sportiva Miura, impressive new models such as the Otaki, and up-and-coming brands like Butora all are represented on this list of the top climbing shoes of 2018. From long alpine routes to overhanging sport climbs and bouldering, we've got you covered. In addition to the men's or unisex version, we've linked to the women's-specific model when available. For more background information, see our climbing shoe comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
What we like: The climbing shoe that, quite simply, does it all.
What we don’t: Not great for wide feet.
It’s tough not to be wowed by La Sportiva’s legacy model, the Miura. It really speaks to La Sportiva’s quality craftsmanship that this shoe was at the top of the pack ten years ago, and still is today. You’ve heard the expression, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” right? Consider the Miura VS the embodiment of that thought. It’s just that good. The Miura edges on a dime, climbs steep terrain as well as vertical, toes in on small pockets as well as any shoe in the business, and heel hooks like a champ. There aren’t many shoes that can boulder V10, climb 5.13 sport, and punch up hard finger cracks, but this is one of them.
The Velcro model of the Miura has become far more ubiquitous than the lace up in recent years, and for good reason. The VS is a more aggressive shoe, and unlike the Lace, is constructed with the P3 midsole. Whereas the Miura Lace becomes a floppy comfort shoe in no time, the VS will hold its aggressive shape throughout the years. For sizing help, the Miura VS is great for narrow feet: if you’re trying to decide between it and the Otaki below, keep this in mind. Additionally, the Miura VS is at its best with a tighter fit, so size accordingly... Read in-depth review
See the Men's La Sportiva Miura VS See the Women's La Sportiva Miura VS
Best Bouldering Shoe
What we like: A bouldering slipper that provides amazing support.
What we don’t: Some will want a softer shoe.
The Instinct VS is a relatively new shoe from Scarpa that quickly has grown in popularity. It established itself as a versatile choice for sport climbing and bouldering, but it’s also a common choice for indoor and competition climbing (most notably, 10-time American Bouldering Series champion Alex Puccio cites the Instinct VS as her favorite shoe). The rubber-shrouded toe and heel are excellent on steep rock, and the medium-stiff rand offers more edging power than we’re used to seeing in a bouldering shoe.
Made with synthetic microsuede, the Scarpa will stretch less than a leather shoe, but an elastic patch on the top of the foot gives it a close fit. The stiff feel and moderate downturn set it apart from most shoes made for high-performance sport climbing and bouldering, but a thinner 3.5mm sole adds sensitivity and flex. Scarpa also offers the same design in a softer version with a 2mm sole (the VSR), perfect for lighter climbers or those who prefer a more sensitive feel. And the impressive Instinct family is rounded out by a high-performance lace model and a slipper (SR), each of which are high quality, standout shoes.
See the Scarpa Instinct VS
Best Budget Climbing Shoe for Beginners
What we like: Great price for such quality construction and design.
What we don't: Not a high-performance shoe.
Butora might not be a household name like La Sportiva or Scarpa, but the Korean company is quickly gaining traction in the U.S. Before launching Butora in 2014, shoe designer Nam Hee Do had been in the business for over 30 years—most notably he worked with Chris Sharma to design the Shaman. So Butora came out of the gate running with an impressive attention to detail and use of top notch materials, and their Endeavor quickly became our top pick for a beginner shoe. With its sub-$100 price tag, we recommend it to anyone new to the sport, and even to guides or gym rats looking for a comfortable all-day shoe.
The flat Endeavor won’t help you push into high level climbing, but if you want a comfortable rig that climbs up to 5.10 or V4, it won’t disappoint. The zig-zagging Velcro straps provide a snug, customized fit, and the unique mix of leather and synthetic in the upper offers comfort and breathability to the areas where you need them most. The inner layer of the tongue is made of memory foam, and the shoe is fully lined with 100% organic hemp to minimize stretch and odor. Plus, the Endeavor comes in two versions—wide and tight—so you can tailor your fit. There’s simply no other entry-level shoe in the game with such thoughtful, quality design.
See the Men's Butora Endeavor See the Women's Butora Endeavor
Best Shoe for Crack Climbing
What we like: The best crack climbing shoe on the market, hands down.
What we don't: Expensive and very specific.
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you know who Tommy Caldwell is. He climbed this little thing called the Dawn Wall in Yosemite a few years ago, which became some of the biggest climbing news ever—and this is the shoe that TC designed for the job. The TC Pro is an absolute climbing machine for vertical to less-than-vertical terrain, and specifically granite. We often correlate a flat shoe with a beginner shoe, but not in this case. The stiff make-up and sticky XS Edge rubber make the TC Pro an ultra-high performance edger and slabber. And the upper that extends over the ankles is a game changer—we actually cringe now when faced with climbing a wide crack in any other shoe.
Take note that the TC Pro is not at all an all-rounder. On anything steeper than vertical, this shoe will feel clunky and flat, akin to having bricks on your feet. Even on thin finger cracks, we’d rather be wearing a shoe like the Anasazi Pink above, or the Otaki below. Boulderers, sport climbers, and gym climbers: this is not your shoe. As far as fit goes, we’ve found that sizing the TC Pros comfortably does not compromise performance. For an all-day shoe that you might take to the mountains and wear with a sock, this is great news.
See the La Sportiva TC Pro
Best Shoe for Face Climbing
What we like: Our favorite shoe for technical face climbing.
What we don’t: Painful in wide cracks.
The Anasazi Lace (aka the "Pink") is sort of like living in Colorado—you know who wears this shoe because they tell you they wear the shoe, all the time. Pink fans are true devotees. This shoe excels on vertical face—trad, sport, or bouldering—with excellent edging power that comes from a unique heel and high-tensioned rand. The lace closure allows for a closer, more precise fit than any of the Velcro options above, and the synthetic Cowdura upper minimizes stretch throughout the life of the shoe.
The fit of the Pink doesn’t work for every foot—but for those that it does, it seems to work extremely well. In other words, you’ll probably love the Pink, or hate it. We certainly do recommend trying this shoe on before you buy. And Five Ten’s popular Anasazi is available in a number of different versions—the lineup has gone through many iterations, and this year features a Velcro model (VCS) and the Pro, a bouldering specific version of the VCS with a rubber toe patch... Read in-depth review
See the Five Ten Anasazi Pink
Best of the Rest
What we like: Fantastic quality; comes in both narrow and wide sizes.
What we don’t: Unique toe shape might take some getting used to.
We took the tried-and-true La Sportiva Solution off of our list and replaced it with the Acro, which is Butora’s solution to… the Solution. Relatively new to the scene, these shoes quickly have proven their quality and performance, gaining a devoted following amongst boulderers and sport climbers alike. If you’re a La Sportiva diehard and the Solutions fit you well, by all means stick with them. However, if you’ve struggled with their fit and are looking for something slightly more comfortable, less bulky, and super form-fitting, it might be time to try out the Acro. And it doesn’t hurt that the quality of this shoe is absolutely outstanding. After months of use, ours still has no signs of frayed stitching or delamination.
The truth is that we have few gripes about the Acro, although we don’t recommend it for less-than-vertical terrain. The shoe is almost completely covered with rubber, making it a toe and heel hooking machine, perfect for boulders and steep sport climbing. It also has a full-length 3D ABS midsole, which means that it retains the downturned shape over time. And lastly, climbers in general have been very impressed with the fit: the Acro comes in both narrow and wide sizing and fits a wide spectrum of foot sizes... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Butora Acro
What we like: It’s tough to argue with Chris Sharma.
What we don’t: The “knuckle box” and “love bump” are features you’ll either love or hate.
Designed in part by Chris Sharma, the Shaman is best suited to the kind of climbing Sharma enjoys most: steep, endurance limestone sport routes. They perform incredibly well on this terrain, dominating small pockets, toeing in on positive crimps, toe hooking on tufa-like features, and heeling on small edges. The Trax rubber is not our favorite, but it is super sticky and performs well once you get used to it. Meanwhile, the synthetic upper maintains a tight fit over time, and the Velcro straps are thin enough to give ample room for toe rubber.
All in all, the Shaman is a really good shoe at a very competitive price. That said, Evolv’s unique “knuckle box” and “love bump” technologies certainly offer a unique experience. The knuckle box creates space on top of the foot, making room for toes to sit comfortably, even when curled. The love bump, meanwhile, is a physical bump that sits under the ball of the foot, filling the dead space under the toes and pushing them toward the knuckle box. The intention is to create a comfortable space for a downturned foot, and if the fit is right, it accomplishes this goal. But if the fit is not right, it’s really wrong. We definitely recommend trying on the Shaman before buying or choosing an online retailer with a good return policy... Read in-depth review
See the Evolv Shaman
What we like: The No-Edge technology is, as the name implies, genius.
What we don’t: About as expensive as climbing shoes get.
La Sportiva released the Genius a couple years ago and it has received rave reviews, including from us. From top climbers to novices, everyone seems to love this shoe. Best known for its No-Edge technology, the Genius is able to conform to a larger surface area of a hold better than shoes that need a single edge or irregularity to stand on. The result is more sensitivity and stickiness than perhaps any shoe ever, and that’s worth a lot (maybe even $195).
Some think that No-Edge technology is the best innovation in climbing shoes since sticky rubber, but we’re not quite so sure. On the right terrain, it’s genius: you can have the messiest footwork and still stick to the wall. But there’s a reason why shoes have edges, and a reason why No-Edge technology has taken over the market since its debut. Furthermore, although No-Edge technology extends the life of the rubber, when it’s actually time for a new sole, you’ll have to send your shoes to one of just a few specialized re-solers to get the job done... Read in-depth review
See the La Sportiva Genius
What we like: A sub-$150 shoe that acts like it’s not.
What we don’t: Not super comfortable on wide feet.
At first glance, the Tenaya Masai looks almost identical in design to Five Ten’s Anasazi Pink above. You can’t blame Tenaya for this decision: the Anasazi line is one of the best performing shoes ever. Tenaya claims that the Masai “is designed to climb everything, and to climb it well,” and there is a lot of truth to that statement. The supportive midsole, solid edging platform, tight synthetic upper, and lacing that runs the whole length of the shoe all ensure a comfortable fit and excellent performance on vertical terrain and small edges. And the Masai is a better fit for narrow feet than the Pink, which is a nice bonus.
All that said, Spain-based Tenaya has a long way to go before they can truly stand on the same pedestal as La Sportiva and Five Ten. We haven’t seen this shoe much around the crag yet, and will be interested to see how it holds up over multiple re-soles. And keep in mind that despite Tenaya’s claims about the Masai being an all-rounder, it excels on vertical to less-than-vertical rock but is not a great shoe for steep sport climbing or bouldering.
See the Tenaya Masai
What we like: Downturn plus stiffness allows for great edging on vertical face.
What we don’t: The wide toe box is good for some, but sloppy for others.
The Otaki is a recent innovation from La Sportiva, touted as the successor to the uber-popular Katana lace. Built on the same last as the Skwama below and with the same P3 technology and S-Heel design, you’d think it was a bouldering shoe. And it can be—but it’s also so much more. We’ve worn the Otaki both on vertical sport climbs and hard finger cracks, and have been super impressed with its performance in both environments. It has edging capabilities on par with the Miura VS, but with slightly less downturn is versatile enough to jam up cracks as well.
The Katana lace is an amazing, versatile shoe, but a few major improvements make the Otaki even more impressive. For one, it’s constructed with a synthetic lining around the toe that reduces the pesky stretch that occurs in the toe box of the Katana. This is a big innovation and we’re excited to see how it performs over the long run. Additionally, the Otaki has a Velcro closure and S-Heel technology that make it a superb crossover shoe between technical face climbing and steep bouldering. But, wide footed climbers rejoice, it’s just as comfortable as the Katana. If you’ve struggled to fit into the Miura VS, the Otaki might be your solution.
See the Men's La Sportiva Otaki See the Women's La Sportiva Otaki
What we like: Best toe hooker in the business; very comfortable.
What we don’t: Becomes floppy over time.
Similar to the Scarpa Instinct VS above and the La Sportiva Skwama below, you’re likely to see the Five Ten Hiangle on the foot of many a pro boulderer or sport climber. With a huge pad of sticky toe rubber, an aggressive downturned shape with lots of sensitivity, and a Velcro strap to keep the shoe from sliding off on heel hooks, this shoe screams steep climbing. As we mentioned above, Five Ten sizing can be a little strange, but for the right foot, it doesn’t get much better than the Hiangle.
This shoe is very similar to the 5.10 Team, but with a premium leather upper instead of synthetic. Do the math, and with the leather you get more stretch, a closer fit, and more comfort. But such a tightly-sized leather shoe does mean that you’ll experience more of a loss of performance over time than you would with a synthetic upper like that of the Acro or Instinct VS above. If you’re on a budget, this is important to note. And take care when easing into wearing such a soft shoe like the Hiangle: your feet will have to work harder to support themselves than they would in a stiffer rig.
See the Men's Five Ten Hiangle See the Women's Five Ten Hiangle
What we like: Like the Shaman, but with laces and a better heel.
What we don’t: Still not great for toe hooking.
Evolv has been a bit of a dark horse in the climbing world—their shoes often are thought of as being lower quality than premium Italian brands like Scarpa and La Sportiva—but we’ve been super impressed by many of their recent additions to the market. The Oracle is case in point. Combining the toe box technology of the Shaman (described above) with the high performance heel of Evolv’s popular Agro, the Oracle quickly is proving itself as a stellar steep climbing shoe with an exceptional fit.
While the lace-up system lends itself to a snugger fit than a Velcro shoe, some boulderers will be put off by the lack of rubber on the toe box. In addition, the love bump and knuckle box borrowed from the Shaman detract from the Oracle’s ability to toe hook. But we love the heel tensioner—a system, similar to the Anasazi above, that locks the foot in place like a slipper and pulls power to the toe of the foot. If you love the Shaman but have wished for a closer fit and a better heel, it’s worth checking out the new Oracle.
See the Evolv Oracle
What we like: Affordable and comfortable for such an aggressive shoe.
What we don’t: Too soft to be a great edger.
One of La Sportiva’s newest innovations, the Skwama, is a high-performance climbing slipper. Most notable is the new S-Heel construction, a feature that claims to keep the heel from rotating toward the inside of the shoe while heel hooking. The Skwama is comparable to the Acro and Genius in terms of its highly aggressive downturn, but it’s a much softer shoe and thus does not edge as well. But this soft construction and wide toe box allow the Skwama to achieve a rare combination of comfort and performance.
You wouldn’t suspect it given the heel cup and rubber patches on the upper that scream “steep climbing,” but the Skwama actually makes for a relatively good crack climbing shoe. It sports a low profile for smaller cracks, and with the rubber toe patch on the forefoot and the Velcro closure all the way up near the ankle, climbs well in hand-sized cracks too. As for the function of the S-Heel, the jury is still out: most people seem to think the new technology does not add much heel hooking performance. That said, for all of this versatility at a sub-$150 price tag, the Skwama is one of the most affordable performance shoes on the market in 2018.
See the Men's La Sportive Skwama See the Women's La Sportiva Skwama
What we like: Premium craftsmanship.
What we don’t: Expensive and doesn’t toe hook as well as comparable Five Ten and La Sportiva shoes.
The Boostic is one of Scarpa’s premier climbing shoes, built similarly to the Evolv Shaman above but with a more acute edging platform and slightly less aggressive toe. Created by the visionary designer Hans Mariacher, the closure system is superb: complimentary flaps of leather connect by thin mesh and tighten down with two opposing Velcro straps. For being such an aggressive shoe, the Boostic is extremely comfortable and easy to put on.
There are, however, a few problems with this shoe. The Velcro straps are a bit long, and when tightened down all the way can end up catching on holds and gym carpeting. Scarpa also uses a different kind of rubber on top of the toe, which makes for less secure toe hooking than on similar models like the Hiangle above. The Boostic’s greatest strengths are toeing in on small, positive crimps on dramatic overhangs and sticking small pockets. If you want a shoe for both indoor and outdoor sport climbing, this is a great choice—especially if climbing on limestone or pocketed conglomerate rock.
See the Scarpa Boostic
What we like: A time-tested classic made with 95% recycled materials.
What we don’t: At the end of the day, not very performance oriented.
The Mythos is one of the most iconic shoes on the market. And for new climbers venturing outside, this is an incredibly comfortable and durable choice. It has a flat last and leather upper that allow it to be worn all day, and the quality Eco rubber on the sole means you get top notch performance too. For beginning climbers and intermediates alike, it’s a great choice.
However, the claim that the Mythos “does everything” is a bit of an overstatement. It decidedly is not made for cranking through long overhanging sport climbs, nor is it made for heel and toe hooking your way through roofs. Even among the beginner shoes on the market, it isn’t the best option for smearing or edging. Heck, we don’t even recommend the Mythos for gym climbing—it’s overkill and expensive for what you need. But it certainly is among the most durable and best fitting of the bunch, and if you’re a beginning trad climber, you can’t go wrong with the Mythos. Plus, now the Mythos Eco is made using 95% recycled materials from the Sportiva cutting room floor—the Italian shoe company is doing something right here and we hope the industry follows.
See the Men's La Sportiva Mythos See the Women's La Sportiva Mythos Eco
What we like: Like the TC Pro, but more durable and streamlined.
What we don’t: It’s still too soon to tell how great this shoe will be.
The La Sportiva TC Pro was the first modern, mid-height trad shoe of its kind, and for years nothing came close to matching its granite prowess. With performance so head and shoulders above the rest, we put up with small gripes with the bulky build and an upper that doesn’t hold up well in cracks. Until now. Scarpa released the Maestro Mid this year, and we think it might be on track to usurp the TC Pro as the best trad shoe alive.
One of the most standout features of the Maestro is that it comes in two fits: a men's version and a narrower women’s model. We know all too many climbers who couldn’t get the TC Pro to fit, so this is exciting news. Secondly, the upper of the Maestro Mid features much more continuous leather—we suspect it will hold up much better in cracks than the TC Pro. And lastly, this shoe has a much slimmer profile—Scarpa’s IPC Tension system bridges the arch of the foot to provide support without bulky rubber. We’ve cautiously put it toward the bottom of our list for now, but expect the Maestro Mid to rise as it becomes more established.
See the Men's Scarpa Maestro Mid See the Women's Scarpa Maestro Mid
Closure: Velcro (lace available)
What we like: Checks off a lot of boxes for beginner climbers.
What we don’t: Unproven long-term durability and performance.
Yes, your eyes aren’t deceiving you—it’s a Black Diamond climbing shoe! BD has been a leader in climbing gear and innovation for decades, and last year they released their first lineup of shoes. The Momentum is their flat, entry-level shoe—similar to the Butora Endeavor or the La Sportiva Mythos—and made with a focus on breathability and all-day comfort. We’re placing it lower on the list than these similar models for now, but take note that it is the most affordable of the trio.
One particular feature of note on the Momentum is the stretchy knit upper. This certainly will allow for breathability and a secure fit, but it will not handle the stress of repetitive crack climbing well. As a result, the Momentum is most at home in the gym and the occasional day outside. It’s also worth noting that the fit has posed problems for many, so make sure you try on the Momentum before buying (hint: it’s not for the wide-footed). All in all, there is a lot to like with BD’s first attempt, but as with anything new, we expect them to continue working out the kinks... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Black Diamond Momentum See the Women's Black Diamond Momentum
What we like: What a surprise: an affordable aggressive shoe!
What we don’t: Extremely difficult to get on and off.
Mad Rock often gets a bad rap among climbers, but for steep bouldering and sport climbing, the re-designed Shark 2.0 is surprisingly good. In a world where most aggressive climbing shoes run close to $200, the Shark stands out as an option that’s easy on your wallet without sacrificing a ton in the way of performance. It boasts Mad Rock’s Arch Flex system, a design that is stiff around the sides and soft in the center, allowing for both effective smearing and edging. However, your feet better already be pretty strong to survive the lack of arch support. That said, people rave about the snug fit of the Sharks, and report that it doesn’t change much throughout use.
As far as the upper of the Shark 2.0 is concerned, it’s composed almost exclusively of 2.2mm R2 rand rubber, resulting in a toe hooking and scumming machine. The form-fitting heel cup and sticky rubber textured heel cap make for an excellent heel-hooking shoe as well. On the downside, this mostly rubber upper is known to stifle feet. And Mad Rock’s Science Friction rubber never was, and still isn’t, anything to write home about: it’s hard and clunky, and has a slippery feel that does not inspire confidence. But priced at $119—and often found on sale—this is a solid choice for those who want an aggressive shoe for the gym.
See the Mad Rock Shark 2.0
|Climbing Shoe||Price||Downturn||Upper||Rubber||Best Uses|
|La Sportiva Miura VS||$175||Aggressive||Leather||Vibram XS Edge/Grip 2||Sport, bouldering, trad|
|Scarpa Instinct VS||$175||Moderate||Synthetic||Vibram XS Edge||Bouldering, gym, sport|
|Butora Endeavor||$98||Flat||Leather/synthetic||NEO Fuse||Beginner, gym|
|La Sportiva TC Pro||$185||Flat||Leather||Vibram XS Edge||Trad|
|Five Ten Anasazi Lace||$165||Moderate||Synthetic||Stealth C4||Trad, sport|
|Butora Acro||$154||Aggressive||Leather/synthetic||NEO Fuse||Bouldering, gym, sport|
|Evolv Shaman||$160||Aggressive||Synthetic||Trax||Sport, bouldering, gym|
|La Sportiva Genius||$195||Aggressive||Leather/synthetic||Vibram XS Grip 2||Sport, gym, bouldering|
|Tenaya Masai||$140||Moderate||Synthetic||Vibram XS Grip||Trad, sport|
|La Sportiva Otaki||$175||Moderate||Leather/synthetic||Vibram XS Edge/Grip 2||Sport, trad, bouldering|
|Five Ten Hiangle||$165||Aggressive||Leather||C4 Stealth||Bouldering, gym, sport|
|Evolv Oracle||$175||Aggressive||Synthetic||TRAX SAS||Sport, bouldering, gym|
|La Sportiva Skwama||$145||Aggressive||Leather/synthetic||Vibram XS Grip 2||Bouldering, sport, gym|
|Scarpa Boostic||$180||Aggressive||Synthetic||Vibram XS Edge||Bouldering, sport, gym|
|La Sportiva Mythos Eco||$155||Flat||Leather||Vibram XS Edge||Trad|
|Scarpa Maestro Mid||$190||Flat||Leather||Vibram XS Edge||Trad|
|BD Momentum||$90||Flat||Synthetic||NEO Fuse||Beginner, gym|
|Mad Rock Shark 2.0||$119||Aggressive||Synthetic||Science Friction 3.0||Gym, bouldering, sport|
- Types of Climbing Shoes: Trad, Sport, Bouldering, Gym
- Downturn: Flat, Moderate, or Aggressive
- Soft vs. Stiff
- Closure: Laces, Velcro, or Slipper
- Upper: Leather vs. Synthetic
- Fit and Sizing
- Men’s and Women’s Versions
- Indoor vs. Outdoor Climbing
There are as many styles of climbing shoes as there are rocks, and for best performance, these two factors should be matched appropriately. Sport climbing, bouldering, trad climbing tend to be as similar as apples, oranges, and bananas—which is to say, rather dissimilar. A shoe designed for overhanging boulders would be painful and less-than-functional in a hand crack. In the same vein, a stiff, flat shoe perfect for slab climbing would be clunky and useless when trying to toe hook on steep terrain. That said, whether you’re on a boulder, placing gear, or clipping bolts, the rock will dictate your style of shoe more than the discipline. Granite climbs differently than sandstone, which climbs differently than limestone, and quartzite, and basalt, and so on and so forth. Obviously, there’s no perfect categorization, and a good understanding of the terrain helps to round out these delineations.
Trad climbing typically takes place on slabby to just-vertical terrain, and often involves a great deal of jamming in cracks. For this, flat climbing shoes—also thought of as all-around shoes or non-aggressive shoes—are the top-performing models. These shoes are often more comfortable than their more aggressive counterparts, but comfort need not compromise performance. Certain flat shoes offer the best performance for slabs, techy face climbing, and cracks (the La Sportiva TC Pro, for example). Look for very slight or no downturn at all, a stiff midsole, relaxed fit, minimal heel/toe rubber, solid ankle protection, and most often, laces. That said, the more technical and steep the trad route (think 5.12 finger cracks or thin 5.11 edging on Index granite), the more you might prefer a shoe with a moderate or aggressive downturn. For vertical faces and thin finger cracks, a model like the Five Ten Anasazi Pink or the La Sportiva Otaki will perform far better than the clunky TC Pro.
For sport climbing on vertical to slightly less-than-vertical terrain—imagine Smith Rock or the New River Gorge—you can get away with a relatively stiff shoe with a moderate downturn. These models absolutely shine on face climbs where precision edging is paramount. They’re characterized by a solid edging platform, tight heel cup with a slingshot-style rand, stiff midsole, and laces or a Velcro closure. For steeper sport climbing (such as that found in Kalymnos or the Red, or even in the gym), we’d look to a more aggressive shoe like those described below in the bouldering section. Think softer, more downturn, a Velcro or slipper closure (or both), and a whole lot more rubber on the toe and heel.
Bouldering shoes—indoor and outdoor—are characterized by an aggressive downturn, ample toe rubber patch, floppiness for sensitivity, rounded heel cups covered in rubber, and a hybrid closure (often an elastic slipper with a single Velcro strap). These shoes shine on steep terrain, when toe hooking, heel hooking, and sticking to tiny incuts on overhanging walls. They usually are sized snug and probably aren’t comfortable to wear for more than a minute or two. That said, if you’re a new boulderer we recommend that you save your money and your foot ligaments and start with a stiffer Velcro shoe. You can graduate to something softer and more aggressive once your technique improves and your feet get stronger, but for V2 and under (even up to V4 in the gym) an entry-level shoe is more than sufficient (for more on soft vs. stiff shoes, see below).
We have used the term “downturn” many times above—it’s of the most notable features of a climbing shoe. Essentially, downturn defines the amount of curve in the sole of a shoe, from banana shaped (aggressive) to flat. The more aggressive the downturn, the more power your toes have to pull and perch on small edges, but the less your feet are able to rest in their natural position. In general, aggressive shoes perform well on steep rock, and flat shoes shine on vertical to less-than-vertical terrain. Just picture the banana shape of a shoe like the Evolv Oracle, and envision toeing in on overhanging holds with the power to pull your body towards them. Then tilt the rock back to slab, and you’ll understand that you want a flat shoe (like the La Sportiva Mythos or TC Pro) that allows you to stand on the ball of your foot.
Stiffness is another way that shoes differ from each other, but here it’s tough to make blanket statements. So much of this depends on preference. While many boulderers prefer ultra-soft shoes like the Five Ten Hiangle or the La Sportiva Skwama, others prefer stiffer models like the Butora Acro or the Scarpa Instinct VS. Same goes for trad climbers—the TC Pro is wildly popular, but so is the soft and supple Five Ten Moccasym. One thing that we can say definitively is that a stiff shoe offers more support for the foot—if you’re just getting into the sport, you’ll definitely want to start with a stiff to medium-stiff shoe until your feet grow stronger. Soft shoes are far more sensitive and flexible, and your feet will have to do much of the work to support themselves.
A stiff shoe will also offer more edging power, as it provides a solid platform for your foot to stand on tiny edges. For this reason, we like a stiffer shoe for vertical face and slab. Soft shoes, on the other hand, do not provide the stability needed for precise edging, but enable you to toe in better on steep routes. Plus, you’ll be able to feel the holds more underfoot, which many climbers like. Soft shoes are also more comfortable to downsize, so you can really hone in a tight, snug fit. Finally, keep in mind that the thinner the sole, the softer the shoe will be. For example, the Scarpa Instinct VSR’s 2mm sole helps to make it a much softer shoe than its sibling, the Instinct VS (with 3.5mm sole).
Closure systems should not be overlooked, and in fact they can be a deciding factor in what shoe is the best match for you. There are not hard-and-fast rules about which is better than the other, and each has their strengths and weaknesses for various forms of climbing. The three main closures are laces, Velcro, and slipper, and more and more we’re seeing Velcro and slippers combined for a best of both worlds closure.
Laces are a favorite of trad climbers who put their shoes on and keep them on. They’re much better suited in cracks than Velcro, which tends to come undone after repetitive jamming. Laces also allow you to dial in an incredibly precise fit. Whether your feet are wide or narrow, you get more versatility with a lace shoe like the La Sportiva Genius than any other kind. That said, laces can be a pain in the butt if you are putting on and taking off your shoes all the time, and if you’re crack climbing, they will wear out over time.
Many climbers prefer Velcro closures because they are easy to put on and take off. They’re great for indoor climbing, bouldering, and sport climbing, when you’re often relieving your feet in between problems or pitches. A Velcro closure, however, can get in the way of toe hooking—for steep bouldering, we’d rather have a large patch of rubber on top of our toe than a bulky strap. Furthermore, Velcro can easily come undone during repetitive jamming in cracks. Velcro shoes can also be somewhat limiting in how well they fit and tend to fail quicker than laces.
Slippers provide one of the most comfortable, convenient types of closure, and they generally correlate with soft shoes that excel on friction slabs and in cracks (such as the Five Ten Moccasym). But slippers can stretch over time, and when that happens, there Is no way to tighten them up. Interestingly, the work-around to this problem has resulted in many of the best bouldering shoes: the La Sportiva Skwama and Scarpa Instinct VS, for example. These shoes add a single Velcro strap near the ankle of the slipper, resulting in a very comfortable and secure fit and a large space on the toe for a large rubber patch. We think that slippers are a bit of a dying breed, but this combination of slipper and Velcro will only grow in popularity.
The upper is the part of the shoe that rests along the top and sides of your foot. In most climbing shoes, the upper is a leather or synthetic leather substitute, and there’s not really a rubric to determine which is better for you. Some prefer leather, and some synthetic. Both have their pros and cons, and there are multiple representatives of both types on this list. The biggest difference is that leather stretches, and synthetic uppers generally don’t, and this has a variety of consequences.
Because leather stretches, it is able to conform to your foot. Over time, it takes on a glove-like shape which results in increased comfort. Comparing the La Sportiva Miura VS to the Anasazi Pink, for example, the Miura will stretch up to a whole size, while the Five Ten will barely stretch at all. This means one of two things: one, if you want the Miura to have the same functionality as the Pink a year after the fact, you have to start with a smaller size. Or two, if you want the Pink to be as comfortable as the Miura in a year, you have to start with a bigger size. Whether you prefer your shoe to become more comfortable over time or you want it to retain its original dimensions should play a big role in choosing the shoe you buy. And take note that many modern leather shoes incorporate a synthetic liner in high-stretch areas—we think this is a best of both worlds solution.
Climbing shoe rubber is an esoteric subject. Should you buy Vibram XS Edge or XS Grip? Stealth HF or Stealth C4? What about proprietary blends like Trax and Science Friction? The rubber is what will actually stick to the rock, so this is incredibly important, right? Yes, but maybe not as important as you think. All rubbers try to find some balance on the sticky-durable continuum. Some, like Science Friction, go hard to the sticky side, while others, like Sportiva’s proprietary FriXion RS, gravitate to the more durable side. Either way can make sense depending on your priorities. In fact, we know many a male climber who wears the women’s Miura VS, as it’s made with a stickier rubber (XS Grip 2) than the men’s version (made with XS Edge). Just understand that there is a tradeoff: the grippier your rubber, the shorter it will last. The longer it lasts, the less sticky it will be.
But because you asked (you did, right?), we do have our preferred brands and models of rubber. A quick check of the comparison table above is a dead giveaway: Vibram and Stealth are our clear favorites. We especially like the consistent performance of the XS Edge and XS Grip from Vibram, along with Five Ten’s HF and Mi6. Butora’s NEO Fuse is quickly earning our allegiance as well. And, of course, when you bust through the rubber, it doesn’t mean you have to retire your shoe. Resolers aren't difficult to find these days—Rock and Resole in Boulder, CO is one of the most widely-known—and most even give you the option to change the kind of rubber that’s on your shoe.
We could give you a bunch of rules about how to size your shoe, but in the end, sizing is so specific, so unique, and so particular to each shoe and each foot. Some shoes will be too wide or too narrow for your feet. Some will stretch a full size, while others won’t at all. Some are sized on track with street shoes (Black Diamond’s lineup, for example), while others will have you dropping down a handful of sizes. As a result, your best bet is to: a) do some research on what other people have to say about the shoe’s fit, and; b) always try the shoe on before buying. If you’re ordering online, you can roll the dice or buy a couple of pairs from a reputable retailer and return one.
That said, a few generalizations apply. First of all, you want your climbing shoes to feel tighter than your street shoes. Second, tighter does not mean cutting off circulation. If you’re swimming in your shoe, it’s probably too loose. But if putting it on takes you a minute of serious tugging only to result in a number 8 on the pain scale, they’re too tight. Be honest with yourself: how tight can you go without letting discomfort get in the way of the joy of climbing? Many people will sacrifice pain for the extra performance it brings to their climbing game, while others think that a tight shoe adds very little performance. It all depends on the terrain, the shoe, and the climber. Third, understand that leather stretches and synthetic fabrics tend not to. Finally, it’s worth noting that most people have one foot that’s slightly bigger than the other, so try on both shoes before you make a purchase. And if your feet are egregiously different sizes, go with Evolv: you can buy the right foot shoe in one size, and the left in another.
By and large, at least in climbing shoe land, the rule is as follows: men’s shoes are for wide feet and women’s shoes are for narrow feet (Butora, on the other hand, offers their shoes in “wide” and “narrow”). You can toss this “rule” out along with all other hetero-normatives, but you can also use it as a guide to help you pick out a shoe. Maybe you’re a man with a narrow foot, which means you should consider a women’s style. And some women prefer men’s shoes. The point is that you won’t care what gender your footwear is when you’re cruxing out on your project, and neither will your belayer or anyone else. As for comparing men’s and women’s sizes, use this helpful chart from La Sportiva. And keep in mind that some “unisex” models (the popular Scarpa Boostic or Five Ten Anasazi Pink, for example) aren’t made in varying widths. If your foot is wider or narrower than most, it’s likely that these shoes won’t work for you.
Although there are very few shoes made specifically for gym climbing, it really is a whole different beast than climbing outdoors. Overall, indoor walls are vertical to overhung (at our local gym, there are V0s on a 45-degree overhang and 5.10s out a huge roof, which you’d be hard pressed to find outside), the foot holds larger, and the routes stacked on top of each other (meaning it’s easier to rack up mileage than if you’re outside moving from crag to crag or boulder to boulder). In general, footwork matters less and you’ll wear out your shoe more quickly, meaning two things: the style, fit, and sole of your shoe is of less consequence (feel free to argue with us on this point, although before you do, keep reading), and you’ll accumulate quite the bill if you’re churning through $180 shoes.
If you’re a new climber or use the gym more as training for the outdoors than as the end-all-be-all, you can get away with a relatively flat, comfortable, and affordable shoe for indoor climbing. Save your money for when you head outside, where performance on projects matters more and precise footwork is imperative. All that said, if gym climbing is your jam, the purple route is your project, and you’re really pushing the grade indoors, you’ll definitely want to look for an aggressive, bouldering-specific shoe. For either scenario, check out the “Best Uses” column of our comparison table above to see which shoes we recommend for indoor climbing.
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