Welcome to our climbing shoe buying guide for newbie climbers. When I was just starting out as a beginner climber, I was completely overwhelmed by the variety of rock climbing shoes on offer. Why do they come in different shapes? Should I buy a gender-specific one? How are they meant to feel when they’re on? What if I have narrow or wide feet?
It was an absolute minefield and they weren’t cheap so I wanted to make sure I got the best ones for me. Over the years my used shoe stack has grown, my climbing has improved and I feel like I’m finally in a place to help you find the right beginner shoes for you.
In my experience, climbing shoes are a bit like romantic relationships (controversial!). In the beginning you’ll have no clue what you’re looking for or what you like. So you try to stick to some general good advice and take the plunge with your first pair. It may be amazing, it may be awful or somewhere in between. But as you develop as a climber, you have a better idea of what you want and your needs will likely change. You may outgrow your first pair for something more technical. Then one day you might come across THE ONE and have a long and special relationship. So what should you keep in mind as you search for your first pair?
Fit is Key
The absolute most important thing to remember is that fit really is key. We all have unique feet with varying heel sizes, toe lengths, foot widths and so on. To add to that there’s no real climbing shoe sizing standard which means trying on any shoes before you buy them is an absolute MUST. This also means ignoring what shoes are ‘trendy’ or look fancy or worked for your friends because they may not work for you.
The best thing to do is go to a shop and try on a whole bunch of different ones in one go. Strap them on and ideally test them out by walking around and stepping on a foothold, most larger stores will have a test wall available. Try different brands, models and sizes.
So we and certainly no one else can tell you which exact pair of shoes will be the best ones for you but we can give you a list of some of the most popular and versatile beginner specific climbing shoes out there to try on as a starting point:
A fantastic balance of comfort, durability and price. The Origins were specifically designed by the famous Heinz Mariacher to help beginners get into the sport and get psyched.
Hugely popular beginner shoe, great for your first pair or for long training sessions indoors and warming up.
- Outsole: 5mm of Scarpa’s Vision rubber (plenty to last you a very long time as you learn).
- Upper: Leather (suede) upper body so you can expect some stretch.
- Closure: Two velcro straps
- Price: ~$89 – very competitive indeed
The main difference between the Evolv Defy and Elektra is how much foot each shoe can hold. The Defy is designed for those with wider feet and higher arches while the Elektra is better for those with narrower feet and lower arches.
I personally had the elektras as my first ever pair of climbing shoes and I must say they did the job very well for a long time. I even climbed outdoors for the first time in them!
- Outsole: 4.2mm outsole using TRAX® XT-5 rubber.
- Upper: Both their upper bodies are composed of a completely synthetic material which means they won’t stretch out and become baggy over time though they will probably be smellier than leather upper shoes. Luckily Evolv have listened and acted to feedback by adding a new anti-microbial mesh to the 2018 versions.
- Closure: Two velcro straps
- Price: Still competitively priced under the $100 mark.
La Sportiva have created male and female versions of the shoe with different colours, the women’s shoe is designed to be a bit narrower. However if you are a woman and the female version is too narrow for you it is very normal for female climbers to wear the male version of climbing shoes as well. After all, fit is paramount.
- Outsole: Lovely thick 5mm outsole made of FriXion® RS rubber that can withstand sustained battering.
- Upper: Unlined leather (expect some stretch).
- Closure: Flat shoe created especially for beginners with laces so you can customize the fit a bit better. If you fancy the shoe in velcro, that option is available though they are called La Sportiva Tarantula.
- Price: At around the $80 mark they are nice and cheap for a climbing shoe and have a combination of leather and synthetic upper. This means you can expect a little stretch over time but not much. So definitely don’t get them too tight. Though if you get them with too much give they may develop some bagginess. Thankfully this can largely be counteracted with wearing the laces tighter.
A classic shoe with a lot of respect, it’s been around for 20+ years and is still a popular choice today. Asymmetric shape and very versatile. A favourite of boulderers.
- Outsole: Features a 2mm outsole of 5.10’s famous C4 rubber. Thinner outsole than models like the La Sportiva Tarantulace so could potentially wear out faster.
- Upper: Unlined leather upper body so expect a bit of stretch over time like the La Sportiva Tarantulace. The rubber on these feel quite soft so will help in ‘feeling’ small footholds which may help you improve your footwork.
- Closure: Slip-on style so very easy to take on and off.
- Price: Just over the $100 mark
Another classic comfortable and beginner specific 5.10 shoe with medium stiffness.
- Outsole: Again using 5.10’s super sticky Stealth C4 rubber though there’s only 2mm of the stuff.
- Upper: Leather upper body so expect them to stretch up to a full size with wear.
- Closure: Two velcro straps though also available with laces. The lace version is particularly great for those with narrower feet.
- Price: Right around or below the $100 mark depending on where you look.
A relatively new kid on the block, the Momentum is Black Diamond’s contribution to the entry-level market. Best suited for lower-volume feet. Available in a men, women’s and kid’s version.
- Outsole: 4.3 mm outsole.
- Upper: Has an upper body uniquely made of flyknit technology thanks to a collaboration with Nike. This specially knitted material is there to morph to the unique shape of your feet for greater all-day comfort. The mesh-like material is also designed to be more breathable than the traditional leather or synthetic materials normally used in climbing shoes.
- Closure: Two velcro straps
- Price: Around $90 – great price.
Based on Boreal’s classic Joker shoe, the Jokers are renowned for their comfort straight out of the box. The Joker Plus has taken this one step further with a new look and an improved one piece rand for extra durability and better fit. A good one to try if you have wider feet or a narrower heel as it has quite a lot of extra EVA padding in the heel. Great for long training sessions or all-day wear.
- Outsole: 4-4.5mm outsole thickness using Boreal Zenith Quattro rubber.
- Upper: Upper body is made from split leather and microfibre.
- Closure: Three opposing velcro strap closure.
- Price: Right around the $100 mark depending on where you look.
What should you know when choosing a beginner climbing shoe?
Types of Climbing
Many climbing shoes are designed with specific styles or types of climbing in mind and an experienced climber might have several shoes. For example, they might have one for crack climbing, one for steep overhangs and another for slabs. But as a beginner, that doesn’t really matter as your ability to climb at this stage is way more limited by your climbing technique and stamina.
At this stage, all you really want are some shoes that fit you right (read: not so tight that you can’t wait to get them off and give up on climbing forever!). In the shop or online you may see three broad shoe shapes: Neutral, Moderate and Aggressive.
Right off the bat as a beginner I can tell you to avoid the aggressively downturned shoes as they will be incredibly uncomfortable and completely unnecessary. You can go for a moderate shoe but personally I think beginner shoes should be as comfortable as possible while still performing well so I’d recommend going for a neutral/flat shoe shape.
You may hear people give general rules like go 2 sizes down from your normal street shoe size or something similar. This may be a good starting point but know that climbing shoe brands really vary when compared to each other and to street shoes. You may be a 6 in la sportiva but a 4 in Five Ten! The only way to know is to try them all out.
Different brands will use their own specially manufactured rubbers with varying properties. In the world of rubber manufacturing there are two distinct types: natural and synthetic. Natural rubber comes from tapping rubber trees (Hevea brasilensis) while synthetic rubber is manufactured from petroleum (like car tyres). The vast majority of climbing shoes will be some secret combination of the two that the manufacturers deem the best balance between stickiness and durability. The stiffness/hardness of these rubbers will also vary a lot.
That’s great but what kind of rubber do you want as a beginner? Honestly, it doesn’t matter too much, later on you may develop a preference for the performance of a particular brand’s rubber but right now you just need something that’s going to last your probably sloppy footwork. That means something with a harder thicker rubber that won’t develop a hole in 5 sessions!
Sweat & Smell
As a general rule, the upper body composition of your shoes will affect how badly your shoes will smell. Climbing shoes are an absolute paradise for many bacteria with their lovely damp, warm and dark conditions.
A leather body will usually be the least smelly while synthetic bodies will be the most smelly. But to be honest, there’s really no need to worry that much about this. Everyone’s climbing shoes stink, the best thing to do to reduce this is to hang your shoes from your bag after you climb to allow them to dry out. Why? Because if you put them in your bag wet and sweaty the bacteria will continue to incubate and multiply and your shoes will smell a whole lot worse and make your bag a toxic waste zone too! Another option is to stuff your shoes with some boot bananas, they’re designed to soak up all that lovely sweat and leave your shoes better off in the smell department.
Most climbing shoes close using velcros, laces or are slip on. The main benefit of velcro and slip-on shoes is the ease and speed with which you can whip your shoes on and off. This is an absolute godsend if you are climbing outdoors and have to constantly switch shoes to head to the next route. Would definitely not recommend walking there with your climbing shoes on as it will wreak havoc with your rubber. The benefit of lace-ups on the other hand is that you can customize the fit of the shoe better by tightening and loosening different points all along the shoe depending on the unique shape of your feet.
Finally, let’s not beat around the bush, chances are you want shoes that won’t burn too big a hole in your pocket and in my opinion a good beginner climbing shoe should be sub $100 or at least around the $100 mark.
What should well fitting climbing shoes feel like?
There should be ideally no dead space, certainly no bagginess around the toes or middle.
Your feet should touch the ends, maybe even be slightly curled but definitely not enough to hurt straight away after just walking around.
The heel should feel snug, not pulling away when you step on a hold. The heel is probably the hardest area to find a good fit for so if everything else fits really well and the heel has a slightly off fit then that shoe should definitely still be in your running.
For a beginner shoe, you want to feel like if you had to you could happily walk in your shoes for a few hours without dreading the very thought of it.
Finally, don’t freak out if every shoe feels a little stiff and uncomfortable to you, any climbing shoe will likely feel that way if all you’ve known before were comfy street shoes.
After you’ve tried on a bunch of different options in various shops and know which shoe and size you want, shop around on the great big interweb to see if you can find the shoes cheaper online than in the shop.
That’s it for now, I hope we managed to enlighten you on the general points you should bear in mind when looking for your first climbing shoe. Happy learning and happy crushing!
By ANUKA TEGGART
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