Approach Shoes: Best of 2019 and Buying Guide

You can always spot the climbers walking down the street if they’re wearing a pair of approach shoes (and a down jacket and a beanie of course!).  But what even are these shoes? Are they just glorified hiking boots and do you need them? And if you do, which ones should you get?

If a pair of climbing shoes and hiking boots had a lovechild, that would be the approach shoe.  These hybrids come in a range of forms to fit any situation.

The route to the crag is called the approach. Sometimes the approach is short and easy and sometimes they involve a long and technical hike.  This is where these shoes come in!

What makes approach shoes different?

Approach shoes combine the characteristics of both hiking and climbing shoes.

They all tend to have a:

  • Sticky rubber sole – to provide traction when climbing on rock or when walking on wet or loose terrain.
  • Rubber rand – to improve durability and climbing performance when jamming feet into cracks.
  • Uppers – to make the shoe more breathable and provide added protection from the elements.

Our Top Picks

Best All-Round:  La Sportiva TX4

Women's La Sportiva TX4
Men's La Sportiva TX4

Pros:

  • Basically a hiking shoe that climbs well too
  • Good smearing and edging ability
  • Comfortable
  • Sensitive
  • Keeps traction well on wet/loose terrain and on descents
  • Durable

Cons:

  • Heavier than some of the other options
  • Not cheap

The La Sportiva TX4 is a fantastic approach shoe.  In our eyes, it strikes that all important balance between climbing performance and hiking comfort to a T.  Which is why we’ve awarded them our best all-round approach shoe. So what is it about this shoe that we went ga ga for?  Well firstly, the more flexible midsole and shock absorber heel reminds us a lot of running shoes. The toe box is nice and wide and there’s just enough cushioning to make the shoe feel comfortable without losing sensitivity.  You can really feel the ground below you as you walk which helps when trying to find smaller footholds when climbing.

The uppers are made of leather so expect a little stretch.  The laces use a lacing system like the la sportiva mythos climbing shoe which removes the need for metal eyelets that are prone to breakage.  The laces also extend all the way down to the toes which helps customise the fit. You can loosen them while hiking and tighten them when it’s time to climb.  There’s just enough stiffness in it to offer good edging capabilities but it’s also flexible enough for good smearing too.

The wide PU Techlite rand wraps all the way around the shoe which makes the shoe more durable while also adding water resistance.  The mesh tongue is breathable but not waterproof. So be aware that if you step in water deep enough to penetrate the tongue, you will have wet feet.

We found the vibram megagrip rubber sole to be super sticky and soft but surprisingly durable.  The TX4 has La Sportiva’s Impact Break System (a heel brake) where the lugs at the heel are spaced a little unevenly apart and are quite deep.  This has really made the shoe feel solid and stable when going downhill and on loose uneven ground. Unlike the tennies they also felt safe on wet rock.

All in all, the TX4’s are powerful shoes that are built to last.  They offer a sensitive mix between climbing shoes, hiking shoes and trail running shoes.  La Sportiva also have these in mid-cut and Gore-Tex versions for better water resistance and ankle protection when carrying heavy loads.

Women's La Sportiva Mid TX4 GTX
Men's La Sportiva Mid TX4 GTX

Best for Climbing: Five Ten Guide Tennie

Women's 5.10 Guide Tennie
Men's 5.10 Guide Tennie

Pros:

  • Basically a cushioned climbing shoe, precise on rock
  • Very good at smearing, edging
  • Very durable
  • Good value
  • Can be resoled

Cons:

  • Takes time to break-in
  • Not great for long hikes or when carrying heavy packs
  • Too heavy to take mult-pitching comfortably
  • Loses traction on loose or wet terrain

The Guide Tennie is an impressive shoe.  Not only did it kick off the approach shoe craze in 1985 but with each remodel, it’s gotten lighter, more breathable and more comfortable.  No wonder you can see these babies littered all over the place whenever you go to a crag or indoor gym.

These Tennies are no doubt the best if you’re after a shoe that can easily take you up 4th or 5th class terrain.  That’s in large part thanks to the stiff midsole that allows power to be focused on the big toe like it is in climbing shoes.  They were the best in the bunch for both smearing and edging. To add to that, Five Ten’s stealth rubber is one of the best in the business and there’s plenty of it – on the soles and on the toe rand.  So you know these shoes can really take a beating!

The suede upper stretches a little with time and is water resistant.  The lace eyelets go all the way down towards the toes so you can customise the fit depending on when you’re climbing or hiking.

Well that all sounds amazing but what’s the downside?  Well they’re not the best for hiking long distances or are they the best for carrying heavy loads.  As with anything, there are trade offs to be made and with approach shoes, that is the balance of climbing performance vs hiking support and comfort.  

They can also be quite stiff out of the box so don’t expect a lot of sensitivity until they’ve broken in.  We should also note that the Tennies aren’t the lightest of approach shoes so not one we’d choose to take on multi-pitches.  The sole is super sticky on rock but loses traction when on loose or wet terrain e.g. ice due to the shallow depth and tread pattern of the lugs.

To sum up, these get a 5/5 for climbing ability but a ⅗ for hiking support and comfort.

5.10 guide tennie mid mens
Men's 5.10 Guide Tennie Mid

Best on a Budget: Evolv Cruzer Psyche

Women's Evolv Cruzer Psyche
Men's Evolv Cruzer Psyche

Pros:

  • Cheap!
  • Light – good for multi-pitching
  • Comfortable
  • Decent smearing
  • Breathable – good for warm conditions

Cons:

  • Not great for long hikes or when carrying heavy packs
  • Not very durable
  • Lacks support
  • Not great for edging

If you’re looking for an affordable shoe for short and easy approaches then the Evolv Cruzer Psyche is for you.  The new model is more like a trail running shoe with added padding in the upper for better comfort.

The midsoles are pretty flexible so they’ll feel comfy out of the box and are decent at smearing but not at edging.  With their sleek design and 13.2 oz weight, they’re great for clipping into your harness on multi-pitches.

But don’t expect a lot of support for your feet on long hikes or when carrying heavy packs.  The canvas material is very breathable but not waterproof or able to take a lot of abrasion.

The laces don’t go very far down the foot which makes the fit less versatile.  Though, the heels can fold down to form a slipper and the microfibre lining inside feels quite nice in bare feet.  Pretty handy when you want to chuck something on between routes at the crag!

All in all, the Evolv Cruzer Psyche is a great approach shoe for light hiking and climbing.  And you won’t find a better bargain than these for a casual crag or multi-pitch shoe.

Best for Multi-Pitching: Arc'teryx Acrux SL

Women's Arc'teryx Acrux SL
Men's Arc'teryx Acrux SL

Pros:

  • Light
  • Durable
  • Waterproof
  • Breathable – good for warm conditions
  • Decent smearing and edging

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Not great for loose/wet terrain or alpine conditions
  • Arch support can be improved
  • Takes time to break in

We think the Arc’teryx Acrux SL (Super Light) manages well to strike that tricky balance between lightness and durability.  Perfect for taking on multi-pitches for years to come but this does come at a price. The Acrux is certainly the most unusual looking approach shoe of the bunch.  The sleek and seamless one piece upper acts like a close-fitting and breathable sock. This sock then lies within an injected midsole and Vibram megagrip outsole.

The shoe may feel uncomfortable and stiff out of the box as it does need some time to break in and mould to the shape of your feet.  The stiff midsole though provides a decent platform for edging and offers enough give for decent smearing too. For a shoe so light, it’s surprisingly durable and is one of the few here that is waterproof.  The Acrux features a heel brake where the tread pattern on the soles of the shoe form a Y pattern at the heel. This improves traction especially when going downhill.

The Acrux can stand up to a fairly long hike but we wouldn’t recommend going up K2 in them.  The insole just doesn’t have quite enough arch support or cushioning for that. You can easily improve the arch support though by replacing the insoles with something like Green Superfeet Insoles (you can find them here).

To sum up, the Arc’teryx Acrux is an impressive shoe for the right situations.  Their mix of lightness and durability make them the shoe of choice for many when travelling.  They’re also great for clipping into your harness on multi-pitches and provide reasonable smearing and edging performance when scrambling.  And let’s not forget their stylish look adds versatility taking you from the office straight into the mountains.

What should you know when choosing an approach shoe?

Climbing vs hiking-oriented shoes

Hiking-oriented

If you’re going to spend most of your time hiking rather than climbing, we’d recommend going for more hiking-oriented approach shoes.  These tend to have a roomier fit and a wider toe box so your toes can spread comfortably.

They also tend to have more cushioning and arch support for hiking longer distances. Larger lugs (indentations in the rubber sole) tend to provide better traction for when walking downhill or on wet terrain.  However, what you gain in hiking comfort you usually lose in climbing performance.

Climbing-oriented

Some may need shoes they can climb well in.  Like if they’re a mountain guide that needs to climb fifth class routes in their shoes.

Climbing-oriented shoes tend to be stiffer, lighter and fit more tightly.  They may sport dot-patterned lugs on their soles. This pattern ensures lots of surface area contact with the rock – creating more friction.  And obviously, when you’re climbing, friction is your best friend. The downside of this though is these shoes underperform on wet or loose terrain like snow.

Generally the more technical your hiking and climbing, the stiffer your shoe needs to be to really support your feet.  This stiffness though can result in tired feet though when hiking long distances.

Soles

There’s a lot of variety when it comes to the soles of approach shoes and they are designed with different goals in mind.  If you see a shoe with a smooth stretch of rubber underneath the toe, you can expect that shoe to have some decent edging ability.  If you see low profile lugs that are quite close together or dotted (left hand image below) then you can expect that shoe to be more climbing-oriented and to not have great traction downhill.  A shoe with a heel brake and deeper lugs (right hand image below) is a sign the shoe is designed to perform well on descents and on loose terrain.

Climbing-oriented approach with no heel brake
Climbing-oriented approach shoe with no heel brake
La Sportiva Outsole
Hiking-oriented approach shoe with heel brake

Toe Rand

The rand, the rubber that covers the toe of the shoe protects your toes when jamming your shoes in cracks.  It also adds durability, so if a shoe has a rand that wraps around the whole shoe then you can expect that shoe to be able to stand quite a bit of abuse.  But adding more rubber to the shoe will always result in more weight and less breathability.

Uppers

What material the uppers are made of will tell you a lot about the shoe’s breathability, durability and weight.  Leather tends to be the go-to material for most approach shoe uppers as they are the most durable and provide some water resistance. Like when adding more rubber, they make the shoe less breathable and heavier.  Synthetic mesh (usually made of nylon) and canvas on the other hand are designed to be both light and breathable. However they can take less of a beating, especially if you’re jamming your feet in cracks all day!  

Waterproof

Climbers tend to be like meerkats and watch for rain clouds rather than predators.  This means they don’t often go climbing when the forecast is rainy. But if you’re on a large multi-day trip or frequently in the mountains where sudden weather changes are frequent then you may need some level of waterproofing to your approach shoes.  Though be warned, adding Gore-Tex makes the shoe even less breathable and adds to the weight of the shoe. Our top all-round pick, the La Sportiva TX4 comes in both low and mid-cut versions as well as in Gore-Tex versions of both.

Should you get a mid-cut boot?

Two of our picks come in a mid-cut version where the uppers extend around the ankles. We’d recommend these if you require better ankle stability and protection from ankle rolls.  This is especially true if you’re carrying heavy packs. We recommend these for big wall climbers as well as they’ll be more comfortable when aid climbing. We would certainly not recommend them if you need shoes to clip into your harness all day as they’re quite bulky and heavy.

Caring for your Approach Shoes

It’s really easy to care for approach shoes.  The most important thing to remember is to clean them after a trip.  Leaving them caked in mud and sand time after time will wear your shoes down and shorten their lifespan.  Just use warm water and a brush.  

During a trip, it’s also useful to periodically clean debris from inside your shoes.  This just means taking your insoles out and shaking them and your boot out of any sand or bits of rock that can erode the insides.  

Treat leather shoes with a conditioner like this one.  Leather is prone to expanding and shrinking when wet which can lead to brittleness.  Shops like Nikwax and Gear Aid will have this available.

And finally you can use seam grip on the seams of your shoes like these.  This reinforces them when you’re stuffing the shoes in cracks.

That’s it for us, thanks for reading.

By ANUKA TEGGART

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