Gear Guide: Women's Climbing Shoes
Finding your next pair of climbing shoes can be a stressful process. Getting it wrong can be painful, for your feet and your wallet! And as a woman you might have a few additional questions. Like, do you even need to buy ‘women’s’ climbing shoes, how do they differ from men’s? Is it just the colour?
Here we’ve put together a guide for the best climbing shoes for women out there right now. We decided to group it by type of climbing because let’s face it, wearing aggressively downturned climbing shoes on a slab would be a bit of a disaster! And if you’re looking for a starter shoe, check out our article on the best beginner climbing shoes out there.
A very important note:
We all come in different shapes and sizes…and so do our feet. So before buying a pair we will always recommend you try a bunch on to not only get the right shoe but the right size for you. Sizing also really varies between climbing shoe brands but sometimes they will also vary between shoes from the same company. So get yourself into a physical shop and not only walk around in the shoes but also try stepping up onto a small foothold, luckily a lot of larger stores will have a demo wall specifically for this purpose.
This means you can spend all day in these shoes at the crag but also trust them on your steep technical project. Features include a P3 platform that ensures the shoes retains it’s downturned shape throughout its life and provides support across the foot when edging on tiny nubbins.
The Vibram rubber soles feel stiff and durable, great on a budget and when you need to rely on those dime edges. The padded tongue is both breathable and comfortable and acts like a sock-liner. The leather feels plush and stretches at least a half size as it conforms to the shape of the foot so don’t be afraid to fit them a little tighter but not too tight.
One of the reasons the Kataki was considered a great all-round shoe by us was the their ability to balance the stiffness needed when edging with the softness needed for smearing. The time to break-in for these shoes are short and the fact they have laces means you can customize the fit even better. The rubber is not only thick and sticky but there is lots of it so you wouldn’t expect to need to resole these for quite a while. A fantastic all-round high performance shoe, you couldn’t go wrong with the Katakis which is why they would be the number one shoe we’d recommend if you could only buy one shoe.
However, we feel the La Sportiva Kataki just has the edge when it comes to performance which is why the Anasazi would be our second go-to shoe if you could only buy one pair. Though the Anasazi has a fairly flat profile making them feel comfortable, they are still very much a high performance shoe. Five Ten use a plush faux suede material called Cowdura that starts to stretch and soften after a few sessions. This allows the shoe to conform to the foot beautifully so don’t be afraid to size them a little smaller than you otherwise might.
The C4 Stealth rubber used is renowned in the climbing world for being one of the stickiest but that doesn’t take away from the shoe’s sensitivity. Especially as the rubber starts to wear down, the sensitivity just improves over time. One thing that is noticeable is that the rubber on the rand, the top part of the toe is there but not plentiful like it would be in a shoe designed for steep toe-hook terrain. This means for those with sloppy toe-dragging footwork will wear through the rand rubber fairly quickly and this area can’t be resoled. Good reason to improve your footwork!
The Anasazis are decent when it comes to both edging and pockets, they are incredibly easy to whip on and off with their padded tongue and velcro closures. These shoes excel when it comes to technical vertical or off-vertical climbs, are comfortable enough to wear on multi-pitch and crack climbing. But if you’re after a pair that will aid in steep sport climbing or bouldering then the Butora Acro, La Sportiva Kataki or La Sportiva Genius would be a better fit.
It has a very different look to the other shoes on the market, some may say they’re a little ugly but that hasn’t prevented them developing a cult-like following. Featuring coverage and padding going all the way up the ankles, these babies will really protect you during those desperate foot jams. The XS Edge™ rubber is stiff and holds an edge really well which unsurprisingly is great for edging but not great for sensitivity and feeling little pockets on steep climbs.
The rubber is plentiful though which makes the shoes really durable. Not the very best for heel hooks or smearing but they certainly do the job. A little tip, the TC Pro is known is stretch about half a size so please keep that in mind when sizing. We’ve found the tongue underneath the laces can curl at the edges and be uncomfortable but you can solve that issue by taking the tongue out, putting your foot into the shoe then repositioning the tongue back in the middle of your foot. If you need a shoe comfortable and technical shoe for all your trad/multi-pitch climbing needs, look no further than the TC Pro.
Yes it does look a bit spider-man-y but these shoes actually do live up to their hype. What’s so great about them? Well La Sportiva have debuted something they’re calling no-edge rubber technology on these shoes. This rubber makes the shoes stick better to the rock or wall as it makes contact with greater surface area than hard edged shoes. It also means the shoe is incredibly sensitive, allowing you to feel all the little pockets and edges through the shoe thus allowing you to place more trust in those dastardly micro-footholds.
These shoes also conform beautifully to the foot and fits like a rubber slipper. The heel is more padded than the Solutions which means you can really crank on those heel hooks without feeling too much discomfort. Probably the best heel of any La Sportiva shoe, it fits snugly and suctions on, suitable for those with a narrow heel profile. Add to that the laces allow you to really dial in that fit to make sure there is zero dead space. With extra rubber on the toe, the Genius was clearly designed with punishing steep routes with tricky toe and heel hooks in mind!
A high performance shoe from a fairly new player though that hasn’t stopped Butora receiving rave reviews for their most aggressive pair of climbing shoes, the Acro. One of the great things about the Acro is the fact that it comes in both a wide (orange coloured) and narrow (blue coloured) version, hurrah!
The narrow fit is aimed more for women but of course any men with narrower feet should also give them a try. The exceptional build quality is evident straight out of the box and are really quite comfortable in the first wear despite their aggressive shape. The Acro’s 3D injected ABS midsole means the shoe will retain it’s downturned shape and provide support when trusting those miniscule edges. The rubber once worn a few times becomes softer and more sensitive, allowing you to feel tiny pockets through the shoe and actually fit inside them thanks to the downturned point at the ends.
The edging and smearing ability of the shoe was decent but not the best, for shoes that shine in this area we’d recommend the La Sportiva Genius or Kataki. In terms of sizing Butora recommend staying at your street size for sport climbing and going down half a size for bouldering though we found they ran rather small and wouldn’t recommend sizing down from your street shoes. Definitely one to try on in store first.
Watch out for sizing as these tend to run quite small, many had to go two sizes up from their street shoe so try these in the shop before you buy! Be aware that if you’re used to neutral/flat shoes like the Five Ten Anasazi then these shoes probably won’t feel very comfortable for you as any aggressive style will take some getting used to. But for a tight aggressive slipper these shoes will start to feel more comfortable as they wear in though don’t expect a lot of stretch like you would leather shoes. The Lotus is thick with Mad Rock’s sticky Science Friction rubber both on the soles and the rand so you can toe and heel hook any and everything.
This also makes the Lotus nice and durable though it does mean the shoe won’t feel so sensitive straight out of the box until the rubber wears in a bit. However once worn in the shoes were wonderfully sensitive, edged well, could fit into pockets comfortably. However, we found the midsole provided some support but the Butora Acros (another shoe great for steep climbs) had a more supportive-feeling midsole and allowed us to stand on tiny holds without tiring too much. The Mad Rock Lotus is nevertheless a fantastic technical shoe with a glove-like fit made for steep sport climbing and bouldering for an equally fantastic price.
What’s the difference between women’s and men’s shoes?
Of course there’s colour: women’s climbing shoes tend to look more ‘girly’; falling prey to the same problem across the entire outdoor sector when using colour to signify femininity. That’s right, I’m talking about the wanton use of colours like hot pink and purple (though I do like a bit of purple). But what about the actual design and construction of the shoes?
Well as a general rule, women’s climbing shoes tend to be a bit narrower overall but especially in the heel. So if you’re a person, female or male, who struggles with baggy heels then perhaps give some women’s shoes a try.
Women’s climbing shoes also tend to have higher arches with narrower and longer toe boxes. They usually also have a lower instep (the bit between the ball of the foot and the ankle).
Do women need to wear women’s shoes? Absolutely not! But if you have low volume feet and find yourself fitting length-wise but not width-wise into unisex or men’s shoes then you may benefit from a women’s pair.
When looking at climbing shoes in the market, you’ll see quite a few different shapes from flat to aggressively downturned. Most climbing shoes are designed with a particular style in mind e.g. slabs, steep overhangs etc. So let’s start to understand what kinds of shoes perform best on which kinds of terrain/type of climbing.
Should you be buying a flat shoe? These tend to be far more comfortable than their more aggressive counterparts but that doesn’t mean they can’t also perform just as well on hard climbs. Flat shoes are best for vertical or slabby walls and cracks. They also lend themselves really well to both sport and trad climbing, not to mention being a perfect first pair for beginners. Flat shoes are characterised by, dare I say it, a flat profile when viewed from the side and a nice stiff midsole. They allow your toes to lie flat in the toe box and are perfect for fitting in cracks.
Moderate shoes have a slight downturn to them and can be very versatile. They tend to have stickier and thinner rubber soles than neutral shoes and force your feet into a point. This places your feet into a more powerful position when climbing and is great for more technical climbing. However this does mean they usually aren’t as comfortable as neutral shoes and won’t perform as well on very steep sport climbing or bouldering than their more aggressive counterparts.
Finally, for those intimidating but funky aggressive shoes, these babies are mainly designed for routes that require copious amounts of heel and/or toe hooking. They usually fit tighter and are less comfortable than less aggressive shoes. We wouldn’t choose these for multi-pitch marathons or climbs involving a lot of smearing. These shoes tend to feature an asymmetrical toe box so a lot of power can be focused on the big toe so you can feel confident when placing and pinning your feet on tiny footholds. These shoes are specialised tools that are far too excessive for beginners and only need to be brought out for those high level steep overhanging routes or boulders.
Uppers refer to the materials the shoe is made of, that is, the bits that aren’t rubber. The key points to keep in mind when it comes to the leather vs synthetic debate is that leather tends to have more stretch and give over time and synthetics tend to leave the shoe with a stronger odour. Now a lot of shoes have a mix of the two to try and gain the benefits of each material. Personally, I don’t believe this is a major push or pull factor when it comes to choosing a climbing shoe but it is worth keeping in the back of your mind when it comes to sizing. If the uppers are leather, expect at least half a size of stretch while synthetics can expect much less stretch.
What’s the best shoe closure? It really comes down to personal preference. Laces tend to be more of a pain when it comes to taking the shoes on and off but are fantastic for when you really want to ensure a more customisable fit. This might be more important if you’re choosing shoes you want to project a climb in. Taking the time to tighten the laces of your shoes properly can really help their fit and ensure there aren’t any air pockets. On the other hand, if the shoes you’re after are more of a warm up or gym pair or if you’re a complete beginner then I’d choose velcro anyday for their sheer ease of use! A less popular closure is none at all, some climbing shoes come in slipper form. These can be great but be sure they fit you really well before opting for one as you won’t be able to customise the fit further to your feet and ill-fitting shoes will definitely hinder rather than help your climbing.
Each climbing shoe brand will have their own secret formulas for the proprietary rubbers on their shoes. The most important questions to ask when testing out the rubber on a shoe is:
- How much of it is there (mm)? We’ve included this information for each shoe and obviously the less rubber there is, the quicker it’ll have be resoled and that means shelling out more money. But if you have a great big thick slab of the stuff you’re trading in sensitivity for durability.
- How grippy is the rubber? If the rubber is super grippy like Mad Rock’s Science Friction rubber on the Lotus, you can safely assume it won’t last as long as a less grippy rubber. And yes herein lies the other tradeoff.
The rubber conundrum that is the balance between grippiness, sensitivity and durability. But at the end of the day, this isn’t something to lose sleep over. As you try different shoes you’ll get a better feel for the different rubbers and which are best suited for the styles of climbing you do.
Fit and Sizing
Sizing a shoe well is definitely more of an art than a science. There’s no formula to apply that will get you perfect results each time. With sizing it is really down to the unique shape of your foot, the unique shape of the shoes you’re trying and the how much discomfort you the climber is willing to put up with. Just stick to these basic guidelines and you shouldn’t go too wrong:
- Tight fit – your climbing shoes shouldn’t fit like trainers, they should morph to the shape of your feet with no dead space or air pockets.
- Toes – your toes shouldn’t be so cramped that you’ve cut off circulation but they should touch the end of the shoes and even be slightly curled. If you plan on using these shoes for multi-pitches then they should be comfortable enough for you to walk around in them for hours. If you plan on using the shoes for your super steep overhanging project then feel free to go tighter and take them off in between goes. For something like a gym pair, we recommend something on the more comfy side.
- Heel – the shoe should be cupping your heel snugly and not pull away when you step on a small foothold. Try on a lot of shoes and find a shoe that fits your heel well, it may take some time but it’ll be worth it to not have a baggy heel when you’re trying to nail that tricky heel hook.
By ANUKA TEGGART
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