Climbing shoes have the distinction of being the only piece of gear that will actually help you climb better. For any serious climber, choosing shoes will be the most important decision of your life. No pressure!
The Three Most Important Features: Fit, Fit, Fit!
Out of the box, shoes have the shape of the “last” or form that they were made on but will soften, depending on materials and construction) and conform to your foot’s shape. The fit should be snug but not painful. Some models of bouldering and sport climbing shoes and slippers are designed for your toes to be bent over (like your fingers curled around a hold) to strengthen your toes, stiffen the shoe and grab the rock. Crack shoes should be sized for a relaxed fit (with toes lying flat) to wiggle into thin-to-fist cracks and as such will perform better. Likely, any climbing shoe will seem tighter than any other shoes you have worn—a thing you’ll appreciate most when you are trying to stay balanced on a small or sloping hold. The optimum fit is best imagined: Pretend that your foot was made of sand … and that you could pour it into your climbing shoes, filling the shape completely. Voila! No air pockets, dead spaces or points of excessive pressure, but rather an even, efficient connection between you, the shoe and, of course, the rock.
If you haven’t already laced up—take a moment and try on the shoes. Spend time with them. Hang out. Make sure you are happy with the fit. You should be able to wear them for a couple of hours without undue pain or distraction. Know it will take a couple of weeks of climbing for your new shoes to fully conform to your foot. Some shoes don’t stretch at all and some unlined split leather shoes may stretch three whole sizes! Don’t get confused by the numbers (EU, UK or US), which are different from brand to brand and model to model—your sales guide will have interpreted for you. What you want at this stage is confirmation that your foot fits the shoe and can be held securely by the closure system (laces, elcro or elastic). Wear them indoors to get used to them. If you decide they don’t fit, most shops will exchange them provided you haven’t used them for climbing and they are clean as new.
First Pair, Get ‘Em Right!
In addition to being the correct length, you want a shoe that has a similar shape to your foot. For top performance a shoe should fit close, without “dead space.” If this is your first pair of climbing shoes, you are going to want them to be comfortable. Beginning climbers don’t need the distraction of pinched toes or painful feet while trying to figure out the moves or grappling with gear. Sometimes, climbers prefer wearing a light sock for comfort, but this can compromise performance to a degree as it adds two surfaces between your foot and the shoe. There is a myth about stretching shoes to fit: Some unlined slippers and shoes will do stretch on their own, but most shoes are lined to prevent stretch (or made from synthetic leather that doesn’t stretch). Climbing is all that’s needed to break in your shoes. Generally you can expect the length to remain unchanged, the width to soften and the shoe to take on the shape if your foot after several wearings. If in doubt, go up 1/2 size— this won’t compromise your initial climbing and will greatly contribute to your focus on other matters, and having fun.
Second Pair… Hang Tight!
For experienced climbers wanting more performance a snug fit is essential. Likely your second pair of rock shoes will be fitted snugger than the first. If you are climbing micro edges or powering plastic you probably can’t get your shoes or slippers too tight. Beware though, cramming your feet into shoes too small, then cranking on sub-atomic size holds will cause shoes or slippers to break down faster and not last as long, not to mention damage to toenails and the possibly developing hammer toe or bone spurs. Better to discuss your performance priorities and fit requirements with an expert, while considering a couple of models, then together decide what’s best for you. Most seasoned climbers will own several pairs of shoes: a comfortable lace high-top for long crack routes, snug fitting moderately stiff low tops for face climbing and skin-tight slippers or strapped shoes for bouldering, gym work outs and pocket routes. Regardless of style or closure, shoe shape is important for advanced climbers—get a pair that matches the shape of your foot.
Care and Feeding of Rock Shoes
Congratulations, if you made it this far, you probably own a pair of comfortable cruiser shoes and one slightly more aggressive. With this history a knowledgeable and experienced sales person can help you perfect your next purchase – pursuant to your performance priorities. Remember, if you take care of your shoes they will provide good performance and value. How long they last is a function of how much you climb, your technique and the care you give them. Here are some tips to help you get the most from your new shoes:
1. Always air out your shoes after a day’s climbing—don’t leave them crammed in your pack.
2. Store shoes out of direct sunlight and extreme heat (never in the back window or trunk of your car). Heat is what cobblers use to remove the soles from shoes!
3. If shoes become soiled or muddy, scrub them inside and out with mild soap and water, then air dry them in the shade (do not use chemicals which can destroy rubber, leather and glue).
4. Brush the sole clean (or spit and rub) before charging the moves on the next problem or route. This will give you maximum sticktion. Since you get your shoes dirty stepping off the ground, use a tarp, pad or square of carpet as your launching pad, keeping your shoes out of the dirt.
5. Keep shoes out of the dirt. Step off of a square of carpet, pad or pack to get on the rock.
6. When planning for a resole, don’t let the soles or rands wear through before sending them in. Shoes with holes in them makes the resoling or re-randing more difficult, more costly and in the case of slippers, sometimes not practical. Be sure to order another pair well in advance so that you can still climb while your old favorites are at the resolers for one to three weeks.
—By Larry “Toolman” Arthur