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How to Choose Rock Climbing Shoes

Sara Lingafelter
Sara Lingafelter
4 min read

My sister and I visited the mothership — aka, REI — the other day to get her her first pair of climbing shoes and her first harness. We were efficient and no-nonsense… she and I measured her feet, talked quickly about the options, and then asked the nice lady in the green vest for Megan’s size in four or five different shoes.

I gave Megan my advice on how to choose rock climbing shoes based on what I’ve learned about my own feet in the last few years of climbing. I have very bendy joints, so even though my feet have gotten stronger, I still prefer a firmer midsole and a flat last. I like my shoes to fit snug but not tight; a slight bend in my toes is perfect, but I don’t wear climbing shoes that hurt. I do generally fit shoes snug enough that I pop them off between climbs but comfy enough that I can do multipitch or long routes without constantly thinking about my feet. Sizing your shoes too small can lead to horrible foot problems… look up “neuroma” if you need inspiration to fit our shoes properly. If you’re primarily climbing cracks, you may want a slightly larger, more rounded shoe that allows your toes to lay flat; but I tend toward all-around shoes that I can do anything (cracks, sport, bouldering) in.

Back to REI… Megan proceeded to strip her feet down to her tights (brilliant girl – I never thought to wear tights for trying on climbing shoes, but will remember that in the future) and tried on shoes. She narrowed it down to two choices pretty quickly… the Scarpa Techno Lady Rock Shoe and the Five Ten Gambit Rock Shoe, Womens. She got on the test wall with both, and could have gone with either for her first pair of shoes, but the Gambits were edged out by a slightly better fit with the Technos (and, frankly, I think she thought the Technos were cuter, which is her prerogative as a ClimberGirl). She made a fantastic choice, as far as I’m concerned, and I’m jealous of her new kicks.

While she was trying on shoes, a guy in a cotton t-shirt and jeans with regular tennies — not a stitch of technical fabric anywhere on him, which must signal “newbie” to the nice folks in green vests — wandered over to the shoe section. The fairly inattentive green-vest-lady popped over to ask him if he needed anything, and he asked for advice on choosing his first pair of climbing shoes. She quickly pointed him toward the Five Ten Coyotes and Mad Rock Phoenix. He glanced at the shoes for a second then wandered away. Had he stuck around, I wouldn’t have been able to avoid helping him shop — I’m one of those.

Now, Five Ten makes fantastic shoes. And, Mad Rock is the manufacturer of my all time favorite all-around climbing shoes. But, there is only one circumstance where I would recommend the Coyote or the Phoenix as a “beginner climbing shoe” and that’s when those happen to be the best possible fit for an individual climber. My first pair of climbing shoes were the Phoenix ladies version, since that’s what the green-vest steered me to when I first started climbing. I tried one size, which I couldn’t even get my foot into; the next size up I could get my feet into so figured they were a fit. Turns out, they weren’t — whether it’s the shape of the shoe, or the cut, the Phoenix I wound up with were woefully large. I climbed in them for a few short months, developed a bad case of foot pain from how much my feet moved around in them while climbing, and then started shopping for my second pair of shoes.

What did I learn? That if a certain size is too small, and the next size up is too big, then I’m trying on the wrong shoe.

If you’re shopping for your first pair of climbing shoes, shop for a good all-around shoe but emphasize finding a shoe that fits as well as possible. Look for phrases like “all around” in reviews, and try to avoid a shoe that’s too cambered or too soft. While you’re starting out, your feet have a lot of strengthening to do, and a relatively firm shoe helps your feet ease into the unusual new demands you’re placing on them. Synthetic uppers will mold to your feet a bit but will not stretch; leather uppers will stretch up to a half size if they are lined and up to a full size if unlined, so keep that in mind when deciding on fit. Climb around on the test wall if you can; check on return policies and see if you can return or exchange shoes if you aren’t happy with the fit after a real climb. When you finally decide on a pair that you like, examine them closely; I once bought a pair of shoes and only after getting them home noticed that one was nearly 1/2 size larger than the other (despite being marked the same size)… unfortunately, the larger shoe was for my smaller foot so back they went.

Perhaps REI makes a buck on beginners who trash their first pair of shoes in a few months and then come back for the better-faster-fancier second pair… and, I suppose, they’re very busy most of the time, so it’s easier to just tell someone the conventional wisdom on what the beginner shoes are on a given rack than to go into the finer points of foot shape, size preference, climbing style and experience level. Point well taken that newer climbers are hard on shoes, so there may be little harm in recommending a durable shoe. But, climbing shoes are expensive, and newbies place their trust in salespeople, for better or worse. Taking a couple of extra minutes to chat with a shopper and help them make a better choice should earn you a point on your climbing karma tally.

So, newer climbers… look for a shoe that fits your feet.

Less-new climbers… what’s your shoe advice for newbies? Share your thoughts in a comment!

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Sara Lingafelter

Sara (Grace) Lingafelter takes steps forward and backward toward a right-sized life on a daily basis.