Climbing shoes are one of the first pieces of equipment you’ll buy, but you don’t need them for your very first climb. If you’re just starting out and want to give climbing a try before investing in your own equipment, you don’t have to go shopping yet.
You can go climbing in a light pair of running shoes, or most indoor climbing gyms will rent you a pair. Consider renting a pair of climbing shoes before buying your own pair to get a feel for them. It will also give you a better sense of what features you may need.
There are different types of climbing shoes, made for different walls, levels, and needs. If you’re just starting out or you need something that will work with different types of climbs, the most versatile shoes are flatter and looser than other climbing shoes. Some retailers may label them as flat-lasted (the last is a name for the sole) or all-day comfort.
These have a thick, supportive sole and a cushioned heel, making them comfortable even without being broken in. They work well on beginner climbing routes or with more relaxed climbs. These should suit you well for most walls in a gym.
Entry-level shoes will work for your needs as you start out, but you can eventually work up to using specialized performance shoes that will help with specific types of climbs. For very steep climbs, sport climbs, and those rated 5.10 and above, look for a shoe with a downturned or pointed toe (also called cambered last.)
These shoes keep your foot arched so that you can transfer more power through your toes as you push off of holds. These pointed shoes need to be tight to keep your foot in the arched position, so they’re not very comfortable for all-day wear and likely won’t be your only pair of climbing shoes.
If you’re doing more crack climbing, you’ll actually want a flatter toe on the shoe so that you can fit your toes into cracks. Talk to other climbers or staff at a rock climbing gym before moving on to specialized or performance shoes because trying to climb in them before you’re ready might actually hurt your performance.
Now that you’ve narrowed down the choices, it’s time to figure out your size. There is really no substitute for trying the different pairs and sizes on. Try them in the afternoon after you’ve been on your feet for a while. Feet swell throughout the day, and shoes that fit in the morning (when your feet are at their smallest) may not be comfortable by the afternoon.
If you’re looking at leather shoes, keep in mind that unlined leather shoes can stretch up to half a size once they’re broken in. Synthetic shoes will not stretch much. If you compare shoes from two different manufacturers that are labeled as the same size, they will likely be slightly different, making it difficult to choose a size online without trying them first.
If you must buy online, check the retailer’s return policy and purchase a few sizes so that you can try them on and return the ones that don’t fit.
So congratulations on taking the next step in your climbing! Now, with these tips, your next step should be comfortable for your feet in your new climbing shoes.