How to choose climbing shoes?
I asked my boyfriend how he decided what type of climbing shoes to buy me, and how he knew I was ready for my first pair of technical climbing shoes. I’ll admit it helps that my boyfriend is Paolo Fubini, Head Technical Advisor at Arrampica, but taking his advice I have included hints and tips for climbers looking to upgrade from beginners’ shoes, or move on from hiring them at the climbing wall.
Good shoes to get me going.
When I met Paolo, I had done some climbing 15 to 20 years ago but nothing recently. He leant me an old pair of Five Ten Newtons – dark grey and green with the appearance of a shoe that’s had a lot of use.
According to Paolo they were ‘a really good shoe to get me going’ and there was no point in me having a new pair of shoes as I would just wreck them. They did do the job, but on a trip to Westway Climbing in London they seemed very drab compared to other people’s brightly coloured footwear.
The test venue
Paolo loves outdoor climbing venues that have a historical significance attached to them, particularly the Italian Dolomites or Malta. A couple of years ago he picked Motorcycle Slabs in Malta to take me climbing. I was fascinated by the name Motorcycle Slabs and the story of commandos riding motorbikes up the slabs when the Duke of Edinburgh visited back in the 1950s.
It turns out I really like slab climbing but I remember my feet being in absolute agony in the old 510 Newtons. I was stopping in tears on the way up, with Paolo thinking I was frozen to the spot because of the exposure on the sea cliffs. Paolo says “this is a great place for beginners to second on slabs and develop good footwork and balance with rock over moves. Quite simply if you’re not good on your feet you won’t get up.”
It turns out he had taken me there on purpose to develop my footwork in readiness for buying me my first pair of technical shoes. I asked Paolo why feet hurt so much in those shoes? He said those shoes fitted me like a tight trainer, I had started to use them well so the shoe was rotating out of position. I was starting to want to use good technique but the shoes were fighting against me and not giving me any edging to climb at that venue.
My first pair of technical shoes
I was very excited and it gave me a new level of care with my footwork, particularly climbing indoors, as Paolo’s previous words rang in my head ‘there’s no point in buying some climbing shoes yet you’ll just ruin them’. I found my new shoes quite roomy when I first tried them on and I wondered if I might be better with a smaller size.
I did try the smaller size at the shop at Kendal Wall where Paolo had bought them, but I took his advice to go for comfort, as these were to be my only shoes for outdoor and indoor climbing and I needed to be able to spend a whole day wearing them on multi pitch climbs.
I’ve had them for over two years now, I’ve used them for visits to indoor climbing walls as well as whole days spent multi pitch climbing. I asked Paolo, why now, and he said thanks to Motorcycle Slabs he’d seen that I was ready for my first technical climbing shoes and he’d seen what kind of climber I was. My climbing could now be helped by wearing a technical pair of shoes.
Reasons behind the choice
- Shape of the shoe – something that was not going to aggressively position the foot within the shoe, keeping the foot sitting fairly flat but good for all round edging and smearing. The La Sportiva shoes don’t stretch very much.
- Technical style – to match the shape of my foot he chose a fairly aggressively angled outside toe edge and a more delicately angled inside toe edge. He said I don’t need an aggressive inner edge for the grades I’m climbing. The shoe is capable of doing more than I can; if I was climbing 7s and 8s in sports climbing and E extreme outdoors it would be time to consider replacing my shoes. Shoes can be bought to help you but not worth it until you are able to climb that grade and you know how to use your shoes.
- Comfort – The shoes are comfortable and as technical as I need. The heel wasn’t going to pull too hard on the achilles, and it wasn’t going to push the toes hard into the front of the shoes. When the toes are pushed forward in the shoe it doesn’t change the shape of your toes or turn your toes over each other causing discomfort.
- Type of climbing – I need one pair of shoes for indoors and for outdoor rock. Outside I am likely to keep my shoes on all the time, even during long multi-pitch climbs. Paolo said ‘The angles of the technical aspects of the shoes make edging and smearing easier now I know how to use the shoe for slab climbing. I don’t need really technical shoes so these shoes are technical enough help me with the type of climbing I do.’
Typing my shoes in to Google, I find they are listed as:
- A shoe that’s easy to wear all day for climbing and bouldering, indoors and outdoors. Excellent price/quality but still enough high-end features (rigid forefoot for toeing in and edging, asymmetric toe for precision, and sticky Vibram XS Edge rubber) for performance on hard routes and durability.
- The heel strap tension has been minimised the shoe won’t dig into your ankle even after several hours of wear. The suede uppers are extremely breathable thanks to the central perforated panel, with a lace closure for accurate fitting they are still easy to put on and off.
- One thing I did notice is that in some places they are listed as men’s shoes, but apparently, women’s shoes primarily exist as women’s feet tend to be narrower, so as I have wide feet they are probably not for me.
General advice on choosing climbing shoes
The shape of a shoe will determine how comfortable it feels and how it performs. If you’re going to be wearing your shoes for long periods match them to the shape of your foot and don’t buy them too tight. Only buy an extremely technical shoe and compromise on comfort if the level of your climbing means you know how to use the technical aspects and you will really benefit from them.
- A flat shoe with a more symmetrical profile is the most comfortable if you’re climbing multi-pitch routes or climbing lots of cracks.
- Curved shoes have a more pronounced arc and some asymmetry to their shape. They allow precision when you place your foot by directing your weight on to the toes and to the edges of the shoe. This shaping lets you balance on thin holds, using just your toes or the outside or inside edge of your foot.
- Shoes with a distinct asymmetric hooked shape and a visibly down-turned toe, use the tension the shape creates to actively push your toes forward and centre your weight over your big toe. This allows you to push down forcefully with your toes and extend your body powerfully on steep or overhanging sections of a climb.
Main image: Cindy Chen / Unsplash.com (https://unsplash.com/photos/-7nnXc4jBWU)