How to choose climbing shoes – tips for new climbers

How to choose your first pair of climbing shoes - The Stone Mind

I went to REI to help a friend find some new climbing shoes the other day. His previous experience with sticky rubber footwear had been a Goldilocks story: pair number one was too big and kept him from trusting his feet on small holds. His second pair, relatively new, were too small and pained him to wear for any length of time. I wanted to help him find shoes that would be comfortable yet supportive and precise, so he could climb better and have more fun. (He ended up with La Sportiva Mythos and seems to be stoked.)

The goal of this post, with its five simple steps and warning signs for ill-fitting shoes, is likewise to save the new climber time and needless suffering by explaining how to choose climbing shoes that feel good and climb well. The basic principles of fit apply to all climbing shoes, but for the new climber, I recommend a flat, all-around design that can swing from the gym to the crag to all-day moderate multi-pitch routes. (As always, feel free to post up questions or add anything you think I’ve missed in the comments.)

1. Go to the shop

The most important thing about buying a pair of rock shoes is fit, so skip the deals on Amazon and head to your local brick and mortar store. Even if the shop doesn’t have particularly knowledgable staff, you’ll be able to try on several kinds and sizes of shoe there, which is a necessity.

Bonus tip: Make some calls to local gyms and outdoor stores to ask about their shoe selection. Some places have only one or two brands and a handful of models. The more options, the better.

2. Grab an assortment

Try to find at least three different shoe models within your price range, preferably from two or three manufacturers, as every make and model of shoe will fit slightly differently. If you just pick the one pair off the shelf that looks cool, even if you get the right size, you might well be missing out on a shoe that more naturally contours to the shape of your foot. For new climbers, shoes with a flat profile are probably best, as they allow the foot to remain in a relatively natural, and therefore comfortable, position; to find these place the shoe sole-down on a table or floor—if there’s more than a half-inch of space under that arch, it probably a more aggressively downturned shoe than a new climber needs.

Bonus tip: Opt for shoes with laces or velcro straps, as these will allow for more customization of fit than elasticized slipper style shoes.

3. Try ’em on

I’d recommend starting with your street shoe size when trying on shoes. From there, you’ll want to move up or down the sizing scale until you find the right fit. The ideal shoe is snuggly glove-like from heel to toe and everywhere in-between. Your toes should be pressed all the way up against the front of the shoe, as this is the point where you’ll make contact with the holds, and looseness here will lead to sloppy footwork. Despite what those sand-bagging old school climbers might tell you, however, acute pain does not have to be par for the course. Climbing shoes should to be tight enough to offer support, but sharp pain from overly tight shoes will only make you less likely to put weight on your feet, which is the most important part of climbing technique. Try on both the left and the right shoes, as most of us have one foot that’s larger than the other.

Bonus tip: Skip the socks when you try on climbing shoes, unless you plan to wear them while climbing. Few people do this, however, as it reduces your ability to feel and control what’s going on between your toes and the holds.

4. Climb around

Most outdoor shops and all climbing gyms offer some sort of surface on which to demo shoes. Without this, it’s hard to get a real sense of fit. If you experience any hotspots (see “Climbing shoe warning signs,” below) or areas of sharp pain, the shoes are too small or just don’t fit your foot.

Bonus tip: While giving a pair of climbing shoes a spin, stand via your toe tips on a small edge, preferably shallower than an inch, and try to let the edge support your full weight. The climbing shoes, by nature of their snug fit, should offer a feeling of support and not just fold back. If your feet slide significantly inside the shoes, or if your heel lifts up out of the heel cup, you probably need to size down.

5. Make your pick… or don’t

After trying on three or more different shoes, and moving up in down in size until you get the right fit, you’ll probably have noticed which pairs stand above the others in comfort and fit. If that’s the case, pick whichever one looks coolest or best fits your budget. If none of them feel very good, don’t be afraid to hold out until you can try on a few more options. A poor-fitting pair of climbing shoes can hold you back and make climbing less enjoyable.

Bonus tip: saving money is always nice, but don’t get a pair of shoes that doesn’t feel right just to save 30 bucks. If you plan to climb with any regularity, pony up for the right shoes; in the end you’ll get more use and enjoyment out of them.

Climbing shoe warning signs

When trying on your shoes, be sure to watch out for the following common bad-fit warning signs:

Hotspots – Rubbing or sharp pain in the ares of the toes or toe nails, heels, or sides of the foot can lead to raw skin and blisters and make climbing an unhappy exercise. Typically, these don’t go away as the shoe breaks in. A properly fit pair of shoes should have no hotspots. Most shoes today, particularly the ones made from synthetic materials, won’t stretch much over time, so try to get the right fit out of the box.

Baggy heel – While wearing the shoes, pinch the sides of your heels and push up on the bottom of the heel. There should be little no dead space. You shouldn’t be able to easily move your heel within the shoe’s heel cup. If the heel cup looks or feels baggy, you either need to size down or try a different model.

Shallow heel – Your heel might also slip out if the heel cup is too small. The cup should rise above the bony point on the back of your heel and fit closely all around without causing discomfort on the Achilles tendon.

Sloppy toe – You shouldn’t be able to easily move or wiggle your toes inside the shoe. When standing, expect to feel pressure (but not pain) on the tops of your toes where they are bent at the knuckle, due to the snugness in the toe box.

Smashed toe – If your toes are so knuckled under they scream in pain, your shoes are too damned tight. Loosen up.

Folds – If the leather or fabric sides and top of the shoe are folded and full of dead air space, the shoes are probably too loose to be supportive.

Arch cramps – If you pull the shoe on and feel the muscles on the underside of your foot immediately clench up, your shoes are too tight. This is more common in downturned shoes designed for steep climbing.

Forefoot squeeze – A shoe that’s too narrow can cause uncomfortable pressure in the front of the foot, squeezing the bones together and making it hard to wear the shoes for extended periods of time.

 

Packing Light

Travelers in an airport - The Stone Mind blog

The first cut of this post was written with pen and paper aboard a Boeing 767 slipping through the air high over the Atlantic. In a small bag under the seat in front of me lies one-third of my possessions for my journey. The other two-thirds hangs in the compartment over my head. Seattle, Texas, France—this is my third trip in just over a month. In the process of packing, unpacking, and repacking, I’ve gotten pretty good at stripping down my affairs to the essentials. It’s helped me to understand just how much—really, how little—stuff I need.

One pair of shoes, a spare pair of pants, a few shirts, a block of socks and underwear approximately the volume of a loaf of bread. A toothbrush and toothpaste. Wallet. A little foil packet containing Advil. Laptop. Sunglasses. Assorted charging cables and converters. An iPhone (music storage device, library, camera, back-up computer, phone, and more, all in one!). A stupidly expensive pair of noise-cancelling headphones, which, while indulgent, help make 10 hours on a plane more peaceful.

The more I travel, the more I’ve grown to regard many of my possessions at home as superfluous. Every time I buy something, I feel compelled to chuck, sell, or donate something in exchange—to balance out the ledger, as it were. In contradiction to the American Dream, my goal has become to have less over time. I want the things I do have to be valuable not in the monetary sense, but in the sense that they enrich my life rather than clutter it. I want things that allow me to accomplish more rather than stand as symbols of accomplishment.

Living out of a suitcase or, as I used to from time to time, a car, can teach us the value of elimination. Extra weight is anathema to travel—it slows us down, bends our backs, splinters our attention as we endeavor to track the tangled mess of items both useful and useless. As my grandpa used to put it, “The things you own end up owning you.” Or, as Yvon Chouinard is said to have said, “The more you know, the less you need.”

Of course, traveling light is a practical consideration, and as you might have noticed, this blog rarely deals solely in practicalities. Instead, I’d ask you to consider how the constant reduction of excess in the physical world can be translated into our inner lives. How can we de-clutter our minds to make room for the most important things. Can we organize our thoughts the way we might organize a gear closet, to make the contents therein more useable? And what would happen if we were to continually let go of distraction after distraction? Perhaps eventually we’d be left with nothing but a still mind, the way it’s said the Buddha was.

Thoughts of enlightenment (not just a bringing of light, but a lightening of our burden) notwithstanding, I believe a constant stripping away can help us to see more clearly how sufficient each moment really is; how sufficient are we for whatever situations we encounter on this relatively short trip called life.

The Climbing Dojo

A kendo demonstration at The Comp of the Rising Sun, circa 2007. The Spot Gym, Boulder, Colorado.
A kendo demonstration at The Comp of the Rising Sun, circa 2007. The Spot Bouldering Gym, Boulder, Colorado.

In Japanese martial arts, the dojo is a place for formal training. The “do” in dojo means “way” or “path,” and the full phrase dojo means “place of the way.” Similarly in Chinese, tao or dao—as in Tao Te Ching—carries a similar meaning. In Japanese Buddhism, dojo is also used to refer to a hall for Zen meditation. In essence, a dojo is a place where one seeks to learn not just for practical purposes, but for something deeper.

This is how I have come to see the climbing gym. Humble, dusty spaces they may be, often times housed in roughly converted warehouses, a climbing gym can be a dojo, granted you bring with you the proper mindset.

A first step to this recognition of the gym as more than a gym is to remember it is not a place to prove things to others, or to conquer anything. It is “a place where we discipline ourselves and improve ourselves to be a better person,” according to Kendo instructor Masahiro Imafuji. When you think of it this way, it is always a privilege to spend time and a dojo. Every success in a dojo is just a fleeting step on the endless journey; every failure is a gift, at least as valuable as the successes.

It is traditional to bow on entering and leaving a dojo, but it’s important to remember that bowing in this way doesn’t mean lowering yourself in a worshipping sense. Instead, the bow is meant as a show of respect. That respect is not only for your teacher, if you have one, and for your fellow climbers, but also for oneself and for the lessons that you have the honor of learning. (When you bow to an image of Buddha, you do not bow to the physical image or to a man from the distant past, but to the Buddha nature in yourself.)

There are myriad lessons to be had in a simple climbing gym. And under the definition of dojo above, I’d include every crag or mountain, too. In a sense, all the blog posts I’ve written about climbing have been encapsulations of lessons learned in a dojo of sorts. Lessons about fear and ego, about flow and balance, about strategy and respect—climbing can teach us all these things and also things beyond expression.

But climbing is not the only means to such lessons. Martial arts, painting, skiing, woodworking… many—I might even say any—activities can, if practiced in a mindful and disciplined manner, help us to understand and find “the way.”

Simply living life can be enough to find this way, but it can often be more difficult, as life can seem at once too complex and too mundane to teach us clear lessons. Instead, we take one interesting activity, climbing for example, and elevate it to the level of ritual. We find our dojos—the rocks and gyms and mountains—and we train and learn.

This is the power of the dojo. There, we learn not just about climbing but about ourselves. We learn about the things climbing allows us to be, not just to do.

Climbing’s Ultimate Question

 

A climber on the boulder problem Question Mark, in Coopers Rock State Park, West Virginia
A climber on the boulder problem Question Mark, in Coopers Rock State Park, West Virginia

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings asks the supercomputer Deep Thought for the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything,” the answer they get, after 7.5 million years of calculation, is 42.

Similarly, climbing’s Ultimate Question, “Why do you climb?” has become an extremely popular one to answer in blogs, videos, and social media posts. Sponsored climbers answer the question in nearly every interview they give. We hope for a response that perfectly elucidates the hard gem-like flame at the center of a driving, lifelong passion. Instead, we get answers like, “Because it’s fun,” or “Because I love being in nature,” or even “Because I like to push my limits.”

Or perhaps we get a simple video showing people climbing. Such videos can be very pretty, but do they really answer anything? Even the most articulate and romantic pieces of prose tend to fall short. I think this is because “Why do you climb?” is the wrong question.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the pan-dimensional beings from The Hitchhiker’s Guide were disappointed by the answer 42, even though Deep Thought assured them it was correct. When pressed, the computer informed the beings that an even more powerful computer was necessary to calculate what they were really looking for: The Ultimate Question. Once that was revealed, everything would fall into place.

Our poor pan-galactic beings were so obsessed with questions and answers, they were blinded to the simple, tantalizing truth of the matter: they were the question, and Life, The Universe, and Everything was the answer. The map is exactly the size and shape of the territory, as it were. Words can do little to distill or condense existence; only intimate, only give fleeting impressions of infinite things.

So then, the real answer to “Why do you climb?” is irreducibly contained within your life as a climber. And to know climbing’s Ultimate Question is simply to climb wholeheartedly; to be a being that climbs. It’s a sort of Zen koan, I suppose: by the time you know what question to ask, the answer will have long since ceased to have mattered.