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.

 

Couch Crushers to Widgeteers: 10 Climbing Personality Types Identified

Society has long applied the blanket label “climber” to a motley assortment of vertically inclined souls. Indeed, “climbers” have been so often lumped together, despite deep and obvious differences, that it’s easy to forget just how many types and subtypes there really are.

There are the obvious categories, of course — alpinists, sport climbers, trad daddies, blocanistas, and so forth. But if you climb long enough, you will start to notice another layer of divisions beneath these divisions — personality profiles that cut across climbing-style lines.

Here, an abridged and alphabetical list of ten common climber personality profiles. Pay attention, as you will encounter these personalities at the crag or the gym, at the coffee shop and the campground. They will mystify and amuse you. You might even recognize yourself in one or a couple of these groupings. In the end, they are loose categories certainly in need of refinement. If you have noticed some personality types not listed here, please help make this a living document and add them in the comments.

Couch crusher
The Couch Crusher can hardly be bothered to get up… unless it’s time to take a dump on your project.

Couch Crushers (aka Naturals) — This rare breed’s strength and skill are unaffected by a lack of practice, fitness, or sound diet. No one is more envied than the Couch Crusher, who can often send the Self-Worther’s project after a six-month break from climbing during which the Self-Worther cross-trained, lived off of kale and unsweetened yogurt, and took expensive dietary supplements of dubious origin. Perhaps because it comes all too easily for the Couch Crusher, this type is easily distracted from climbing by career developments, romantic relationships, drugs, or even other sports.

Elites — Elites focus their efforts on the hardest climbs and rarely deign to interact with other types at the crag or gym. Though they pretend otherwise, Elite’s believe in the inherent value of their status and view the climbing world as a meritocracy centered around finger strength. They band together and share stories of hard climbs, secret areas, and the injuries that keep them from reaching their full potential. If complemented on their performance on a difficult climb by a non-Elite, an Elite will downplay their own achievement in a show of false modesty while secretly feeling a sense of validation, powerful fuel for the Elite climber’s ego fire.

High Rollers — High Rollers are middle-of-the-road climbers with high-end incomes. Their interest in climbing is genuine, but they often seek shortcuts to improvement, such as paying exorbitant fees to Elites for private climbing lessons. Because their careers, relationships, and other interests keep their calendars well inked, they rarely stick to a climbing schedule long enough to truly excel. They are often sought after as investors for start-up rock gyms, climbing apparel companies, or climbing magazines. They can be found in luxurious accommodations near popular climbing areas with Elite climbers as their guests. One interesting subset of the High Roller group is the Industry Maven — the owner or head of a successful climbing company — who is, perhaps, the highest ranking character in the perceived hierarchy.

IKEs — An acronym for “I Know Everything”, IKEs can recite move-by-move Beta for every route you’ve ever climbed, thought about climbing, or read about in a magazine. They are supremely self-confident in their grasp of training techniques, performance diets, as well as climbing history and gossip. Strangely, IKEs themselves are rarely accomplished climbers and tend to spend much of their crag time hanging out on the ground and proffering unsolicited factoids to anyone within earshot.

Original Climbing Gangsta
You can’t pull one over on the Original Climbing Gangsta! Chalk hadn’t been invented when he started climbing. They used dirt, and they liked it that way.

Original Climbing Gangstas (OCGs) — OCGs are climbers who take great pride in their long climbing careers, the inordinate length of time they’ve been able to maintain dirtbag status, and their (often apocryphal) connections to well-known climbers of bygone eras. They can be heard declaring that “new” routes or problems in their local areas were actually done years ago, without the aid of chalk, sticky rubber, or boar’s hair brushes. Many OCGs, despite their relatively advanced age, enjoy pontificating on Internet forums on topics such as “The Decline Of Climbing’s Moral Fibre In The Age Of Gyms,” “The Dangers Of Locking Assisted Belay Devices And Other Spawns Of Laziness,” and “Barbarians At The Gate: Roustabout Youths Are Ruining My Crag.” They also enjoy posting grainy, scanned black-and-white photos of themselves in proximity to real-deal OG climbers, i.e., Fred Beckey, Henry Barber, Jim Bridwell, etc.

Purists — With upturned nose, Purists look down on some types of climbing (typically sport climbing, gym climbing, and bouldering), while holding up certain other types as high expressions of the sport (light-and-fast alpinism, bold traditional climbing, ground-up new-routing with a hand drill, rack of nuts, and hobnailed boots). Purists, however, come in many forms. Less common variants include sport climbing Purists, who eschew the use of stick clips or knee pads, and even chop bolts or remove “permadraws” when they deem them unnecessary. Bouldering purists believe that short, un-roped, exceedingly difficult climbs are the most direct means to experience climbing. Habitual free-soloists are, de facto, Purists, and come in three forms: 1) Zen-like in their acceptance of death, 2) compulsively drawn to the brink of self-annihilation, or 3) willfully ignorant of the deadly stakes of their activity.

Self-Worthers — These climbers base their personal worth on their prowess on the rocks or in the mountains. The result: severe frustration when faced with a climb that “isn’t their style,” competitiveness when encountering a climber of similar skill level, dismissiveness upon hearing of other strong climbers, and depression when injured or otherwise unable to climb. Self-Worthers, basically climbing addicts, are unable to experience more than fleeting moments of joy when climbing. It has been observed that Self-Worthers are incapable of holding anything more than a passing conversation without identifying, by number grade, how hard they have climbed. When under-performing in public, the Self-Worther will compulsively generate excuses, such as, “This is my fifth day on,” “I’m still recovering from a blown tendon,” or “I ate a cookie yesterday and I feel fat.” On bad days, they will share these excuses before climbing. These “prescuses” help relieve the pressure they feel at climbing in front of others. Another close relative of the Self-Worther is the climbing addict, who may or may not base their happiness on climbing, but nonetheless cannot moderate the impulse to climb. The end result is typically injury, career suicide, and relationship meltdown.

Soul Climbers (aka Unicorns) — Like the hover board from Back To The Future, everyone wants to believe that Soul Climbers are real. Alas, little hard evidence exists to support this belief. Several reported sightings have later been revealed to be climbing addicts with outwardly mellow demeanors and dreadlocks.

The Trainer in action
The Trainer, seen here getting “ripped” for “climbing”.

Trainers — These muscle-bound souls can be seen obsessively pushing their physical limits at the gym or the crag, climbing with weight vests, pumping iron, campusing, and strapping in to semi-legal electrical muscle stimulation devices imported through Eastern Europe’s grey market. They drink protein shakes and pop glucosamine chondroitin, vita-packs, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories to keep their bodies going past the point of exhaustion. Trainers ostensibly train in order to climb harder, but can lose sight of climbing and become obsessed with the cleansing act of self-mortification through extreme physical activity. This subtype is common amongst mountaineers and alpinists, as masochistic tendencies is integral to these types of climbing.

Widgeteers — Obsessed with the gear of climbing as much, or more, than with climbing itself, the Widgeteer will routinely divert the majority of his or her paycheck to the purchase of draws, cams, stickclips, Big Bros, prismatic belay glasses, Ball Nuts, grip strengthening devices, crampons, rope bags, and so on. Ironically, though Widgeteers are well-versed in the intricacies of load distribution, impact force, and lobe geometry, they rarely have as keen a grasp of the physiological techniques of climbing itself.