When scrambling or technical climbing the sticky rubber and supportive midsoles of an approach shoe really kick in. In this post we dive into the details of how to find an approach shoe that fits, no matter your foot size or shape.

And, before we dive in, just want to note that it’s debatable if anybody needs approach shoes, often your typical running shoes like Altra’s or HOKA’s will do you just fine and they can even be more comfortable than approach shoes on an approach. The bottom line is that if you’re looking for sticky rubber for slabby approaches or you want your hiking shoe to perform a bit more technically in the talus, then finding an approach shoe that fits well should be on your to-do list.

Ok, now on to the details of getting a shoe that fits.

Approach Shoes at Work
The protective toe randing, sticky rubber, and low lacing of an approach shoe make them a great choice for technical hikes or climbing in easier terrain where you might not want to stop and swap into climbing shoes.

Approach Shoe Sizing

A good place to start when it comes to fitting approach shoes is with your typical street shoe size. Just like climbing shoes (or any shoes, really) approach shoes can vary greatly from brand to brand, and even model to model within a single brand, so it’s good to only use this as a place to start. It is not uncommon that your size in one brand can be 1 or 2 sizes off of what you normally wear.

Previously, we’ve gathered the data on available shoe sizes (and wrote a whole post about the biggest and smallest brands) to show just how varied things can get. Here’s a graph from that post showing how the whole spread looks in terms of size options:

This graph shows the number of models of approach shoes that come in each size.

Note: We’re using European (EU) sizing because it encompasses the whole range of sizes without having to translate between US men and US women sizing.

Shoe size generally affects the overall length of the shoe, and a well-sized shoe should fit comfortably from the toe to the heel. A shoe that is shorter will scrunch the toes and be easier to climb technical terrain, but will be very uncomfortable to hike in, especially in downhill sections.

It’s generally a matter of preference whether or not to leave some space in the toe for extra comfort and swelling. If you want to be able to scramble and climb a lot in 4th and easy 5th class terrain, a snug fit makes a lot of sense. Conversely, a fit with more toe room will be more comfortable on long hikes with heavy packs, but might not feel as technical or secure when it comes to climbing.

Tip: Take out the liner of the shoe to check the fit against your foot. Here’s what a snug or loose fitting could look like:

One thing that is helpful when finding your sizing is looking for shoes that come is as many sizes as possible. A benefit of the European brands is that they tend to use EU sizing, with many of them offering half sizes to make it easier to get the exact fit you’re looking for. For example, the SCARPA Mescalito covers a range of 7 full sizes and an additional 7 half sizes in both their men’s and women’s models, a total of 28 options.

Once you choose a size to try on, its important that you lace it up properly and stand around in it for a few minutes to let the materials warm up and your foot muscles acclimate. When you’re focused on sizing, you’ll want to pay attention to the tips of your toes and the back of your heel.

  • Again, your toe comfort is a matter of preference, but take note of where your longest toes touch the shoe, this will be the most likely point of discomfort on long approaches. An ideal size should allow the same freedom or snugness for all of your toes.
  • If the heel of your foot doesn’t completely fill the shoe, it will have room to move around. Wiggle room can be great for toes, but it means blisters and hotspots for heels. Try sizing down, or looking for a lower volume boot (we’ll get into volume below).

Narrow / Wide Approach Shoes

The width of your approach shoe is important to get right. Approach shoes are designed to get you out into the mountains, and to give you some technical scrambling and climbing ability all in one package. If your foot is crammed into a narrow shoe, it can be downright painful, but go too loose and you risk losing feedback and purchase when the scrambling gets technical.

Unfortunately not many approach shoe brands publish info about their width, so it isn’t easy to know at first look if a particular shoe runs narrow or wide. We did interview a number of brands about their shoe widths and documented it in this post.

The majority of European brands tend to build their shoes on a narrower, pointier last (the form that cobblers literally construct shoes around) while US brands tend for a wider fit. You can also look at models from different genders for a bit of extra play in width, though some of them simply re-color the same shoe in different size options.

One outlier in the European brands when it comes to width is AKU. The Rock DFS GTX has a medium to wide footbed that can make adjusting a fit for a wider foot a bit easier.

The best way to know how wide a shoe will be on your foot is to try it on. Once you get a shoe on your foot there are some key things to look out for when it comes to dialing fit for width.

Pay attention to the tightness across the sole of your foot from the ball of your big toe to the base of your pinkie toe.

  • The fit should be snug from side to side, but not feel scrunched. A shoe that is too narrow pulls your foot bones together and can cause cramping or be extremely painful once your foot swells on a long approach.
  • A bit of space can be ok, but too much side to side motion can mean blisters across your whole forefoot. Shoot for a fit that is just touching both sides of your foot.
  • If the toe box of a shoe is too tight or narrow, you can try to loosen or tighten the lacing at this area, but know that if you’re still on the tighter side, you won’t have room for fluctuation if your foot swells. If you can’t get it to fit ‘just right’, try to look for other options.
  • Account for the time of day that you’re trying the shoe on. Early in the morning, before you’ve been on your feet much, your feet will be slightly smaller. Later in the day, your feet will be more swollen.

Heel width also varies from shoe to shoe. With the boot laced up and tied correctly, check that your heel isn’t feeling pinched, or doesn’t shift from side to side.

  • A narrow heel cup can spell disaster for tissue pressure and bruises on the sides. Your heel should be snug and feel supported.
  • Just like the forefoot, your heel can have a bit of space to wiggle and swell, but too much can mean blisters.
  • There’s not much you can do if the heel of an approach shoe doesn’t fit your width, apart from wearing thicker socks if you’re on the narrow side. Be aware that a thick sock means a thicker foot everywhere, and will affect your fit in the toe box (not to mention making your foot warmer).

High / Low Volume Approach Shoe Tips

Similarly to width, it can be difficult to find information from brands about the volume of approach shoes. Volume is different from width in that it describes the more three-dimensional shape of your foot rather than just its width. You can think of volume as how much overall space there is in an approach shoe, and how well your foot fills that space. A higher volume foot can be narrow and tall, or wide and average in height, so volume and width should both be considered when comparing shoes.

Lacing that goes all the way to the toes means you can adjust the volume of your shoe from your toes all the way to your ankle. La Sportiva have some of the lowest lacing approach shoes out there. The popular TX4 comes in a few models with different upper materials for warmth or breathability.

La Sportiva TX4 Approach Shoes - Women's

La Sportiva TX4 Approach Shoes - Men's

An approach shoe that has the right amount of volume will fit snug to ever-so-slightly loose around most of your foot. When comparing models this usually means paying close attention to a couple of key areas.

  • The top of your foot should have very little pressure on it from the tongue and the laces. Many approach shoes are designed to lace further down the foot towards the toes than a traditional hiking or running shoe, so pay close attention to the fit across the entire top of your foot.
  • A higher volume foot will need the most extra space across the top of the toes and the arch. Lacing can do a lot to make room if your foot is tall or you have high arches, so make sure to loosen ALL of the laces completely, then lightly tighten them one by one from the toe towards your ankle.
  • If you struggle to tighten the lacing sufficiently and you feel like your foot is flopping from top to bottom, this approach shoe might be too high volume. A thicker sock can help, or look for a lower volume model.

Heel volume is tougher to dial correctly. A good fit should cradle your heel evenly on all sides with the shoe laced and tied. If the shape of the shoe doesn’t fit your heel well, it is best to look for a different model.

  • You can usually tell immediately if a heel is too low volume, as you’ll feel pressure around the sides and back of your heel, and even on the achilles tendon.
  • A heel that has too much volume will rattle on your ankle and can rub anywhere that isn’t snug.

Extra Fitting Tips

  • Some models of approach shoe feature foldable heels to make them easier to slip on and off when kicking around the crag or base of a climb. These heels typically have less structure and can be a bit more accommodating if you have a higher volume/wide heel.
  • The lower the lacing goes on the toe, the more you can fiddle with the overall fit of a shoe. This can also be handy to adjust as your feet swell and contract in changing temperatures or levels of activity. Take time to play with different tightness at different areas of the lacing to get a more perfect fit.
  • Shoes made with leather materials will stretch more with break in, synthetic materials like mesh do not stretch. Higher volume and wider feet can find a bit of extra room here, but it takes time and some discomfort during break-in.
  • Models with a higher rise can feel more secure on thinner or narrower feet. They can also make a wider foot or thicker ankle more uncomfortable.
  • Most gendered approach shoes are made on the same lasts, but some shoes for women have narrower and lower volume fits, while models for men can be the opposite. Trying on the opposite model (if the size is available) can sometimes help you find a better fit. (with the added bonus of a different colorway!)

We cover fitting tips for approach shoes much deeper in this post where we get detailed on specifics for several brand’s offerings and how you can expect them to fit (higher volume, lower volume, larger, smaller, etc.).

Bottom Line

Because brands and models are all so different, and each foot size and shape are so different, it can be difficult to simply order a shoe online and have it fit well. This can be next to impossible for those with higher and lower volume feet, or that are on the shorter or longer ends of the size spectrum.

Our main recommendation for fitting any type of shoe is to try them on and take your time comparing across models. Sometimes simply holding one shoe up to another shoe of the same size can tell you everything you need to know about fit, once you’ve had a particular shoe on your foot. You can also see side by side if sizing up or down that extra half size will be a good idea.

This post is sponsored by REI as part of a Size Inclusivity in Climbing series. In 2021 REI made an announcement that they were making a “commitment to becoming a fully inclusive, anti-racist, multicultural organization.” They followed this announcement with the Product Impact Standards, a document that specifically outlines the requirements that any partner brands they work with must meet.

By Spring of 2024, REI is requiring all apparel/gear partners to include marketing diversity and inclusive sizing as defined by these standards:

  • …have in place inclusive guidelines for marketing assets, photo casting and production that ensure diverse and inclusive representation across race, age gender identity/expression, body size/type and disability.
  • …each brand partner that sells wearable products offered in a variety of sizes to provide REI at least one sample size outside the standard size range for marketing photography.
  • …expects that all wearable products offered in a variety of sizes maintain the same price within a style regardless of size.

By Spring of 2025, they’re requiring a diverse hair type inclusion standard:

  • …each brand partner that produces headwear (helmets, hats, headbands, hoods, balaclavas, hijab, etc) to have in place guidelines for ensuring an inclusive assortment for a variety of hair types, including higher-volume and textured hair.

If you’d like to read more about how REI is fighting climate change, advancing inclusion in the outdoors, and managing chemicals, the Product Impact Standards are a great way to learn more.