When comparing the performance of one climbing shoe to another, one of the words you often hear is downturn. From a shoe maker’s point of view, downturn refers to the amount of downward curvature the toes of a shoe has. Climbers often use the word downturn when talking about how aggressive the shoe acts, but this aggressiveness is not a guarantee that it’ll help you climb harder grades.

Downturned shoes can be positive or negative depending on what style of climbing you’re doing and how strong/sensitive your toes are. In this post we dive into the specifics of downturn, what it means for your feet and your climbing, and what you need to know to select the right amount of downturn in your climbing shoes.

Understanding Downturn

The downturn of a shoe (sometimes referred to as ‘camber’) describes the overall ‘turn downward’ of the toebox from the heel to the toes. All shoes have some amount of downturn, from virtually flat, to extremely banana shaped. You may have seen the word ‘aggressive’ used by shoe manufacturers as a descriptor; i.e. flat shoes with little to no downturn described as less aggressive and shoes with lots of downturn called very aggressive.

It can be confusing however, because not everyone (including brands) talks about this shape of the shoe the same way. Some (including WeighMyRack) use ‘aggressive’ to describe shoe asymmetry which we covered in a previous blog post, and instead describe a shoe’s downturn as a function of comfort and performance based on the shape of the last.

Shoes with higher downturn tend to have a lot of tension in the randing from the heel to the toebox to support the foot laterally from the ankle to the tip of the toe. Think about it like the shoe trying to pull you into a tip-toe position. This support transmits your body weight at your heels toward your toes, giving you a lot of capacity to put your weight on things that are further away from you (like holds or pockets in a steep overhang). This allows you to drive your body upward, or pull yourself into the wall. Less downturn in a shoe translates to less of this affect, and a more even distribution of weight across the whole foot, which is better for standing on larger surfaces.

The important thing with downturn is knowing that you should expect a change in performance between less downturn and more downturn. Flatter shoes are designed for more friction on larger surfaces, while more aggressive shoes are built for pulling into the wall on smaller features.

Climbing Shoe Downturn
Climbing shoes with more downturn provide more purchase in overhanging terrain, while shoes with less downturn provide comfort and maximize friction.

Minimal Downturn

Many climbers think shoes with little to no downturn (also known as flat-lasted) are designed for beginners. While it is certainly the case that most entry-level shoes, and all rental shoes, are built to be flat to keep the shoe comfortable, not all flat-lasted shoes are necessarily designed for beginners, but rather with standing and comfort in mind.

This standing doesn’t have to mean just standing around on a ledge or in the climbing gym, however. Low angle climbing on slabs and large features like blocks, ledges and large indoor volumes often requires a lot of friction between your shoe and the wall. A flat shoe with low downturn is already in the shape needed to squish as much rubber against the wall as possible, which makes them ideal for situations requiring a lot of balance and high friction. Speed climbing is another great example where you’ll find Olympians wearing this type of shoe.

Low downturn shoes are also great for crack climbing. When performing a foot jam, technique often requires that the foot is placed in the crack as thin and flat as possible, and then twisted into place by the wrenching motion of your ankle and leg. If a shoe has a lot of downturn, it can be difficult to even get it in the crack, much less deform it properly into a solid jam.

Depending on your particular climbing needs, flat-lasted, low downturn shoes run the range from entry-level to some of the most expensive and technical pieces of kit you can own.

Minimal Downturn Shoe Examples

Minimal Downturn Shoes are Good for:

  • New climbers
  • Slab climbing
  • Maximizing friction on large features
  • Jamming your feet in cracks
  • Standing around for long periods in the gym or on ledges
  • Speed climbing (as seen in the Olympics)

Medium Downturn

When you start to move into a more downturned shoe profile, climbing shoes start to get better at more technical climbing. This is because a shoe with a bit of downturn now has more ability to pull you into the wall by providing a bit of a ‘hooked’ surface . This hook allows you to apply more outward (away from the wall) friction and transfer more power from your feet downward without slipping off. More force downward means more power upward.

As routes get more vertical, the feeling of ‘standing up’ transitions to a feeling of ‘pulling inward’ (towards the wall) slightly. Having a shoe with that added hook allows a more positive connection to keep you feeling solid on holds and stable as you put all your weight on it while you stand and reach.

Medium downturn shoes often have stiffer midsoles which add a bit of extra support for smaller holds which makes them a good choice for climbing tiny edges like granite or toeing into sharp features and pockets.

When it comes to comfort, slight to medium downturned shoes often have slightly smaller toeboxes, as the last of the shoe is shaped to bring your toes together to maximize your toe power into a smaller place than the last of a flat shoe. If you have a properly fit shoe, this definitely shouldn’t be painful but will be noticeably less comfortable standing for a long period of time.

Many climbers looking to transition from their first pair(s) of shoes find a slight downturn to be a performance upgrade as they grow as climbers and work towards more nuanced footwork techniques. Because they offer a more equal balance of comfort with some extra performance, medium downturn shoes are often a great choice for a daily wear gym shoe, as well as a go-to for a day of single-pitch cragging where you can take them off between climbs. They can still be used for a bit of crack jamming as well, but not as good as a flatter shoe (unless they are VERY soft and you have strong feet). Similarly, medium downturned shoes are not as comfortable as an all-day wear for multi pitch climbs compared to a flatter shoe.

Medium Downturn Shoes are Good for:

  • Vertical technical climbing
  • Standing on your toes on small edges and pockets
  • An upgrade from an entry-level shoe
  • A go-to all-arounder for the gym or crag

Medium Downturn Shoe Examples

Extreme Downturn

When the amount of downturn a shoe has hits the extreme mark, it becomes a very specialized piece of gear. Many climbers who go after hard, steep, technical climbs (boulder or sport) have a pair of aggressively cambered shoes. A steep toe maximizes all the power in the toebox to pull down and towards you, which makes them ideal for overhangs, roofs, and gripping at tiny holds in highly steep terrain.

One of the other things that happens when a shoe becomes highly banana-shaped is the heel of the shoe also starts to dip down, creating the opportunity for a higher, deeper heel cup. Shoe designers utilize this new real estate by wrapping extra rubber and randing up and around the back of your foot to provide more grip and extreme tension for hooking. This area can also be strengthened with material (often the same stuff used in the midsole) to seemingly turn your heel into another appendage.

Shoes at this end of the downturn spectrum often pack every ounce of technology you can get, all to allow the type of movement and grip that modern hard climbing requires. This also means they’re the most expensive.

Because of their highly curved geometry, extremely downturned shoes are not made to be stood in (at least not for very long) and should be taken off between climbs or bouldering attempts to preserve their structure and keep the randing tight and capable.

Extreme Downturn Shoes are Good for:

  • Steep, overhanging terrain
  • Intense heel-hooking and compression

Extreme Downturn Shoe Examples

How Stiffness Affects Downturn

A more downturned shape is commonly oversimplified as ‘making it easier to climb in steeper terrain’. While this is often the case, there’s a crucial caveat that we think needs a bit of space: toe support.

We’ve talked in previous posts about the construction of climbing shoes, and dove into the details of the interaction between midsoles (the stiff partial pieces that make up the space between the outer sole and the inner footbed) and rubber randing (the tensioned strips, patches and pieces of rubber that help your shoe hold your foot in a certain shape).

The real effect of downturn in a shoe relies greatly on these two components. When highly downturned shoes are paired with a stiff midsole, the support for the toes allows a ton of power to transmit directly to the very tip of the shoe. Powerful movement on small holds that involve a ton of weight transfer and static movement can benefit greatly from a stiffer midsole.

But with a softer midsole that gives less support, the downturn of the shoe isn’t able to do as much work on it’s own, requiring your toes to do more of the pulling on steep maneuvers. Softer shoes have more tension to allow freer transitions in dynamic movement and can deform considerably across the mid foot, making them a great choice for comp-style boulders and routes that move from steep to slab.

What this all adds up to is that a soft downturned shoe allows more flexibility, more deformation, more feeling, and less support, while a stiffer downturned shoe is more rigid, holds its shape through weight transfer, and has less tension across the forefoot.

Bottom Line on Downturn

Highly Downturned is when power is directed to the big toe in particular. Unfortunately this comes at a cost of being significantly less comfortable. These are high-end specialty shoes for steep and overhanging climbing.

Medium Downturn is a balance of comfort and distributed power. Usually called all-around shoes – they can manage most climbing styles and grades adequately.

No Downturn is more comfort focused as power is distributed throughout the foot. Historically called beginner shoes, as it’s helpful to have the entire foot supported as you build the unique climbing foot muscles. These shoes are specialty shoes in their own right and are used to climb the hardest slab/crack routes in the world.

Our Best Advice for Climbing Shoes

Go to shoe demos (at the gym or climbing festivals) and try on ALL THE SHOES. Including the high and low volume versions of the same model. Ideally, try climbing the same routes in each pair so you can get a sense of how they fit and perform differently. Note how they fit: are there pressure points or any gaps between your foot and the sides / top / bottom of the shoe? Pick what fits snugly and feels right to you.

If there’s a spot on a shoe that’s nagging you or any part of your foot slips in the shoe, keep trying on shoes. After trying on a ton of shoes, at one point you may wonder, “is this shoe perfect?!” because you can’t find anything wrong with the fit – at this point trust your intuition. And, for future reference, write all this info down on your phone: whether the shoe model fit or not, and what sizes are good/bad.

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