Like a lot of specialty sport shoes, a climbing shoe is made to perform a specific function. If you’ve never worn one before, it can be a bit surprising to put a climbing shoe on for the first time. Climbing shoes are very form fitting, made to be worn tighter than most shoes, and have distinct things about their shape to help us climb.

So let’s dig into the key things to know about how climbing shoes work, and some simple points to look for when fitting a climbing shoe on your foot.

Climbing Shoes Indoors
Climbing shoes are tools purpose designed to help us climb indoor and outdoor walls alike.

What are climbing shoes?

The main function of a climbing shoe is to allow us to grip the wall with our feet, specifically as we climb rocks and indoor climbing walls.

Climbing is a much different type of movement than standing and running, and the surfaces we stand on while climbing have much tinier features that grippy, smooth rubber works better for.

Unlike standard shoes that use treads to provide traction for walking or running on the ground, the soles of climbing shoes are smooth with no treads and are made of soft, sticky rubber. Lugs on the bottom of a boot are great for grip on loose, hard surfaces like sand, asphalt, or gravel but they aren’t nearly as good when it comes to providing friction where climbers need it.

Climbing shoe deforming and sticking to a climbing hold
The rubber on climbing shoes is smooth and soft, allowing it to conform to the shapes of climbing holds and provide friction when we climb.

With climbing shoes, the idea is that as you put weight onto it, the soft rubber on the bottom of the shoe sole deforms and squishes into all the micro crevices and textures of climbing holds and surfaces, creating friction and giving us the ability to stand in seemingly impossible places.

So climbing shoes are purpose made to increase friction, and that doesn’t mean from the rubber alone. They also tend to be narrower overall with varying areas of stiffness to provide climbing-specific support for our feet as we climb around. For example, most shoes are made to be stiffer around the edges of the foot to make it easier to stand on small holds. They are also flexible in places like the arch of our foot so they can press and smear onto larger holds, volumes, and surfaces for maximum friction.

Climbing overhanging boulder problem
Movement on climbing walls can vary from standing on small features on vertical surfaces, to hanging from holds in steep leaning terrain. The friction and support of climbing shoe construction is crucial the more extreme the angles get.

The unique thing about climbing is that our body movement is often three dimensional. We need to move forward, backward, side to side, and up and down. Since climbing also happens on varying angles of terrain, sometimes leaning away from us, sometimes vertical, and even over hanging above us, our shoes are made to provide support and grip in all of these directions.

How Do Climbing Shoes Fit?

A good snug fit in a climbing shoe feels very different from a sneaker or other athletic footwear. Because they are designed to fit closely, our toes will be gathered together and usually much closer to the tip of a climbing shoe. Minimizing the empty space in front of our toes is key to performance and makes sure we’re in contact with the rubber under the tip of the shoe, where we stand the most when we climb.

Standing on a tiny hold in a climbing shoe
Climbing shoes are narrower and stiffer at the toe than other athletic shoes to help support standing on tiny climbing holds.

Depending on the shape of our toes and the shape of the shoe, some folks find this close fit more uncomfortable than others and choose to size up until they feel no toe pressure. This is totally fine, by the way! Being in pain is definitely not a requirement of climbing, but it is good to know that the looser they are, the less your shoes are able to help you out, especially on small holds when you need to use your tiptoes. Beware: This doesn’t mean super tight will make you climb better! You will climb best in what feels comfortable + what fits snugly (like a hug from a really good friend).

Remember that as a tool, a climbing shoe works best when it provides the most friction and support for our feet, and a poorly fit shoe will reduce at least one of these. If you’re buying your own shoes, you can find more options for shape that might alleviate gaps and discomfort, but we recommend spending some time in rental shoes at a climbing gym to get some experience that can help inform what you are looking for.

IMG_1274 1
Trying on different sizes and spending time in rental shoes at a climbing gym is a great way to learn how you prefer your climbing shoes to fit and feel when its time to purchase your own.

Quick tips to finding a fit:

  • The ideal fit should feel very snug compared to other athletic shoes– like a sock around your whole foot, with minimal gaps in front of your toes.
  • Many climbers find that their climbing shoe size is ½ to 1 size smaller than their street shoe.
  • The closure on the top should be snug; don’t cut off circulation, but tighten enough that you can’t squeeze a finger between the straps and your foot to minimize your foot shifting in the shoe.
  • Adding or removing socks can give a little more room to tweak sizing further; most climbers forego socks to maximize performance and sensitivity to feel the wall better; do what makes you comfortable. Remember: Feeling comfortable will mean you have the most fun climbing.
  • Wearing a rental shoe at a gym is a great place to learn about your foot shape and what walls you enjoy climbing (boulding vs top-roping and vertical walls vs overhanging), before buying your first pair of shoes.

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.

Want to See All The Climbing Shoes (over 400)?

At WeighMyRack, we list every climbing shoe and give you filters for volume, closure, material, last shape (downturn / asymmetry), and more. You can also filter by on sale items with discounts > 20%.