Getting Your Foot in the Door of Climbing
You see the rock climbing wall jut to the ceiling and all you can think about is the excitement that overwhelms you. You can’t wait to conquer that wall. But there’s one thing we should think about first… What shoes are we wearing? That’s a very tough question to answer because there are too many factors at play, and at the end of the day, it comes down to the individual’s preferences. It must not be overlooked that you and your climbing shoes are what connect you with the wall or rock; a true necessity to find balance. We cannot forget that we rely more on our feet while we are climbing than our hands; something that is often overlooked.
When delving into climbing gear, or outdoor gear in general, it can be awfully intimidating. There are tons and TONS of gear brands and manufacturers. It is easy to get so lost, that you forgot what you were initially looking for. There are grip strengtheners, different types of chalk, harnesses, quick-draws, and the list goes on! We will be focusing on climbing shoes and what that means for us as climbers.
Securing the Shoe
Slippers/ “moccasins”: a very relaxed shoe without a plethora of support and offers continuous comfort. Shoes like the 5.10 Moccasym, for example, are for climbers that are looking for more of a relaxed time on the wall. Because there is a limit to how much you can adjust these types of shoes, it is extremely important to find a shoe that is already tight to your foot. Because these types of shoes offer all-day comfort, they are generally used for longer climbs such as multi-pitch since you cannot always be taking your shoes on and off.
Lace-up: with the availability of laces, it is much easier to find the right fit because there are so many more possibilities. Often used while rope climbing or overhung roof climbing, these will give you the edge (no pun intended) over slippers. One of the biggest drawbacks of these shoes is time; it takes a decent amount of time to tie your shoe, so it fits perfectly only to take it off in a few minutes…?
Velcro: the most common style of shoe because it offers a compromise of both previous types of shoes; comfort of slippers, yet the support from laces. It is easier to take these on and off which is important to think about. I have all sorts of climbing shoes, but Velcro shoes are my most frequently owned.
Flat: generally considered more comfortable. It is common for flatter shoes to have a harder rubber than other shoes because it helps find control on small footchips. I tell new climbers that they will likely want a thicker shoe to start off with; this will hopefully avoid the fatiguing of your feet. Once those muscles are built up, we can move to more “aggressive” shoes.
Asymmetric: referring to the curve of the shoe, and NOT the profile. The intention of this design is to drive more power into the toes- this is done by angling your feet in a way
Downturned: often referred to as a “performance” shoe, this relates to the profile of the shoe and what sort of a point it has. A shoe that is extremely downturned, like the Mad Rock Redlines, resembles the letter “C” because it crams your foot to deliver more power to the wall.
Climbing shoes are made from a mixture of rubber, leather, and synthetic materials. Leather is known for stretching because it is a softer material and is more prone to breaking down. Some shoes, like the La Sportiva Testarossas, have both leather and synthetic materials to find the perfect mix. Synthetic shoes will not stretch as much which can be a good thing or a bad thing.
Some beginner shoes that I would recommend would be the La Sportiva Tarantula (the Tarantulace are the lace-up versions) or the Black Diamond Momentum shoes. This is because they have a flat last, or bottom of the shoe, and provides more comfort. These shoes also provide a thicker rubber which makes being on the wall feel sturdier. Once your feet have adapted to the demands of your climbing shoes, you can look at a more “advanced” shoe like the 5.10 Hiangles; a shoe that has a stickier rubber and is softer all around.
Downsizing… what could that mean? Well, you guessed it, cramming your foot into a tight shoe of course! To maximize both grip and traction, we don’t want our feet swishing around while we’re on the wall. Everyone has their own perspective on this slightly uncomfortable aspect of climbing, and that is totally okay! Almost every climbing shoe brand sizes slightly differently than the other just to make it harder on the consumer… okay, maybe that’s not true, but you get my point. You can try size 9 La Sportiva Solutions and find they are pretty snug, yet in the same sitting, you can try on some Evolv Shamans and the 11.5 fits snug. It is extremely important to check the shoe manufacturer’s brand-specific sizing key. This can be found on the company’s website, a catalog at an outdoor store, or more often than not, it will be printed right on the box! Something that gets overlooked by many.
Since we are on our journey to finding the perfect climbing shoe, there are several “rules” that help our decision-making process. Make sure that there is no excess room in your shoes; no matter what material the shoes are comprised of. This can and will lead to blisters and a less enjoyable climbing experience. Whether downsizing or not, if the shoes are made with genuine leather, they will likely stretch more than expected- this is important to take into consideration when sizing “correctly.” Take the La Sportiva Mythos for example-although these are a popular shoe, they are notorious for stretching multiple sizes because they are made primarily of leather instead of synthetic material.
Once you’ve opened the box to your brand new climbing shoes; you’re stoked! You throw them on and you love them. One problem… they are awfully… tight. The climbing community is no stranger to the uncomfortable foot but it is important to remember that uncomfortable may be okay, but painful is NOT. You can downsize 3-4 entire sizes until your feet changes colors and starts cramping up every couple of minutes. That, to me, does not sound very pleasant. For a more comfortable fit, we want the tip of our big toe to barely touch the end of the shoe. Most climbers choose not to wear socks in their own shoes as that reduces friction between your foot and shoe. For many people getting into the sport, or are renting shoes, it’s a good idea to wear socks- until you find the one that fits perfectly!
There are many ways to “break-in” your new shoes than just climbing! Some people wear them in the shower with them for a few times… Personally, I have never gone down this road, but it is more viable if your shoes have an intensely dyed color. Try something a bit more tame; fill your palm with water and pour it into your climbing shoe before a climbing session. Tilt your shoes back and forth until water has coated the entire sole of the shoe, and slip your foot in. This helps shoes mold to the shape of your foot which makes the shoe feel less foreign but will resemble an extension of you.
Speaking of ideas on how to break in climbing shoes, can we talk about some things we shouldn’t do? Okay. Listen carefully. When people tell you to put your climbing shoes in the washing machine and dryer, really think about everything that is at play. Yes, some people throw their shoes in the dishwasher or laundry machines-and at face value- it really is not the worst thing in the world, right? Well, it really depends heavily on what kind of shoes you have because, depending on the material, you will most likely damage the integrity of the shoe. This will make your shoe feel floppier and less supportive when you are climbing up that wall. The dryer is an extremely dangerous place for climbing shoes because metal/plastic pieces can melt. If you want to dry your shoes and don’t have the sun readily available to soak up moisture, turn them upside down near a heater in your home. This will reduce moisture and smell!
How can I get more information on the subject…?
Do you still have questions about climbing? Good! That means that you are interested, and you are looking to become a better climber; awesome! It’s good to ask questions- we can’t all know everything. Let’s not forget that Skyhook Ninja Fitness not only has a climbing wall, but rents climbing shoes as well! Now there’s no reason not to come in and try it out for yourself. We’ll see you there.
This article was written by Dan, one of the route setters and climbing coaches at Skyhook Ninja Fitness in Portland, Oregon. He is an awesome climber who climbs around a v9 level, and loves sharing his passion of climbing and movement with others. If you see him when you're in the gym, feel free to stop and say hi!