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Choosing Your First Climbing Shoes

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

So, you've got your first taste of climbing and realized you'd never go back? The desire to climb can be hard to quench, but purchasing your own shoes is an excellent first investment that will allow you easier access to climbing plus will likely improve the way you climb. The wide, many varieties of climbing shoes can make this decision feel super intimidating, so to help guide you towards the climbing shoe that will be best for you, we will outline a few of the different appearances and features of climbing shoes and explain what each tends to be best for.

When searching for climbing shoes, you're likely to encounter a variety of shapes. Some may look flat, while others appear extremely downturned and pointed at the toes. These varying shapes indicate the style of a climbing shoe, each offering advantages for different climbing levels and types. Climbing shoe styles are typically categorized by aggression level, identified as either neutral, moderate, or aggressive.

Before looking at shoes, it can be helpful to consider what type(s) of climbing you plan to do and how often. If you are a new climber progressing quickly or already climbing more difficult grades, a moderately aggressive shoe may be helpful for you sooner rather than later. If you're taking it slow and steady, a neutral shoe may offer a longer life and practicality range as you explore what type of climbing you prefer and increase your skill level.

climber foot on a climbing hold

Neutral Shoes

Whether you're new to climbing and still getting a feel for your preferred terrain or want maximally comfort-oriented shoes suitable for all-day wear, a more neutral shoe style may be best for you. These shoes will appear flatter along the bottom and less pointed at the toes. The more neutral the shoe, the more relaxed the fit, meaning more comfortable, less tight wear. The body of neutral shoes will also remain stiffer and allow less bend in the arch when climbing, making them especially useful for slab walls (a wall that is angled away from you) as well as smearing (relying on the friction of your shoe against a climbing wall as footing when a foothold is not available). The stiffer material used for these shoes will also offer more long-term durability than moderate or aggressive shoes. The relaxed fit of less aggressive shoes makes this style perfect for climbers of all experience levels expecting long days at the gym and for folks still getting comfortable on the wall.

Moderate Shoes

The next step up from the flat, more spacey fit of neutral shoes will be moderately aggressive shoes, those with a slight curve in their shape and a somewhat pointed toe. There will be a bit more bend to shoes of this style but a little less comfort. Your toes will lay less flat than in a neutral shoe, and you will feel a slight curve along your heel and arch. This form positions your feet for increased power and precision in your feet when climbing. These shoes are a wonderful in-between for those looking for a bit more of an edge to their footing or planning on the continued advancement of route difficulty soon. Even if you're a somewhat new climber, opting for a mildly aggressive climbing shoe is reasonable and can offer a peek into the benefits of more aggressive shoes as you enter more challenging climbing areas.

Aggressive Shoes

The end of the spectrum lands at the most aggressive style of shoes, which look incredibly curved and have very pointed toes. These shoes keep your feet tight in this curved position, making them uncomfortable to remain in for long periods, but they are ideal for climbs that demand heavy precision. Regarding your first climbing shoes, you likely do not want to purchase a highly aggressive pair unless you're advanced in your climbing grade and technique. Starting with an overly aggressive shoe will not only be unhelpful to you if you've yet to learn proper technique, but it can also be painful and damaging to your feet if you've not built up to this shoe style.

Synthetic vs. Leather

Besides aggression level, you must consider the material and how you want your shoes to close. Climbing shoes are traditionally made with leather, though many synthetic options have emerged in recent years. Leather shoes will typically offer you a bit more durability as well as more flexibility in the shoe as you climb. That helps with comfort as your feet swell, especially if you are climbing for extended periods. Synthetic climbing shoes offer slight softening but not as much bend as you climb. They also will not mold to your foot shape over time, as leather climbing shoes are likely to.

Shoe Closure

Shoe closing options typically include tie, velcro, and slip-on. Slip-on shoes are great if you're looking for an easy on-and-off, but they will offer less structure and support, requiring more foot strength as you climb. Velcro-secured shoes are also great for shoe-changing speediness and offer much more security than slip-on shoes. Additionally, they are more structured and adjustable. Laced shoes provide the most customizable fit for comfort and tightness, allowing you to adjust your laces as your feet sizes change throughout your climbing day.

sitting climber removing his climbing shoes

Remember that your climbing shoe should fit snugly without excess room between your foot and the shoe, especially at the toe. Your toes should not be overly smushed up or into your shoe, but you should be able to feel the inside of the shoe against your heel, the tips of your toes, and the ball of your foot. This will differ based on how aggressive a shoe you go with, but the golden rule is that shoes should be snug, not painful. Wearing too small of shoes can make climbing much more complicated and less enjoyable. Make sure your shoes are comfortable on the back of your ankle, as a tight fit can cause pain and blisters.

Finally, we recommend always trying shoes before purchasing and checking sizing against your foot measurements. Don't assume you are the same size across brands and styles, as sizing can vary greatly.

Your climbing gym likely sells a few types of shoes on-site. Please check out the selection or talk to staff about their favorite first-pair picks!

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