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What are Climbing Shoes?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Climbing shoes are shoes specifically designed for rock climbing, bouldering, and other climbing sports. Climbers have been known to say that climbing shoes are the only piece of gear which can improve a climber's ability, and all climbers know that good climbing shoes are critical to a successful climb. Many outdoor stores, especially those which focus on climbing, carry an array of climbing shoes, and they can also be ordered through catalogs, for people who know the size and style they need.

Climbing shoes have a number of distinctive features which make them easy to differentiate from other types of shoes. The first is the flexible rubber sole, which runs partway up the side of the shoe for additional support. The second is the snug fit, which ensures that the shoe conforms to the shape of the wearer's foot. Climbing shoes for men and women are also styled differently, to accommodate subtle anatomical differences.

Several functions are addressed by a climbing shoe. The first is friction. Good climbing shoes offer a lot of traction, allowing climbers to navigate a variety of difficult surfaces. The second is support, as climbers must be comfortable and their feet and ankles must be properly supported in order to climb without the risk of injury. Furthermore, climbing shoes must offer flexibility, allowing climbers to manipulate their feet to reach small climbing holds, and the shoes provide protection from scrapes and sharp protrusions.

There are a number of different styles of climbing shoes, designed for different types of climbing and different levels of ability. As a general rule, climbing shoes are designed to only be used during climbing, and they are unsuitable for hiking, walking, or running. This is especially true of performance climbing shoes, also known as sport or bouldering shoes, because they have a rigid design and a downturned toe which are perfect for climbing, but not for navigating flat ground.

All-around climbing shoes have a basic, utilitarian design which can be used on a variety of surfaces and by climbers at all levels of ability. Many beginners start out with all-around shoes while they explore different types of rock climbing to see what appeals to them. Smearers are highly flexible climbing shoes ideal for bouldering and manufactured climbing walls. Some beginner shoes also have ankle support, to encourage climbers to develop foot strength without injuring themselves.

Fit is critical with climbing shoes. The right shoes fit snugly, allow the climber a full range of motion, and don't pinch or pull. If climbing shoes are uncomfortable in the store, they will be uncomfortable on top of a rock. For people who have never purchased climbing shoes before, it is a good idea to go into a store for a professional fitting, and to be aware that socks are typically not worn with climbing shoes. Some people also like to try renting shoes first, to get an idea of how the shoes feel in action before committing to a purchase.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Talentryto — On Aug 27, 2014

@rundocuri- Since this will be your first pair of climbing shoes, I think that it is a good idea to follow what the article says and get the opinion of a professional about the fit. You won't be able to do this at most retail shoe stores, because the staff is not often trained in fitting special shoes like climbers.

A good place to start your search for the best climbing shoes for your needs is at a sports supply store that specializes in gear for rock climbers. The staff in these shops is specially trained to find the right fit for these types of shoes. If you get lucky, you may even find a store that has a mock rock wall to give the climbing shoes a try before you make your purchase.

By Rundocuri — On Aug 26, 2014

I found a pair of climbing shoes that I like at a department store, but since I am new at rock climbing, I don't know if they are going to work for me. Does anyone have any thoughts about buying your first pair of climbing shoes, and is it a good idea to give a pair from a retail shoe store a try?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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