Best Rock Climbing Shoes for Beginner to Advanced Athletes

Here's your complete guide to rock climbing shoes, including a breakdown of different types, sizing tips, and whether you really need dedicated shoes for rock climbing.

Woman Indoor Rock Climbing
Photo: Getty Images

Whether you fell in love with climbing after a Bumble bouldering date, are a long-time enthusiast, or finally watched Free Solo, odds are you're here because you've got questions about rock climbing shoes. Likely, including: Are they an essential investment? What qualities should I look for in a rock climbing shoe? And which are the best rock climbing shoes on the market right now? Ahead, are the answers to these questions and more.

The best rock climbing shoes you can buy online:

The Benefits of Rock Climbing Shoes

Hate to break it to you, but if you're planning to traverse a vertical plane, you're going to need to don a pair of rock climbing shoes. Translation: This isn't a place to cut corners or try this activity without the proper shoes and gear. "Climbing without climbing shoes is pretty much impossible," says climbing expert Chad Barnsdale, founder of Unfinished Man.

For a sense of comparison, scaling a wall in something other than climbing shoes would be as debilitating as Olympic lifting in running shoes or taking a barre class in weightlifting shoes. Not only will your toes be uncomfortable if you wear regular sneakers, for example, but your movements will be limited, too.

"Climbing shoes provide more grip than sneakers or bare feet, which is essential for ascending and descending rocks," says Barnsdale. The difference? Well, unlike regular trainers which only feature rubber on the bottom, climbing shoes are covered in soft, sticky rubber. The stickiness of the rubber sheath allows your feet to "stick" to surfaces they wouldn't be able to in any other shoe. "It makes you feel more stable as you move," says Barnsdale. Climbing shoes also have a pointier-than-normal toe box that allows climbers to lock into cracks and spring off of crevices, he says.

Why You Need Your Own Rock Climbing Shoes

As it goes, most indoor climbing facilities and outdoor climbing groups will provide you with climbing shoes. And honestly, if you're only planning to go climbing once or thrice a year, these are fine! But if you're planning to climb more regularly — and there are plenty of health and fitness benefits to doing so — you'd be wise to invest in a pair. Just like a pair of broken-in Birkenstocks or hiking boots, rock climbing shoes will conform to the shape and size of your foot. At the very least, this will create a more comfortable climbing experience. "Climbing shoes are a really personal investment," says climbing expert Roshi Brahmbhatt executive director of The NYC Climbing Collective, a nonprofit organization working to promote equity in climbing in New York. "They are often one of the first purchases a person will make when first getting into the sport."

What to Look for In a Rock Climbing Shoe

When shopping for your rock climbing shoe, you need to take type, features, and fit into account. Read one for a breakdown of the different options you'll encounter during your search.

Types of Rock Climbing Shoes

There are three main types of climbing shoes on the market: neutral, moderate, and aggressive.

Neutral rock climbing shoes: The best option for beginners, neutral climbing shoes offer a flatter lay and more relaxed fit compared to moderate or aggressive options, according to Barnsdale. That means that in these babies, your toes are able to lay flat in the shoe, which allows you to wear them all day long. Shoes that smush your feet, on the other hand, need to be taken off between routes.

While you wouldn't want to scale routes with difficult overhangs in a neutral shoe, these work well for crack cragging and most indoor routes, says Barnsdale.

Moderate rock climbing shoes: Moderate shoes are easily identified by their slightly downturned shape — the shoe literally positions your toe lower than your heel. This tight-and-turned position transforms the front of your foot into a powerful hook, making them ideal for more-technical climbing, says Barnsdale. The thin soles on these shoes make them perfect for slab soaring, sport routes, and any indoor climb.

While these shoes are more comfortable than aggressive shoes, your foot will still need time to adjust to the position these shoes force you into.

Aggressive rock climbing shoes: If moderate shoes have a moderately downturned shape, aggressive shoes sport an aggressive downturn. Featuring an asymmetric shape that angles the shoe in the direction of your big toe, these shoes give your big toe the strength, power, and leverage it needs to grip onto and wedge into tiny cracks, says Barnsdale. Because of the snug fit and unnatural shape, climbers typically prefer these sticky soled shoes for single-climb routes and indoor ascents.

Beyond being generally less comfortable, the big downside of these shoes is the fact that the rubber and soles wear down more quickly than with other climbing shoes.

Rock Climbing Shoe Material

The sole of a climbing shoe will almost always be rubber. But across the three types, the stickiness and thickness of the rubber will impact the types of routes the shoe is best suited for.

In general, a thick (4 to 5.5mm thick) sole is ideal for new trekkers as well as anyone with weak(er) feet. Thicker rubber provides greater support to your sole, which keeps the muscles therein from tuckering out. A thinner (3 to 4mm thick) sole, however, is a great option for people who have adequately mastered their technique and built up endurance in their toes.

The material of the main body of the shoe, known as its upper, comes in a wider range of materials. Some are made of (unlined) leather, which "give durability, longevity, and comfort because they stretch to fit the shape of your foot, but sometimes can stretch a little too much," says Brahmbhatt.

Other uppers are made of lined leather, which stretches to a lesser degree and is less expensive because the amount of leather needed is reduced. There are also shoes with synthetic uppers, which are especially appealing to vegan and vegetarian climbers. While some synthetic materials have some give, others do not. If you have a sweaty foot, you'll want to look specifically for a breathable synthetic upper, says Brahmbhatt.

Closure

There are climbing shoes available in slip-on, lace-up, and strap closure options. "No option is better than the other, they're just different," says Brahmbhatt.

Lace-up and strap closures are great for long days of bouldering and indoor rock climbing because you can easily tighten and loosen the shoe on your foot, or remove it between climbs. Laces provide a more precise fit than velcro and strap closures, according to Barnsdale.

Slip-on shoes, also known as slippers, have elastic closures that keep these types of rock climbing shoes snug to your skin. Since they don't have the bulk of a velcro closure or laces, these have a low profile that makes them optimal for climbing walls littered with cracks, says Brahmbhatt.

How a Rock Climbing Shoe Should Fit

When choosing climbing shoes, follow the Goldilocks rule — you want them snug but not too snug. "A climbing shoe is designed to fit your foot almost perfectly," says Brahmbhatt. "You want to leave absolutely no room between your toe and the end of the shoe so that you have a better ability to grip onto holds and the wall," she says.

Just keep in mind that, much like jeans, different brands will fit differently. "Climbing shoe sizes are like the point system in Whose Line Is It Anyways?" says Brahmbhatt. "The numbers are all made up and they don't totally matter. A size 37 in La Sportiva will fit completely differently than a size 37 Evolve shoe." So, if you can, order a few sizes to try on.

You should "always size up if you're in between two sizes, and never size down," says Barnsdale. Sizing down is a recipe for blisters and pain, and "climbing just won't be as enjoyable if your shoes are too tight," as Brahmbhatt puts it.

The Best 5 Rock Climbing Shoes for All Kinds Of Climbers

01 of 05

Best Overall: Evolv Defy Climbing Shoe

Evolv Defy Climbing Shoe
Backcountry

Thanks to its vegan-friendly synthetic upper and antimicrobial liner, Evolv Defy is as odorless as it is comfortable. Meaning, very!

A neutral shoe, this strappy pick has a variable thickness sole, meaning a sole that features thinner rubber in certain areas to reduce pressure points and hot spots around the foot, and thicker rubber along other spots to increase longevity in the high wear zones near the toe for durability and performance.

Worth mentioning: This shoe is also available as a lace-up option, which is slightly more expensive. So, if you're intrigued by this shoe but prefer laces to straps, check out the Evolv Defy Lace Climbing Shoe instead.

Customers Say: "Just got back into climbing after a few year hiatus. These shoes are neutral and work well in the climbing gym for an entry to intermediate climber."

02 of 05

Best for Beginners: Black Diamond Women's Momentum

Black Diamond Equipment - Women's Momentum Climbing Shoes

If you're a new climber, start with something at an accessible price point, e.g. the Black Diamond Women's Momentum Climbing Shoe, suggests Brahmbhatt. "You want to start with something on the cheaper side because you likely won't stick with your first pair for too long," she says.

Through experience (routes on routes on routes) you will get a better sense of what types of climbing you like to do, and therefore what type of shoe best fits your needs.

A neutral shoe, this synthetic (vegan-friendly) option from Black Diamond has a 4.3mm outsole that offers optimal durability and rigidity while you strengthen your toes. A knit upper makes them super comfy, according to reviewers.

Customers Say: "I've bouldered and top-roped in these so far and they've been great. They have great firm toes and heels! The straps mean you can adjust it to a tightness you're comfortable with, as well as making it accessible for people with different shapes of feet."

03 of 05

Best for Intermediate Climbers: Scarpa Instinct VS

Scarpa Instinct Women's Climbing Shoe
Amazon

This cute aqua-accented moderate shoe is, in one word, adaptable. Built with the needs of boulderers and sport climbers in mind, the Scarpa Instinct VS's medium-stiff profile and sticky rubber make it optimal for edging.

The women's rock climbing shoes also have an extra schmear of tacky rubber along the toe box, which makes toe-hooking easier than other moderate (as well as neutral and aggressive) shoes. The heel features an extra sticky cup, which helps you scale slabs, while a microsuede upper lends a comfortable feel.

Customers Say: "Overall, I would highly recommend these shoes. They have a comfortable toe box, good ankle mobility, grippy rubber on the toe for toe hooks (great for crack climbing as well), and stiff rubber along the back of the heel for heel hooks."

04 of 05

Best for Advanced Climbers: La Sportiva Miura Climbing Shoe

La Sportiva Women's Miura Climbing Shoe
Backcountry

La Sportiva is to climbing shoes what Reebok is to CrossFit trainers. Look around any climbing gym and you'll see climbers of all levels decked out in the brand's gear. One of the shoes you'll see more advanced athletes rocking is the La Sportiva Miura Climbing Shoe, which is an aggressive shoe with 4mm rubber outsoles.

Designed specifically with overhanging sport routines, bouldering, and technical face climbing in mind, this lace-up leather option is best for experienced climbers. Reviewers report that they last a long time, which may help you justify their $180 price tag.

Customers Say: "If I'm going on a climbing trip and I could only pack one pair of shoes, the Muiras would be the climbing shoes I would choose. They keep me standing on micro-edges with ease, excel at pocket climbing, stick to slabs, good for steep climbing, and can heel-hook."

05 of 05

Best Value: La Sportiva Tarantulace Women's Climbing Shoe

La Sportiva Tarantulace Rock Climbing Shoe
REI

You don't need to drop a Benjamin or two for a solid climbing shoe. Priced at $89, these name brand shoes are here to lend you a hand (er, foot) whether you're hitting your local gym for a quick sweat or daylong schlep on the mountains.

This neutral shoe features an unlined leather upper and 5mm rubber outer. Unlike other lace climbing shoes which can be a pain to tie and untie between climbs, the laces on the La Sportiva Tarantulace are made from synthetic leather and designed to be quick-pull. Meaning, you can get a precise fit, quick.

Customers Say: "The lace up allows you to get a tighter fit than the velcro versions of similar shoes. I've used them both indoor and outdoor for routes that don't require more aggressive shoes. These are comfortable enough to wear walking around between climbs as well."

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