Climbing has gone main stream. No longer just a death defying ritual practiced by a small group of extremists with huevos grandes. Seventy percent of the shoes we sell are to first time buyers. This article is geared towards them. To help them gain a leg up in the world of climbing shoes.
No matter what type of climbing you do, or envision your self doing, it all begins with your footwear. Unlike a cushy harness, a top of the line rope or rock pro, all of which may improve your falling experience, climbing shoes, are one of the few pieces of gear you can purchase that will actually improve your climbing ability. That being said, people will often take that fact and run with it.
Run far past common sense into the realm of absurdity. Those of the "more is better" train of thought will reason: if tight is good tighter is better. Soon they will have convinced themselves they can gain a whole grade of climbing ability by cramming their foot into a shoe 2 full sizes smaller than their foot. The one thing that may improve is the speed at which they climb, just so they can get out of their shoes as soon as possible. Though it may seem that comfort and performance exist on opposite ends of the spectrum they're really not that far apart. A properly fitted shoe will give you the traction and performance you seek, but will also allow you to enjoy your time on the rock without the foot cramping, loss of toenails and other maladies one suffers from buying shoes that are too tight.
I work in retail, and the #1. reason climbing shoes are returned is: "They hurt my feet!" "they just didn't stretch out like I thought they would" People seldom return shoes because they really wanted something less comfortable.
Pretend for a moment that you have no idea what brand or model of climbing shoes your favorite gravity defying, climbing superhero wears. Pretend you don't have a friend who has "been climbing for years" and is full of all kinds of good advice and analogies about how "it should feel like your foot is in a vice". Pretend you have no favorite color, or need to accessorize and match your climbing harness.
In short pretend you know nothing, are blind, and really only sense your world through your feet. Listen to the salesman to a point, hopefully this isn't the first time they have sold climbing shoes. Have them measure your feet. You wouldn't believe how many people have no idea that one of their feet is actually larger than the other. And that you must always size the larger foot. Look at the configuration of your toes, do you have a royal toe, (second toe longer than the big toe) in which case a shoe with a symmetrical toe box may fit better than one with an asymmetrical toe box. Are your feet narrow? or narrow only in the heel? High volume? Low volume? A salesman who knows his stuff should be able to pare down the choices for you, based on his knowledge of the type of feet certain shoes fit best. But even if you are unfortunate enough to get a salesman who knows more about salad dressing than climbing shoes, your feet can guide you through the fit process. Just as long as you can focus only on your feet and leave all the other less important considerations, out of the equation.
There are three basic types of climbing shoes:
- Board lasted
- slip lasted
Really, slippers are just super flexible slip lasted shoes. They offer the ultimate in sensitivity, but have virtually no support, so it's all up to your foot muscles. They aren't the best choice for a beginner, whose foot muscles haven't developed yet. At least not for an all round climbing shoe, though they work well for bouldering.
Board lasted shoes are rapidly disappearing from the ranks of most climbing shops. They are very stiff, yes, board like. They offer the most support, but at the expense of sensitivity. We only carry one model. The Boreal Equinox. I believe they definitely have their place on long, all day climbs. And lastly are slip lasted shoes, which type comprises the majority of climbing shoes you are likely to see on the wall. Supportive, but with a good degree of sensitivity.
Ok, so what is a proper fit in climbing shoes supposed to feel like? They should definitely be the tightest fitting shoes you own.
You'll notice that most climbing shoes have a much deeper heel cup than average street or recreation footwear. When putting the shoe on, it's important that you press your heel as deep into the cup as possible. If the shoes have laces, begin at the very front of the shoe and snug them up making sure the laces are tight along the whole length of the shoe. Stand in them, alternately stretching your toes out, then bunching them, several times. While standing in your shoes with your toes stretched out, you should be able to feel the front of the shoe with all toes. This is where you will have to decide just how tight you can handle it. Most experienced climbers will want some toe curl, knowing that a curled toe is more powerful than a fully extended toe. Hopefully, the place you're buying from will have a boulder or wall you can try them out on. You don't need to rope up or climb high, just find some small edges you can work with. I like to have my customers stand on a small ledge, with their shoes perpendicular to the wall. Then lift one shoe at a time so that most of their weight is on the point of one shoe. If the shoe is too big, it will peel from the ledge, (make sure to give them a good spot). If the shoe holds, then practice some smearing and edging on the side of the shoe. Throw in a couple heel hooks and you should be able to tell how the shoe will feel while climbing. Pay special attention to any hot spots or points of discomfort. Spending ten minutes in a pair of shoes, may not help you to discern all possible irritations, but it will make you aware of any major incompatibility.
Most climbing shoes require a break in period. During the first half dozen times you wear them you will notice the most change. I like to wear new shoes to the gym the first few times. The reason being, I can get them nice and sweaty, and maximize the amount of time spent actually climbing, as opposed to taking them on and off, hiking, building anchors, etc. etc.
Climbing shoes do stretch, mostly in width, very little in length, and there are a few guide lines to consider when trying to estimate just how much they may stretch.
- Unlined leather shoes stretch more than lined shoes.
- Notice whether the shoes you're considering have any stitching through the leather. Many manufacturers have begun cross stitching the leather on the sides of the shoe to help limit the stretch.
After you have laced the shoe snugly, notice how much space is between the opposing sides holding the eyelets. There should be a minimum of an inch near the toebox, and more near the top collar of the shoe. This is to allow for stretch, so that you will have room to tighten your shoes after they stretch.
Take your new shoes home and wear them around the house for a couple of hours, If they continue to feel reasonably comfortable, then it's time to take them for a test run to the gym or crag.
Finally, the climbing shoe industry is aware that women climb. And that there are some real differences between men and women's feet. Not just smaller, but narrower, higher arched, lower ankle bones, and of course, more cute. They are now making shoes just for women. Granted only a couple of pairs so far, But it's a start. The Five Ten Diamond and Sapphire have been around for a few years. This year La Sportiva is getting into the act with the Lady Mythos. Which looks very similar to the classic mythos, except it's a cool mint green color. But color is the least significant difference in this shoe, it also has a narrower profile, and a higher arch. It continues to have the cool lacing feature that allows you to adjust the tightness of the heel collar.
Also there is a new kid on the block. Madrock climbing shoes hit our shelves a couple of weeks ago. I will reserve comment until I've gotten a little more feedback from customers. I will say this: they are definitely the feeling the edge as to innovative design. And how about a $69-$89 price tag? If these guys can help bring the over priced climbing shoe industry closer to earth, they will have accomplished something.
Whatever type/brand shoe you decide on just remember this:
Unless you're being paid to climb, in which case you're not paying for your shoes anyway, you're climbing for fun, so keep it fun.
Comfort is always more fun than pain, unless you've been to that little club downtown where . . . but that's another story.
Luc - The Gear Guy