How to Pick Your First Pair of Climbing Shoes
Here are some general tips for finding the right pair of climbing shoes for you.
So you have decided to try climbing. Maybe you have even been to the local rock gym a few times, or outside with some friends, and now you are on your way to being hooked. Well, now you need to buy yourself a pair of climbing shoes. But which climbing shoes? There are many choices, but this guide will help you figure out how to find the right pair of shoes for you.
Fit is by far the most important factor to consider when purchasing your first pair of climbing shoes. Climbing shoes should be snug, but not painful. You will climb better if your feet are comfortable, and you will climb more often. If, after you have been climbing for awhile, you decide that you want a pair of high performance rock shoes that force your toes to curl over and compress your foot into the shape of a banana, then go for it. For your first pair of shoes, however, you should get something comfortable. You should get a shoe with a flat last, not one that is down turned. Your toes should be straight or just slightly curled over, and the heel cup should hug your heel without any major empty space but without digging into your Achilles' tendon or causing a painful pressure point on your heel bone. If you plan on climbing cracks at all, make sure your toes are straight, or you will be in for some pain when you foot jam.
Another factor to consider is stretch. Leather shoes will tend to stretch up to a half size, while synthetic shoes usually will not stretch. Unlined leather shoes will generally stretch more than lined ones. You might want to size unlined leather shoes a bit tight, but you should never do that with an all-synthetic shoe.
Those sleek $150 climbing shoes are awesome - if you know how to use them. As a beginner, your footwork is going to be less than stellar. As you learn to climb you will drag your toes, readjust your feet constantly, skid around as you try to place your shoe on the tiny foothold you need, and generally scuff your shoes up. Your first pair of climbing shoes is going to wear out more quickly than any subsequent pair you buy, so you should avoid breaking the bank on your purchase.
Stiff vs. Soft
Stiff shoes tend to be better for standing on small edges. Soft shoes tend to be better at smearing, where one places as much shoe rubber on the rock as possible and stands because of the friction between the two. To some extent, all shoes will have a trade-off between their edging and smearing capabilities. If you have strong feet from other activities, or plan to mostly climb boulders or single pitch routes, then you might tend to prefer softer shoes. If you have weak feet, or plan to spend a lot of time climbing long routes, then stiffer shoes might be the ticket for you. Shoes that are board-lasted tend to be stiffer, while slip-lasted shoes tend to be softer, but the type of midsole used also plays an important role in the shoe's overall stiffness.
Lace-Up vs. Velcro
Lace-up shoes generally have a more fine-tuned fit than their Velcro counterparts. On the other hand, they take longer to put on and take off. Lace ups tend to be better for crack climbing, because Velcro straps can come loose with the repeated insertion and removal of a foot into and out of a crack. Velcro tends to be preferred for bouldering because of the on and off ease they provide. That said, I've bouldered in lace ups and crack climbed in shoes with Velcro, so go with your personal preference. Slippers that have no closure system tend to require a more precise and tighter fit, and are best left for when you are more experienced, if you decide you like them.
These general guidelines will help you choose the right pair of shoes for you. Try to find a rock gym or outdoor store with a wide selection of shoes, and try on as many different pairs as you can. Stick to the guidelines in this article, and do not let any salesman convince you to buy a pair of shoes that are too tight or simply do not fit your feet. People's feet are shaped differently, and only you know what is comfortable for you.
Good luck and good climbing!