It’s the one bit of kit you can’t go without. We asked resident shoe expert and Castle Shop stalwart Toby to give us his guide to buying climbing shoes…
A well-fitting pair of shoes can make a big difference to how you climb, and will also be a factor in how well you can climb. Graduating from thick, stiff clumsy rental shoes to something that is a good match for the shape of your foot is a revelatory experience; you can feel where your toes are going, trust that they will stay where you want them to, and as a consequence smaller holds seem a much less ridiculous prospect for standing on. This increased sensitivity means you no longer have to scrabble with your feet to find a place they’ll stick, rather you can aim for a hold with much more precision, which should mean you climb more fluidly and confidently, and also should reduce unnecessary wear to the shoes themselves.
Consider the primary use of your climbing shoes.
There are dozens of models of shoes, but broadly speaking they can be categorised – with a few outliers – into three loose groups: comfortable/all-day-wear, general-purpose technical, and specialised/aggressive performance. Most manufacturers make a similar range, with roughly equivalent shoes within each group – the trick is to find the one that fits the best. Obviously, this means trying them on, which is best done before climbing so your feet haven’t already been bashed around for a couple of hours, after which it’d be hard to tell if any discomfort is due to the shoes you’re trying or the shoes you were already wearing.
Fit above all.
To an extent, the fundamentals of trying to find a good fit are similar regardless of the type of shoe you’re trying. They ought to be a close fit everywhere around the foot, with the heel snugly held and the toes right into the end of the shoe. This might not necessarily be comfortable as such, but any significant pain is generally a bad sign.
There are numerous caveats that should be borne in mind too – everyone’s feet differ, everyone’s idea of comfort and pain is different, the shoes themselves may be designed with more or less of an extreme fit in mind, the initial feel will be different to how they’ll feel after a few sessions, and so on. Between ‘definitely too big’ and ‘definitely too small’ there is a spectrum on which everyone has to pick their preferred fit point.
Think about your toes.
To work with maximum effect, climbing shoes should be sized by the wearer such that the toes are unable to fully flatten and extend. Effectively the shoes hold the toes in the gripping position they’d adopt were no shoes being worn at all. This is particularly the case with the more aggressive performance shoes, which rely on a snug fit to provide tension in the shoe that then permits power to be driven to a very focussed point.
If there is enough space for the toes to wiggle freely and happily, it will likely mean that your feet will be inclined to ‘roll’ in the shoes, and when you come to try standing on a small edge the toes will curl back leaving a gap at the end. This dead space won’t be well supported, so the shoes will buckle and flop off holds very easily. Stiffer soles can offset this effect, but at the expense of sensitivity and ‘smearability’.
Try both lace ups and velcro.
Finding this optimum fit is further complicated by the varying nature of each individual’s feet; some feet are slender, some are broad, some have a blunter shape, some have awkward bone growths – and almost everybody has a difference in size between the left and right foot. If this is not particularly pronounced then it’s not necessarily a huge issue, but one foot may have to suffer a fit that is a little off.
For feet that are notably astray of ‘normal’, it may be worth giving more consideration to lacing shoes. These can offer a little more adjustability, whether it be in terms of cranking right down over a slender foot or opening out at the toes for a blunt foot, and can sometimes permit a bit more pull around the ankle and heel.
Blunt feet may also fit better in shoes that are more asymmetrically shaped, as a shoe that come to a fairly even point in the toe-end may prevent square toes from properly filling it. Conversely, triangular feet or owners of long second toes could well find less asymmetry more comfortable.
Try different sizes – and different brands – of climbing shoes.
When possible, it is certainly worth trying a shoe that seems a good fit in smaller sizes. Most manufacturers make half-sizes, and while this is usually a matter of millimetres it can sometimes be the case that a slightly smaller shoe actually feels better than a bigger one. This effect is usually most noticeable when properly weighting the toes, as when climbing, rather than just sitting or standing, as the weight distribution and its subsequent effect on the shape of the foot is different.
This does not mean, however, that you should always expect the size of the shoe on the box to be smaller than your actual size. It is also best to try to use the manufacturer’s native sizing, as EU, UK and US values don’t cleanly translate, and there isn’t consistency in how a size is interpreted anyway. A 39 in brand x’s shoe isn’t necessarily the same as a 39 in brand y’s, and brand x may consider a 44 in EU sizing to be a UK 9.5 while brand y calls it a 10. Even within the same brand a given size may not fit the same foot for different models of shoe.
Materials affect long-term adjustment.
Over the life of the shoe a degree of change in fit is inevitable. For the most part this is beneficial, as the shoe adjusts to the foot and becomes more tailored, and – ideally – more comfortable. Generally, uppers made from leather that have minimal rubber covering will give most readily, while extra linings, extra rubber patches and synthetic materials tend to restrict adaptability. It is difficult to be exact about how much a shoe will give, but it is certainly worth trying to take this into account when considering the initial fit.
Where to buy climbing shoes in London
There are several climbing specialists in London where you can try your new shoes on before you buy, which guarantees you a better fit than if you buy online. The Castle Shop is an absolute heaven for climbers looking for new gear - we have one of the widest ranges of climbing shoes in London, and you can try them all before you buy to check the fit and size is right for you. Plus you'll get to meet people like Toby who will be able to give you all the advice on fit you could possibly need.