As the gear-review manager, I own over 50 pairs of climbing shoes. And that's lowballing. I'm trying on new shoes almost every week. My feet hate me. First World problem? You betcha.
Forget all you know about how to find, and fit, your next climbing shoe. Most of the information out there is junk. This is your first and last guide.
Primary Laws of Shoes
1. Comfort is not king.
Fitting your climbing shoes for comfort is like buying a car because you like the driver's seat. What I'm not saying is that climbing shoes should be uncomfortable, only that buying for comfort first isn't wise.
A few exceptions exist, however, where comfort should be top priority: for kids, because their feet are still developing and they just need to have fun; for absolute newbies who don't need the distraction of less-than- comfortable shoes. If either of these situations sounds familiar, get the comfiest pair of kicks imaginable, let 'er rip, and stop reading. For the rest, keep on.
2. Performance mostly matters.
The marketing of certain shoes as for "performance" is a lie. Performance is relative. A 5.8 climber needs a shoe that performs for their ability just as a 5.15 crusher does. That is what matters. Performance means you are using a shoe for what it was made for.
3. Have two pairs, at least.
I bring three to the crag, or gym, and so does almost everyone who takes climbing seriously. First, ask yourself what type of climbing are you doing? Are you mainly bouldering, leading or toproping? Whichever one will determine your shoe. There's no such thing as an all-arounder, really. Thinking one shoe can do it all is like trying to shoot your best round of golf with only a five iron.
First, you want a pair to warm up in, and a pair when things get serious. Why? Save the wear and tear on your sending shoe, which can cost upwards of $200, and grind down the rubber on a cheaper pair.
4. Foot shapes are different.
I know some climbers whose feet only fit in a La Sportiva shoe. Others only use Scarpa. Try on loads of brands and whatever shoe you end up getting, there should be no extra space in the toe box, heel cup or arch. If there is, keep shopping.
Now to the Shoes
Flat shoes, as in where your feet are absolutely flat and no crunched toes, pretty much like your everyday shoes. The bottom of these shoes looks flat. In general, flat shoes are excellent for slabs and the vertical wall, and kids. Flat shoes can be soft to stiff. Stiff are for harder vertical routes or hard slabs, such as when you need to stand on quarter-inch edges and such. Stiffness helps you stand on smaller holds with more efficiency, putting the burden on your calves. These shoes are not ideal for bouldering or anything steep. Flat shoes tend to be the most comfortable.
Fitting for flat shoes: "Yum, these feel good" to "Ahh, perfect." Fit these shoes snug, your toes right up to the tips, but not crunched. If it's a tad tight, ask yourself if you can wear them for 15 minutes. If you can, get them. Snug yields better performance than loose. Bear in mind that rock shoes stretch, usually half a size.
A flat shoe with a relaxed rand lets your toes lie naturally without being squeezed. These are great entry-level footwear, and because they are comfortable, are suitable for all-day wear.
Downturned shoes are designed for steep to overhanging climbing and bouldering. A downturned shoe arcs like a bird beak.
Downturned shoes are usually mid to extremely soft for sensitivity. Unless you predominantly climb on vertical terrain, you want a pair of downturned shoes in your arsenal. There are subcategories:
Mildly downturned: A mid to mildly downturned shoe will get you up techy slabs, can perform on vertical terrain, can still get into pockets, and is great for the lead cave and bouldering.
Medium down-turned shoes strike a balance between comfort and performance. If there is an all-arounder, this is it.
Extremely downturned: A rule of thumb: the more downturned a shoe, the more it is meant for overhanging climbing, the reason being it lets you grab and pull in with your toes (for a caveat, see "Asymmetrical shoes"). There's nothing sadder than seeing someone on a steep route
with a flat shoe. As Yoda said, No favors do they make for themselves. For steep bouldering or steep sport routes--over 45 degrees--get an extremely downturned shoe.
Fitting for downturned shoes: "Not bad" to "Uuugh" to "Damn, that hurts." Again, they'll stretch a bit, about a half size. You only need to wear them for one to five minutes at a time. If you size these shoes too big, it's like tying up a horse's leg before the race. Very snug to tight is the rule. During fitting, your toes should be crunched and angled downward--this allows you to pull on steeper terrain, and the asymmetry in these aggressive shoes will allow your big toe to engage.
Aggressively downturned shoes with a slingshot heel rand perform better as the wall gets steeper. This type of shoe compresses your foot and puts the power in your toes.
A Note on Rands:
The rand is the strip of rubber running around the shoe upper. Most downturned shoes have a tensioned "sling- shot" heel rand that keeps your heel locked in and drives your toes to the end of the shoe. There are other variations of an active rand, such as arch rands. Some flat shoes will have an active heel rand, but the majority are relaxed.
Stiff shoes--as in, the bottom of the shoe feels like a board--refers not to shape but feel. These shoes are for outdoor climbing, trad climbing and slabs or vertical routes with a lot of edges.
A stiff shoe has a rigid midsole, a midbed stiffener that supports your foot (especially when torqued in cracks), so you don't have to have strong feet to get the best performance out of them. Stiff shoes can be flat or downturned, but usually they are flat'ish.
Fitting for stiff shoes: same as for flat shoes.
This refers to the shape of the shoe. Imagine a twisted banana. The more the tip of the shoe bends away from the center line, the more asymmetrical the shoe. Flat shoes are typically more symmetrical, but never perfectly so. Most asymmetrical shoes are downturned. The purpose of the asymmetry is to keep your toes in a crimp position, which helps with digging into holds on steep routes and, with some models, help keep you on small holds on vertical terrain with greater precision, thanks to your big toe doing a lot of the work.
Fitting for asymmetrical shoes: Same as for downturned shoes.