Hannah Singletonis a freelance writer based in Salt Lake City who focuses on the outdoors, travel, and public lands.
The shoes don’t make the climber. But they can certainly help you perform at a higher level, and having the best climbing shoes for your project—that's climber speak for a route or climb you're working on—can make the difference between sending and going home disappointed. If your shoe rubber is too stiff, you might not be able to weight your heel on a slab, and if it's too soft, you won’t be able to edge on that microscopic foothold. So which do you choose?
Because climbing shoes are designed with performance in mind, you should purchase your next pair based on your primary style of climbing. Sport, trad, and bouldering all require different movements, and therefor different climbing shoe types. Read on for considerations or scroll down for our picks of the best climbing shoes for all styles.
Top Considerations When Buying Rock Climbing Shoes
Rubber Type and Thickness
The type of rubber on your climbing shoe will determine both how sticky the shoe is on the rock (or plastic) and how much flex the shoe has.
A stiff shoe typically has a harder, thicker rubber (at least 4mm), while a soft shoe will have thinner rubber (less than 4mm). Stiff shoes are great for edging, which means standing on small yet defined footholds. Softer shoes are better for smearing, where you paste your foot on a non-defined edge of the rock and drop your heel, maximizing the forefoot surface area contact between your shoe and the rock.
Many brands, like La Sportiva and Scarpa, use different types of Vibram rubber, while some brands, like Butora and Black Diamond, design their own rubber.
Climbing shoe soles come in different shapes—neutral, moderate, and aggressive—which refer to the amount of downturn or curve a shoe has, and contribute to their performance on the rock. Neutral shoes are great for beginners because they’re comfortable and easy to put on. The flat sole is also beneficial for certain styles of climbing, like crack climbing and slab climbing, where you don’t need excessive arch support or pinpoint toe performance. Moderate shoes feature a slightly downturned toe, and are a great all-around option for most types of climbing. Aggressive shoes are ideal for steep and overhanging terrain where technical footwork is required.
Shape can also refer to the symmetry of the shoe. More aggressive shoes are often asymmetrical, with the toe curving inwards so the toe box is directly over the big toe. This allows for greater toe-in power on steep terrain, but can be uncomfortable for some styles like crack climbing.
Rock climbing shoes are available with three closure styles: lace-up, velcro (hook and loop), and slip-on. Choosing one is a matter of preference and climbing style. If you're bouldering, you might find yourself taking your climbing shoes off and on frequently and switching to your street shoes or approach shoes for the breaks, which might make a velcro or slip-on shoe preferable. On the other hand, lace-up shoes allow for fine-tuning the fit, which you might prefer for longer climbs.
Gym Climbing vs Outdoor Climbing
If you primarily climb indoors at a climbing gym, you can buy a shoe with softer, less durable rubber that will allow you to smear on volumes and stand on big holds. If you primarily climb outdoors at backcountry crags, you may want to choose a stiffer, more durable shoe that can withstand some abuse.
The Best Rock Climbing Shoes of 2022
If you like to switch your climbing up from overhang to vert to slab, your shoe should be able to handle all three (and more). The best overall climbing shoe should be versatile and comfortable, yet capable of edging, smearing, heel hooking, and toeing into cracks. The unisex La Sportiva Katana Lace defies the rules by doing it all, and do it all well.
This moderately-downturned shoe features 4mm of sticky, durable Vibram XS Edge rubber and a slightly asymmetrical design to balance comfort and performance. And, thanks to La Sportiva’s P3 rand technology, the sole will hold its downturned shape even as the rubber softens and you put them through the ringer. However, the lined leather upper will stretch to fit your foot, and lace-up closure system enhances versatility so you can tighten or loosen the shoe as you transition between pitches.
Whether you’re bouldering at the gym or the crag, you’re bound to see a handful of climbers wearing Instincts. These shoes have garnered a cult following because, well, they’re the best all-around bouldering shoe. (Yes, we’re part of the cult.) They’re stiff enough to edge with precision on vert, but the Vibram XS Edge (in the men’s version) and Vibram Grip 2 (in the women’s) rubber is soft enough for steeps or smearing—once you break it in. The Bi-tension rand from the arch to the toe transfers power to your toe so you can edge without the excessively tight fit and discomfort that climbing shoes are known for. The non-stretch synthetic microsuede upper is breathable and secure, and the webbing loop pull tab design makes getting these shoes on and off relatively easy.
These shoes also have a few features so they excel on overhanging boulders. While my past shoes—La Sportivas—always created an air pocket in the heel, these Scarpas hug and lock in my heel with soft rubber so I can heel hook with ease. Plus, the textured rubber toe panel makes toe hooking easy. Overall, the Instinct is an ideal shoe to add to your arsenal if you boulder both indoors and outdoors.
Ideal for steep, technical routes, the La Sportiva Solutions have long been loved by sport climbers seeking a super aggressive, downturned shoe that performs well on tiny edges. The Vibram XS Grip 2 rubber is sticky even on glassy limestone, and its 4mm sole is stiff yet sensitive enough that you’ll feel confident about your footwork as you dance across the rock.
While La Sportiva Solutions are perfect for climbers with narrow feet, they may not provide enough room for wide feet. Another thing to note is that the heel cup is higher volume (larger) than other brands and made with thick, stiff rubber, so some climbers find it hard to achieve a precise fit. They're also partially unlined, so will stretch over time.
When you start climbing, you may hear people tell you that climbing shoes are meant to be smaller than your normal shoe size and feel wildly uncomfortable. We’re here to tell you otherwise. If you’re paying more attention to the pain in your toes than your technique, you’re not doing yourself any favors. So as a beginner climber, you should look for a shoe that is comfortable, affordable, and capable. The Butora Endeavor will help you gain confidence on the wall as you learn to trust your feet on tiny foot holds and volumes.
These moderate shoes have plush upper with opposing velcro straps so you can cinch them down when it’s time to try hard. And, when you start heel hooking, the reinforced heel is rigid enough to learn comfortably. These shoes also come in both wide and narrow versions, unlike most climbing shoes, so you can find the perfect fit for your foot.
From Indian Creek to the Dawn Wall, the TC Pros are the trad climber’s shoe. La Sportiva developed them in collaboration with climbing legend Tommy Caldwell, after all. What other shoe performs so well on both razor thin edges and in a narrow foot jam? And with their most recent redesign in 2021, the TC Pros are a durable and comfortable option for long trad climbs, whether you’re romping up a classic moderate or working moves on your project.
The high-top design of these neutral shoes protects your ankles when you’re jamming them into cracks, and La Sportiva’s P3 midsole technology adds support along your arch for all-day comfort. They feature a super stiff 4mm Vibram XS Edge rubber, but once you wear them in, they’ll perform decently on slabs, too. And, when your walk-off involves dirt or moss, you can rest assured your TC Pros are durable enough for the job.
The Tenaya Tarifas are one of the premier pocket climbing shoes because of their asymmetrical design and incredibly pointy toe rubber. Whether you’re pulling through pockets in Margalef or Ten Sleep, you’ll appreciate the precision that you can achieve with these shoes. With 3.5mm of soft Vibram XS Grip rubber, they’re much more sensitive than others on this list so you’ll feel every edge and foot nub. While this is ideal for single-pitch sport routes, they’re not the best option for multi-pitch climbs. Even more so than La Sportivas, the Tenaya Tarifa is great for climbers with narrow feet who can’t seem to find the right fit with another brand.
UnParallel may be a relatively new brand on the climbing shoe scene, but they have the experience to back up their designs. This small company was formed by a previous 5.10 shoe designer after that brand merged with Adidas, so the Mocc may look familiar if you’ve been climbing for years and were a fan of the old 5.10. They’re similar to the iconic slipper-style Moccasym—before it took a nose dive under Adidas’ watch—but with a few features to enhance performance.
The 4.2mm RH rubber adds durability, the narrow heel cup provides a tighter fit, and the toe rubber enhances functionality for toe hooking and jamming. The unlined leather upper will stretch with use, but the toe rubber helps the shoe hold its shape. While they’re not the best for edging, they are one of the most comfortable shoes for long multi-pitches when you don’t need to prioritize precision.
If you want to excel at gymnastic-style indoor boulders like competition climbers, the Hiangle Pro is worthy of your attention. Donned by athletes like Janja Garnbret and Natalia Grossman, this shoe outperforms other comp shoes because of the aggressive downturned shape mixed with incredibly soft, flexible rubber.
But the most innovative feature on this shoe is the wrap-around design that is seamless from sole to toe. This lack of an inside edge helps you transition from delicate smears to edging as you rock weight over your foot. The Stealth C4 rubbers stick to volumes effortlessly, the toe hooking ability is solid, and the soft heel is great for volume and big hold climbing.
Some people love the heel hook, others think it's overrated. No matter which camp you fall in, it should be a move that you practice regularly. Because when it works, it really works. While heel hooking is a learned skill, your climbing shoe has an impact. The heel cup should feel tight and secure, but have high-quality rubber with decent sensitivity so you can feel the rock or plastic when you place the heel.
The Mad Rock Drone is great for heel hooking because it has an expandable 3D-molded heel design and soft, sensitive rubber. You can achieve a precise fit by choosing between the high volume (HV) model, which features a larger heel cup, and low volume (LV) model, which has a smaller heel cup. Best of all, it comes at a more affordable price point than other high-performance shoes.