Rock climbing shoes

Choosing a pair of rock climbing shoes? Here are common questions people ask, answered by Bogong Equipment staffer James Scott-Bohanna.

I get asked a lot of questions about rock climbing shoes: How tight should they really be? Do I need one of those wiz-bang pairs I see all the strong climbers wearing? Or, are the basic options the old guys and girls wear just as good?

To this day, I still wince about a pair I got talked into buying – they were so tight, it felt like they were breaking my foot in half. Despite that experience, I’ve become a bit of a rock climbing shoe collector.

Because I’ve owned more pairs than I care to think about, I’ve made most of the mistakes a person can make when choosing a pair of rock climbing shoes. To help you avoid these mistakes, I’ve written this article to answer some common questions about rock climbing shoes.

Rock Climbing Shoes Material

Almost all climbing shoes uppers are made in one of three ways: unlined leather, lined leather or synthetic. Each of which has its own pros and cons.

Leather Rock Climbing Shoes

Unlined Leather

Example: La Sportiva Mythos climbing shoes

La Sportiva Mythos climbing shoes

The main advantage of unlined leather is its ability to mould to your foot shape. Its ability to stretch means you can end up with a really well-fitting shoe. The disadvantage of this is, to get the best fit in the long term, you need to buy your shoes fairly tight to start with, and deal with the pain while they stretch.

If you don't get unlined leather shoes tight to start with, they will still stretch and become sloppy and baggy over time. (However, this can be helped by having laces, which I'll get to in a little bit.)

Lined Leather

Example: La Sportiva Katana climbing shoes

This is my upper material of choice, because it will stretch if required, but will not go baggy like unlined rock climbing shoes can. In my experience, this is the best way to ensure a good fit without too much pain to start with.

Non-leather Rock Climbing Shoes

Example: Red Chili Durango VCR climbing shoes

Red Chili Durango VCR climbing shoes

The great thing about synthetic climbing shoes is that they barely stretch at all. This means you can purchase the shoes in the shop without needing to predict stretch, like you do for leather rock climbing shoes.

The downside is that if the shoe isn’t a perfect fit, it’s unlikely to shape to your foot like a leather rock climbing shoe will. Also, in my experience, synthetic shoes are the smelliest. (And I know a thing or two about foot odours.)

Rock Climbing Shoes: Velcro or Laces

There are three types of closure methods used in climbing shoes: laces, Velcro and elastic (used in a style of shoe called ‘slippers’).


Example: La Sportiva TarantuLace climbing shoes

For a large number of people, laces are the best option because it offers a lot of advantages and few disadvantages. This is true especially if you’re buying your first pair, or if you’re after a comfortable pair of rock climbing shoes.

The foremost advantage to laces is the ability to control the fit of the climbing shoe – both when new and as the shoe begins to age and stretch.

Laces let you fine-tune the fit – if you want some areas tighter or looser based on the shape of your foot, you can do that. Or, if you want the shoe tighter or looser based on the difficulty of the specific climb you’re trying, you can do that.

For example, you might not want your shoes super tight if you’re doing a long, multi-pitch route. But if you’re trying something at your limit, you might want your shoes as tight as they’ll go.

Because of this ability to change the tightness or looseness of the shoe, lace-up shoes also tend to fit a wider variety of foot shapes, compared to Velcro or slippers. The only real problem with laces is they are a bit slower to take on and off.


Example: La Sportiva Miura VS climbing shoes

La Sportiva Miura VS climbing shoes

Thanks, NASA! Velcro was developed for the space program and now it’s hard to imagine life without it. Climbing shoes with Velcro strap closures are quick and easy to get in and out of.

Also, because Velcro can be adjusted, they allow a secure fit. However, because Velcro closures can never be as precise as lace closures, a Velcro shoe will need to be fitted a bit tighter. And, the shoe will need to suit your foot shape better.

Elastic (‘slippers’)

Example: La Sportiva Python climbing shoes

La Sportiva Python climbing shoes

Slippers are the least secure climbing shoe closure. Generally, slippers are made of unlined leather, which means they’ll fit your feet like a glove. But, this means you need to fit the shoe very tight to ensure they don’t get too sloppy in the long term.

Slippers also tend to be quite soft underfoot – meaning you can feel the footholds well – but, because of this, this is another reason they need to be fitted very tight.

Rock Climbing Shoes: How Tight?

How tight you fit your climbing shoes is a personal choice. How tight you fit them depends on two things: 1) how much a particular model will stretch; and, 2) how much performance you want out of the shoe.

There is always a trade-off between tightness and performance. A comfy-fitting shoe is great, because you can wear them all day, without too much discomfort. But, they do tend to ‘roll’ and feel a little insecure on the small footholds.

On the other hand, a nice, snug fit will mean you feel more secure on the small footholds. But, this security comes at the price of some discomfort. I honestly believe there is little benefit in having any climbing shoe brutishly tight.

When I’m speaking to someone trying on shoes in the shop, I often say that a little uncomfortable is normal and to be expected, but, ideally, they shouldn’t be truly painful.

It’s always a good idea to fit climbing shoes in the afternoon if possible, because feet tend to swell by this time of day. Trying shoes on when your feet are at their biggest will help ensure that they’re not too tight on a hot day, or in the evenings at the climbing gym.

Rock Climbing Shoe Size

Getting the correct size can make all the difference between a shoe that fits badly and finding the perfect rock climbing shoe for yourself. There’s no rule or trick to guessing your rock climbing shoe size. You may have heard to take your street shoe size and go down two sizes. That may work with some models, but not others. If you're unsure on sizing, give us a call at Bogong Equipment.

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