Many old-timers in the climbing community will tell you that the tighter your climbing shoes are, the better you will climb, but is there any truth to that? Why would anyone climb if their feet were always in excruciating pain? If you’ve ever wondered just how your climbing shoes should fit, this is the article for you. We will break down the different styles of climbing shoes and how tight they should be.
No Pain, No Gain: Is this True with Climbing Shoes?
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While there is some truth to the idea that your climbing shoes should not fit in the same way that your street shoes do, you really don’t need your climbing shoes to be really painful. This adage, no pain, no gain, comes from the old days of climbing when climbing shoes were less shaped, and a tighter shoe was the only way to get a closer fit. As climbing shoes have evolved, it has gotten possible to get shoes that fit your feet better as opposed to bulky shoes that just have to be tight.
Unfortunately, this adage was never fully dropped, especially since many really underturned, high-performance climbing shoes look excruciating. The main goal of having a tight-fitting shoe was to allow you to feel the rock well, even with a shoe on, but as the rubber used on the soles of climbing shoes has gotten thinner, this is no longer necessary.
How Tight Should Climbing Shoes Be?
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“A climbing shoe should be tight but not painful,” seems to be what most shoe salespeople will tell you when you go to try on your first pair of climbing shoes. This statement really doesn’t mean much in a practical sense, though, so how should your climbing shoes fit?
The best way to think about how your climbing shoes should fit and how tight they should be is by thinking about the amount of empty space around your feet. You want to find a pair of shoes that fit your feet well and minimize the amount of empty space around your feet. Empty space will allow the shoe to rub, causing blisters and sore spots.
A shoe being tight does not mean that it has to be painful, though. Think of your climbing shoes like a thicker pair of socks. They should fit snugly around your feet, leaving little to no extra space, but you shouldn’t feel like your feet are in constant pain. Tight shoes mean that you can feel the shoes on your feet, but also that you can feel your feet well and that the shoes aren’t cutting off any blood flow or rubbing a spot numb.
As you start pushing your grade more, you might want to think about getting more aggressive shoes or just shoes with thinner rubber, to allow you to feel the rock better, but what style of shoe is best for you will depend on what style of climbing you like best. This is why it is best to start out with a more moderate shoe that fits the shape of your foot well but is a good all-around shoe.
When you start trying on climbing shoes, you should make sure that they are comfortable to climb in, since that’s what you’ll be doing in them. You should make sure that there isn’t too much empty space either around your feet or near your toes. You should also make sure that the heel box fits your foot well and doesn’t slide around and rub. This is only the tip of the iceberg to things you can learn about the fit of your climbing shoes, but it is a great starting point.
How Curled Should Toes Be in Climbing Shoes?
Your toes really shouldn’t be curled in your climbing shoes. If your toes are curled up in your climbing shoes, it’s going to be hard to put any pressure on your toes, which is exactly what you need to be able to do when climbing.
At the same time, you shouldn’t have a ton of empty space around your toes. Many climbing shoe brands offer different size and shape toe boxes in their different models of shoes, so if you feel like a certain shoe curls your toes up, but you like the fit on the rest of your foot, maybe try a similar size in a different model and see if it fits your foot shape better.
Many climbing shoe brands offer a wider and skinnier model of climbing shoes, so if you feel like climbing shoes, make your toes curl up a lot, perhaps you should look into a wider shoe. Another way to help your tight climbing shoes fit wider feet is to get lace-up shoes instead of slipper style or velcro closure. The laces will allow for more fine adjustments and allow you to get a more precise fit.
Downsides to Tight Climbing Shoes that are Too Tight
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Climbing in shoes that are too tight can lead to a multitude of problems. If your shoes are too tight, you not only run the risk of hurting your feet, but you also risk having a major distraction from your climbing. While injuries are a serious concern with too tight climbing shoes, it tends to be almost impossible to focus on tough moves during a hard climb if your feet are in excruciating pain. Having a properly fitting pair of snug climbing shoes will benefit your climbing ability so much more.
Sometimes, even if your shoes fit well, you may end up with a few spots of your feet that develop calluses from the rubbing, but they shouldn’t develop any open wounds or blisters. If your shoes are too tight, you can also cause some pretty serious damage to your toes from all the curling and pressure. Taking the extra time to find a style of shoe that fits your feet well and getting them in the right size can save you lots of pain down the line.
If you climb in shoes that are too tight for a long time, you run the risk of damaging the nerves in your feet as well. The better your shoes fit, the better you’ll be able to climb, so don’t put your feet at risk for a presumed increase in ability that will likely lead to long-term damage. Finding climbing shoes that fit properly can really increase your climbing ability and allow you to focus more on your movements and less on the constant pain in your feet.
Should You Have Multiple Pairs of Climbing Shoes for Different Sends?
This depends on what type of climber you are and how much you are willing to dedicate to your climbing gear collection. Many climbers that are just starting out will invest in one really comfortable and long-lasting pair of moderate shoes. When they decide that their climbing level has progressed to a point where more aggressive shoes might be more helpful, they often keep their older, more worn pair of climbing shoes to use for longer or easier climbs, since they will likely be super comfortable by that point.
If you want to get really into outdoor sport and trad climbing, perhaps having more than one pair of climbing shoes will serve you well. Many climbers like having a looser fitting and less aggressive shoe for trad climbs since you will most likely be climbing below your limit and be on the rock for much longer. If you want to push your grade and project hard sport climbs, a tighter fitting and more aggressive shoe may be better.
Another reason why you might have a few pairs of shoes is if you are really into a variety of styles of climbing. Often times, people who like bouldering will go with tighter shoes, since the problems are shorter and the foot placements are often more precise. That being said, the amount of time that you will be wearing the shoes is also much less than it is with sport climbing or trad climbing.
Many outdoor climbers also like to have a few shoes to choose from since the combination of your foot sweat and the humidity or moisture in the area can often increase the stretch of leather climbing shoes. If you prefer to climb in synthetic shoes, this isn’t likely to be a problem for you, but it might be nice to not put your feet into sweaty shoes every time, especially if you climb frequently and in hot or humid locations.
When is it Appropriate to Go a Size Up?
Many climbers will never size up, but sometimes it can be really beneficial to size up. If your feet hurt in your existing climbing shoes, maybe think about going a size up next time you get new climbing shoes. Remember that since climbing shoes are in European sizes, a size up is not as big of a difference as it is in US shoe sizes.
Another time that it is worthwhile to look at a variety of sizes is if you are switching to a different style or company. Each style of shoe fits a little bit differently, and while you might be a 38 in one style, you might need a 40 in a different style. It all depends on the shape of your foot and how the shoe fits your foot.
Something else to think about when picking what size climbing shoe to get is how long it’s going to take you to break in your climbing shoe and how much the shoe you are getting is going to mold to your foot. With leather-topped climbing shoes, it takes significantly less time for you to break the shoes in and for them to mold to the shape of your feet. This also means that the shoes will stretch more, so if you like leather-topped shoes, it might not be a good idea to size up.
If you like synthetic topped shoes, sizing up might be a good option. Synthetic shoes will hold their original shape, meaning that it will take a long time for them to fully soften, and they won’t stretch much at all. It’s better to take some extra time trying on synthetic shoes and go a size up if you need to since they won’t stretch later.
Wrapping Things Up: How Painful Should Your Climbing Shoes Be?
In general, you should go by the phrase “tight but not painful” when picking out your next pair of climbing shoes. Given the advances in modern climbing shoes, painful shoes are more likely to give you painful hot spots and blisters and distract you from your climbing than they are to help your climbing ability at all. It is much more important to find shoes that fit the shape of your feet than it is to squeeze your feet into the tightest pair of shoes you can stand.
If you found this post helpful, you’re definitely going to like our other climbing tips here.
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