Improving your climbing depends so much on understanding how to use your feet. The longer you climb, you realize there are multiple ways you can use your feet to climb more efficiently. Good footwork will not only improve your climbing flow, but it will also help you conquer moves that seemed impossible before. That’s where learning how to smear is so important.
One of the more advanced rock climbing moves that will drastically improve your climbing is smearing. There are many times, especially outdoors, when you don’t have any available footholds, and you feel helpless. Smearing is the climbing technique you need to have in your repertoire to face those situations.
We will look at what smearing is and why it’s so important. We will explain how to smear and what shoes work best for this technique. Finally, we will go over common mistakes climbers do when trying to smear, and we will share some tutorial recommendations on youtube.
What is Smearing in Climbing?
Smearing is when you use the surface of the wall or the rock as a foothold. In other words, it’s when your foot comes in direct contact with a flat plane of rock, and there’s no actual feature to step on or grip.
When you smear, you rely on friction to keep you stable, by applying pressure with the rubber sole of your shoe on the rock or wall surface. It’s basically like walking on the wall!
Smearing is a climbing technique that doesn’t require strength to execute, but it revolves more around technique and balance, that’s why it comes in handy when climbing slabs. Many times it can be the determining factor to whether you will manage to complete a route or not.
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Why is Smearing Important in Climbing
When you are a beginner, you may think that you can only use the holds that are placed on the wall, or only the prominent protrusions of the rock, when climbing outdoors. When you discover that you can also use the wall surface, you discover smearing, and it makes such a difference in your style and grades you can climb.
- When there are no available footholds, or the footholds you want to use are too far apart, you can use the smearing technique to tackle a move. Especially outdoors, there are many situations when you feel you don’t have anywhere to put your feet. Having worked on smearing, you will feel you have more options to progress on a route.
- Smearing is a great way to improve your footwork technique. You learn to utilize the wall and rock in multiple ways and not to rely only on your upper body. Most importantly, you learn to trust your feet and shoes.
- By practicing smearing, you can improve your balance and confidence, essential factors in improving your climbing flow.
- Smearing is an essential technique to know when climbing slabs.
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- You learn to be more observant and read the rock surface to find even the smallest wrinkle or pebble that will help you create more friction.
- Your feet will become more sensitive to their grip limits, and you will be more aware of where they can step and stick.
Do Certain Climbing Shoes Smear Better than Others?
After you become familiar with the basic technique, smearing depends a lot on the rubber and stickiness of the shoe.
Shoes that are softer and more sensitive work better for smearing than stiffer shoes. That is because a softer, more elastic shoe easily takes the shape of the rock surface you are pushing on. If the shoe is more rigid and doesn’t bend easily, you will end up having less shoe rubber in contact with the rock, thus less friction and stability.
Aggressive, downturned shoes will make smearing harder, as it will be a challenge to flatten your toes on the wall.
It helps a lot if you wash your shoes with water and soap and brush them with a toothbrush after every climb. This way, you remove the dirt, and your shoes remain sticky for longer.
How to Practice Smearing Effectively in Climbing
The smearing technique is most often used in slab climbing. Outdoors, it’s easier to smear on granite and sandstone, because they don’t have a smooth surface.
To smear, as you are pulling with straight arms on your handholds, push your toes and balls of your feet flat on the wall to create friction. As you push with your feet, bring your hips away from the wall.
The force you apply on the wall is generated by your weight. So in that position, your weight helps you to push more through the feet and achieve maximum grip for your smear to stick.
The most important points for your smearing to be successful are:
When you place your toes against the wall, you really need to engage your foot. The more passive your foot is, the more possible it is to slip off.
Pay attention to the direction of the force you are applying with your feet. The more perpendicular to the wall it is, the more the force you can apply, and the more your shoes will stick. By pushing your hips away from the wall, your center of gravity is lowered towards that line of direction.
Lowering your heels while you smear will increase the shoe area that is in contact with the wall or rock surface, increasing friction and grip. This works mostly if the surface is uniform and flat.
When you want to smear in pockets, keep your toes pointed and try to get as much rubber as possible in there. To be able to apply more pressure, in this case, it’s better if you lift your heel.
Ending the smear
When moving off a smear, you shouldn’t do it gradually. That may cause your foot to slip. Instead, it should be more of a sudden move. In general, when relying on your foot, it should be pushing on the wall full force, or it shouldn’t be on the wall at all. So once you place it, keep it still until you remove it completely.
It’s important to practice smearing often in a safe environment to gain confidence and trust in your feet before you try to use it while you’re leading and overcome by fear.
To do that, you can find an easy bouldering problem that consists mostly of jugs, and try to complete it without using any footholds, and instead smearing on the wall surface.
Practicing will also help you figure out the mechanics of smearing, like where it’s better to place your feet and how much you need to push to stay on the wall.
Smearing is sometimes used along with the flagging technique. Flagging in climbing is when you extend one leg to the side as a counterbalance. It prevents swinging away from the wall, mostly in overhangs. The flagging foot can lightly touch the wall or smear for more balance and support.
For more details on the flagging technique, read our article How to Flag in Climbing.
Smearing Technique Tips for Rock Climbing Beginners and Intermediates
The factors that will determine if your smearing will be effective and if your foot will stick have to do mostly to how you position the smearing foot, how you push it against the wall, and how much you trust it.
- When you smear, your toes should point upward, and the heel should follow in the same vertical direction. In other words, don’t turn your toes or heels to either side.
- Don’t try to cover large distances to get to better footholds while you smear. Keep it to small controlled movements to move up gradually.
- Look for tiny protrusions on the rock or any coarse patches to smear on. Try to be accurate, rather than placing your feet at random.
- It helps to keep your feet about as wide as your shoulders, and not wider. This positioning gives your climbing more accuracy and control, and you can apply more pressure with your feet.
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- Work with your body weight and smear on the wall where you feel there should be a foothold. If you learn to do this, your body-weight will be distributed in a way that keeps you on the wall.
Engagement and Pressure
- Keep the pressure you apply steady and even throughout the movement.
- Remember to press through the base of your big toe, which can give you most of the push.
- Strengthen and engage your core when you smear for more stability and control.
- The steeper the wall is, the more pressure you will need to apply with your feet.
Mental Strength and Trust
- Smearing is definitely a technique that requires mental strength and trusting your feet in order to be effective.
- Even though it may feel scary, lean back to gain more shoe to wall contact, and more friction. Leaning back will also give you a better view of your next holds.
- It really helps to sometimes get past the fear, and experiment, to become more familiar with your body and your shoes. It’s good to know the limits of where your shoe can stick, and how far you can take it when you have practically nothing to step on.
- By practicing smearing often, you will become more comfortable in standing on your feet and trusting them. The more you practice, your feet and leg muscles will also become stronger and adapt to the movement.
Common Smearing Mistakes
Smearing is one of those climbing techniques that almost always feels quite insecure to try out. It needs you to trust your body and your shoe that the pressure you are applying will be enough for it to stick. Most of the time, it works like magic, and it’s amazing how your foot stays on such flat planes of rock surface.
However, there are a few things that can go wrong when smearing:
- Letting your lack of confidence affect your body position. Losing your confidence will almost definitely cause you to change how you position your body, for example, instinctively bringing your body closer to the wall, which in turn will reduce contact of your shoe with the rock. So keep in mind that when you smear, you need to commit to it fully.
- If you bring your hips and weight too close to the wall, you will lose friction from your feet, and they will slip off the wall. This also happens when you place your feet too low on the wall compared to where your hips are. In that position, you can’t push with as much weight into your feet, so again you lose friction, and your feet can slip off.
- Smearing is quite intense on the arms, so only use it when necessary.
- Trying to smear with dirty shoes. Dirty or muddy shoes will cause you to lose any friction, and you will slip off.
- Using just the tips of your toes to push the wall. If there is no pocket on the rock, you need to lower your heel and bring more shoe surface in contact with the wall to create more friction.
Helpful Smearing Tutorials on YouTube
There are some great tutorials on YouTube that will solidify what we talked about and give you a whole rounded picture on how to smear.
Neil Gresham’s masterclass on smearing, going over the technique and common mistakes, as well as how to smear on different types of rock surface:
A brief explanation of what smearing is:
A short tutorial on how to smear:
Wrapping Things Up: Final Things to Remember for How to Smear
Smearing can really make the difference in tackling a move that you couldn’t just because of foothold limitations.
It may seem like one of the more advanced climbing techniques, but even if you are a beginner, you can start practicing it to get a feel for how you can use your feet even when you feel you don’t have available or good footholds.
To wrap up, let’s look at some key points that will help you in practicing the smearing technique:
- It’s useful when climbing slabs and when there are no footholds available.
- You really need to push in the rock with your feet and keep your hips away from the wall.
- The smearing technique relies on friction. The more shoe surface is in contact with the wall or rock, the more friction and grip you get.
- Lower your heel for flat surfaces and lift your heel for pockets on the rock.
- Softer shoes are better for smearing than stiff downturned shoes. Remember to keep them clean!
- Be observant to recognize good spots to smear on.
- Accuracy and engagement of the smearing foot are essential.
Learning how to smear and practicing it whenever you have the opportunity will definitely help in improving your climbing flow. But remember, the most crucial thing for successful smearing is to keep your confidence and trust in your feet and shoes.
If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like our other climbing tips here.
Also, check out our other posts on climbing techniques & moves here: