Climbing or bouldering shoes are arguably the most important part of your climbing kit. While you can do the most basic routes in approach shoes, anything moderate or difficult requires a solid pair of climbing shoes. With more than 40 brands actively manufacturing shoes, it can be really hard to decide which is best for you.
A poll of Mountain Project users found that La Sportiva and Scarpa are the two best brands for climbing shoes because of their quality, product line, and performance. La Sportiva is more popular in the US Market, while Scarpa is more popular globally.
Obviously there are a lot of factors that go into picking the best climbing shoe, and different shoes are designed for different occasions or types of climbing. There are, however, a few brands that have risen above the rest.
Brands of Rock Climbing Shoes
I ran a very scientific and accurate poll of Mountain Project users, who came to a consensus on two brands- La Sportiva and Scarpa. I got some excellent responses that said things like “Scarpa shoes have blown away every other brand I’ve worn” and “La Scarpiva.”
Every manufacturer doesn’t compete in the same market, though some of the bigger brands have models that target every demographic including beginners, professionals, crack climbers, and boulderers. What follows is a breakdown of the best climbing shoe brands for each market.
Best Overall Climbing Shoe Brands
Specific shoes for climbing emerged from the field of mountaineering, as adventurers decided they wanted to push the grade on rock as well as ice and snow. Shoes have certainly been one of the biggest contributors to the advancement of climbing grades. Because of this history, most of the biggest climbing shoe brands emerged from mountaineering companies.
La Sportiva is probably the best known climbing shoe brand in the world, and has been making shoes for almost 100 years in the Dolomites in Italy. They sponsor some of the highest-profile athletes, including Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Margo Hayes, and Adam Ondra. They don’t just make climbing shoes too- they make some excellent mountaineering equipment, as well as trail running and hiking shoes.
As one of the biggest climbing shoe brands out there, La Sportiva offers shoes for every type of climber. The Tarantulace is an especially popular shoe among beginners because of its performance and relatively low price point.
The Mythos and Miura are some of the classics, dating back to the 90’s and early 2000’s. The Katana received the highest overall rating from Outdoor Gear Lab in 2020 (in which comparison La Sportiva shoes swept the top 6 spots!).
“Scarpa shoes always fit my feet perfectly so they’re obviously the best overall brand. If you’re wearing anything else then your feet are wrong”Random Mountain Project User
Scarpa literally means “shoe” in Italian (at least according to Google!). Founded in the Dolomites during the late 1930’s, its history is somewhat similar to La Sportiva. In fact, several high-level designers have worked for both companies. Like La Sportiva, Scarpa built its name in mountaineering boots and has also dabbled in approach shoes and trail runners.
Although the brand is somewhat smaller than La Sportiva, they match the same level of perfection and expertise. Scarpa shoes haven’t been as popular in the United States, but they do really well in the global market- especially in Europe. The Instinct and Drago are among the most popular Scarpa shoes.
These three US brands make really good shoes, but just don’t quite match the superior design and quality of La Sportiva and Scarpa.
Five Ten used to be one of the top shoe brands in the world because of the supreme quality of their rubber (stealth rubber is magic); however they’ve slowed down over the last decade after they sold out to Adidas.
Adidas can’t seem to decide whether they want to keep Five Ten independent or not, and haven’t really continued to develop the brand. They still have some excellent shoes in the Anasazi family, but haven’t been as innovative as they need to be.
Tenaya is another US brand that makes some great shoes. They’re not as well known as the first three brands listed, but make some really technical shoes.
Evolv is another newer US brand that tends to be more affordable. Their entry level shoes can come in at less than $50. While they do make some high-end shoes as well, they don’t offer the same portfolio breadth that the Italian brands do. What they do well is collaborate with famous athletes to design shoes.
Modern Climbing Shoe Brands
Butora, a South Korean company, only started making shoes in 2014, but has quickly risen up the ranks. The shoes tend to be more focused on the gym, and are becoming more and more common at competitions among athletes.
They don’t have very many styles of shoes, but the ones they do sell are quite good. Their Chinese factory actually also makes Black Diamond’s climbing shoes.
So iLL has been called “the OG” of climbing shoes. The designs are flashy and urban, speaking to a specific type of climber. The quality isn’t anything special, and you don’t really see any pro’s wearing them (Jason Momoa doesn’t count, sorry). They’re cool-looking shoes though, so if that’s your goal then this is the brand for you!
Black Diamond finally made the leap into the climbing shoe market in 2017. It was a somewhat logical step, seeing as how they are one of the biggest brands in the industry and manufacture everything else. Their shoes breathe really well and are on the cheaper end as far as affordability.
Black Diamond shoes aren’t technically incredible, but are good solid mid-level shoes. This way you can round out your equipment with another Black Diamond piece.
Affordable/Cheap Climbing Shoe Brands
For many beginners, especially those who are unsure if they will really catch the bug and commit to the sport, the best choice is to start out with a more affordable climbing shoe brand. These cheaper shoes still work really well, they just aren’t quite as performance-oriented and specialized as the more expensive brands.
When you first start out you tend to wear through your shoes more quickly because your footwork isn’t very precise. New climbers usually drag their toes across the wall as they feel for footholds. As you get more experienced, you get better at “sticking” footholds without needlessly damaging your shoes.
Climbing gear manufacturer Climb X is one of the most affordable options for climbing shoes. It was actually started by a guy who had previously worked for Mad Rock, and was started in a factory in China that had previously made shoes for Mad Rock.
The companies are very similar, though Climb X’s shoes tend to be a little bit cheaper. Climb X releases new models of shoes pretty frequently, and identifies each release with the year so that you can tell what the differences are.
Mad Rock has been around for almost 20 years. It was founded by a former designer for 5.10 who wanted to make something more affordable and have more design freedom. Their signature rubber is called “Science Friction.” The most popular Mad Rock shoe is probably the “Drifter.”
European outdoors company Decathlon also makes climbing gear under the brand name Simond. Simond shoes have pretty good reviews, though I’ve never tried them. Decathlon gear is extremely affordable, though the distribution isn’t very broad within the US-yet.
Small Climbing Shoe Brands
Aside from these major players in the industry, there are scores of other manufacturers. Some have been making shoes for decades, while others are recent upstarts looking to make a name in the climbing world. Some are handmade by craftsmen, while others are made in large factories with other shoes.
Boreal, founded in Spain, has been around for a long time, but has never really grown in the US market. Their claim to fame is the original ‘sticky rubber’ developed for the Boreal Fire shoe.
Red Chili is a German shoe manufacturer. They seem to not be as popular as they were a decade ago (at least in my circles). The name allegedly came because the founders were listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers when they decided to design their own rock shoes.
Cypher shoes are really affordable, though this does sacrifice some performance and quality. The first rock shoes I ever owner were made by CaVa, which was the predecessor to Cypher. You can usually pick up a cheap pair for less than $50.
There are at least 20-30 other climbing shoe brands, including Ocun, Snake, kN climbing, Unparallel, Rock Empire, Acopa, Lowa, and many others that are only sold in the region they were developed in.
What Brand of Climbing Shoes do Professionals use?
Similar to professionals in other sports, most pro climbers just wear whatever climbing brands will sponsor them. The biggest brands have the biggest budgets, and sponsor the most famous climbers.
To me this doesn’t mean that the climbers are necessarily picking the best brand; they probably pick the brand that compensates them the best. On the other hand, none of these climbers would climb in shoes that aren’t any good. So the climbers choose a top tier brand that can afford to pay them.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the most famous climbers currently sponsored by each brand. There are lots more, but these are just some of the biggest names in climbing.
Climbing Athlete Sponsorships:
La Sportiva: Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Margo Hayes, Adam Ondra, Emily Harrington, Hazel Findlay
Scarpa: Alex Puccio
Tenaya: Alex Megos, Chris Sharma
Evolv: Ashima Shiraishi, Alex Johnson, Steph Davis, (formerly Chris Sharma)
What’s the Best Brand of Climbing Shoe for You?
In selecting a pair of climbing shoes, you need to ask yourself a few questions. Do you want to align yourself with a certain brand and its mission and vision? Some brands come off as low-cost, even if the specific shoes are not. Some brands contribute more to environmental causes, while others don’t.
What lasts fit your feet best? The last is basically the shape of the mold that the shoes are made to. Some shoes tend to run wider, and others more narrow (La Sportiva generally has this reputation). It can really help to try on a bunch of different pairs to get a feel for what fits your feet best.
What vibe do you want to give off, or what persona do you want to portray? A climber wearing a pair of So iLL shoes gives off a different vibe than one wearing Tenayas. One’s not right and the other wrong, they’re just different. You can go for a more classic feel, or something more flashy.
Do you want to try and mix and match or go all-in on one brand? Most of the bigger brands make more than just shoes. They make harnesses, apparel, and even some hardware.
How hard do you climb (or want to climb)? As you progress, the pair of Climb X Raves you started with will only carry you so far. Sure they’re good shoes, but they’re probably not going to get you into the advanced climbing zone. Advanced climbers usually have several shoes; some for crack climbing, some for casual climbing, and some super-aggressive shoes for the hardest pitches.
Are La Sportiva Climbing Shoes Good? La Sportiva climbing shoes are among the best in the world. Many major professional athletes climb in them, and they are one of the most popular brands in the world. They have a broad product line with lots of different shoes for different specific purposes.
How Much Do Synthetic Climbing Shoes Stretch? Fully synthetic climbing shoes will only stretch up to about a half a size during a day of climbing. Leather shoes, on the other hand, can stretch more than a full size. Because of this, leather shoes are usually more comfortable and fit your feet better; however synthetic shoes are more rigid and can offer better performance.
Why Are Climbing Shoes so Expensive? Climbing shoes are handmade, and are made of top-grade materials like leather. Each brand uses its own recipe or formula of sticky rubber. Climbing shoes are made in much smaller lot sizes than other types of shoes, so manufacturers can’t rely on great economies of scale.