Rock climbing is known for requiring a lot of somewhat expensive gear to get started. While you can rent everything you need at the gym, the cost does add up over time. For some people, especially those going for the first time, they may consider skipping some of the gear, such as expensive climbing shoes. Others do not like the constrictive feeling of climbing shoes, or just like the feeling of being barefoot.
Whether you are climbing barefoot, or in some other kind of shoe like a tennis shoe or toe shoe, you will not have the same grip and foot protection on the rock (or plastic). Without specific rock climbing shoes, you will have a really hard time executing certain climbing techniques, and you might hurt your feet.
Most climbing gyms do not allow you to climb indoors barefoot, though they do allow you to climb in non-climbing shoes. This is largely for sanitary reasons, though they also cite safety.
Climbing in Regular Shoes
While you can climb in regular tennis shoes at a climbing gym or outside, your abilities will be severely limited, and you are more likely to hurt yourself. Climbing requires precise movements where the difference of even less than an inch may mean slipping and falling. Climbing shoes have been designed and engineered over the years to meet the specific needs of climbers.
Tennis shoes, as opposed to climbing shoes, have a soft sole that usually sticks out away from your foot a little bit. If you try to edge, or step with the side of your foot, the soft rubber will give way and you will fall.
Your toes probably don’t touch the end of your tennis shoes, so you won’t be able to dig your toe into a small ledge or crack. The rubber on the soles of your shoes, unless you are wearing a nice pair of approach shoes, is probably worn down and will be worthless against the rock or plastic.
Falling while roped isn’t really a big deal, but an unexpected fall may mean that you hit your knees on the wall. You’ll end up with bruises and scrapes, and probably won’t enjoy yourself. It’s best just to rent a pair of shoes from the climbing gym for $4-5, or to buy yourself a pair for a bit more.
Read our article: How Much Are Rock Climbing Shoes? to learn more about climbing shoes and to see our best recommendations (including good shoes for just $30)
Rock Climbing Barefoot
Climbing barefoot, you’re going to have a really hard time edging. The sides of your feet are softer than the rubber on the soles of climbing shoes. Jugs will cause some cramping since your feet probably aren’t used to being worked this way, and rough rock will cut up your feet. It will be nearly impossible to climb cracks, since jamming your feet will tear up the skin.
Anyone who has climbed barefoot will tell you that climbing shoes are ‘aid.’ They definitely help you get up the rock. There are a few climbers who climb without shoes, and some who even climb really hard stuff barefoot.
Those who climb without shoes see it as a ‘purist’ form of climbing, and enjoy feeling close to the rock. While they aren’t able to climb the most difficult routes, they enjoy climbing barefoot and enjoy what they can do without climbing shoes.
My Experience Climbing Barefoot:
I climb barefoot whenever I go Deep Water Soloing (Psicobloc). There are a few really cool places to do DWS here in Arizona, and I’ve been able to go a handful of times over the last couple of years. When I’m climbing over water, I’m usually not trying to push the hardest grades- I’m just there to have a fun day in the sun and water.
Climbing barefoot requires very different technique. The rock is really rough, and can easily cut you up, especially if you have soft feet. My feet cramped up a little bit as I gripped small ledges with my toes, and I really felt it strain my tendons when I’d balance on my big toes.
That being said, I really enjoy climbing barefoot. It’s cool to be able to feel every little divot and crack in the rock. There’s definitely a lot more of a ‘relaxed’ feeling climbing barefoot as opposed to climbing with shoes on.
If I were to go to Mallorca, Spain, or somewhere in Thailand where the Deep Water Soloing is higher and the routes are more amazing, I would bring an old pair of climbing shoes so I could maximize the enjoyment of the experience. All in all, climbing easy routes barefoot is very different, but is pretty fun. I don’t do it on a regular basis, but it is fun occasionally when doing things like DWS.
Do I Wear Socks with Rock Climbing Shoes?
Most climbers, including professionals, do not wear socks with climbing shoes. There are several reasons for this, the foremost being that socks will cause a little bit of extra slippage inside the shoes. The main advantage to wearing socks is to limit how much your feet sweat, and to lower the risk of athlete’s foot from shared or rental climbing shoes.
Climbing without Socks
One of the main problems of climbing with socks is perception. Because serious climbers don’t wear socks with their climbing shoes, it kind of ends up being like having a big sign on your back that says ‘newbie.’
This may encourage people to come and tell you what you’re doing wrong. Sometimes gyms will tell you when you rent shoes that people don’t wear socks to try and save you the odd looks and judgement. You can always prove them wrong by sending it!
The whole goal of climbing shoes is to make it so all of your weight can be targeted onto a small ledge or angled face. You generally want your climbing shoes to fit as securely, or as snugly as possible without being uncomfortable, so buying an extra half size up so you can wear socks would be a disadvantage. With the extra layer, you won’t be able to ‘feel’ the rock quite as well.
Socks may bunch up inside your shoes, adding to the discomfort, and will decrease the friction between your feet, your shoes, and the wall. Some people report being unable to execute heel hooks while wearing socks because their shoes pop off.
Climbing with Socks
The main reasons we wear socks in regular shoes is to absorb the light sweating that occurs, and to provide a bit of a cushion around the foot inside our shoes. The same advantages could be had by wearing socks with climbing shoes.
The inside of climbing shoes is just hard rubber on the sole and sides, and leather or synthetic uppers. They’re not terribly uncomfortable, but you wouldn’t wear them for fun! Socks could take the edge off.
Climbing gyms do spray our rental shoes with deodorizer after each use, but climbing shoes can still get pretty gross over time. You never know who used the rentals before you, how sweaty they got, or even if they had something like athlete’s foot.
While spraying them out should theoretically kill any leftover bacteria, you can’t know for sure. Adding a thin layer of socks may give you some peace of mind, especially if you’re just starting out and aren’t wanting to try the hardest routes.
See Also: How to Clean Rock Climbing Shoes
Are Toe Shoes Good for Rock Climbing?
Toe shoes like the Vibram five-fingers are better than tennis shoes, but still have a lot of the same issues as climbing barefoot. You don’t have a rigid sole, so it’s harder to balance all of your weight on a small hold.
Toe shoes do provide an extra ‘hinge’ on your feet, which could be somewhat useful if you have really strong toes. Climbing shoes will always outperform toe shoes, but you can use toe shoes for easy climbs.
If you do decide to climb in toe shoes, let’s say you’re Deep Water Soloing, try to use your feet like you would use your hands. Stick the platform of your foot up against the hold, and ‘grip’ it with your toes.
Obviously, it will require a lot more foot strength, and will cause your feet to cramp up. Over time I assume it would get easier. People who use them to climb generally do concede that the shoes have their limits for climbing, but that they still work fairly well on lower-grade climbs.
Do you Need Rock Climbing Shoes for Bouldering?
For regular climbers, the answer is yes. Rock climbing shoes are identical to bouldering shoes, and function the same way for each discipline of climbing. Although the vast majority of climbers who boulder wear rock climbing shoes, a few do climb barefoot.
French Climber Charles Albert is a pretty good boulderer, and he climbs barefoot. He claims, among other things, that climbing without shoes helps him to feel out the rock better and helps him to use his legs more.
For most of us, we may climb the first boulder problem without putting our shoes on just for fun or as a nice little warm up. Climbing in regular shoes can cause a lot of problems (see the first topic in this article), and just isn’t very fun.
Bouldering barefoot is a different experience, and can work as long as you take care of your feet and make sure they don’t get cut up by the rock. Again, most climbing/bouldering gyms require that you wear some sort of shoes for sanitary reasons.
Have you ever tried rock climbing without shoes? If so, how did you like it?