Rock climbing- both indoors and outdoors- is becoming wildly popular around the world. Odds are, you’ve seen pictures or videos online that highlight the unique sport, and maybe you would like to give it a try. One common misunderstanding is exactly what climbing equipment is required.
Running shoes work for the easiest rock climbing routes, but are not rigid enough to make it up moderate or advanced routes. The soft rubber foam on running shoes is too pliable to grip small footholds and can make you slip.
While it’s not completely uncommon to see first-time rock climbers trying to climb in tennis shoes or running shoes, there are some definite drawbacks to doing so in terms of comfort, performance, and safety. Is there a shoe that can do it all?
Rock Climbing Shoes Versus Running Shoes
Rock climbing shoes haven’t existed forever, in fact mountaineers climbed in boots with crampons (spikes) up into the 20th century. As mountaineers shifted from snowy, icy mountains to bare rock on cliffs, they realized that they needed a different type of shoes and added soft rubber to the soles of cloth boots.
Over time there have been many advances in climbing shoes, and we’ve pretty much settled on a winning formula to maximize performance. Here is what makes climbing shoes unique, and why they help climbers perform at their best:
Climbing Shoe Characteristics
Like your running shoes, and most of the shoes you own, climbing shoe soles are made of rubber. The difference is that climbing shoes use a very specific type of rubber with very different characteristics from other shoes.
Unlike running or walking shoes, climbing shoe rubber doesn’t offer any foam cushion. Climbing rubber is designed to be as sticky as possible.
There’s a balance between hardness and softness, as climbers need the rubber to be hard enough that they can put their full weight on it without it tearing, but rubber that is too hard won’t grip the rock at all making climbers slide off.
Different brands of climbing shoes use different proprietary rubber recipes, and different shoe models have different purposes (crack climbing, slab, etc.). The most popular rubbers for climbing shoes are Stealth (5.10 / Adidas) and Vibram.
The upper parts of climbing shoes are meant to fit the foot tightly like a glove. They usually consist of leather or synthetic materials.
Running shoes are designed to flex with your foot, rolling with every step and propelling you forward. Climbing shoes, on the other hand, are supposed to keep the front platform of your foot rigid. Climbing shoe soles get their strength from a piece of rubber that starts at the middle of the foot and goes up to create a sharp edge at the toe.
If you imagine climbing a ladder or even stairs while walking only on your toes, you realize that your toes are not very strong. With flexible running shoes, your foot strength is limited to how much of your foot you can get on a hold- and many climbing footholds are small enough that you can’t even get a whole toe on them.
With climbing shoes though, the thick, rigid rubber platform makes it so you can utilize muscles in your whole foot as if you are standing on the ball of your foot instead of only on your tip-toe. With climbing shoes on you can put your whole weight on minimal holds.
Most people buy running shoes that are a little bit bigger than their feet so that there’s a little space to move around. If you buy climbing shoes with a little bit of space in the end they will work just about as poorly as tennis shoes, as your foot won’t be able to take advantage of the toe platform.
Climbing shoes have a Cinderella-like reputation of people trying to cram their feet into the smallest shoe possible in order to maximize performance. For most of us however, shoes should be a little bit tight but not painful. It shouldn’t hurt to stand in your shoes on the ground, but they should be as tight as possible up to that point!
Old-school climbing shoes used to be high tops, fitting a little bit like boots. Most climbing shoes today are really low cut, allowing for the maximum range of motion for your ankles.
Reasons That Climbing Shoes Are Necessary
Climbing shoes are necessary for any route that is more difficult than about a 5.6 or 5.7, depending on the climber’s ability. It is possible to climb in running shoes or tennis shoes, but you won’t be able to climb as well, and are at greater risk of injury.
The reason that climbing shoes are safer than regular shoes is that there’s a reduced risk of your feet slipping uncontrollably off of a foot hold. If you slip unexpectedly while bouldering (sans-rope) you can twist an ankle or break a wrist. If you slip while roped climbing you can smack your knees on the wall or get scraped up.
If for some reason you do need to climb with running shoes, wear your tightest pair and cinch them up as tight as possible. Pick shoes with the hardest soles possible as well, and avoid any shoes that have flexibility in the toe area.
For the best climbing shoes for beginners, read my article: How Much Are Rock Climbing Shoes?
Hiking and Climbing Shoes
Tennis shoes and running shoes make pretty terrible climbing shoes, but climbing shoes make pretty awful shoes for getting around on flat ground. Fortunately, there’s a type of in-between shoe that is pretty good at both.
Approach shoes are a cross between hiking boots and climbing shoes. They are comfortable for hiking and scrambling, but also have a good solid toe that works for moderate climbing. Some of the best approach shoes even have the same rubber that is used on climbing shoes (for example, Adidas Terrex uses stealth rubber, and La Sportiva shoes use Vibram).
Can I Go Bouldering in Running Shoes? Running shoes do not work for bouldering or rock climbing because they are not rigid or tight enough. While you can climb the easiest rocks with running shoes, you will not be able to climb anything moderately difficult.
Can You Climb in Hiking Shoes? Hiking shoes usually have a more rigid sole than running shoes, but still aren’t as good as climbing shoes. Hiking boots aren’t good for climbing because they are so stiff and usually restrict movement of the ankle, but approach shoes are good for moderate climbs.
Can You Run in Climbing Shoes? Climbing shoes would be terrible for running because they fit too tightly to be comfortable and have no cushion in the soles. Some approach shoes and trail running shoes can be used for running, but not true climbing shoes.