How Do Rock Climbing Shoes Work?

How Do Rock Climbing Shoes Work?
Climbing shoes are special shoes that rock climbers use to scale cliffs and boulders. These shoes fit like a glove, making it possible to feel the tiniest pebble or seam. The shoes are made out of "sticky rubber," a special high-friction rubber that allows the shoes to stick on sheer cliff faces and slick slabs. Climbers call this ability to stick like glue "purchase." The sticky rubber and tight fit makes the shoes work and gives climbers that fly-on-a-wall appearance.


Climbing shoes date back to the 1930s, when they were made like hiking boots with metal nails for grip. From the early 1960s to 1982, smooth-soled shoes became the footwear of choice amongst technical rock climbers. In 1982, the Boreal Fire became the new standard and first shoe to be made of sticky rubber. Sticky rubber revolutionized the sport; shoes are still made of this material.


Shoes fall into four different categories: bouldering/indoor, crack climbing, steep face, and all-day comfort. Climbing shoes work best if you choose a shoe that best suits the type of climbing you will primarily do.


Climbing shoes look like ballet slippers with dark, black-rubber soles. The sole attaches to a rubber band (called a rand) that wraps around the side of the shoe. Some shoes fasten with laces, others fasten with a Velcro closure; a few models use a zipper or simply slip on the foot like a slipper.


All climbing shoes are formed around a model called a last. Shoes are either board-lasted (stitched in sections to the mid-sole) or slip-lasted (sown to a sock that is slipped over the last, and then removed). The lasts can also be semi-flexed (toe turned upward), or cambered (a shape that bends toward the toes).


The most common misconception is that you should buy climbing shoes that are painfully tight. Although it is best to have snug-fitting shoes, tight, painful shoes take the fun out of climbing and limit your potential. As a rule of thumb, buy shoes that are snug but not overly tight, and take into consideration that they will stretch slightly over time.

Expert Insight

Should your shoes wear out, it is possible to have them resoled for a fraction of the cost of a new pair of shoes. Many climbing shops offer resoling as a service. The leather upper (top half of the shoe) can also be repaired if it has holes or tears. Taking care of your shoes will make them last longer and reduce the need for resoling.

Article Written By Rob Holzman

Based in the Pacific Northwest, Rob Holzman has been writing outdoor articles since 1997. He recently published the first comprehensive rock climbing guidebook for Pennsylvania and has fiction work published in the "Pacific Northwest Inlander". Holzman has also appeared on FOX television and has been an outdoor consultant for the Discovery Channel.

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