The Best Rock Climbing Shoes

Will Egensteiner
·13 min read
Photo credit: Staff
Photo credit: Staff

From Popular Mechanics

Cooler temperatures and low humidity make the shoulder seasons ideal for rock climbing. And more people have taken to it this year as a way to get outside while social distancing. Nothing does more to help people climb better than slabs of sticky rubber on their feet. There’s a little more to climbing shoe construction than that, though, so we tested a batch to help you find the right pair, whether you’re just getting into climbing or simply need a fresh pair of kicks.

Take a look below at quick info on five of the top shoes from our testing, then scroll deeper for buying advice and more in-depth reviews of these and other models.

Shoe Profiles and Curves

You’ll typically see shoes characterized as neutral, moderate, or aggressive. These refer to the downturn, or how curved the sole of the shoe is from front to back. Neutral shoes are flat, good for vertical and slab routes where you want a lot of rubber on the rock. They also tend to be relatively comfortable since they don’t curl your feet and are thus suited for long or multi-pitch routes. Moderate shoes are in between, capable on a wide range of routes from vertical to somewhat overhanging but not tailored to either extreme. Their more pronounced downturn means that you can more easily hook with your toes while still smearing on flatter holds when you need to. Aggressive shoes drive all the power to your toes and are best at overhangs and bouldering.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

There are exceptions to these types, of course, like the Furia Air below, which has an aggressive profile but is so soft we had no trouble smearing with it. But that’s what you can generally expect out of each.

Also, how symmetrical (or not) the sole is will help determine precision and power. Symmetrical shoes are fairly straight along their length for comfort and stability, while shoes that bend toward the big toe allow for more precise foot placement and hooking with that toe.

Sizing

Generally, you want climbing shoes to be tight. The less dead space, the better your feel for the holds will be and the more confidently you’ll climb. That said, the amount of discomfort you’re willing to put up with for a perfect, high-performance fit is subjective, but if you’re not attempting the gnarliest of overhanging routes, chances are you don’t need your toes crammed into the front of the shoe to where it’s painful. As with any apparel or shoe purchase, it’s best to try them on before buying. There’s tremendous variety between brands and even between models within brands. Start by taking your street shoe size and going down one full size. If that feels too tight, bump it up half a size; too loose, keep going down.

How We Tested

In order to determine the best climbing shoes on the market right now, we called in a range, from soft slippers to models with the stiffest of soles. Then we climbed in them on short routes and problems at our local gym in eastern Pennsylvania, meandering multi-pitch trad at the Gunks, and pumpy sport lengths on New Mexico conglomerate. We wore the shoes for the styles of climbing for which they were designed, but also tried them on routes that might not have been in their comfort zone, so to speak, to see how versatile they were. Our testing crew consisted of men and women in a range of builds and experience levels so that we could get a variety of perspectives. And we took into account a range of prices; climbing shoes tend to be expensive, but depending on your priorities, there’s plenty of capability to be had for your dollar.

After our cumulative months of testing, all the while gauging the comfort, fit, construction, strengths, and weaknesses of our testing pool, we stand behind these seven models.

—EDITORS’ CHOICE—

Tenaya Iati

Profile: Aggressive | Rubber: Vibram XS Grip | Closure system: Velcro tab

What struck us about the Iati when we first pulled it on was how comfortable it is for the level of downturn in the sole. Shoes this aggressive don’t always fit this well right out of the packaging. We credit that to the light, stretchy upper and the ample toe box, both of which are accommodating without resulting in a loose, sloshy fit. And the wide Velcro patch affords a range of adjustability, not only in how tight the shoe is but where most of the pressure hits; stick the corresponding tab (connected to two thin straps) farther forward or back to suit your particular instep.

As for performance, the Iati strikes an excellent balance. The downturned toe and asymmetrical bend let us hook into small pockets, yet the shoe is flexible enough front to back that we could smear with our whole forefoot when we had to. And there’s sensitivity to spare, which helped us find the proper positioning on footholds, with enough structure that we didn’t feel our heel dropping when we were toeing edges. All that equals a shoe that lent us confidence on blocky overhangs and delicate slabs. Heel hooking is fair game, too, though we have noticed some slight delaminating of the rubber back there. We would refrain from using the Iati only on crack climbs; the stitching on the light microfiber and leather upper has started to wear and might not stand up to the abrasion of repeatedly cranking a foot in to jam.

—BEST VALUE—

La Sportiva TarantuLace

Profile: Neutral | Rubber: Frixion RS | Closure system: Lacing

The TarantuLace is what you buy if you want a shoe that can serve you well on most routes and will hold up for a long time. It’s well constructed, with a thick, lined tongue and leather upper that were comfortable on our foot and a uniform fit facilitated by the overlays that stretch from the midfoot to almost the base of the toes. And a small detail but one we appreciated: The topmost eyelets are metal, sure to boost the TarantuLace’s longevity.

The proprietary Frixion outsole is a relatively thick five millimeters, providing a solid platform off which to edge. But the shoe is still fairly flexible, and we didn’t have any problem bending it up for getting maximum rubber on rock (or plastic), like when we reached for a high hold with only a big sloper to push off of. As with any neutral-profile shoe, overhangs will be difficult, and beginners who invest in the TarantuLace might want to supplement them with a more aggressive pair. And our tester who usually sits between size 11 and 11.5 street shoes went with his usual 10.5 (44 Euro) size for these and still had some excess room at the front, enough to curl his toes. So consider going a full size down, if not more, unless you have very wide feet.

Buy Men’s | Buy Women’s

—BEST FOR TECHNICAL EDGING—

Lowa X-Boulder

Profile: Moderate | Rubber: Vibram XS Grip | Closure system: Two Velcro straps

We weren’t sold on the X-Boulder until we pulled onto a route in the gym with many tiny crimps and edges that required powerful high steps. In that context—minimal purchase with big, sometimes tenuous moves in between—it’s excellent. We were able to drive off those small lips with confidence and maintain the power all the way through the movement. Kudos for that goes to the defined, pointed toe Lowa built into the X-Boulder, which finds and sticks to the narrowest holds with the help of XS Grip rubber, but mostly the incredibly stiff midsole. The shoe’s downturn is pronounced enough to facilitate toe hooking on steep routes. Naturally, don’t expect much sensitivity. Smearing is almost out of the question—there’s a definite feeling of standing on top of the hold in the X-Boulder, as opposed to glomming onto it like with the Furia Air below.

The shoe’s other hallmark is its closure system. The unique overlapping straps allow for plenty of adjustment of the fit. One has double-sided Velcro so that the other can stick on top of it if you want to crank down the tightness, or they can be cinched separate to spread out the pressure. Another thing to note with the X-Boulder: It’s surprisingly comfortable for how aggressive and tight it is, but it still needs a few wears to break it in. And even then, the microfiber upper and rubber that extends high up the sides and over the toe means there’s little give.

—BEST FOR BOULDERING—

Scarpa Furia Air

Profile: Aggressive | Rubber: Vibram XS Grip2 | Closure system: One Velcro strap

The Furia Air’s calling card is its softness and sensitivity. Its über-thin midsole offered no interfering resistance as we pulled our toes up for smearing and curled them down for hook pockets. And we could feel every ripple and subtle change on the surface wherever we planted our foot; that lent us the confidence to get on a slabby boulder problem that we’d only wistfully stared at before, its barely there, sloping starting foothold giving the impression that it was above our pay grade. That’s the essence of the Furia Air: No shoe before it has made us better boulderers almost immediately and so noticeably.

It’s not for every route, however. The strongest, experienced climbers could take the shoe on long vertical faces, but its lack of front-to-back stiffness means that anyone without built-up calves will soon find their legs maxed out as their heels drop while edging. Overhanging boulder problems are the Furia Air’s bread and butter. Heel hooking was a dream, with the sock-like fit mitigating any sloshy feeling, yet the light suede upper was forgiving for our wide-footed tester. It was also breathable enough that we didn’t find muggy midsummer gym sessions unbearable. That’s a double-edged sword, though, as we noticed the upper has started to abrade and the rubber of the toe cap delaminate. For a $200 pair of shoes, the lifespan could be longer. You’re likely to wear the Furia Air out all the more quickly for how often you’ll be slipping it on.

—BEST FOR TRAD—

Scarpa Maestro Mid Eco

Profile: Neutral | Rubber: Vibram XS Edge | Closure system: Lacing

Scarpa also impressed us with its Maestro. It fits the mold of a trad shoe: relatively flat, stiff for support, and with a tall upper that protects when jamming a foot into cracks. Yet it’s not too flat, as there’s enough of a curve toward the toes for hooking faraway lips. Nor is the upper so tall that it interfered with our ankles when we needed to pull off some flexible footwork. It’s in that balance that the Maestro shines. Scarpa has made a shoe that, true, still probably loses out to the longtime favorite La Sportiva TC Pro when it comes to pure crack climbing but excels when venturing out onto thin face edges. It’s an all-around trad machine.

Comfort comes courtesy of that flat last and modest downturn, and the leather upper is soft on our skin. The tongue is thin enough that it didn’t cause too much pressure when we cranked down on the laces. Speaking of, they’re thin and run all the way to the base of the toes. This let us dial in the pressure, and our tester with a high arch didn’t have any discomfort. But given the relative stiffness of the upper, the cuff tended to pucker at the sides when we stood on the balls of our feet and, though we haven’t experienced this, debris could make its way in over the top if you’re on a particularly chossy route. The Vibram XS Edge rubber was grippy and kept our footing secure at a seeping crag during a particularly damp day. Four millimeters of that layered over the flexible 1.4-millimeter midsole lends the Maestro its standout edging prowess that doesn’t cost it much sensitivity to the point that we felt like we were standing on wooden planks.

—BEST FOR BEGINNERS—

Black Diamond Momentum

Profile: Neutral | Rubber: Proprietary | Closure system: Two Velcro straps

The Momentum has become our go-to for long sessions in the gym, when we want a shoe that will give us a wide range of capability in a comfortable package that we don’t feel the need to pull off every few minutes to give our dogs a break. The profile is pleasingly neutral, and the split tongue provides some flexibility in the fit over the instep. One of our testers felt some irritation before the narrow toe box broke in, but it was fine after the first few sessions. “My toes were curled but not an excessive amount,” said another, beginner tester, “and the soft microfiber liner kept the top of my foot from rubbing against the upper.”

Black Diamond describes the shoe as having a “soft flex” midsole, but we found it to be on the stiffer side of the models we tested—to its benefit. The Momentum’s true strength lies in the platform it provides our foot, letting us stand tall on small edges without our heel dropping. That meant we weren’t taxing our calves and could run laps on top rope. And the shoe still has ample sensitivity so we were confident in our placements. Stay away from severely overhanging routes, though, given the flat last. And mind the sizing. Said our beginner tester: “My test pair was a half-size larger than my normal shoe size, which seemed right. If I’d gone a full size up as BD recommends, I don’t think I’d have quite as good a feel for the wall.”

Buy Men’s | Buy Women’s

—BEST FOR NARROW FEET—

Evolv Elektra

Profile: Neutral | Rubber: Trax SAS | Closure system: Two Velcro straps

Evolv doesn’t try to hype up the Elektra, billing it as having a “modest amount of performance for a narrower and low-volume fit.” That rang true in our experience. Our size 8.5 tester said that its neutral profile and just right width at the toes made for a perfect fit. And she didn’t experience any air or dead space in the heel. Thought the split tongue appears cushy and thick, it didn’t feel bulky or cause any uncomfortable pressure when she fastened the two Velcro straps.

Given the flat sole, the Elektra is best suited to vertical and slab routes; anything very overhanging will require more of a downturn at the toe. The shoe is stiff front to back, making it good for when you need to stand up on holds and support for long climbs. Don’t expect to step on any micro edges though: Ev0lv uses what it calls a Variable Thickness Rand, which employs thinner rubber in places to cut down on pressure points and thicker rubber at the spots more likely to see lots of wear, like the toes. This thick rubber gave our tester the feeling that it was pushing her foot farther away from the wall, preventing her from getting as close as she would have liked on small holds. Those issues aside, if you have a narrow foot, prize a comfort-capability mix, and mostly stick to straight vertical or low-angle routes—or even just need a second pair of shoes that you don’t want to take on and off during long days of cragging—you’d do well to consider the Elektra.

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