Last update: May 17, 2022
Climbing shoes are an essential piece of gear for the avid climber. It’s not good enough to have a pair of shoes; they must fit well. Since foot shape and style preference vary from person to person, there are no perfect shoes. The difference ultimately comes down to how well the shoes fit on you, including making sure to break in your shoes.
The Unique Nature of Rock Climbing Shoes
Rock climbing shoes are unlike any other shoes. Most climbing shoes feature flexible rubber soles that stretch up and around your foot. Rubber wraps the toe box and the areas on the upper sides and top of the shoe use leather or other material. You can tighten the shoes around the foot with laces, velcro, or elastic.
Because of the climbing shoe’s shape and structure, it can easily mold to the user’s foot by breaking them in.
Let’s go over why it’s essential to break in climbing shoes and some of the best methods.
The Importance of Breaking in your Climbing Shoes
A climbing shoe has to fit like a second skin. Although they should be snug, climbing shoes not be painful or cause rubbing and blisters. If the shoe is uncomfortable or too tight, it can be hard to focus on much else.
When climbing shoes fit well, they should feel like they are closely hugging your feet, but new shoes can be painful and stiff. In this case, the shoes will need to be broken in. The process of breaking shoes in is not difficult, but it is important to make sure it’s done properly.
New climbing shoes are meant to be tight, yet comfortable. The fit and stretch of the shoe depend on the amount of rubber, upper material, and inner lining. When you break in climbing shoes, they should have a snug fit.
The toe box should have minimal dead space, but your toes shouldn’t overlap or be overly bent unless you’re choosing an aggressive shoe. The sides of the shoe should hug your feet nicely without excessive rubbing and the heel should fit securely. Keep in mind that the climbing shoe should still fit comfortably, no matter what kind of shoe you’re wearing.
Try a size down if any new shoes fit too loosely or slip off your feet easily. Make sure to try different performance styles and brands of climbing shoes to find the perfect fit for you.
The 3 types of closure:
- Lace-up shoes are versatile and easily adjustable. Laces allow you to loosen the fit or secure the shoes tightly. Having laces can give the user more customization abilities. It’s possible to loosen or tighten the shoe in distinct areas, like the toes or the ankles, to tailor it to the needs of the moment.
- Velcro climbing shoes are a great option for those who want to quickly slip their shoes on and off in between climbs. Velcro shoes are great for gym climbing and bouldering.
- Slip-on shoes have an elastic closure for easy on and off action and are the lowest profile shoes, making them useful for crack climbing. Slip-ons are often referred to as slippers and are great for training because of their flexible midsoles.
Climbing shoes are built with a performance fit but can come in various styles to accommodate the individual’s climbing ability. Each brand and style is made for different kinds of performance.
The 3 types of climbing shoes
- An aggressive shoe has a sharply downturned toe box that focuses the climbing power in the toe. With this type of show, you’re able to be more precise on small holds. These are great for single-pitch climbs or climbing at the gym. An aggressive shoe is made for more advanced climbers and can be less comfortable than a neutral shoe. The sticky rubber and thin soles of aggressive shoes are great for overhangs and bouldering problems.
- A moderate climbing shoe has a slightly downturned toe box and is an excellent all-purpose climbing shoe. The soles on this shoe tend to be thinner and are made with sticky rubber. Moderate climbing shoes are more comfortable than an aggressive shoe, while still being able to navigate more technical and challenging routes than a neutral shoe.
- A flat, or neutral climbing shoe, has a relaxed fit and is great for beginner climbers and all-day wear. The stiff midsole of these shoes is thicker and has great support. A neutral shoe is great for wearing for long periods of time and for multi-pitch routes and crack climbing.
The Importance of Picking the Right Size Climbing Shoe
Climbing shoes come in a variety of shapes, materials, and sizes. If you’re new to the climbing world, I advise you to try on a variety of shoes and ask the fitting expert for assistance when choosing the best shoe for you.
It is important to know the kind of shoes are you looking for. Neutral shoes are a good choice for those just starting to climb, and aggressive shoes are fantastic for those looking to improve their skillset on difficult routes. Keep in mind that each shoe brand and style will have its own unique fit.
Finding the right fit
Picking the right size of shoe is crucial. Many experts say to buy climbing shoes that are about a half size, or even a full size, smaller than your street shoe size. However, this can vary a lot from one model to another. Also,
Be sure to eliminate any dead space in the shoe, but don’t go so tight that it will create unnecessary pain. Be mindful that while you’re climbing, your feet will swell slightly, which will have an effect on the overall fit. As you begin to wear your shoes, the material will stretch. They may feel stiff in the beginning, but you’ll be breaking them in very quickly with regular wear.
If the shoes are too small, you’ll be extremely uncomfortable and have less luck with breaking them in accurately. Please don’t try to fit your foot into too small of a shoe. This can cut off circulation and cause long-term damage to your toes. If your shoe is too large of a size, your new shoes may slip off and cause blisters or irritation.
Ask for advice from a fitting expert wherever you’re purchasing your new shoes to ensure the proper fit. Practice walking in them or wear them around the store for a few minutes. Once you have decided on a pair to purchase, wear them at the climbing gym to test them out before taking them outdoors.
Be aware of the store’s return policy just in case you need to return them. Most places don’t allow returns once you’ve worn them for a certain period of time.
Synthetic Climbing Shoes vs. Leather Climbing Shoes
A climbing shoe can be made with various materials for the upper and inner lining. Most climbing shoes have leather uppers and are unlined. Other types, such as synthetic shoes, use synthetic materials and some may contain a lining for added comfort. Synthetic and leather shoes fit and stretch differently. Leather material stretches more easily while synthetic uppers have minimal to no stretch.
Leather shoes stretch up to a full size or more if the upper contains unlined leather. When trying these shoes on, make sure your toes touch the end with the absence of any buckling of the toes. With a lined leather upper, the shoe will only stretch a half size or less.
Shoes made of synthetic materials have little to no stretch. They will soften over time, but don’t expect much stretch from them. Some synthetic shoes have perforated materials to help minimize the accumulation of sweat. When trying on shoes with synthetic uppers, take time to stand or climb on your toes. If you feel any rubbing or hot spots, go for a size up.
5 Tried and Tue Methods to Break in your Shoes
Stretching climbing shoes comes with a lot of trial and error. Some methods may work well while others don’t. It will take time and patience to make sure your shoes fit your feet. The break-in period should be relatively quick. If you have larger feet or a tighter new pair of shoes, the process may take a little longer. Be patient as the break-in process is a labor of love, and mostly focuses on the stretching of the shoe upper, rather than the rubber itself. Here are 5 tried and true methods for breaking in climbing shoes.
The Sock Method
To quickly and successfully stretch a new climbing shoe, apply adequate heat. The easiest way is to simply wear them. The more you wear your climbing shoes, the quicker they will mold to your feet. Start climbing in your new pair of shoes as much as possible.
To further shorten the process, try wearing thick socks. Wear socks inside your shoes around the house while watching a show, reading a book, or finishing up your workday. You can also choose to wear socks during your first few sessions at the climbing gym or at your favorite crag. This method will quickly make the shoes stretch, eliminating areas that rub or are too stiff. Your shoes should be successfully broken in after the first few climbing sessions.
Please note: It’s preferable not to walk around in your climbing shoes, especially if you own an aggressive model. Walking around in them can destroy the shape of the shoe. Also, it’s important not to flatten the sole, so if you choose to wear them around the house, try to keep your body weight off of them as much as possible.
The Heat Method
Use a heat source to break in your pair of climbing shoes! It’s best to use this method while they are on your feet. You can also do without putting them on, but wearing them will help the break-in process be more customized.
For the heat method, use a hair dryer, blow dryer, or another heat source to warm up the material on the shoes. The hot air will soften both the rubber and leather. Using a blow dryer will give you have the ability to apply direct heat to certain areas of the shoes or turn off the heat if areas get too warm.
Some people use an oven for this method, but if you’re not careful, it can cause the adhesive to melt which can ruin the shoe. Another way to apply heat is to place the shoes in direct sunlight for a few hours. Once warm, you can put the shoes on and stretch them by moving.
No matter the method used, as the shoes cool, they should have stretched and been given the ability to be remolded to fit better for the climber. Repeat this method as many times as needed and they should be immediately ready for your next climbing sessions.
The Plastic Wrap Method
If your pair of climbing shoes are too tight to even slip on, try the plastic wrap or saran wrap method to break in climbing shoes. A plastic bag will also work here.
Start by wrapping your heel and foot in plastic. You may only need to wrap the heel, but wrap the whole foot if you feel it’s necessary. This will help you to slip on the shoes and act as a barrier to decrease friction or excessive rubbing and blisters while they are on your feet.
Wear the saran wrap to insert your foot into any tight shoe. The plastic wrap will allow the shoe to mold to your foot shape with a barrier of protection between the shoe and your feet. Climb a few sessions with the plastic on and your shoes should be broken in quickly. This is an effortless and effective way to break in climbing shoes.
The Shower Method
This method uses hot water to stretch climbing shoes. The hot shower method is the best option for stubborn shoes. It works best on leather shoes compared to synthetic ones. Start by putting the shoes on your feet. Use plastic on your heel for additional protection if needed.
Get into the bath and turn on the hot water or step into a hot shower. Wiggle your feet around while the leather is warm, bending your feet, ankles, and toes. Stay in long enough for the water to soak your shoes and warm up the material.
Then turn off the hot water and let them dry halfway so they’re still damp. Now put the shoes back on, if you took them off, and wear them or even climb in them.
Climbing gyms don’t often let wet or damp shoes on their walls, so ask the gym before climbing or try this at a home or outdoors. During your climb, move your feet around and wiggle your toes often.
Once you’ve moved around in them, take off your shoes and stuff them with newspaper. This will keep them from collapsing and ruining the hard work you just put into them. Let the shoes dry and once completely dry, put them back on. They should have stretched and will be more comfortable to wear.
Please note: If you have a leather shoe, the dye may bleed out or onto your feet when you get them wet. The dye should wash off and the color of the shoe may change or bleed, but its effectiveness won’t change.
The Freezer Method
The freezer method is ideal for stretching climbing shoes in a small amount of time. To implement the freezer method, grab two-gallon plastic bags. Two zip-lock bags will work great. Fill the bags with just enough water to be roughly the size of your feet. Seal the two plastic bags tightly and place each plastic bag into a shoe.
Place both shoes inside the freezer overnight. As the water freezes, it expands. This expansion should help stretch out the shoe upper. Remove your shoes from the freezer and let the plastic bag thaw completely. before removing
Remove the water-filled bags from the shoes and put your shoes on. This should have created some extra space. Repeat the process if you’re not satisfied with the stretch.
Please note: This process doesn’t rely on your feet, so it may not be quite as tailored to your feet as the other methods.
Resoling your Climbing Shoes
To extend the wear of your climbing shoes, resoling is the best cost-effective option, as opposed to buying new climbing shoes. The rubber sole is one of the first areas your shoes will wear out.
The rubber that wraps around the toe may start to wear out and form a hole after long-term use. It is best to resole your shoes before a hole forms, but most places can do repairs or a full resole, depending on what you need. Resoles usually cost anywhere between $20-$100, depending on the damage.
It may be time to replace your shoes altogether if the cost of the shoe is less than the resole price. A resole wouldn’t require much breaking in since only the sole is being replaced and the upper will still fit you.
Climbing shoes can fit everyone differently. The material of the shoe as well as the brand will determine how the shoes fit and how you choose to break them in. If one method doesn’t work for you, try one of the other methods available to you.
Breaking in climbing shoes is an art. Keep in mind, the more you wear them, the quicker you will break them in. Use the information in this article whenever you, or a climbing buddy, needs to know how to break in climbing shoes.
A native of Indiana, Carolyn has been traveling and climbing around the US since 2012. She has worked at high ropes courses, climbing gyms and spent several seasons in Southeast Alaska working as a Tour Manager for a remote zipline. While traveling, she likes to climb at both indoor gyms and outdoor crags. She now runs her own business, Avanelle Co., and writes about her experiences.