Published on: 07/12/2022
Is wearing socks with climbing shoes a good idea? This is an age-old question that climbers still debate today. Most climbers, elite included, choose to be barefoot, while others regularly wear socks with climbing shoes.
Socks are useful in that they can help you fit into climbing shoes that are too large. They can also serve as a protective barrier against bacteria and odor. However, there are perks to wearing socks, they lower overall sensitivity and alter the overall fit.
Let’s dig a little deeper into this controversial topic, touch on the history of climbing shoes, and look at the pros and cons of wearing socks with your climbing shoes.
Climbing Shoes Through the Years
In the early days of climbing shoes, climbers used thick boots fitted with nails. Mountaineers primarily wore these shoes and paired them with thick socks to better protect their feet from injury, blisters, and pain. As the sport progressed and became increasingly popular, companies started to engineer more specialized climbing shoes.
Before the rock climbing boom of the ’70s, the canvas athletic climbing shoe, made with thick rubber soles called pumps or plimsolls, was the only specialized shoe available. Climbers usually wore them with socks. The La Sportiva Mariacher and the Boreal Fire shoes were the most popular models of this kind on the market.
During the ’80s, climbers started ditching their socks. Climbing shoe technology advanced during this period, and shoe manufacturers began designing models with bare skin in mind. About 95% of climbers don’t wear socks along with their climbing shoes (source: field analysis at our local gym).
The Pros & Cons of Wearing Socks
So, why would you consider wearing socks if climbing shoes are for bare feet?
The answer comes down to personal preference. There are pros and cons regarding wearing socks with rock climbing shoes. Here are a few compelling reasons to wear or not wear socks with rock climbing shoes.
Your Climbing Shoes are Too Big
Let’s say you found a great deal on a pair of climbing shoes, but you notice a little excess room in them once you use them. This type of scenario is where wearing socks are helpful.
Wearing slightly larger shoes causes your foot to slip around when worn. If you put on a pair of socks, it instantly creates a tighter fit. Wear thin socks for a slight gap in size or thicker socks if you need more substantial support.
If your climbing shoes are more than a size too big, socks won’t help. At this point, it is best to invest in a good pair that fit well.
Wearing climbing shoes at any stage often involves uncomfortable rubbing and blisters from a too-tight fit. Wearing a thin pair of socks will help you feel comfortable in these circumstances. The extra layer prevents blisters and unnecessary hot spots while lessening the friction between your skin and the shoe fabric.
If thin socks don’t do the trick, try nylon socks instead. They’re cheap and easy to find, and great for use in any athletic shoe.
Breaking in Climbing Shoes
Wearing socks with your first pair of climbing shoes allows you to break them in quicker. With a thick pair of socks and some applied heat, a climbing shoe becomes pliable, and as it cools, it will mold to the user’s feet. It’s also best to climb with socks for your first few sessions in a new shoe while gym climbing or out on the crag. This will further ensure that there’s an accurate and customized fit.
Make sure not to walk around in your climbing shoes, especially if you own a pair in an aggressive style. Doing so will destroy the shape and structure and flatten the sole.
If your shoes are too uncomfortable to wear, you probably need to take time to break them in. Check out How to Break In Climbing Shoes: The Definitive Guide for a more in-depth guide on breaking in climbing shoes with 5 tried and true methods.
Old, Stretched Out Shoes
If you own an old, stretched-out pair of shoes, it could be helpful to know that many climbers use these for training purposes like warm-ups or practicing routes with less elaborate footwork.
Although well-worn shoes are incredibly comfortable, their structural integrity is questionable. Socks are of great use here for filling any empty space.
Foot sweat is incredibly common, and socks can help when sweat happens. It’s also a good idea to wear socks with rental shoes to prevent exposure to unwanted bacteria or even a fungal infection like athlete’s foot. This is all up to personal preference and going barefoot in a rental shoe is always a choice you can make. Choose a thin sock made of sweat-wicking material. These act as a barrier for blisters and uncomfortable rubbing since the shoe is not customized to your specific feet.
To Prevent Odors
Many climbers replace their climbing shoes due to odor alone. To prevent or prolong this from happening, wear socks that help eliminate excess moisture and keep the odors at bay. While socks help with any unpleasant stench, taking care of your climbing shoes alone will help prevent odors and bacteria from forming.
Taking care of your shoes properly means keeping them clean and dry as much as possible. Remember that it’s harder to fix the smell once it develops.
Some climbers wear socks just for the added warmth. If you’re climbing during cold weather or have poor circulation, wearing socks with climbing shoes is a great way to keep warm. Cold toes make it difficult to feel anything and can affect your agility on routes.
Add socks if your climbing shoe fits comfortably in the toes, but you are struggling with your heel slipping consistently. They add thickness and bring a tighter fit.
Socks aid in getting aggressive shoes on and off easier. This helps if you’re spending a lot of time on a bouldering wall and removing them often.
Climbing shoes have a snug fit to increase sensitivity. When you have your toes on a hold, you want to be able to feel what you are doing. Wearing socks with climbing shoes decreases your ability to sense cracks and holds.
Slip & Slide
If your feet sweat excessively, adding socks will cause slipping inside your shoe. If you’re at the crag working on a heel hook, the sock can cause you to slip and lose the security of the hold. Instead of relying on socks, try getting a well-fitted pair of shoes that fit snugly without socks.
A Tight Fit
Remember that your feet will probably swell a small amount while climbing. Wearing socks in this circumstance can make the shoe fit a little too tightly. If you choose to wear socks, make sure they have added room to accommodate any swelling.
Adapt to the Situation
When to Wear Socks
If you’re a beginner at climbing or head in for a session at the gym but don’t have shoes, you’ll need to rent some. Rental shoes are cleaned and sanitized after every use, but it’s important to remember that many climbers have worn these shoes before you. For added hygiene, wearing socks is very helpful.
Renting shoes can be a great way to try out a few shoe models before you’re ready to invest in your own pair. Most gyms allow you to rent a pair of climbing shoes for a small daily fee. It’s best to use a pair of thin socks for rentals.
Crack Climbing & Big Walls
Crack climbers are known to wear socks with their shoes, and not only beginners! Cracks vary in both size and shape. Often, if the crack is large enough to fit your foot or calf, wearing socks will prevent skin from scraping against surfaces. For this purpose, it’s best to have a slightly larger shoe and a pair of socks that reach above your ankles.
A big wall requires multiple pitches, and the weather on big walls can get quite cold. Here, comfort takes precedence over effectiveness. Many climbers who venture up big walls will wear a larger pair of shoes with thick socks to keep their toes warm and comfortable throughout their climb.
Socks are an excellent idea for an overly sweaty foot. Specialized socks for wicking away moisture and eliminating odors are beneficial on a hot, sweaty climbing day.
When NOT to Wear Socks?
When Socks Decrease Friction and Add Space Between Your Foot and the Wall
Climbing shoes are created to help you feel the rock beneath you. The added layer of socks between your feet and the rock can take away the sensitivity you need to feel holds on the climbing wall.
Since climbing shoes are meant for bare feet, texture and extra cushion are already built into the shoe for added comfort. Many shoes even have cushion and support fitted around the heel for comfort during heel hooks.
When Socks Change How Your Shoes Fit
Socks may add more comfort and an extra layer to minimize chafing, but they also alter how the shoe fits your feet. If you’re wearing socks often during every climbing session, your shoes will never have the chance to mold to your actual foot shape.
When Your Shoes are Already Too Tight
An already tight-fitting shoe will make your climbing shoes even tighter and more uncomfortable. Climbing in too snug of shoes is not a good idea no matter what.
What Socks Should I Wear With Rock Climbing Shoes?
If you’re interested in wearing socks with your climbing shoes, make sure to wear antimicrobial sports socks. They’re thin, comfortable, sweat-wicking, and thin enough to maintain sensitivity.
La Sportiva sells a great sock with elastic synthetic fibers that fits tightly and comfortably. The Icebreaker Multisport Ultralight sock uses a micro wool material. They’re breathable with a heel tab to prevent blisters or rubbing on the ankles, and they make for a great sock to wear with any style of shoes.
Whatever brand you choose, make sure the socks fit tightly to your feet. The right climbing socks shouldn’t affect your climbing ability.
What about Elite Climbers?
It’s safe to say that most elite climbers don’t wear socks with their shoes. For example, in an online discussion, Alex Megos and coach Dicki Korb reminisced about the good ol’ days and laughed about Alex wearing socks in his climbing shoes. You can gather from their giggles that wearing socks is not something pro climbers usually do.
However, avoiding injury from deep cracks, staying warm on big walls, and all-day comfort are the most common reasons that some of them sometimes do.
The most important thing to remember in the climbing shoes with socks debate is that you should do what feels the best and most comfortable to you. As long as your shoes are working well for you, the choice is really all yours.
What about you: do you wear socks with your climbing shoes? Let us know in the comments!