Published on: 07/25/2023
Investing in the perfect pair of climbing shoes can greatly improve your rock climbing experience and progress through performance and comfort. However, climbing shoes are not like any other product. Dialing the fit is tricky, and it can evolve as the shoe breaks in and perhaps even stretches. If it’s your first purchase, the difficulty is manifold.
The next thing is availability: you know exactly the model you want and the size you need, but it’s impossible to get a hold of a pair. Or maybe you find one, but it’s so expensive that you might have to eat ramen noodles for a couple of months.
That’s where we come in. We’ll share our favorite options to buy climbing shoes online and retail, as well as a few tricks to save.
Local Climbing Shoe Shops: Your Go-To Option
Local rock climbing shoe stores offer the benefit of personalized service, and the chance to try on shoes prior to making a purchase, making them an excellent choice for finding the perfect fit. The staff at these shops are often climbers themselves, providing firsthand knowledge and guidance tailored to your specific needs and skill levels. It’s a great way to meet experienced climbers who have helped hundreds (if not thousands) of other climbers find the right shoes.
As such, they will be able to give you some insights into how the climbing shoe you are considering are likely to fit a few months from now. This is especially important as dead space around the toes can reduce sensitivity, and a flappy heel is bound to cause slippage during your most difficult moves. On the other hand, painful shoes will make climbing a nightmare.
Supporting Small Businesses
Shopping locally for climbing shoes is all about the climbing community. It’s the right thing to do. You’ll be contributing to the local economy, keeping jobs, and ensuring the availability of specialized gear and expertise for fellow climbers.
Also, it doesn’t have to be more expensive. Sure, in some cases, the price may be higher than if you shop at a chain or online-only shops. However, you need to factor in the expert advice. Some coaches charge hundreds of dollars a month (and rightly so) for their expertise. So is it really that bad if you need to shell $10 more to get the right pick (model and size) right away, saving you potentially research time online?
Last but not least, staff at local climbing stores generally have more latitude to give you discounts if you’re a regular customer. Alternatively, they might throw in some freebies like a chalk bag or a carabiner. Also, they might be able to put aside your favorite model come Black Friday or other promotional periods.
Climbing gyms are also an interesting local option but from our experience it can be a hit or miss depending on who’s behind the counter when you’re there. Selling products is not their main activity and some staff don’t like it, especially if there are three people in line behind you looking to signup for a membership.
If you’re beginning, the best way is to do a course and ask the trainer if they can spare 10 minutes at the end of a session to help you find that perfect model.
Finding Local Stores
Google Maps is your best friend. However, make sure you to narrow down the area on the map to have all the relevant listings appear. Indeed, some shops might be too small to show up right away, especially if they don’t have many reviews.
Chain Outdoor Retailers: More Savings
Chain outdoor retailers such as REI and Backcountry offer a broad range of outdoor equipment and clothing with a very good selection of climbing shoes. They also have regular sales and discounts, along with membership advantages, to appease your significant other when it’s time (again!) to get a new pair.
It may seem like a detail but their e-commerce sites also have a good user experience with clear communication, making buying online a breeze. Add a good network of retail stores across the country and you get a solid partner to satisfy your climbing craze (in a sustainable fashion, of course). For example, you can return products you bought online in one of their retail stores.
If we had to pick only one shop, it would be REI. It’s so rare to see a company walk the talk when it comes to employee wellbeing, diversity, and sustainability (1), that naturally we want to root for their success and recommend them to our readers.
Yes, in all transparency, we are a partner, and they give us a commission if you buy from them after clicking on one of our links. But we would be cheering for them regardless! We’ve partnered with many companies since we started Climbing House and REI is by far our favorite.
Here are a few reasons why they are awesome:
- Recreational Equipment, Inc. is a co-operative owned by its member (2). For the modest sum of $30 you get to be a lifetime member and influence the direction of the company. Overall, this structure means that REI doesn’t answer to a limited number of shareholders looking for return on investment. As a result, they can reinvest their profits into virtuous initiatives that serve the outdoors and society in general (3).
- The membership also gets you a discount up to 10% and special deals
- REI treats its employees well. Would it have been enough to sway the late David Graeber? We’ll never know. Nonetheless, REI entered the Fortune’s “Hall of Fame” by consistently ranking among the Top 100 Companies to Work For in the United States
- They are carbon neutral certified and hold their partner brands to high sustainable standards (4).
Number two in the United States, right on the heels of REI, Backcountry is a solid alternative to get good deals or models that are out-of-stock elsewhere thanks to their large catalog. Their outlet website SteepandCheap is also one of the best places on the web to find huge bargains on outdoor products. However, the deals go very fast with limited availability, so it’s often a matter of luck or ingenious monitoring.
Born out of Utah in 1996 where it still has its headquarters today, Backcountry has morphed into a large business employing over 1,200 employees, now owned by TSG Consumer Partners, a private equity firm based in California. In Europe, it operates under the name Bergfreunde, a German company specializing in climbing and mountaineering gear it acquired in 2007.
In terms of sustainability and social responsibility, Backcountry has some decent initiatives going on, especially when it comes to diversity and inclusivity (5). However, unlike REI, it’s not yet carbon neutral certified.
REI vs. Backcountry
We put together this fact comparison table to help you decide who to pick, especially if they offer the same price for the climbing shoes you want.
|Headquarters||Kent, WA||Utah, UT|
|Owned by||23M lifetime members (co-operative)||Liberty Media (public company)|
|Free Shipping||> $50|
(no minimum spend for members)
(no minimum spend for members)
|Return policy||$5.99 (90 days)||$6.99 (30 days)|
|Membership program||Co-op Membership||Expedition Perks|
|Climbing Shoe Selection||Check Prices||Check Prices|
What about Amazon and Zappos?
If everything else fails, these can also be good options to get that elusive size for that pair of climbing shoes you desperately need. However, overall their selection is no match for players like REI and Backcountry.
Secondhand Deals: Save Money on Climbing Shoes
Buying used climbing shoes can save money without having to compromise on quality. Also, unlike critical gear like harness or rope, there’s no much that can’t go wrong with buying a defective pair of climbing shoes in terms of safety.
Here are the best places to find great secondhand bargains on climbing shoes:
- Your local gym: ask the staff if they know anyone selling their shoes, or if the gym is looking to part with one pair of rentals in decent condition.
- Facebook/Reddit/Discord climbing groups
- Mountain Project’s For Sale/For Free/Want to Buy forum sections
- Outdoor Gear Exchange, Gear Trade, REI’s Used Products
For more information on how to buy secondhand shoes, check out our guide.
Sizing: How to Buy Online
While buying online is often the easiest and most convenient option (it’s quite a annoying to make a trip to the store with a climbing shoe in mind and coming out empty-handed), sizing is a key challenge, especially when attempting to buy climbing shoes you’ve never worn before.
Therefore, it’s important to follow these steps to be as efficient as possible:
- Measure your feet and check the most appropriate size based on the manufacturer’s sizing guide.
- Compare the size(s) you found with feedback from other climbers using our Climbing Shoe Size Database or a sizing tool like SizeSquirrel.
- Only if absolutely necessary: buy an extra pair if you hesitate between two sizes, and keep the one that fits best. We don’t recommend this option as transport is one of the most polluting industries and returns aggravate the problem. You get a pass if you can cycle to return your item in a retail store!
For our expert advice on how to find the perfect fit, especially taking into account stretch and foot shape, check out our complete guide.
Main photo: © Substation Macclesfield
Raising the Bar on Product Sustainability
REI (April 2018)
REI Co-op relaunches its lifetime membership program to support 50-million-member community vision
REI (March 2022)
REI Co-op Gives Back Nearly 70 percent of Profits to the Outdoor Community after Year of Record Revenues in 2016
REI (March 2017)
Climate Neutral (retrieved on 07/25/2023)
Backcountry’s Corporate Website (retrieved on 07/25/2023)