rock climbing shoe collection

Anyone involved in sports recognizes the need for proper footwear.

Running, cycling, triathlon, football, basketball, etc., shoe selection is important. In my experience, though, there is a lot of leeway in shoe choice and proper sizing. Some sports, such as ice hockey and speed skating, are more difficult. You need to get a perfect fitting skate because it becomes an extension of your foot.

Rock climbing takes it all a step further. Not only does the shoe become an extension of your foot, your foot becomes a tool. You’re not just pushing off your toes and heels, you’re jamming them into cracks and stepping onto ledges that are smaller than your big toe!

If you don’t get a perfect fit, you’re setting yourself up for injury, in more ways than one.

But getting a good pair of shoes is possible. I did it!

Here’s the story of how I became a proud owner of climbing shoes of my very own, along with some very important lessons I learned along the way…


Part I: The Basics of Choosing a Climbing Shoe

The first thing I did when deciding to purchase shoes was to research and look at all different types and models of shoes.

Getting the right fit.

Of the utmost importance is getting a shoe that fits perfectly all around. It should be tight against your toes and tight against your heel.

The shoe should be snug, but not tight enough that it painfully curls your toes inward.


When you’re using rental shoes or trying on shoes in the store, you’re probably going to be wearing socks (or some of those disposable socks that look like pantyhose.)

But you’ll probably climb without socks, so keep that in mind.

Shoes will stretch. Or they won’t.

Certain climbing shoes will stretch out as you wear them. A natural leather shoe can stretch up a full size, though most will only stretch about 1/3 to 1/2 size. It depends on the shoe.

If the shoe is synthetic, then it will be made so that it does not stretch.

Then, to add to the confusion, there are leather shoes that use synthetic liners, meaning they do not stretch. Tricky!

Also, remember that even when a shoe does stretch, it can only stretch so much. The rubber sole and toe aren’t going to stretch. Only the leather upper is going to stretch. And then, most of the stretch is in the width of the shoe.

Try on all brands.

You absolutely must try on all the brands you can find. Good outdoors shops will carry Five Ten, La Sportiva, Evolv, Mad Rock, Scarpa, and others.

It’s likely that a certain brand will fit your foot better than others.

And you might not like the smell of the vegan materials used by a certain brand. Cough *Evolve* Cough.

Velcro vs Laces vs Slip on- which is best?

Well, Velcro is quick, easy, and convenient. You’ll be able to get your shoes on and off quickly. This is great for short sport routes or bouldering where you might take your shoes off after each route. The downside is that there are sometimes “hot spots” where the Velcro tightens down.

Lacing allows you to customize the shoe’s fit to a certain extent. Leave them looser in some places, tighter in others. It takes time, but the fit is very, very comfortable. (You can cut the laces down so they don’t get in the way, if that’s a concern.)

Slip ons, when they fit, are even more comfortable than lace ups. That’s the main selling point. They conform to your foot and there are no pressure points that could create hot spots. The downside is that you have to get the sizing perfect. This is made even tougher because slip ons are generally leather, which means they will stretch out.

Toe shape

Did you notice that some of the expensive shoes have an aggressively downturned toe? This helps when you’re dealing with tiny footholds. The downside is the loss in comfort, and the inability to walk (or even stand up) normally.

Most basic shoes are flat, but still offer the hard, pointed toe to help you find footing.

Type of rubber

Each company uses a different rubber material for their sole. Harder rubber is more durable and can work well for indoor bouldering. Softer rubber, especially around the toe, is better for outdoor climbing where you might be smearing more.

All the shoe salesmen I’ve talked to say Five Ten’s Stealth rubber is the best there is. If Five Tens fit you, great. If not, wait for your sole to wear out, and have the shoe re-soled with Five Ten’s rubber.


Part II: My Journey

The fun part…

I started with rental shoes.

When I first started at The Climbing Wall, the rental shoes were older versions of the Five Ten Rogue. I tried on an 11 and a 12. The 12 was not quite tight enough, but the 11 curled my toes up a bunch. So I climbed in the 12 and did just fine.

The shoes were surprisingly comfortable all around, the heel cup was the perfect shape, and the two Velcro straps made them easy to work with.

But, they were stinky rental shoes! And paying to rent them was going to quickly add up to the cost of buying my own shoes! So, I set out on my journey to purchase my very own climbing shoes.

I planned to buy from Exkursion Outfitters.

The best outdoors store in the Pittsburgh area was Exkursion Outfitters in Monroeville. You couldn’t miss it – they always had super nice kayaks out front.

Naturally, I planned to get my climbing shoes at Exkursions. Unfortunately, upon checking their business hours on their website, I discovered they closed the store in December of 2013… which was one month earlier!!

It totally took me by surprise. They still hold kayaking and rock climbing classes, but there is no longer a retail storefront, which is sad news for Pittsburgh area outdoorsmen.

I was determined to buy some at REI.

At this point, I really didn’t want to rent shoes anymore, so I made a trip to the Pittsburgh REI, determined to buy some shoes, no matter what.

Then I saw their shoe selection!

Yeah, the same REI that’s home to a sick climbing wall, had about three climbing shoes to choose from! I couldn’t believe it. The selection isn’t great, either, but it was better than what this store had!

The only shoes within my budget were the La Sportiva Nago for $99 (and a couple others on clearance that didn’t fit.)

I tried on the clearance shoes first. The Evolv Pontas II was about my size, but the heel cup was way too loose. The La Sportiva Tarantula was comfortable, but at least one size too big.

Then I didn’t even bother trying on the Nago, since there weren’t any in my size sitting there, I wasn’t having much luck, and I didn’t care for the idea of a lace up shoe.

Back to the drawing board!

At this point, all I knew for sure was where I would not be buying any climbing shoes. And saying I had even a vague idea of which shoes I wanted would be a stretch!

So I kept looking for a store.

Dicks Sporting Goods? Nope. L.L. Bean? Not even close. Dunham’s? No sirree.

It was bad. I almost decided to order a bunch from Zappos and return the ones that didn’t fit.

Then I had one of those eureka moments…

Wait, what about Appalachian Outdoors in State College, where I always purchase my ski gear?

Their website listed a great selection of climbing shoes, so I called them just to be safe, and they assured me that they had all these shoes in a variety of sizes in the store, ready for me to try on!

Going to Appalachian Outdoors!

This was the right decision! I went in and talked to Jason, the resident climbing expert. After getting an idea of my experience level, budget, and future plans, he brought out four shoes for me to test:

  • Five Ten Rogue
  • Five Ten Anasazi Moccasym
  • La Sportiva Tarantula
  • Evolv Defy

I tried on the Rogue in 11.5 first, which is what I had expected to fit me best. Indeed, they felt great! The length was just right – tighter than the size 12 rentals, but not enough to curl my toes. And the Velcro cinched everything down with no discomfort.

Then I tried the Mocs in an 11.5. They were way too big, so I tried an 11, which was very comfy and amazing, but still a bit loose. So I went down again, to a 10.5, but the problem now was that they were perfect for my left foot, but curled my right toes in way too much. Despite being super comfortable, I would have had to buy two pairs so I could have a 10.5 for my left foot and an 11 for my right foot. Too risky. What if they stretched too much and neither fit?

Then I tried the Tarantula in 11.5, which was too big, so I also tried the 11 and 10.5 in these. They felt pretty good, but not nearly as good as the Rogue. And the comfort decreased even more when I pulled the Velcro tight. I really liked the green color of these, and they were under $88, but alas, the overall shape didn’t match my foot nearly as well as the Five Tens.

Lastly, the Evolv. I had never liked the feel of any Evolv shoes I tried on, but these had just been redesigned, so we figured it was worth a shot. Despite seeming like it would be comfy, the shoe was just an awful fit for my feet. I said no to these almost instantly!

So I tried on the Rogue again and they felt better than ever! So awesome. For a final test, I traversed their basement hallway climbing wall and I was hooked! (Literally – I did a heel hook on the wall!) I could tell that my climbing was going to improve instantly.

So for $105.98, I got some sick climbing shoes. (That was the same cost as renting shoes 26 times. So, after a couple months, they’d pay for themselves.)

I’m so happy I waited for a chance to really sit down and try on different shoes in many different sizes.

Huge thanks to Jason and Appalachian Outdoors in State College, PA!

I climbed in the Rogue for three months.

The shoes were excellent! (Be sure to check out my full review when I post it!)

Of course, I did make one realization. The shoes seem to loosen up a bit (or my feet settle in,) so I ended up wearing a lightweight pair of socks to get a better fit. I guess I could have sized down to an 11.

Oh well! It’s now eight months later and the 11.5 Rogues still work great when worn with my Injinji sport socks.

You might think this story has come to an end, but there’s one more chapter…

Oh boy, a big sale at Sierra Trading Post!

As much as I like to support local retailers, I freaking love Sierra Trading Post. It’s an excellent store with superb customer service, and the prices are insane.

One day I happened to find a 40% off coupon and I went on a shopping spree!

I bought more Five Ten Rogue shoes, one in 11.5, one in 11. These were $48 after my discount! Less than half price! (And I knew I liked them, so I was not guessing.)

Not content with just those, I also noticed they had the Mad Rock Phoenix in size 11. This is a shoe I was able to try on at REI one other day. I liked the shoe… the catch is that I tried on a 12.5 that was way too big. I guessed that the 11 would fit, and for $34, I was willing to take the chance!

It turns out I could probably fit the 10.5 perfectly and possibly even squeeze into a 10. So what did I do? I tried them on with wool socks underneath and realized they’ll make a nice winter climbing shoe!


Final Word of Advice

I always recommend buying your first pair of shoes in a specialty store. Appalachian Outdoors in State College, PA is a good one. As is Waterstone Outdoors, down in Fayetteville, WV, right along the New River Gorge.

And I recommend continuing to support your favorite local store as long as you’re buying outdoor gear.

I’ll make an exception for Sierra Trading Post though! If you can get the shoes you know you like for 60% off retail, stock up.

But I know when I’m ready to purchase a more aggressive shoe, I’ll be trying and buying in store. Just the other day I was eyeing up the Five Ten Arrowhead in Waterstone… 🙂

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