Bouldering in particular doesn’t require a lot of equipment but the most critical item is definitely a pair of climbing shoes. There is a bewildering range of rock climbing shoes on the market, some of which are designed specifically for bouldering. Each claims to be the best fitting and have the stickiest rubber. Most climbers are loyal to a particular brand but no one brand dominates the market implying that no brand confers a particular advantage.
When choosing the best shoe for your needs you must compromise between many different factors, such as:
- A tight fit gives better performance on small holds at the expense of comfort.
- The stickier the rubber, the faster it will wear out. Stiff shoes ‘edge’ well but ‘smear’ badly.
- Thin soles are more sensitive but less durable.
Most beginners’ footwork is such that their first pair of shoes don’t last long, so there is no point spending a fortune on them.
Worn shoes can be resoled, but they won’t perform as well as they did when new. One approach is to use a resoled or cheap pair indoors and reserve the good pair for rock.
Some boulderers find that one pair of shoes can’t meet all their needs, so they own a selection of shoes, choosing the best shoe for each problem, sometimes even wearing different models on each foot.
The rule of thumb for climbing shoes is: the tighter the fit, the better the performance. Most boulderers wear climbing shoes a few sizes smaller than their street shoes.
Fit your shoes so that they are snug but not so tight that your feet are in agony, bear in mind they will stretch and mould to your feet to some extent (synthetic uppers won’t stretch, lined leather uppers will stretch a small bit and unlined leather can stretch up to a full size). Make sure that there isn’t any dead space in the shoe, particularly around the heel. Shoes with thin soles and minimal lining perform best with a snug fit, while shoes with stiffer soles don’t need to be fit too tight. Remember that feet swell during the day, so it’s best to shop for shoes in the afternoon.
Some climbers wear extremely tight shoes which force their toes to be clenched like a fist. This allows them to press down hard on small edges, but it can be a disadvantage on sloping holds where the goal is to get as much rubber as possible in contact with the rock. It’s also not very good for the health of their feet. Before you climb in new shoes wear them around the house for a few hours and if they are too small you can return them.
Entry level climbing shoes tend to be stiff with a thick layer of rubber, flat soles and plenty of room in the toe area. And while not brilliant from a performance point of view they are comfortable and relatively cheap.
Lace ups are the most popular style of climbing shoe. Laces are a little time-consuming to put tie and untie, however tensioning or loosening them allows you to adjust the fit. They are also very secure, which is important particularly when ‘heel hooking’.
Velcros have two or three velcro straps running across the front of the shoe, so they are quick to take on and off but otherwise they are very similar to lace ups.
Slippers were very popular in the nineties but aren’t as common nowadays. They are quite soft and you need strong feet to make the most of them, so they aren’t very suitable for beginners.
High performance climbing shoes feature an extremely down turned toe (for better edging on steep rock), very thin sticky soles and extra rubber on the top and side of the foot for ‘toe hooking’ and smearing.