Articles ยป How Tight Should Rock Climbing Shoes Be?

How Tight Should Rock Climbing Shoes Be?

One of the most common questions I’ve received during my time as an AMGA instructor is “how tight should climbing shoes be?”

When you buy your first pair of rock shoes, you’ll be faced with a problem that nearly all climbers face. What size climbing shoes should I get? Different shoes fit each person’s foot differently and shoes will have certain advantages depending on the climbing style you want to pursue.

Beginner shoes are typically flatter and more comfortable while experienced climbers will opt for a tighter shoe that can help with performance, but can’t be worn for more than one climb. There are also advantages to having lace up climbing shoes vs velcro.

We’ve spent a lot of time aggregating a list of the best climbing shoes to make climbing shoe shopping as easy as can be.

How Should Climbing Shoes Fit

You want your climbing shoes to be snug, but not be painfully tight. When I try a pair of shoes on for the first time, I check to see if my toes are pressing up against the edge of the shoe. There’s a happy medium where your toes are pressing against the shoe but your toes aren’t being crushed.

Once you have figured out the correct length of your shoes, see how the width and the heel feels. It can be tough to find climbing shoes if you have wider feet. But leather shoes like the La Sportiva Mythos Eco stretch a ton and can accomodate different foot shapes.

Many aggressive shoes will use tension to fit the shoe to your foot, so they end up being tighter shoes. When you’re trying on downturned shoes, pay attention to how the heel feels and if it’s irritating your achilles tendon.

What is a Climbing Shoe Profile

There are three distinct profiles for modern shoes: neutral, moderate, and aggressive shoes.

Neutral Shoes

Neutral shoes are the most common climbing shoe for beginners and what you’ll find being rented at the climbing gym. They have thicker rubber and are designed to be comfortable for all day climbing. I like to get my neutral shoes in a relaxed fit so I can enjoy wearing these for long periods of time or while multi pitch climbing.

Moderate Shoes

Moderate climbing shoes strike a balance between neutral and aggressive. They aren’t flat, but they also aren’t as downturned. They’re a great balance for climbers who want a tighter fit but still want some comfort.

Aggressive Shoes

Aggressive shoes will have a downturned shape. This means that the shoe looks more like a crescent moon than a regular shoe. These shoes are great for steep, overhanging bouldering and sport climbing. If you’re utilizing the heel hook or climbing a lot of overhanging rock than these are the right climbing shoes for you.

The Evolv Shaman is an aggressive climbing shoe

Neither of the default best shoe, but each one has its own specialty. For example, in crack climbing you want to be able to easily slide your foot into the crack.

Downturned shoes are angled and that shape makes it difficult to jam your foot in the crack.Neutral shoes will be flat and it will be easy for your foot to jam on crack climbs.

Are Climbing Shoes Supposed to be Tight

Climbing shoes are supposed to feel tight, but they should not be painful. The ideal fit for a climbing shoe will be snug but not painful.

If you’re climbing incredibly hard single pitch sport climbing, like Adam Ondra, than maybe you might benefit from having tighter rock shoes. But that doesn’t mean every rock climber should be climbing in painfully tight climbing shoes.

Newer climbers are looking at routes that resemble a ladder. These routes help us practice keeping our weight on our feet and teach us how to use our feet. Size your shoes comfortably so that you don’t have to worry about foot pain while you’re still learning the fundamentals of climbing.

How Tight Should Your Climbing Shoes be?

As a general rule, when wearing climbing shoes they should be a snug fit. The climbing shoe brings our toes together into a precise beacon of force. We can stand on the tiniest of tiny nubs thanks to climbing shoes.

The La Sportiva Mythos stretch and mold to your foot

Next time you try a shoe on, aim for your toes to be gently pressing up against the end of the shoe. A slight bend in your toes is a great indicator that you found the right fit. You will climb better with a more comfortable fit.

But climbers will have different, fitting climbing shoes depending on the style of climbing and the amount of time climbing. Some multi pitch climbing routes are hundreds of feet long, that would mean you’re wearing your climbing shoes for hours. Wear a comfortable shoe for those long days.

Keep it simple: if you’re going to be climbing all day wear some comfortable shoes! And if you want to climb that steep overhanging sport route, wear aggressive shoes and take them off in between attempts.

Can a Climbing Shoe be Too Loose?

You don’t want your climbing shoes to be too loose. Climbing shoes help us stand on precise holds.

Try stepping on a tiny dime edge with a loose shoe. It’s going to be very tough to stand on that edge if your foot is sliding around the dead space in your shoe.

How to Size Climbing Shoes

The Scarpa Helix are a comfortable shoe you can wear all day

When your sizing new shoes out for the first time, the best size to start at is your street shoe size. Depending on the shoe brand, the shoe may feel too tight or too big. In my experience, climbing shoes have ran smaller than street shoes. So it’s safe to start sizing out at your street size or just a half size down. Your big toe should be pressing up against the edge of the show, but your toe knuckles shouldn’t have an extreme bend.

Depending on the profile of the shoe, meaning if it’s downturned or a flat shoe, the climbing shoe fit will feel different. I like to sit in a chair and see how the climbing shoes fit. If I can wear them for five minutes without being in a lot of pain, then I’m on the right path that these are the right pair of climbing shoes for me.

The best case scenario is that your local climbing gym has a brand come and has a shoe demo for you to test out climbing shoes. You’ll be able to choose climbing shoes and talk with the brand rep to figure out what model is best for you. You can get direct feedback from a brand professional and ask them how tight should climbing shoes fit.

Tips to Fit Climbing Shoes

  • Try them on in store or at a shoe demo at a climbing gym
  • Go for a walk or climb before trying on your shoes, this will make your feet swell so you can see how climbing shoes fit when your feet are at their biggest
  • Tighter isn’t always better
  • Downsize about a half size from your street shoes when you are wearing shoes for the first time
  • Use this shoe calculator to determine how much to downsize your rock shoes

Do Climbing Shoes Stretch Out?

Yes, shoes made of unlined leather and that have leather uppers will stretch and mold to your foot.

Specific models like the Mythos, are well known for how much they stretch. They’re leather, unlined shoes and it’s not unheard of them to stretch a full or even two full sizes. There are also lined leather shoes, where there are multiple layers of leather and synthetic materials. These shoes won’t stretch as much as an unlined leather shoe.

However, synthetic shoes will not stretch at all. So if you buy a pair of synthetic shoes that are a tight fit, don’t expect them to stretch much more.

How to Break In Climbing Shoes

  • Put on a pair of thick wool socks and then put your shoes on. Then kick back and watch some Climbing videos! Wear them for 15-20 minutes and then give your feet a break. Repeat this process a few times.
  • Stuff as many socks as you can into your shoes. Then get a blow dryer and heat up the shoe for about a minute. Once the shoe is warm to the touch, use your hand to force the socks around in the shoe. Pushing the socks will stretch your rock climbing shoe.
  • Lace up your climbing shoes and hop in the shower! Keep your shoes on a for a few hours after wearing them in the shower. Your rock shoes will stretch and mold to the contours of your foot.
  • Climb a few easy pitches and stand on a variety of holds.
Bouldering to break in a new pair of shoes

Do Climbing Shoes Have to Hurt?

No climbing shoes don’t have to hurt, and pain is a sign that you should size up. There are very specific scenarios you could need a shoe sized so tight that it hurts. But chances are if you’re just starting out, climbing in the gym for training, or out having fun, you do not want your shoe to be hurting your feet.

Your foot shape plays a part too, some shoes will just simply not fit your foot. My toes are extremely long, my middle toes are longer than my big toe. There are some shoes that just feel so uncomfortable due to the shape of the toe box.

You can do serious damage to foot by stuffing them into overly tight shoes. There are many ligaments and little bones in our feet, treat them nicely so we can climb for a long time!

Why Are Tight Climbing Shoes The Norm

Comfy shoes means a comfy belay station

Climbing shoes are supposed to be tight because we want pinpoint precision accuracy when putting our weight on tiny chips. Especially when climbing outdoors, some of the footholds we need to stand on seem minuscule. Having a shoe that fits like a glove helps get the accuracy and precision we need.

Do Climbing Shoes Run Small?

It depends on the brand, but most climbing shoes will be around your street shoe size. Find a store to try on shoes and start at your street shoe size. Depending on the materials of the shoe, the shoe will stretch. You can size down until the shoe is a bit uncomfortable in the store and the shoe will stretch out after a few days of climbing.

How Tight Is Too Tight

If you’re wondering if your shoe fits too tight there are a few tests you can run to verify.

First, when you take off your shoes look at your toe knuckles. Do they look like they’ve been smushed, pressed, or even starting to blister? If your knuckles look red, then your toes are too curled in your shoe. You should have slightly curled toes and they should not blister over when you’re wearing your shoes.

Second, take a second to check in with your feet and see if they’re in pain. If you’re climbing and your big toe suddenly rings out in pain when you step on a hold, then you need to size up half a size at least.

What Should My First Pair Of Shoes Fit Like

Beginner climbers should look for a flat lasted shoe that fit snug. As you get comfortable with how climbing shoes fit, neutral shoes will feel more like regular sneakers than an aggressive climbing shoe.

You’ll also get to decide whether you want lace up shoes or velcro shoes. One of the advantage of laces is that you can adjust each individual lace to match your foot shape. But with velcro shoes (and slip on shoes) you’re able to put them on and take them off faster.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should toes curl in climbing shoes?

Your toes should only slightly curl in your climbing shoes, if you feel any pain then the shoe is too tight.

How should a climbing shoe fit?

Climbing shoes should feel snug on your feet and the lining should be close to your toes and heel, but the shoe should not be painful.

Should climbing shoes be a size smaller?

Depending on the brand, they can be a size or two smaller than what you normally wear.

Is it normal for new climbing shoes to hurt?

They may be uncomfortable but they should not be painful.

Photo of author
Rob developed ORB to help himself categorize and find all the outdoor gear he needed at great prices. He loves writing about the outdoors and climbing. Rob is a certified Single Pitch Instructor through the AMGA.

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