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Am I Too Old to Start Rock Climbing? Here Are 7 Tips For Older Climbers

Rock Climbing w Dad

There are lots of reasons not to start rock climbing- at least that’s what you tell yourself. You might not be good at it, it might be dangerous, it could be expensive, it could be hard. If you are thinking that climbing is a young person’s sport though, that’s where you’re wrong.

Nobody is too old to start rock climbing, and climbing gyms and outdoor walls are full of people of all ages. Most of the worlds greatest competitive climbers started in their teens, but hobbyists can start at any age. Climbing is a healthy, fun activity for people of all ages.

If you didn’t start climbing right out of the womb you may feel like you’ve missed the boat, but this is not a reason to miss the next boat! Climbing gyms are home to visitors of all ages, and of all experience levels.

Rock Climbing and Age

They say that human brains reach full development at around age 25. By this age, many people have tried lots of hobbies, met lots of people, lived multiple places, and really have a good handle on who they are.

Once we settle into a routine, we regularly see the same people, participate in the same activities, and frequent the same places. Because of this, we can really settle into a groove at this point and it can be hard to start a new hobby.

I think there’s probably a pretty good argument in favor of waiting until your brain is fully developed to start rock climbing! Maybe it will keep you from making bone-headed mistakes or placing too much confidence in your physical abilities.

Climbing, especially indoors, is really not very complicated. You only need to learn a handful of skills and one knot! Most gyms teach these skills over about the course of an hour if you sign up for a class. If you start climbing outside or experiment with sport climbing or trad climbing, you will need to learn a lot more skills- but that comes later.

The nice thing about climbing for novices is that every wall has a variety of difficulty levels. You will start out climbing something no more difficult than a ladder. As you get more comfortable and improve, you’ll advance through the ratings and climb harder and harder.

In 2019 the American Alpine Club put out a report stating that 65% of American climbers are between the ages of 18 and 35 years old.

Climbing for Fun versus Climbing Competitively

If you are starting to climb in your 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, etc., you probably aren’t going to be breaking any world records. Just like with other sports, each generation of professional athletes seems to have started the sport at a younger age than the previous generation. With climbing, this means the next generation of crushers is starting around age 5-7.

You can see a table of the ages that famous professional climbers started in my article What Age Should Kids Start Climbing?

Climbing competitively is not the reason most of us climb though. Sure it’s fun to participate in a competition every once-in-a-while, but we climb for lots of reasons- primarily because it’s fun!

The great thing about climbing is that you can climb with a partner of any age and any skill level, because you are primarily competing with yourself. You may belay your partner up a 5.12a, and then they’ll turn around and belay you up a nearby 5.8. For more info on the rating system, read Is Rock Climbing Hard?

If you do intend to climb competitively, the time to start was yesterday- or the day before. Take it easy getting started- tendons take a while to get stronger and you can hurt yourself if you climb too much too often starting out.

My 50-Year Old Dad Climbing

What Age Should You Start Rock Climbing?

If you want to climb competitively you need to start climbing as a young teenager. Otherwise, you can start climbing at any age. Most people pick it up in their early 20’s, as climbing gyms tend to be located near college towns and it’s a fun social activity.

There are tons of benefits to picking up rock climbing at any age. It’s a really fun way to meet people and make friends, it’s good exercise, and it’s good for cognitive development.

Benefits to Starting to Rock Climb

Social Atmosphere

Climbing has always been a great way to meet people. Outdoors, this means showing up to random climbing areas or campgrounds and climbing with strangers. Indoors it’s the same thing.

The thing is, you absolutely need someone to climb with if you want to climb (unless you’re bouldering indoors)- and your regular partner isn’t always available. Everyone is pretty much always looking for another climbing partner to go with.

Within a climbing gym there is usually a solid group of ‘regulars’ who climb multiple days a week around the same times. It won’t take long before you start to recognize familiar faces and pick up people’s names.

Lots of climbing gyms have certain nights set aside for different groups of people (ladies’ night, new climbers’ night, members’ night, etc.). This can be a good opportunity to meet climbers similar to yourself.

Each gym also has a “partner board” where people leave basic contact info so that they can always have someone to climb with. The fun camaraderie that exists in a climbing gym community is one of the best parts of climbing.

Physical Benefits

Pretty much anyone can climb the easiest routes in a climbing gym. If you can climb a ladder, you can rock climb. As you practice and train, you’ll begin to get stronger.

One of the major benefits of climbing is that it strengthens and improves your balance and core. Your core is engaged while climbing to help you make precise movements and balance on small foot and handholds. The benefits of core strength as we age are many.

Additionally, climbing will start to increase your grip strength and the strength in your hands and arms. You don’t actually need to be able to do pull-ups to climb, though it can be beneficial.

As you get stronger all-around you will notice how it impacts and improves your climbing capability and you’ll start to climb harder and harder routes. The desire to climb harder can also be a great motivator for you to exercise and workout outside of climbing.

Mental Benefits

I think the hardest thing for most brand new climbers is probably the mental aspect of climbing. It just doesn’t feel natural to dangle 10 meters up in the air suspended by a rope at first!

Trusting the rope and other climbing gear is a mind-over-matter thing. Especially in a climbing gym, the odds of gear failure are minuscule. As you learn to trust the gear, your confidence will increase. To make yourself feel better about climbing gear strength ratings, read my article How Much Weight Can A Carabiner Hold?

Your first day at the climbing gym will be a high adrenaline day. As you progress, the fear caused by adrenaline turns into confidence as you begin to hone a skill and develop proficiency. You will build confidence in yourself and a greater appreciation for your body as you discover your limits and break through them.

Climbing is also an excellent stimulant for creativity. Bouldering routes are called problems, because it takes a lot of creativity and problem solving in order to unlock the sequence and get to the top. This mental stimulation is as fun of a challenge as the physical aspect of climbing.

Is 30 Too Old to Start Rock Climbing?

30 is a great age to start rock climbing! With some life experience beneath your belt you won’t be as fearless as you were as a teenager, which is probably a good thing. Lots of people in their 30’s climb frequently in the gym and outside.

It is a great way to blow off steam after a busy work day, and a good way to maintain friendships. It’s a lot better for you than meeting up with friends at a bar or catching a movie.

Is 40 Too Old to Start Rock Climbing?

It is not too late to start climbing in your 40’s. It is an excellent activity for parents to do alongside their kids, or for you to take time out of a busy week for yourself. Many professional rock climbers are competitive into their 40’s.

Is 50 Too Old to Start Rock Climbing?

As long as you are in good health, you can definitely start climbing in your 50’s. Climbing will help build core strength and keep your mind sharp. It can be a really fun activity to do with friends or to take your children to do.

Pay close attention to your body, as you won’t heal as quickly as you have in the past if you get an injury. Take it easy at first, and give your tendons and muscles plenty of time to recover between sessions.

7 Tips for Older Climbers

1. Start Easy

Starting out it will be difficult to climb harder routes in the 5.10+ range. These usually take a lot of finesse and technique, as well as some solid grip strength. You can’t pick up these skills or build these muscles overnight.

When you first start out, look for routes in the 5.7 to 5.8 range. If you need to “rainbow” your way up a route and use extra holds, go for it! The important thing is to enjoy yourself and learn.

2. Don’t Compete With Others- Just Yourself

It can be frustrating to see people younger than you are flying up the walls and hanging from fingernail-sized holds (trust me, that’s how I feel about 12-year olds!). You don’t know how long they’ve been climbing and training, or if they’re at the gym every day!

The competitive part of climbing is with yourself. Push yourself and practice good techniques so that you can improve over time. There’s no need to compete with anybody else.

3. Rest Days

I see a lot of climbers, of all ages, get hurt climbing too much starting out. Your muscles will get stronger faster than your tendons do, which can lead to injury. As you get older this can take even longer.

Climbing consists of a lot of hanging from tendons in your fingers, hands, and forearms. Make sure to rest enough to let your body recover before climbing again. This probably means only climbing 1-2 times per week for the first month or two.

4. Focus on Technique

It’s more difficult to build muscle as you get older. Fortunately, good climbing technique can compensate for strength training. Learning proper footwork and special grips will help you take your climbing to the next level.

5. Pay Attention to Your Body

Your body is pretty good at telling you when something is off. This can be unusual soreness, a crunchy feeling in a joint, or an unnatural pop. Pay special attention to any of these signs and take time to heal up or get them checked out by a doctor before they progress too far.

Take the time to warm up before each climbing session, and cool down with a few laps on easy routes along with more stretching. Injuries are more likely to happen when climbing cold.

6. Be Social

It can be intimidating to join into a social atmosphere of primarily 20-year olds, but the whole point of a community is that it is stronger because of the variety of members. Make an effort to talk with the climbers around you and don’t hesitate to ask questions.

The climbing community is really cool, and is always very friendly. Everybody is on the same team, and is happy to cheer each other on for their personal successes. Be a part of the community and you will find ways you can contribute.

7. Be Cautious Bouldering

My last tip is a word of caution for older climbers. Bouldering puts a lot more strain on your fingers and arms, and also involves a lot more falling than roped climbing.

A fall when you’re 15 or 20 is much different than a fall at 45 or 50. Bones become more brittle and liable to break as we age. Be careful bouldering that you don’t take any bad falls.

What Injuries Should I Expect as an Older Rock Climber?

While we can all hope that we won’t have to deal with injuries climbing, it eventually catches up to all of us. Fortunatley, the vast majority of injuries are minor things like strained fingers or bumps and bruises.

The worst injuries you can expect climbing indoors are twisted or broken ankles, twisted or broken wrists, and torn ligaments in fingers and hands. These are all very uncommon, and can be avoided by being careful not to push yourself too hard and being cautious as you fall.

As with every activity, you should consult with your doctor before getting started. Climbing is a strenuous activity that engages multiple muscle groups and can get your heart rate going because of effort and adrenaline.


Related Questions:

Do You Need to Be Strong to Rock Climb? Elite climbers are usually very lean and strong. The rest of us are pretty average. Climbing routes vary in difficulty so that everybody and every body has something they can climb.

Is Rock Climbing Hard For Beginners? Climbing can be as hard as you want it to be because each wall has a variety of difficulties. The easiest routes are as difficult as climbing a ladder, so pretty much anyone can do them.

Why Are Climbing Shoes So Expensive? The Costs You Don’t Think About

You can only rent climbing shoes for so long. Gym rentals are bulky, don’t fit well, and have seen tons of gross feet. One thing that may keep new climbers from buying shoes though is the high price.

Climbing shoes are so expensive for three reasons: there are poor economies of scale, they are handmade, and manufacturers use high quality proprietary materials. Climbing and bouldering shoes range in price between $50 and $200 USD, with more aggressive shoes being more expensive.

Other types of shoes, even special-interest shoes, have really come down in price over the last few decades thanks to modern manufacturing techniques and bulk orders. Climbing shoes have come down as well, but there are some factors that will likely keep them priced high.

What Makes Climbing Shoes So Expensive?

The cost of climbing shoes has really come down over the last decade as lots of new manufacturers have entered the market. You can realistically get set up with a full set of sport climbing gear for well under $500 USD. These are the three factors that really contribute to the cost of climbing shoes.

Economies of Scale

We’ve all gotten used to buying regular shoes for between $20 and $50. If you’re like me (hopefully you aren’t…) you have a closet of 20+ pairs of them. I think the most I’ve ever paid for a pair of regular shoes is about $50.

The reason high-performance shoes are so cheap these days is because of economies of scale. A factory somewhere in the world can make shoes nonstop all day every day. As they make more and more shoes, they come up with better manufacturing processes.

These processes lead to investments in new technologies like robots, that make it even easier to mass-produce products. The demand for shoes is pretty much infinite (pretty much everyone on earth needs shoes).

As climbing becomes more and more popular, manufacturers will be able to capitalize on these techniques and slowly lower their costs. For now, climbing is still relatively obscure, which keeps equipment expensive.

Additionally, big manufacturers are able to leverage their size to buy materials in bulk and design tons of the same style of shoe without changing production lines. This economic principle is called Economies of Scale.


Climbing shoes were first made by cobblers in Italy who made shoes for mountaineers. They were highly skilled, and worked directly with the climbers who would eventually wear the shoes. Many of these manufacturers are family-owned, and are still making climbing shoes today.

Climbing shoes are made by hand (for now at least). The process involves molding pieces of rubber and sewing and gluing the different pieces together so that they meet perfectly.

Unlike most shoes with thick padding, climbing shoes have no margin for error. If they’re too big or too small, they just won’t fit. Velcro shoes especially don’t mold around climber’s feet as well as laced shoes do.

Highly-skilled cobblers and craftsmen who make climbing shoes are more expensive than low-skilled laborers and robots. The increased quality inherent in the handmade makes them more expensive.

In addition to being handmade, climbing shoes usually have to be sold at gear shops rather than online. This is because they have a unique fit and offer special performance requirements.

Gear shops can’t just pay some random high school kid to sell the shoes; they need to find someone who knows what they’re doing and can answer questions and make recommendations.

Quality Materials

Climbing shoes have to be able to take a beating. It’s not like your harness, that occasionally grinds into the rock wall- your shoes are down in the trenches on every single move.

Running shoes, even high-quality running shoes, will usually only last up to around 300 miles. Climbing shoes don’t even get near that (imagine climbing 300 vertical miles though…!).

The abrasiveness of the rock, along with the dirt and small pebbles you pick up, can grind through your shoes in a few months of consistent use. You can have your shoes resoled as they wear out, but there’s not much you can do when the uppers wear out due to crack climbing.

Learn how to take care of your Climbing Shoes here- How Can I Make my Climbing Shoes Last Longer?

Modern climbing shoes are either made out of leather or synthetic materials. Each has distinct advantages and disadvantages, including fit, stretch, smell, and durability.

While the leather or synthetic uppers are made of somewhat expensive materials, the rubber heel cup, sole, and rand are really what can drive up the cost. Each brand uses its own proprietary mixes of rubber, and most use different mixes for different parts of the shoes.

Comparison to Other Sports and Activities

Rock Climbing shoes seem expensive compared to regular shoes, but how do they compare to shoes for other sports and activities? Here’s a quick breakdown-

  • Hiking Boots: You can get a decent pair of hiking boots for $30, but nice pairs cost upwards of $80.
  • Ski Boots: Ski boots cost upwards of $150.
  • Basketball Shoes: There’s a big range for basketball shoes, but you’re usually looking at $50 to $150.
  • Running Shoes: You can find a cheap pair of running shoes for around $40, but expensive pairs run up at around $100.
  • Trail Running Shoes: A good pair of trail running shoes starts at about $75.
  • Cycling Shoes: Shoes with clips for road or mountain biking cost between $40 and $150.

Climbing shoes, which cost between $50 and $150 on average, fit squarely in with these specialty shoes. They’re definitely more expensive than regular shoes, but that’s because they’re special shoes.

Are Expensive Climbing Shoes Worth It?

Expensive climbing shoes are no substitution for good technique and strength. Expensive shoes above about $100-$150 are designed for very specific types of climbing like crack climbing, overhung routes, and difficult bouldering problems.

For most of the climbing that the average climber does, a pair of $80 shoes is adequate. When you’re starting out, you can even go with a $50 pair as you learn what you’re doing.

Novice climbers tend to have poor footwork, scraping their toes on the wall and wearing through their shoes prematurely. As you get better, you learn to stick your footholds instead of dragging them. This helps your shoes to last a lot longer.

For most of us, the shoes are not the limiting factor. Take basketball for example- if you take the average person and put them in a pair of LeBron shoes, they won’t play any better than if they’re in a pair of $30 discount Reeboks.

For advanced athletes though, nice shoes can become a limiting factor. Work on getting your body in shape, and developing excellent technique before committing to expensive shoes. They are worth the price tag for athletes that are performing at the highest level.

Related Questions

Is it Worth Resoling Climbing Shoes? It is only worth resoling climbing shoes if the value of the shoes is more than the cost to resole- usually around $50. Shoes can only be resoled 3-4 times normally, as wear to the upper and rand is more difficult to repair.

How Long Does Climbing Shoe Rubber Last? Climbing Shoe rubber lasts 3-6 months if climbing multiple times a week, or up to 10 years if climbing infrequently. The rubbers starts to oxidize after a few years and becomes harder and less responsive, so even if you don’t wear them out they may need to be replaced.

Do Climbing Shoes Stretch Out? Unlined climbing shoes stretch out by as much as a full size. Lined climbing shoes do not really stretch out; however they do mold to your feet throughout your climbing session.

How To Break In Synthetic Climbing Shoes- Is It Even Possible?

If you’re reading this, you probably are experiencing a fair bit of buyer’s remorse right now. You thought you could tough it out until the shoes stretched, but have found that the pain is too much. Leather shoes stretch out up to a full size over time, but everyone says that synthetic climbing shoes don’t stretch.

While synthetic climbing shoes stretch less than leather climbing shoes, they do stretch a little bit. The best way to stretch them out is to climb in them for 2-3 weeks. If you can’t handle that, there are other more drastic methods you can use to stretch them out.

Here are three tried and true methods for stretching synthetic climbing shoes:

  1. Climb in them for 2-3 weeks, taping hot spots.
  2. Take a hot shower with the shoes on; then walk around the house stretching your feet as they dry.
  3. Freeze bags of water in your shoes overnight to expand them.

Synthetic shoes do stretch a little bit, as seams expand and rubber molds around your foot. Just how much and how do do it best we’ll go through below.

3 Methods for Stretching Synthetic Climbing Shoes

The three main ways to stretch climbing shoes should be done in order. If you can get them to stretch out naturally over a couple of weeks, that’s best. If they’re still too tight, then try the hot shower or frozen bag methods. What you don’t want to do is stretch them out too much that they become loose (not likely with synthetics).

Method 1: Stretch Shoes by Climbing in Them

Climbing puts a lot of stress on the materials that make up the climbing shoes. You go from putting all of your weight on your heels to all of your weight on your toes to all of your weight on an inside edge. Climbing cracks puts some pressure on the top and bottom simultaneously.

All of these forces, especially with your feet flexing and stretching as you go, work to slowly stretch out synthetic shoes and mold them around your foot. No shoe fits exactly perfect, so as they mold around your feet it will feel as if they’re stretching out.

It might be miserable to climb for a couple of days, but it will usually ease up after a few sessions. Fortunately, there are some things that you can do to help ease the pain of the first few days:

  • Clip your toenails short so that there aren’t sharp edges that can hurt your other toes. Don’t go too short, or they can get ingrown.
  • Wrap climbing tape (athletic tape) around hot spots on your feet like the joint on your big toe or middle toe, or the back of your heel.
  • Warm up your shoes before climbing in them- tuck them under your armpit, hold them in front of the heater in the car, or tuck hand warmers in them. This makes them more pliable and more comfortable.
  • Climb in the morning because your feet swell throughout the day.
  • Put your feet into plastic baggies (like socks) before putting your feet in your shoes. This helps your feet slide around more and reduces hot spots.

Wearing them for a few weeks will only get you so far- maybe a half size at most with synthetic shoes. The main thing that happens is the shoe molds around your feet better. If you really need to stretch them, try another method.

Method 2: Stretch Shoes by Showering in Hot Water

Heat, especially UV rays, can damage the rubber on climbing shoes, so it’s important to do this with water and not to get too hot (if your skin can handle it, the shoes are fine). Hot water helps to make the rubber more pliable and the synthetic uppers more likely to stretch.

If you aren’t careful, you can really mess up your shoes. Mold grows easily if you don’t dry them completely, and drying them out too much with the sun or really hot air can crack the rubber. It’s important to do it right.

  1. Wait until no one is home, because showering with climbing shoes on is weird.
  2. Take a hot shower or soak your feet for a few minutes in a hot bath. It’s important that your shoes are in the shoes, because they need to mold to your feet.
  3. Towel off the outside of the shoes and then wear them as they dry out for an hour or so. Aggressive shoes aren’t as comfortable, so you might not be able to walk around in them and may just have to read a book or watch a movie.
  4. Ideally, you should climb in the shoes as they dry out. Obviously this only works if you’ve got a home gym or nearby crag. Don’t wear soggy shoes to your local bouldering gym!
  5. Remove the shoes and stuff newspaper into them. This helps them dry out completely, as the paper absorbs any water in the shoe. Don’t store them in the dark since they can get mold, but don’t put them in direct sunlight either.
  6. Once they’ve dried out completely, you should be able to tell that they fit your feet better and have stretched out a bit.

With unlined leather shoes, this method can add as much as a full size or more to your climbing shoes. For synthetic shoes, you might get up to a half size. The real benefit is that the shoe will mold to your foot better and you’ll be more comfortable.

Method 3: Stretch Shoes by Freezing Bags of Water in Them

If you can’t get a hot shower with some privacy, you can try expanding the shoes in the freezer. The nice thing about doing it this way is that you can do it a couple of times with the shoes laced tighter and tighter and get a more gradual stretch.

  1. Eat the leftover ice cream to clear space for your shoes in the freezer.
  2. Fill up ziploc bags with water until they’re full enough to simulate your foot in your shoes. Don’t overfill them, or you’ll be cleaning up a big mess.
  3. Tuck the bags of water into the shoes, lace up the shoes to the desired level of tightness, and leave them in the freezer overnight.
  4. Allow shoes and ice to thaw. Once they’ve completely thawed to room temperature, try on the shoes.
  5. Repeat as necessary, lacing the shoes tighter to get more stretch.
  6. Make sure to let the shoes dry out completely when you’re done, including any condensation or frost that accumulates

The freezing method helps to stretch out the seams and threads, which makes it work especially well for synthetic shoes. Unfortunately though, the stretch doesn’t mold around your foot like it does for the other methods. I recommend using this method to get a little bit of stretch until it is bearable, and then climbing in them for a few weeks to get them to mold to your feet better.

There’s only so much you can do to stretch your shoes, especially with synthetic bouldering shoes. If you need them to stretch more than a size, you’re probably out of luck and it’s best to try and return them or sell them to someone else (make someone’s day!) rather than wasting your time.

How Much Do Synthetic Climbing Shoes Stretch?

The most synthetic climbing shoes will really stretch is about a half size. This happens as seams stretch out a little bit and the rubber molds around your foot. People say that synthetic shoes don’t stretch, but that’s only partially true. No shoe fits perfectly right at first; there’s always some space to mold around your foot.

If you’re having a hard time getting shoes to fit your right, try out different models and different brands. The shoe’s shape is called a “Last,” and is molded using someone else’s foot. Different lasts will fit different feet better, so you can find something that fits your feet by trying on lots of different shoes.

Related Questions:

Can Climbing Shoes Be Too Small? Climbing shoes are too small when you can’t get up a route without taking them off. If it’s all you’re thinking about as you climb, it’s not worth the pain. Climbing shoes should be tight, but not so tight that it’s something you think about while you are climbing.

Do Black Diamond Climbing Shoes Stretch? Black Diamond’s line of climbing shoes made from synthetic materials do not stretch, despite their appearance. They may look like they are made from the same material as your running shoes, but this is just so that they are breathable. The most they will stretch is a half size due to the rubber molding around your foot during use.

How Long Does It Take For Climbing Shoes to Break In? It usually takes 2-3 weeks to break in a pair of climbing shoes if you are climbing consistently. This means about 8-10 climbing sessions. If you use the hot shower or freezer method, this can be expedited; however there’s no substitute for just doing it the hard way.

Should You Buy Climbing Shoes a Size Bigger?

The first time you put on a pair of climbing or bouldering shoes, the tight discomfort can really bother you. Shoes have absolutely no padding, and often make your toes curl up in the ends. This discomfort can lead some people to wonder if they need to size up.

You should not buy climbing or bouldering shoes a size bigger, because climbing shoes are meant to fit tightly. Buy climbing shoes that are the same size as your street shoe, or a half size smaller. It’s best to try them on before buying to ensure the right fit.

Climbing shoes need to fit as tightly as possible without hurting your feet, because this gives climbers the best performance. Contrary to old-school belief though, your shoes don’t need to make you lose feeling in your feet. I’ll explain how to fit shoes correctly, while going as small as possible for performance.

What Size of Climbing Shoes to Buy?

Climbing shoes have the terrible reputation of being wildly uncomfortable. In the past, climbers used to buy climbing shoes a few sizes smaller and then cram their feet inside in the hope that the pain would help them get their weight onto a smaller hold.

It wasn’t uncommon to see climbers get to the top of a route, clip in or set an anchor, and peel their shoes off their feet before descending or belaying the follower up. It was a badge of courage to see how many sizes below your street size you could get your feet into, almost reminiscent of the girls binding their feet during the Tang Dynasty in China!

Additionally, climbing shoe uppers used to be made primarily of unlined leather. Leather stretches out a few sizes as it gets worked, so climbers had to go down several sizes initially with the expectation that they would stretch out over time.

Thankfully, climbing shoe companies have continued to innovate, and have found ways to mostly capture the performance of punishingly tight shoes with different shoe shapes and styles. Even though shoes don’t need to be crazy tight, that doesn’t mean you should size up.

Why You Shouldn’t Size up Climbing Shoes

Climbing shoes are unique in a few ways. They utilize extremely sticky rubber, they mold around your foot, they have a rubber heel and toe cap, and they have a rigid sole at least halfway back on the shoe. This rigid sole is why you shouldn’t wear shoes that are too big.

I would argue that the rigid sole is the most important feature in climbing shoes, right up there with the sticky rubber. We’ve all tried climbing in tennis shoes or even hiking boots, and it’s really hard.

When you put your toe on a small hold, the shoe bends with your toes inside and you slip off. If you have really tight shoes this can help a little bit, but for the most part your toes bend upwards and you slide off the hold.

Climbing shoes, with their rigid soles, make it much more difficult for your toes to bend upwards. The sole effectively extends the toehold out towards the ball of your foot, which is much stronger than your toes. The rigid sole won’t hold all of your weight by itself though; it requires the extra strength of your toes to keep it stable.

If you wear climbing shoes that are too big, then any hold smaller than the space between your toes and the end of the shoe will make your toes bend upwards and send you falling off the rock. Your feet need to go all the way to the end of the shoe in order for them to work properly.

Additionally, bigger climbing shoes mean that there’s a good chance that your feet will slide around a bit while you’re climbing. If you feet slide around, your shoes will create hot spots that can lead to blisters. If you get blisters, that means you can’t climb- and that’s bad.

Different shoes fit different feet differently (I think that makes sense). Shoes are designed with different foot shapes in mind, so it’s important to try them on until you find some that you like.

Some brands run narrow (looking at you La Sportiva), while others have a wider fit. It can be tempting to size up in narrow shoes if you have wide feet, but don’t fall for it.

What is the Advantage of Smaller Climbing Shoes?

The advantage to smaller climbing shoes is in your toes. Smaller shoes make your toes curl up in the end. With your toes curled up, you’re able to stand and balance on the strength of the ball of your foot instead of the strength of your toes.

Smaller climbing shoes sort of work as if you didn’t have toes (obviously that’s not ideal). Your feet are really strong, but the toes are the weakest link.

Smaller shoes help double your toes over, which doubles their strength. This way you can hold up your whole weight on just the tips of your toes.

Even with the development of synthetic material and better leather linings, climbing shoes still stretch out with use. They stretch out a little bit permanently, and stretch a little bit during each climbing session. A shoe that fits comfortably at the beginning of the day can be too large by the end.

When are Climbing Shoes too Small?

Climbing shoes are too small when they adversely affect your climbing because they hurt your feet. If you can’t focus on climbing because your shoes are so tight, you need to reconsider if it’s worth it. They do need to be tight, but they shouldn’t cause pain.

If I’m doing single pitch climbing and trying to climb my hardest and push my grade, I usually wear shoes that are a full size down from my street shoe.

These shoes go on pretty well, but aren’t super comfortable to stand in. They help me climb hard, but I’m always relieved to take them off when I get back to the ground.

If I’m climbing multipitch or bouldering, I usually wear shoes that are a half size down from my street shoe. This is because I’ll be in the shoes for a longer time and don’t want to risk losing a toe!

To reiterate, your shoes should be as tight as you can go without being in pain. If you climb competitively (even with yourself) then you will want a really tight-though not painful- pair to send in. If you climb more casually and just for fun, go for a pair that is comfortable enough to wear for longer periods of time.

How Do I Know What Size Climbing Shoe to Buy?

Here are some tips for selecting the correct size of climbing shoes:

Consider their Use- You will want different sizes of shoes for different types of climbing. If you want performance, an overly aggressive shoe that is as tight as possible will be best. If you want a comfy shoe you can wear all day, a flatter shoe that’s a little roomier will be best.

Find the Right Shape– Every brand fits slightly differently, and every brand makes different “lasts” of shoes. The best way to pick shoes is to try on a bunch of different pairs and see what feels best. Select shoes that are tight on every part of your foot, without leaving any empty space.

Start at Street Size- As a general rule, start with your street size and work down. Simulate climbing footholds and stretching, rather than just standing on flat ground.

Don’t Forget the Stretch- When you’ve selected a pair, think about how much they’ll stretch. It might be worth a really tight session or two in order to make sure they stay tight after they’ve stretched. You can stretch out climbing shoes by wearing them in a hot shower or wearing them around the house.

Related Questions

Are Climbing Shoes True to Size? Most climbers buy shoes a half size smaller than their street shoe with the expectation that they will stretch out over time. Leather shoes stretch more than synthetic material. Each brand and each product line fit a little bit differently, so it’s best to try them on before buying them.

How Tight Should New Climbing Shoes Be? New climbing shoes should be as tight as possible without being painful. You should be able to wear them up a couple of routes without needing to take them off, but they should be uncomfortable because they will stretch out as much as a full size over time.

How Can I Make My Climbing Shoes Bigger? Wear tight climbing shoes in a hot shower to get them to stretch out a little bit. You can also wear them around the house, or watching TV. The longer they’re worn, the more permanent the stretch will be. Leather shoes stretch more than synthetic shoes.

Do Climbing Shoes Matter? How Much Difference Do They Make?

Indoor rock climbing gyms are already expensive enough, plus they want you to rent or buy special gear and equipment. A harness is definitely a must for any climbing gym with roped walls (not for bouldering), but do you need special shoes?

Climbing shoes make difficult rock climbing possible with sticky rubber, sharp edges, and enhanced strength. Climbing routes of lower difficulty can be done in regular shoes, but it is less safe and much more difficult.

For all but the most basic rock climbs, climbing shoes are essential. They help keep your feet from slipping off small holds, and help balance the weight of your body onto your toes. Climbing shoes are key to the sport.

Why Are Climbing Shoes So Important?

Sure, most gyms do allow you to climb with tennis shoes or sneakers, but you’ll be handicapped by your feet and stuck on the biggest holds. Outdoors good climbers can probably climb up to a 5.9 or so in good approach shoes (see below for more info on approach shoes). In order to do any significant climbing though, you absolutely need real climbing shoes.

Think about going running in flip flops, playing basketball in high heels, or hiking in ski boots. While you might make it a little ways if you are stubborn, you will be miserable and can damage your feet. The right footwear for the activity not only boosts your performance level, but also protects your feet.

This is especially true with climbing shoes. When rock climbing emerged as a separate discipline from traditional mountaineering, climbers realized that they needed something different from clunky leather boots with nails hammered into the soles.

Modern shoes have been specifically engineered and designed by rock climbers for rock climbers. While there have been lots of advances in climbing shoes over the past 50 years, the fundamental idea remains the same.

How Do Climbing Shoes Work?

Climbing shoes consist of a rigid sole that provides a platform for climber’s feet, sticky rubber that grips rocks and plastic, and sharp edges that can support the climber’s weight on tiny holds.

Rigid Soles

Unless you’re also a ballet dancer and can execute a flawless pirouette, you probably can’t lift your whole body weight on your big toe. A lot of the climbing footholds you’ll encounter are barely big enough to fit a toe on, let alone the ball of your foot.

Climbing shoe soles consist of a single piece of rubber that goes from the tip of your toe to the middle of your foot. This provides structural support for your foot, extending toeholds out to the ball of your foot. It makes it a lot easier to climb on small holds and requires less foot strength.

As climbers advance, they tend to move towards soles that are less stiff or rigid. They do this so that they can feel the rock better, and so that they can strengthen their feet. Rigid soles make it so you can put your whole weight on the toe of one shoe.

The sole only goes to the middle of the foot so that it can be replaced, since that is the part of the shoe that is most likely to wear out. It is also the stickiest rubber on the shoe.

Sticky Rubber

When you look at the sole of a pair of climbing shoes, you’ll notice that there is no traditional ‘grip.’ The plain soles are almost reminiscent of bowling shoes, with absolutely no lugs or tread. The secret to climbing shoes is the rubber.

I always imagine climbing shoe-makers gathered around a big cauldron chanting and pouring in secret ingredients in order to make magic rubber that sticks to the walls. It probably looks more like a bunch of people in lab coats, but the result is just as mystical.

Climbing shoe rubber has to be the perfect balance between stiffness and stickiness. They need to be durable enough to grind up against rocks every day, but soft enough to grip slabby granite without visible weaknesses.

Climbing shoes are flat on the bottom rather than having any tread so that you can maximize the surface area of the rubber against the rock. Slippery rock slabs like granite and basalt can be very difficult to climb, so the increased surface area of the rubber helps grab on.

As an illustration, imagine climbing a ladder with hard plastic soled shoes on, versus climbing a ladder with bare feet. Bare feet contour around the ladder rungs and help you hold on, while hard plastic slides right off. Climbing rubber works similarly, while protecting and strengthening your feet.

Sharp Edges

Another defining feature of climbing shoes is the sharp edges around the toe box. The sharp, rigid edges of the soles of the shoes make it so you can climb on the smallest ledges and divots in the rock. Coupled with the the rigid soles, this makes it so all of your body weight can press down on one small area.

More advanced shoes have a slightly different angled toe, pointing downwards instead of straight out like a regular shoe. These aggressive shoes are better for more difficult routes, shifting the angle of your feet even farther downwards.

Over time and with use, the edges of climbing shoes wear down. What was once a sharp edge becomes rounded, and they are no longer as effective. At this point, they should either be thrown out or re-soled.

Heel Cups

The other really nice feature of climbing shoes is the rubber heel cup. Some climbs require the climber to stretch up and “hook” a hold with their heel, using their legs to lift them. Any regular shoe wouldn’t work for this. Climbing shoes have a rubber heel cup so that you can even grip the rock with the back of your foot.


These features of climbing shoes help make climbers more safe. The most dangerous part of climbing is probably when you take an unanticipated fall, which is common when you don’t have good shoes.

Normally a climber recognizes that their foot or hand isn’t going to hold, and has time to prepare for a fall and warn the belayer. With non-climbing shoes (soft foam or rubber soles), there is very little warning before you blow a foothold. When you blow a foothold unexpectedly, you fall a few feet and can scrape your legs on the wall.

Climbing with Scouts

Rock Climbing Without Climbing Shoes

If you’re going climbing for a kid’s birthday party or are going with a big group of people outdoors (scouts comes to mind), then you can probably skip the shoes. If you intend to only climb beginner routes and don’t really want to challenge yourself, you can make regular shoes work for a day.

Climbing gyms usually only charge $3-$5 for a shoe rental though, which is absolutely worth it to me. If you decide you like it, you can pick up a cheap pair of beginner climbing shoes for under $50.

For my recommendations, see my article: How Much Are Rock Climbing Shoes?

What are the best non-climbing shoes to climb in?

If, for some reason, you can’t climb in climbing shoes, you should put some thought into the shoes that you do decide to wear. Pick shoes that have similar characteristics as described above, with rigid soles. Wear tight shoes that your toes go all the way to the end of.

The best option would be Approach Shoes. These are designed for extreme hiking and approaches to climbing areas that require scrambling. My favorite ones are made by Adidas, in the Terrex Family. I top rope with them up to about the 5.9 range.

Related Questions

Do Climbing Shoes Make a Difference? Climbing shoes are critical for rock climbing anything above the beginner range. They also make climbing more safe, and more fun. They are designed to strengthen climber’s feet and extend tiny footholds, making rock climbing possible.

What Shoes are Good for Climbing? There are specific shoes engineered for rock climbing; however if they are unavailable you can use other shoes and still be okay, though you won’t have as much fun. Wear shoes with rigid, rubber soles that fit your feet very snugly.

How Important are Rock Climbing Shoes? Rock climbing shoes are essential for moderate to advanced climbing. Without them it would be extremely difficult to climb on small holds and there is a heightened risk of slipping and falling. Climbing shoes make climbing safer and more fun.

What is the Best Brand of Rock Climbing Shoes?

Climbing or bouldering shoes are arguably the most important part of your climbing kit. While you can do the most basic routes in approach shoes, anything moderate or difficult requires a solid pair of climbing shoes. With more than 40 brands actively manufacturing shoes, it can be really hard to decide which is best for you.

A poll of Mountain Project users found that La Sportiva and Scarpa are the two best brands for climbing shoes because of their quality, product line, and performance. La Sportiva is more popular in the US Market, while Scarpa is more popular globally.

Obviously there are a lot of factors that go into picking the best climbing shoe, and different shoes are designed for different occasions or types of climbing. There are, however, a few brands that have risen above the rest.

Brands of Rock Climbing Shoes

I ran a very scientific and accurate poll of Mountain Project users, who came to a consensus on two brands- La Sportiva and Scarpa. I got some excellent responses that said things like “Scarpa shoes have blown away every other brand I’ve worn” and “La Scarpiva.”

Every manufacturer doesn’t compete in the same market, though some of the bigger brands have models that target every demographic including beginners, professionals, crack climbers, and boulderers. What follows is a breakdown of the best climbing shoe brands for each market.

Best Overall Climbing Shoe Brands

Specific shoes for climbing emerged from the field of mountaineering, as adventurers decided they wanted to push the grade on rock as well as ice and snow. Shoes have certainly been one of the biggest contributors to the advancement of climbing grades. Because of this history, most of the biggest climbing shoe brands emerged from mountaineering companies.

La Sportiva

La Sportiva is probably the best known climbing shoe brand in the world, and has been making shoes for almost 100 years in the Dolomites in Italy. They sponsor some of the highest-profile athletes, including Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Margo Hayes, and Adam Ondra. They don’t just make climbing shoes too- they make some excellent mountaineering equipment, as well as trail running and hiking shoes.

As one of the biggest climbing shoe brands out there, La Sportiva offers shoes for every type of climber. The Tarantulace is an especially popular shoe among beginners because of its performance and relatively low price point.

The Mythos and Miura are some of the classics, dating back to the 90’s and early 2000’s. The Katana received the highest overall rating from Outdoor Gear Lab in 2020 (in which comparison La Sportiva shoes swept the top 6 spots!).

Scarpa Climbing Shoes


“Scarpa shoes always fit my feet perfectly so they’re obviously the best overall brand. If you’re wearing anything else then your feet are wrong”

Random Mountain Project User

Scarpa literally means “shoe” in Italian (at least according to Google!). Founded in the Dolomites during the late 1930’s, its history is somewhat similar to La Sportiva. In fact, several high-level designers have worked for both companies. Like La Sportiva, Scarpa built its name in mountaineering boots and has also dabbled in approach shoes and trail runners.

Although the brand is somewhat smaller than La Sportiva, they match the same level of perfection and expertise. Scarpa shoes haven’t been as popular in the United States, but they do really well in the global market- especially in Europe. The Instinct and Drago are among the most popular Scarpa shoes.

Honorable Mentions:

These three US brands make really good shoes, but just don’t quite match the superior design and quality of La Sportiva and Scarpa.

5.10 Anasazi

Five Ten used to be one of the top shoe brands in the world because of the supreme quality of their rubber (stealth rubber is magic); however they’ve slowed down over the last decade after they sold out to Adidas.

Adidas can’t seem to decide whether they want to keep Five Ten independent or not, and haven’t really continued to develop the brand. They still have some excellent shoes in the Anasazi family, but haven’t been as innovative as they need to be.

Tenaya is another US brand that makes some great shoes. They’re not as well known as the first three brands listed, but make some really technical shoes.

Evolv is another newer US brand that tends to be more affordable. Their entry level shoes can come in at less than $50. While they do make some high-end shoes as well, they don’t offer the same portfolio breadth that the Italian brands do. What they do well is collaborate with famous athletes to design shoes.

Modern Climbing Shoe Brands

Butora, a South Korean company, only started making shoes in 2014, but has quickly risen up the ranks. The shoes tend to be more focused on the gym, and are becoming more and more common at competitions among athletes.

They don’t have very many styles of shoes, but the ones they do sell are quite good. Their Chinese factory actually also makes Black Diamond’s climbing shoes.

So iLL has been called “the OG” of climbing shoes. The designs are flashy and urban, speaking to a specific type of climber. The quality isn’t anything special, and you don’t really see any pro’s wearing them (Jason Momoa doesn’t count, sorry). They’re cool-looking shoes though, so if that’s your goal then this is the brand for you!

Black Diamond finally made the leap into the climbing shoe market in 2017. It was a somewhat logical step, seeing as how they are one of the biggest brands in the industry and manufacture everything else. Their shoes breathe really well and are on the cheaper end as far as affordability.

Black Diamond shoes aren’t technically incredible, but are good solid mid-level shoes. This way you can round out your equipment with another Black Diamond piece.

Affordable/Cheap Climbing Shoe Brands

For many beginners, especially those who are unsure if they will really catch the bug and commit to the sport, the best choice is to start out with a more affordable climbing shoe brand. These cheaper shoes still work really well, they just aren’t quite as performance-oriented and specialized as the more expensive brands.

When you first start out you tend to wear through your shoes more quickly because your footwork isn’t very precise. New climbers usually drag their toes across the wall as they feel for footholds. As you get more experienced, you get better at “sticking” footholds without needlessly damaging your shoes.

Climb X

Climbing gear manufacturer Climb X is one of the most affordable options for climbing shoes. It was actually started by a guy who had previously worked for Mad Rock, and was started in a factory in China that had previously made shoes for Mad Rock.

The companies are very similar, though Climb X’s shoes tend to be a little bit cheaper. Climb X releases new models of shoes pretty frequently, and identifies each release with the year so that you can tell what the differences are.

Mad Rock

Mad Rock has been around for almost 20 years. It was founded by a former designer for 5.10 who wanted to make something more affordable and have more design freedom. Their signature rubber is called “Science Friction.” The most popular Mad Rock shoe is probably the “Drifter.”


European outdoors company Decathlon also makes climbing gear under the brand name Simond. Simond shoes have pretty good reviews, though I’ve never tried them. Decathlon gear is extremely affordable, though the distribution isn’t very broad within the US-yet.

Small Climbing Shoe Brands

Aside from these major players in the industry, there are scores of other manufacturers. Some have been making shoes for decades, while others are recent upstarts looking to make a name in the climbing world. Some are handmade by craftsmen, while others are made in large factories with other shoes.

Boreal, founded in Spain, has been around for a long time, but has never really grown in the US market. Their claim to fame is the original ‘sticky rubber’ developed for the Boreal Fire shoe.

Red Chili is a German shoe manufacturer. They seem to not be as popular as they were a decade ago (at least in my circles). The name allegedly came because the founders were listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers when they decided to design their own rock shoes.

Cypher shoes are really affordable, though this does sacrifice some performance and quality. The first rock shoes I ever owner were made by CaVa, which was the predecessor to Cypher. You can usually pick up a cheap pair for less than $50.

There are at least 20-30 other climbing shoe brands, including Ocun, Snake, kN climbing, Unparallel, Rock Empire, Acopa, Lowa, and many others that are only sold in the region they were developed in.

What Brand of Climbing Shoes do Professionals use?

Similar to professionals in other sports, most pro climbers just wear whatever climbing brands will sponsor them. The biggest brands have the biggest budgets, and sponsor the most famous climbers.

To me this doesn’t mean that the climbers are necessarily picking the best brand; they probably pick the brand that compensates them the best. On the other hand, none of these climbers would climb in shoes that aren’t any good. So the climbers choose a top tier brand that can afford to pay them.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the most famous climbers currently sponsored by each brand. There are lots more, but these are just some of the biggest names in climbing.

Climbing Athlete Sponsorships:

La Sportiva: Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Margo Hayes, Adam Ondra, Emily Harrington, Hazel Findlay

Scarpa: Alex Puccio

Tenaya: Alex Megos, Chris Sharma

Evolv: Ashima Shiraishi, Alex Johnson, Steph Davis, (formerly Chris Sharma)

What’s the Best Brand of Climbing Shoe for You?

In selecting a pair of climbing shoes, you need to ask yourself a few questions. Do you want to align yourself with a certain brand and its mission and vision? Some brands come off as low-cost, even if the specific shoes are not. Some brands contribute more to environmental causes, while others don’t.

What lasts fit your feet best? The last is basically the shape of the mold that the shoes are made to. Some shoes tend to run wider, and others more narrow (La Sportiva generally has this reputation). It can really help to try on a bunch of different pairs to get a feel for what fits your feet best.

What vibe do you want to give off, or what persona do you want to portray? A climber wearing a pair of So iLL shoes gives off a different vibe than one wearing Tenayas. One’s not right and the other wrong, they’re just different. You can go for a more classic feel, or something more flashy.

Do you want to try and mix and match or go all-in on one brand? Most of the bigger brands make more than just shoes. They make harnesses, apparel, and even some hardware.

How hard do you climb (or want to climb)? As you progress, the pair of Climb X Raves you started with will only carry you so far. Sure they’re good shoes, but they’re probably not going to get you into the advanced climbing zone. Advanced climbers usually have several shoes; some for crack climbing, some for casual climbing, and some super-aggressive shoes for the hardest pitches.

Related Questions:

Are La Sportiva Climbing Shoes Good? La Sportiva climbing shoes are among the best in the world. Many major professional athletes climb in them, and they are one of the most popular brands in the world. They have a broad product line with lots of different shoes for different specific purposes.

How Much Do Synthetic Climbing Shoes Stretch? Fully synthetic climbing shoes will only stretch up to about a half a size during a day of climbing. Leather shoes, on the other hand, can stretch more than a full size. Because of this, leather shoes are usually more comfortable and fit your feet better; however synthetic shoes are more rigid and can offer better performance.

Why Are Climbing Shoes so Expensive? Climbing shoes are handmade, and are made of top-grade materials like leather. Each brand uses its own recipe or formula of sticky rubber. Climbing shoes are made in much smaller lot sizes than other types of shoes, so manufacturers can’t rely on great economies of scale.