Climbing FAQ: Should I buy rock shoes smaller than my street shoes?

Climbing FAQs: Climbing Frequently Asked Questions

Penitente Canyon is a popular sport climbing area in Colorado.
Ian Green wears tight but comfortable rock shoes on a 5.12 route at Penitente Canyon. Photograph © Stewart M. Green


Question:  Should I buy rock climbing shoes smaller than my street shoes?

Answer: The short answer to this pertinent rock climbing shoe question is a resounding “No!” You do not need to buy smaller climbing shoes and then go through foot agony to break them in as you used to do with new rock shoes.

Climbers Used to Buy Smaller Shoes

Climbers in the past usually bought rock shoes that were as much as two or three sizes smaller than their street shoe size. This was primarily because many rock shoes, especially slippers, would stretch to fit the climber’s foot and, of course, tight climbing shoes have always been considered, especially by elite climbers, to be a necessity to stand on small footholds and edges. Climbers also have long considered chronic foot pain and disorders to be a consequence of hard climbing; tight ill-fitting shoes were just something that you had to put up with if you wanted to really crank.

Buy and Wear Rock Shoes Out of the Box

Now, however, there are many different kinds of climbing shoes and they are styled not only for a climber’s ability and the types of climbing he does, but also for the climber’s foot shape and size, age, and foot health. Most modern rock shoes are made to be worn comfortably right out of the box; there should not be a lengthy break-in period nor should you have to soak the shoes in water and then wear them on your feet until they dry, hoping they mold to your foot. Nope, these days you buy the shoes, slip them on, and go climbing. If the shoes hurt your feet, you have the wrong size or the wrong shoe.

Buy Shoes that Fit the Shape and Size of Your Feet

It is important to remember that a pair of climbing shoes needs to fit the shape and size of your foot rather than having the foot squeeze inside an ill-fitting rock shoe. Comfort should be your over-riding concern when you buy a new pair of rock shoes. If the new shoe is not comfortable in the store, it will probably never be comfortable when you are climbing. Go and look at the bulletin board at your local climbing gym and note the pinned-up ads selling a pair of rock shoes worn once—undoubtedly the seller bought a too-tight pair of shoes and they are too uncomfortable for climbing.

Studies Show Tight Shoes Cause Foot Deformities

Study after study by podiatrists or foot doctors show that wearing overly tight rock shoes or shoes that are not shaped and fitted to a climber’s foot can and usually does cause foot pain, sometimes permanent pain, as well as various kinds of foot and toe deformities and conditions that cannot be corrected without surgery.

Foot Shape and Size Varies by Individual

Foot shape and size differs among every man, woman, and youth climber and there are numerous foot variations for each person. Sometimes the big toe is not the longest toe; big feet are usually wide feet; a woman’s foot is not shaped like a man’s; and sometimes one foot is bigger and longer than the other. These variations are not compensated for by most climbing shoes. Take my feet for instance. I had a bad leader fall in 2002, destroying my right ankle and shattering the lower tibia and fibula. Now I have screws, pins, and a plate in the ankle to hold it together. After I recovered from the accident, my right foot was a size bigger than the left foot, which creates a huge problem when fitting a snug pair of climbing shoes.

Pay Attention to Fit When Buying New Shoes

When you go into your local climbing shop to buy a new pair of rock shoes, try on several pairs from different manufacturers like La Sportiva, Catalyst Climbing Shoes, 5.10, and Mad Rock. Walk around in the store in the shoes. Try them out if they have a shoe-test climbing wall. Pay attention to the fit—are there hot spots where the shoe rubs against your foot like on the heel, Achilles tendon, and big toe? Is there dead empty space in the shoe where it doesn’t touch your foot?

Get Snug but Comfortable Rock Shoes

Make sure the shoes fit snugly and are comfortable. If your toes are crammed in the toe box, get a bigger size since the shoes will not stretch to fit. Tight shoes and a small toe box will not only hurt your feet but can cause ingrown toenails, thick yellow toenails, and blisters. Just remember that if you buy that cool but uncomfortable pair of rock shoes, you will probably wear them once and then put that "For Sale" note on the board at your local rock gym.