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Reaching the top

The development and design of specialised rock climbing shoes.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © Pancaketom |

A good head for heights is obviously essential for anyone climbing a sheer rock face, but the correct footwear is also deemed vital for success. The pioneers of rock climbing often wore heavily soled mountaineering boots, which were studded with metal cleats and hobnails in an effort to achieve better grip.

In the 1930s, Vibram introduced soles with a pattern of rubber studs, and after the second world war, a new generation of climbers began to climb harder routes wearing canvas plimsolls with rubber soles, and, according to some reports, occasionally with woollen socks pulled over them in an effort to improve grip.

Hard composite rubber-soled canvas boots became available to climbers in the 1950s, and footwear with softer rubber soles became very popular during the following two decades. In the early 1980s, the revolutionary sticky rubber sole was launched.

With progress in design and material, as well as the development of the market for specific rock climbing shoes, a very specific style of footwear has developed in recent decades.

Design and materials

In order to increase the ability of the foot to grip by friction on a rock face (or the increasingly popular climbing wall), shoes rely heavily on specially formulated vulcanised rubber solings. These are available in varying levels of ‘stickiness’ and stiffness, depending on the particular climbing challenge being faced. As the ability to feel every crack, bump and ridge is necessary, the soles of rock climbing shoes are normally just a few millimetres thick, featuring a lack of lining material over certain parts of the sole, little (if any) padding, and a very snug fit on the foot. Both lacings and hook-and-loop fastenings are popular, with most major manufacturers offering both to meet the climber’s personal choice. Climbing shoes are not suitable for walking and hiking, so they are typically put on at the base of a climbing face.


A specialist rock climbing shoe

Manufacturers of modern climbing shoes use multi-piece patterns so that their shoes conform very closely to the wearer’s feet. Leather is still the most popular material for uppers, with fabric and synthetic leather-like materials also being used.

A common design of climbing shoe features a downward-pointing toe box. This improves the wearer’s ability to stand on small footholds, but comes at the expense of both comfort and the ability to ‘smear’ (using friction on the sole of the shoe against a rock face that leans away from the climber).

Most climbers will not wear socks so that the most precise fit possible is achieved. Because they are so tight, most climbing shoes are uncomfortable when properly fitted.

Shoes for different climbs

With something as natural as a rock face, there are many different kinds of surfaces faced by the ardent climber, including the following.

Slab climbing often involves tackling a smooth rock face. This requires the friction provided by a soft-soled shoe that allows smearing, and a flatter sole to permit the toes to be easily bent upwards.


Slab climbing requires a soft-soled shoe

Vertical climbing routes tend to have small foot and handholds, so a stiffer shoe is often selected so that the climber can put weight onto the smallest holds. Specialist ‘edging’ shoes will also feature thicker rands to create more stable footing on small ledges.

Overhang climbing, where the rock face leans in towards the climber, typically requires stiffer shoes to be worn. Footwear for such rock faces often has downturned solings and ample rubber at the toe. They are rarely thin soled, as overhang climbs normally have larger footholds and so require less sensitivity.

Shoes for crack climbing routes have the stiffest soles of all, as the climber must often wedge his or her foot into a crack and then be able to stand without having any rock underneath the shoe. Soles are usually flat or upturned.

A problem faced by all rock climbers is the durability of their shoes. Soft rubber soles provide excellent grip for when it is needed, but they can wear rapidly. Although climbing footwear can be re-soled, some climbers choose a slightly stiffer rubber than perhaps they normally would, to avoid resorting to this remedy too often. Others opt to simply replace shoes than to repair them.

How can we help?

Please contact SATRA’s footwear testing team ( for help with the assessment of all footwear styles.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 40 of the March 2020 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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