Updated November 2017
Hankering for a new pair of approach shoes? We've got you covered no matter your budget. This fall, our team of experts put in the mileage over long days, analyzing each model to find the cream of the crop. Via our exhaustive testing, we've awarded the La Sportiva TX4 our highest honors, while the brand spanking new design of Five Ten Guide Tennie secures its spot as our Top Pick for Climbing. The La Sportiva Boulder X offers to the most bang for your buck, while the Arc'teryx Acrux SL tickles the fancy of the weight weenies on our team.
Best Overall Approach Shoes
La Sportiva TX4
: Vibram MegaGrip | Midsole
: Traverse Injection MEMlex
Great compromise for hiking/climbing
Durable leather uppers
Great edging and smearing ability
Doesn't climb as well as thinner soled models
The La Sportiva TX4
takes home our Editors' Choice Award. This shoe is hands down the best combination of hiking and climbing abilities of any shoe we tested. The TX4 can do it all, and it's the shoe we want on our feet while humping loads to the base of El Cap, standing in aiders, busting free moves, and carrying the whole kit back down to the meadow. Are long approaches to remote backcountry objectives in your future? The TX4 has the support and comfort to take you there, heavy pack and all. If you're looking for a shoe to complete your quiver-of-one, the TX4 is the one.
Read review: La Sportiva TX4
Best Bang for the Buck
La Sportiva Boulder X
: Vibram Idro-Grip | Midsole
: Micropore EVA
Super durable leather uppers
Supportive for heavy loads
Great edging ability
Heavy and bulky, not suitable for clipping to the back of a harness
Our Best Buy Award goes to the product that lets you play the longest and go the hardest for the least amount of cash. The La Sportiva Boulder X
delivers for yet another season. This affordable shoe climbs well, offers support for miles hiking and scrambling, and features durable leather uppers that will stay with you for the long haul. Additionally, the Boulder X has a lacing system similar to the La Sportiva Mythos climbing shoe. Lace extends around the ankle collar, ensuring slip-free operation for miles of hiking, or pitch after pitch of jugging. A stiff midsole also makes this shoe ideally suited for carrying heavy loads. However, this shoe is heavy and bulky, so it's not our first choice for climbing with a pair clipped to our harness.
Read review: La Sportiva Boulder X
Top Pick for Lightweight Shoe
Arc'teryx Acrux SL
: Vibram MegaGrip | Midsole
: Injected EVA
Great for clipping to harness for long multi-pitches
Good compromise between weight and support
Great climbing ability
Not supportive enough for heavy loads
Our testers were skeptical of this lightweight, sleek looking pair until they put them on for a quick scramble up Mount Emerson, and we were blown away by how comfortable, and supportive a lightweight shoe could be. While the Evolv Cruzer Psyche
is 5oz lighter, the Arc'teryx Acrux SL
offers so much more hiking comfort that they are the shoe we want clipped to our harnesses on multi-pitch rock climbs with long walk-offs like the ones found in the High Sierra or Red Rocks. These shoes feature an upper that is both light /and/ durable, so they don't fall apart after hundreds of feet of easy crack climbing, but down weigh us down while we're carrying them up a multi-pitch. To top things off, the Acrux SL climbs well and has a low toe profile that fits into cracks better than most other models.
Read review: Arc'teryx Acrux SL
Top Pick For Climbing
Five Ten Guide Tennie
: Stealth C4 Dot | Midsole
: Compression Molded EVA
Superb edging and smearing
Great compromise between sensitivity for climbing and support for standing in aiders
Comfortable in cracks
Less durable than some competitors
Sensitive for smearing, stiff enough for edges, and a great performer in hand cracks, the Five Ten Guide Tennie
takes our Top Pick for Climbing. If the terrain warrants some easy slab climbing, and mellow splitters, but not full on foot binding climbing shoes, the Guide Tennie reigns supreme, edging out all competitors, and edging on granite holds pretty well too. They've been updated again, this time to reflect the older classic Guide Tennie that started it all, featuring a lower profile toe like the original, but preserving some of the later tweaks, like the compression molded EVA midsole that improves hiking comfort and support. The Stealth C4 rubber is still the stickiest rubber in the game. This shoe is ideal for easy scrambles in Joshua Tree or the Buttermilks or climbing easy warm-ups. Plus, these shoes hike fairly well and are available in 3 colors; Gun Metal, Navy, and Twine.
: Five Ten Guide Tennie
Analysis and Test Results
Each product's review discusses best uses and details its score in the five performance metrics. As always, we compare and contrast each model to the most similar products to help you make an informed decision. Our climbing ability metric takes into consideration how well each shoe edges, smears, and crack climbs, and you'll find the scoop in individual reviews. Below, in the main review, you'll find detailed descriptions of our evaluation metrics and the top scorers in each.
The sticky rubber Guide Tennie keeps our tester smiling during some unroped scrambling.
Climbing approach shoes are a specialty product. Rock climbers place unique demands on the footwear we use to get to and from the boulders, cliffs, and mountains where we practice our art. Two attributes define this category of footwear:
Sticky Rubber Soles
All products included in this review utilize a rubber sole that prioritizes 'stickiness' on the rock. The rubber compounds used are softer than the ones used for hiking boots and shoes, generating more friction on rock. These sticky rubber
soles give us confidence that our feet will stay put on steep rock slabs, the tradeoff being they wear down faster than harder formulations.
Durable Upper Materials
In general, approach shoes' uppers are constructed with materials that are more capable of withstanding the abuse of scuffing against and grinding into rock. A full leather upper, with the toe covered by a thin, sticky rubber cap, or rand, is a necessity for the longevity of shoes that get crammed into cracks or scuffed against talus and scree.
Our Buying Advice
article provides an in-depth discussion of what type of footwear to choose for getting to and from climbing areas, and an analysis of sizing your approach shoes appropriately for climbing performance, hiking comfort, or the best combination of the two.
All of the shoes in the selection are equipped with sticky rubber
We tested each shoe in three sub-metrics here: Edging, or the ability to stand on small rock ledges ranging from a matchbook's width up to an inch. Smearing, or the ability to stick to steep rock that is devoid of any features. And crack climbing, the ability to stick your toe into vertical fissures in the rock and twist your foot to lock it in place. These are all important attributes for exposed scrambling, but consider which is most applicable to where you climb. At the end of this section, we list the top five performers for edging, smearing, and crack climbing. Climbing ability contributes 35% of each model's overall score.
The Five Ten Guide Tennie
earned the highest score for climbing ability. We found it the best shoe for smearing, and it received a high edging rating as well. The La Sportiva Boulder X
and Evolv Cruzer Psyche
fill out second and third places for overall climbing ability. While the other three models maintain much of their climbing performance when sized appropriately for hiking, the soft-soled Cruzer Psyche climbs much better when sized to fit fairly snug.
Matt Wilhelm crosses the Croft Golden Triangle (5.7), one of the Evolution traverse's more aesthetic sections.
Hiking or Climbing
Are approach shoes best suited for hiking or climbing? As we defined the category, the top overall scorers are the models that do both well. Only you know what demands you place on your shoes, and which evaluation metric is most important for your use. The Salewa Firetail 3 is an excellent hiking shoe
that climbs better than the average hiker thanks to the Vibram reptile sticky rubber. Meanwhile, the Editors' Choice-winning La Sportiva TX4
and Best Buy winning La Sportiva Boulder X
offer the best combination of hiking and climbing performance. The TX4 has a thinner, more sensitive sole for climbing, and the Boulder X's tread pattern and stiffer midsole make it a better hiker.
The Firetail 3 is great for hiking around, but aren't our first choice for climbing and scrambling due to their lack of sensitivity.
Consider where you will use your approach shoes the most, and what attribute is most important to you. Even if there are only short sections of rock to climb or traverse, you may prioritize climbing ability for security. On the other hand, you may prefer a model that is more comfortable for hiking and offers better traction on dirt. All of the shoes we evaluated here both smear and edge better than trail running shoes
and hiking shoes
. Below, in our Best Applications section, you'll find recommended models for various climbing areas and uses. Use that discussion to help inform your choice of which model is best for you.
Snow and Ice
The La Sportiva TX4
and the La Sportiva Boulder X
are your best options if you plan on encountering snow. Each readily accepts traction devices like the Kahtoola MICROspikes, and on their own are far better than trail running shoes when you depend on kicking steps. We have found that attaching crampons to approach shoes is problematic. Years ago, our lead tester attempted a long mountain day, the car-to-car traverse of the Three Sisters above Bend, Oregon, known as the Three Sisters Marathon. In early summer, several long sections of hard snow and a small glacier lay along the route, as well as low 5th class choss on the North Sister. Five Ten Mountain Masters with Grivel G-12 crampons attached for the hard snow sections, seemed
the perfect choice for this mission. Everything went as planned until he learned a hard lesson. It is difficult to keep low cut shoes bearing crampons on your feet when things get steep. If you require the combination of hiking and climbing performance approach shoes deliver, and you want to mount a true crampon on them, do yourself a favor. Mount your crampons on a mid-cut shoe that will stay on your foot! Better yet, save the crampons for boots which are intended for them!
Low-Cut vs. Mid-Cut
For climbers out there that want the smearing and edging performance of an approach shoe, but also desire more ankle support and protection, a mid-cut model is a perfect match. Some folks are comfortable carrying moderate to heavy loads over talus and slabs in a low-cut shoe, while others will appreciate the added ankle stability a mid-cut model delivers. Covering the ankle bones can prevent bumps, bruises, and abrasions as well. Cruising through scree fields, a mid-cut model will also keep more debris out.
Five of the models we tested are available in a mid-cut version, including the La Sportiva TX4
, Five Ten Guide Tennie
, La Sportiva Boulder X
. These two mid-cuts have the same construction and soles as their low-cut brothers. These over-the-ankle versions often have a Gore-Tex liner or the option. Check the "Other Versions" sections located at the end of each review for all the available flavors.
Best Uses for Approach Shoes
The variety of terrain and distances we encounter approaching and descending from climbs places quite different demands on our footwear. The La Sportiva TX4
and Five Ten Guide Tennie
are the best do-everything
products we tested. The Guide Tennie, with soft Stealth rubber, climbs better, and the TX4 hikes better, especially in loose dirt or mud. If you travel to many climbing areas, these are your best bet. Below, you will find recommendations for specific climbing areas and types of terrain.
Approaching Rock Climbs
In Joshua Tree National Park, most of the climbs are within a mile of the parking areas, and the "long" approaches are a few miles at the most. The unique feature here is lots of scrambling over rough granite. Smearing up and down steep slabs, and jamming your foot in flared cracks is part of most of the "to and from." Since its introduction in 1985, the Five Ten Guide Tennie has been the shoe of choice for many Josh climbers. It smears better than any other model we tested, and the new version's extended toe rand provides additional protection for the leather upper when jamming those flared cracks. The Editors' Choice Award-winning La Sportiva TX4
is a great option too. It doesn't climb as well as the Guide Tennie but hikes better. The Arc'teryx Acrux SL
is the most durable of the lightweight products we tested and is super comfy for short approaches with light loads.
Boulders and talus are typical obstacles on the way to many of our favorite climbing areas.
The multi-pitch climbs in Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas present a different approach and descent scenario. Longer, with much more steep terrain on loose rock and dirt, the approaches demand a shoe that hikes well, has excellent traction on steep dirt, and can still bust out 4th class terrain. The Arc'teryx Acrux SL
is a great option here, especially for tricky approaches like the slabs that lead up to Levitation 29, where you'll need a shoe that climbs 4th class, has enough support for a long hike, /and/ is light on your harness. Models that focus more on support and comfort for hiking are also well suited. The La Sportiva TX4
and the Five Ten Access
are two of the best hiking models we tested, and are exceptional Red Rock shoes.
These famous "follow-the-sun-in-the-winter" areas are just two example scenarios - be sure to consider the climbing you typically do and the terrain of your favorite areas. If you do a lot of scrambling, look for shoes that scored well in our climbing ability metric. If you only occasionally need to cross talus or rock slabs but are mostly on trail, then comfort and support will likely be top priorities for you.
Easy Alpine Rock Climbs
Ten or more miles round trip, a few pitches of easy 5th class climbing, and piles of 3rd and 4th class scrambling? Yes, please! The Matthes Crest and Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne Meadows, Royal Arches in Yosemite Valley, and Mount Emerson outside of Bishop these are a few of our lead tester's favorite days out. The length of these adventures places a premium on traveling as light and fast as possible, and carrying a pair of climbing shoes doesn't make the list. The La Sportiva TX4
is the perfect shoe for these routes if you want substantial support for your foot during the long trail miles. The Five Ten Guide Tennie
and the Scarpa Gecko
are great shoes for these routes as well. The Five Ten Access
and the Salewa Firetail 3
feel excellent underfoot, but they don't climb as well as our Top Picks and Award winners.
Sticky Rubber approach shoes keep us feeling secure on alpine ridge scrambles in the Sierra.
Do not hesitate to carry a pair of real climbing shoes with you to routes like these; the confidence gained on more challenging pitches can be more important than saving a pound on the approach.
Some climbing areas have relatively short approaches and longer descents that involve steep, semi-technical terrain. While some climbers are comfortable descending barefoot or wear climbing shoes that are comfortable enough to descend in, most carry a pair of shoes up the climb to wear on the descent. A very light, sticky approach shoe fits the bill perfectly.
For climbing multi-pitch routes in Tuolumne Meadows, Red Rocks, or Cochise Stronghold, we prefer a light, compact model. The Evolv Cruzer Psyche
is a great descent shoe for the friction slabs in Tuolumne Meadows. Clipped to your harness or stashed in the second's pack, they're hardly noticeable. The Arc'teryx Acrux SL
gets our Top Pick For lightweight shoe because they stowaway well on our harnesses /and/ offer great support for long hikes with light loads. Plus, it's also more durable than the lightweight canvas Cruzer Psyche.
The Boulder X is great for climbing and scrambling, but they are heavy and bulky, so they aren't our favorite descent shoes.
Big Wall Climbing
Mere mortals will want a comfortable, supportive shoe for standing in aiders for days and humping big loads up to the base, and a separate pair of actual climbing shoes for the pitches they plan to free climb. The Best Buy Award Winning La Sportiva Boulder X
, the most supportive model we evaluated, is the best choice.
Ammon McNeely making the first move on a 23+ hour single push ascent of Rodeo Queen. A supportive approach shoe is key if you'll be spending the day in your aiders.
The Five Ten Guide Tennie
is also a good choice for humping loads and standing in aiders for days. While it isn't as supportive or durable as the Boulder X, it climbs a little better when you step out of your aiders. Consider the mid-cut version of these models if you need or desire ankle protection.
A good approach shoe can smear and edge way better than your average hiking shoe.
How well an approach shoe hikes may be more important than climbing ability to many of you. For those who need sticky rubber to cross the occasional talus field, but primarily stay on trail, we would recommend prioritizing comfort and support - our two metrics that focus on how each model handles trail miles. Our rating for comfort focuses on features and comfort when carrying minimal loads, and contributes 25% to each product's overall score.
Comfort is determined in large part by how well your shoes fit your foot, and we recommend trying on several models you judge appropriate for your needs to see which matches your foot best. There is also a compromise when you choose your size. Size down a half or full size from your street shoe, and you'll get better climbing performance, but this can become uncomfortable on long approaches. The La Sportiva TX4
and Five Ten Access
are the most comfortable shoes for covering many miles, and also have excellent traction in the dirt. But The Access earned a low climbing ability score. The La Sportiva TX4
is the most comfortable shoe to hike in that climbs well, with the Five Ten Guide Tennie
In each product's review, we discuss the lacing system. Many of these shoes have lacing that extends closer to the toe of the shoe than hiking and running shoes, allowing you to cinch down the toe of the shoe for climbing performance, or loosen it for increased hiking comfort. Some models like the Evolv Cruzer Psyche
and the Salewa Firetail 3
breathe better than models with leather uppers in hot weather.
The Cruzer Psyche trade support and hiking comfort in favor of weight and climbing ability.
Support is the second metric that focuses on hiking ability and contributes 20% of total scores. Foot support is most important when carrying heavy loads, but even a "rope, rack, and the shirt on your back" weigh a fair bit. While climbers tend to have solid feet, more support will mean less fatigue when the approaches get long, and your pack gets heavy. Support also is important for a shoe's edging and crack climbing performance. All else being equal, a more supportive shoe will edge and crack climb better, especially when carrying a heavy pack.
The La Sportiva Boulder X
is the stiffest, most supportive product we tested. It is an excellent shoe for carrying loads into the mountains. The La Sportiva TX4
, Five Ten Guide Tennie
, and Scarpa Gecko
all offer similar foot support. The lightweight Evolv Cruzer Psyche
is the least supportive of the bunch.
Weight & Packability
Weight is always an important consideration for us here at OutdoorGearLab. If we are choosing between two products with similar performance qualities across other metrics, we favor the lighter of the two. With approach shoes, weight is of primary concern when you clip them to your harness or stow them in your climbing pack on multi-pitch routes. The lightest models we tested, the Evolv Cruzer Psyche
and the Arc'teryx Acrux SL
are both compact and very light in comparison to the other shoes we tested. The tradeoff here is obvious; these models do not support the foot and hike as well as heavier ones, but the Acrux SL snags our Top Pick for Lightweight shoe
, because it's light /and/ supportive enough for light loads. Weight and packability account for 20% of overall scores.
Our lead tester prefers to have each climber in a multi-pitch party carry their shoes, water, and extra clothes on a multi-pitch route. Other folks prefer to give the leader the luxury of climbing without a small pack, or their shoes clipped to their harness. In practice, this means the second climber is often carrying a "second's pack," with food, water, clothing, and TWO pairs of approach shoes.
Weight is an important consideration if you'll be carrying your approach shoes with you on a multipitch climb.
The heaviest product we tested, the La Sportiva Boulder X and the Five Ten Guide Tennie, are comfortable and supportive for hiking. The Evolv Cruzer Psyche is on the other end of the spectrum, earning top scores in weight, but lower scores in support and hiking comfort.
Our Testers work hard to find out which approach shoe is the best.
These shoes are designed to wear approaching a rock climb. They are made with a sticky rubber sole and sturdy uppers for protection against corrosive terrain. We hope that this review has helped you to determine whether you are looking for a pair for comfortable hiking with better traction, or if you need a pair known for climbing ability and protection. Read through our Buying Advice
article for more information on what to consider when selecting the pair for you.