Updated November 2017
Looking to step up your approach shoe game? We can help. Three months of testing brings you brand new award winners plus three additional reviews. The La Sportiva TX3 takes home the Editors' Choice Award for its all-around performance on the rocks and on the trails. We awarded the Arc'teryx Acrux SL our Top Pick for Climbing Performance. Finally, the La Sportiva Boulder X and Evolv Cruzer Psyche were the friendliest on our bank accounts, each excelling in different categories. With eight top-of-the-line products, we're sure you'll find the perfect fit for whatever adventures await you.
Best Overall Approach Shoe
La Sportiva TX3 - Women's
Solid climbing performance
The La Sportiva TX3
is an excellent all-around shoe that will get you to the crag and into the mountains with comfort and ease. This shoe's sticky rubber toe and stiff sole make for secure scrambling on technical terrain while its durable mesh upper is both breathable and supportive. The Editors' Choice Award is reserved for the best all-around shoe and requires high scoring in every category. When compared side-by-side to these seven other competitors, the TX3
stood out for its versatility and all-around performance. There are shoes in this review that hike a little more comfortably and climb a bit more precisely, but the TX3
is a solid performer that, for a very reasonable price, makes for an excellent one-shoe quiver.
Read full review: La Sportiva TX3 - Women's
Best Bang for the Buck
La Sportiva Boulder X - Women's
For the second year in a row, we here at OutdoorGearLab have awarded the Best Buy Award to the classic La Sportiva Boulder X
. This shoe is a workhorse of a hiker and is our go-to choice for long hikes into the mountains or any approach where technical scrambling is not required. This shoe earned the highest marks for support and comfort, and its durable design is ready to be put to the test. Its robust structure forced us to dock it points for climbing ability, but for the conventional approach, the Boulder X's
sticky rubber is more than enough. And at $110, this is the second least expensive shoe we tested. We think this shoe is a fantastic value.
Read full review: La Sportiva Boulder X - Women's
Best Buy on a Tight Budget
Evolv Cruzer Psyche - Women's
No hiking support
The Evolv Cruzer Psyche
is a very specialized approach shoe, but for the great price of $78, we couldn't help but give it our Best Buy on a Budget Award. Designed as a descent shoe for days when you just need a pair of shoes to get you off your multi-pitch adventure, the Cruzer
is crazy light and compact. Easy to clip to your harness and go, you won't even notice it's there. With little support and a thin canvas upper, we wouldn't bring it along with us on long hikes or expect it to last season after season. For a standard multi-pitch route or in climbing areas with short, manicured trails, the Cruzer
may be all you need.
Read full review: Evolv Cruzer Psyche - Women's
Top Pick for Climbing Performance
Arc'teryx Acrux SL - Women's
Excellent climbing ability
When Arc'teryx joined the approach shoe competition, we didn't know what we'd find. But we were quickly blown away by the Acrux SL
for its slipper design and incredible climbing edge. The snug fit, stiff sole, and climbing shoe-like edge make for the best climbing ability we've ever seen in an approach shoe, so we couldn't let this one slip by without awarding it our Top Pick for Climbing Performance. While there are more comfortable shoes for long hikes, the Acrux SL
is decently supportive without compromising its precision.
Read full review: Arc'teryx Acrux SL - Women's
Analysis and Test Results
It might be stating the obvious, but to go climbing you've got to first get to the climb. And of course, when you're finished climbing, you have to get back to the car. On both ends of the climbing route, this can mean many miles on trails (often on trails that are not well built or maintained), bushwacking off trail, and scrambling over talus and boulder fields and loose rock gullies. Sometimes this also means 4th and 5th class climbing moves over rock slabs and cliff zones. Even if your main climbing preference is cragging or bouldering, this can still take you through plenty of rugged terrain to get to your objective. The shoes on your feet can help keep you safe in some sketchy situations and help you reach your destination more efficiently. Even if you're just sticking to trails, the shoes you wear for the approach and descent of your adventure can be crucial to your success and enjoyment.
All eight pairs of women's approach shoes, side by side.
We took a close-up look at five of the top women's models to see how they measure up on several metrics that are critical to this type of footwear. As always here at OutdoorGearlab, we walk you through all the things you need to know about choosing the right product for your preferences and give you the inside info on how the gear truly stacks up.
Types of Approach Shoes
Climbing approach shoes are essentially a hybrid between a hiking shoe and a climbing shoe. Within this broader category, there are often models designed to be focused more on either the hiking part of the approach or the climbing part of the approach. Some excel at hiking and carrying heavy loads, while some excel at precision on technical terrain. With these different leanings in performance, it is helpful to first decide in what type of terrain you are most likely to be wearing your shoes.
Hiking Oriented Approach Shoes
Some climbing objectives require more extensive hiking, which might also mean that you are carrying equipment to spend several days and nights in the mountains in addition to your climbing gear. But even if you don't require overnight gear, if you're trying to be prepared for whatever might happen in a day, it's easy for your pack to get heavy. If long days or overnight journeys are the kind of climbing adventures you dream about, then you'll want a shoe with better hiking ability. Shoes such as that have a somewhat aggressive tread which will help with traction in the dirt. You'll also want a stiffer, stable midsole to support your feet and arches with the long miles and heavy cargo. We would classify the following shoes as hiking-oriented: La Boulder X
, La Sportiva Guide Tennie
, La Sportiva TX3
, and Scarpa Gecko
. The Five Ten Access
and Adidas Terrex Solo
may also be put in this category, though their lightweight designs keep them in more of a middle ground.
From left to right: Boulder X, Guide Tennie, TX3, Gecko, Access
Climbing Oriented Approach Shoes
On the other side of that coin are the climbers who would prefer a shoe that has superb climbing ability over its hiking ability. Maybe this is because you are climbing something that is close to a road, so ensuring you have the ultimate in support isn't as imperative. Or a climber might prefer a climbing-focused shoe because their goal is a route that is well below their ability and they don't want to bring or change into climbing shoes. If these types of quests are what floats your boat, then you will want to look for shoes with tread that has very sticky rubber combined with low profile lugs in the tread.
The flatter tread allows for more of the shoe surface to contact the rock, which gives you greater traction. You'll also want a shoe that has either a snug fit overall or laces that run down to your toes so you can make the toe box tighter when you begin the more difficult sections of climbing moves. If you are climbing on a type of rock that has cracks which you'll be using to climb, you will also want to look for a shoe that has a low profile, flexible toe box for greater ease in getting your shoes inside the cracks. In this category, we found the Arc'teryx Acrux SL
, Evolv Cruzer
, and Gecko
to be the stand-out models.
A third category, which is more of a sub-category of the climbing oriented shoes, is the descent shoe. These are shoes that you may or may not wear on the hike to the base of a climb, but that you clip to your harness to carry up on route. At the summit, you will switch from your climbing shoes to these shoes to wear for the walk-off back to the base and your backpack. Shoes that are ideal for descent shoes are low profile and lightweight, yet fairly sticky for walking down potentially slick rock surfaces. The pair that we tested that best fits the bill for a descent shoe is the Evolv Cruzer Psyche
, whose 7.8-ounce weight make for an easy multi-pitch companion.
The Cruzer Psyche grabs a ride on the back of our harness.
Sticky rubber and the ability to travel over technical climbing terrain is the main feature that separates an approach shoe from a hiking shoe. Many approaches, especially in alpine terrain, require scrambling, and it is crucial that your approach shoe keep you safe and secure no matter what you encounter. Therefore, we wanted to ensure that this metric was one of the most important, and the climbing ability metric accounted for the largest amount (35%) of the overall score. To test the climbing ability of each shoe, we took them out on all our climbing adventures, from the sport cliff to the alpine.
Many climbers are asking more of their approach shoes than ever, trekking far into the backcountry or even climbing moderate fifth-class routes in them. If this sounds like you, you'll want to pay particular attention to this metric. If, however, you spend most of your time hiking to climbing areas on well-maintained trails and do little scrambling, this parameter may not be as important to you.
Several different components go into the overall climbing ability of a shoe. To thoroughly evaluate the shoe's climbing performance, we individually tested each pair while executing three different techniques: edging, smearing, and crack climbing. Edging
is a shoe's ability to stick and help you stand on tiny footholds, from just a few millimeters thick to a few inches. Generally, how well a shoe does this seems to be a function of both the stickiness of the rubber and the shape or design of the toe box. Smearing
is what you do when you use traction alone to stick to a steep surface that doesn't have any features to edges or step on. Smearing ability has a lot to do with rubber quality and stickiness, as well as the tread design.
A tread design with flatter lugs and therefore more significant surface area that can come in contact with the rock will typically perform better when you need to smear. The last type of climbing technique we evaluated was crack climbing
. We wanted to know how the shoe performed when fitting inside, twisting, and locking your toes into vertical cracks to climb upwards. Often, shoes that have a lower toe box height and a toe box made of more flexible rubber and upper materials are more natural to jam inside a crack.
The Acrux SL showing off on El Cap Tower, Yosemite Valley
Without a doubt, the Arc'teryx Acrux SL
scored the highest out of any of the eight shoes we tested in this metric. It's slipper-like fit, slim toe box, and definite edge made for the best climbing performance we've ever seen. Next up we had the La Sportiva TX
and Scarpa Gecko
. Though complete with quite different lug patterns, we found great edging and smearing performance with both.
As with any product (though perhaps especially important for footwear), it is essential that you stay comfortable when you're using the gear. It's likely that you're going to be spending many hours and miles hiking in these shoes, so it is certainly not okay to get blisters, hot spots, or just have uncomfortable feet. Therefore, we also feel that comfort is a crucial factor, so we weighted comfort at 20% of the total score for each shoe. While extra cushiony and luxurious-feeling shoes might make for less achy feet at the end of an epically long day, they can also decrease your sensitivity while climbing — so keep in mind that balance when you are looking at different models.
Also, every person and every foot is shaped differently, so comfort can sometimes be a very individual and personal thing, and this is an important point to take into consideration. We highly recommend that regardless of how comfy we (or anyone else) say a shoe is, make sure you try on and test footwear yourself as much as possible before you take them out on a long adventure.
That being said, several shoes have features that can still give overall added comfort and can allow a more customized fit, which is more irrespective of individual foot shape. To help give you an idea of what might work for you and your foot, we used this metric to evaluate the comfort and breathability of the materials as well as the versatility of the lacing structure and the stiffness of the sole.
The comfiest of the comfy: the Boulder X
A typical feature on shoes designed for technical climbing is to have laces that go further down the top of your foot than a regular hiking shoe or boot. When climbing, precision in the toe is key, so you want to be able to tighten down the laces for a snug fit. When hiking, however, you want a roomier toe box that doesn't constrict your forefoot or rub your toes. Therefore, many models have been designed with laces that go all the way to the toe area to help make this tightness more adjustable depending on your activity of the moment. Of course, this can also help give a more customized fit for people with high or low arches or wider or narrower forefeet. We awarded higher comfort scores to shoes with more versatile lacing designs.
We love the highly versatile lacing structure of the TX3.
The shoe that scored the highest marks for comfort was the La Sportiva Boulder X
. The plush tongue, heel, and inner materials made for exceptional all-day comfort, making this shoe our go-to choice for long approaches. Other high scorers in this category were the Adidas Terrex Solo
, and Gecko
If you expect to be carrying a full backpack or haul bag with rope, rack, and other daily or overnight gear, the support metric will be an important one to consider. While most of this metric is hiking related, aspects of support can also affect a shoe's climbing ability. If a shoe has a stiffer midsole, it will provide more arch support which helps prevent foot fatigue. When climbing, a stiffer midsole will be beneficial when edging or crack climbing if the shoe fits snugly on your foot, but a stiffer midsole could also hamper a shoe's smearing ability if it doesn't allow as much of the rubber to contact the rock. If you expect to encounter any snowfields on your approach, a stiff midsole is very valuable to help with kicking steps to cross lower-angle snow patches safely.
Another important aspect of this category looks at how stable the shoe feels when traveling over uneven terrain. If you are rock hopping across a boulder or talus field, does the shoe feel sloppy as you adjust the angle of your foot to each rock you step on or does it feel like the shoe is moving securely right along with your foot?
The last aspect of the support metric is how well the shoe protects your feet. Does it have a robust upper and midsole that will shield the sides and bottoms your feet from sharp and abrasive rock edges? Is the shoe waterproof, or how well does the shoe protect your feet when crossing creeks or snowfields? All of these things combined are taken into consideration for the support metric category.
The two most supportive shoes: left, Boulder X; right, Guide Tennie.
The highest-scoring shoe for this metric was, once again, the Boulder X
. The leather upper and stiff sole made for a snug fit great for boulder-hopping and whatever tough terrain you may encounter. We found the Five Ten Guide Tennie
to be great runners-up in this category due to their rigid soles and burly exteriors.
Weight should always be a consideration when you are talking about gear that is involved in physical endeavors. It's a no-brainer that if all things are otherwise equal, you should just choose the lightest gear. Well, of course, it's not that simple, and most often all things are not equal. But that's why we at OutdoorGearLab are here to help you figure it out.
Of course, weight is less critical if the climbing areas you frequent typically have short approaches. However, when you have a difficult or long approach, weight is usually a significant factor for most people in choosing which gear to use. Unfortunately, low weight is typically a trade-off for other things desirable in approach shoes. Durability is one of the most significant trade-offs because, often, the most durable materials are heavier (mesh uppers, for example, are lighter but less durable than solid leather). Additionally, it's usually inevitable that a comfortable, supportive shoe's features will be more cumbersome as well. So to determine how important the weight metric might be for you, it depends on what your normal climbing routine looks like.
The incredibly light Cruzer Psyche weighs in at just 7.8 ounces per shoe.
Other considerations that influenced the weight scores for each shoe were its packability and compactness. How easy is it to stuff the shoe in your backpack or clip it on your harness while you climb a route? These are all aspects that were evaluated for the weight scores. When multi-pitch climbing, it's crucial to find a shoe with the right balance for you.
If the approach is short, but the route is long, a shoe like the Evolv Cruzer Psyche
may be perfect for you. Lacking in supporting but excelling in low weight, this canvas approach shoe is barely noticeable when clipped to your harness. If you're hiking deep into the alpine and need something that strikes a better balance between weight and support, the Tx3
is an obvious choice.
We all like to have the things we buy last a long time so we can get the most for our hard-earned dollars. Due to the rugged nature of climbing, durability is an especially important quality when talking approach shoes. Most of the shoes in this review are highly durable when compared to a standard hiking or running shoe. The one general exception to this is found with the rubber tread of approach shoes. The standard and established trade-off for a stickier grip is that the rubber doesn't last as long as the less grippy tread that is found on your ordinary hiking shoe or boot. And it is largely the case that the stickier the rubber, the lower the durability. However, just like climbing shoes, many of the shoes in this review can be sent to a re-sole shop to have a fresh layer of rubber applied when you've worn through the first layer.
Because all climbing rubber wears eventually, we also looked to the materials of the upper and the outer sole for clues as to each pair's longevity. Leather scored higher points than mesh, and points were either docked or added depending on wear and tear during our tests.
The laminated material of the Acrux SL is an interesting light yet durable exterior.
The highest-scoring shoes for this metric were the Guide Tennie
, Boulder X
, and Acrux SL
. The Acrux
has a unique laminated exterior. Different than any material we'd ever seen in an approach shoe, this burly yet light material seemed to help the Acrux
strike the balance between durability and weight.
There's nothing better than climbing with friends, and the slab descents of Tuolumne require good sticky rubber.
In this review, we take eight of the top women's approach shoes and put them through the ringer. In the mountains, on the big walls, and in the boulder field, we tested each product side-by-side with its competitors. We gathered data and reported on our findings, marking each model on its performance in climbing, comfort, support, weight, and durability. Our expert testers spent months compiling this research and are proud to bring you the most comprehensive review of women's approach shoes out there!