Here in our Buying Advice article, we want to help you understand why climbers use many types of footwear at the crags and in the mountains. Afterward, we discuss choosing between approach shoes with soles that give excellent traction on steep dirt vs. ones more focused on creating significant friction on smooth rock. In the end, we offer some tips on the care and maintenance of this extraordinary footwear.
Do I need an approach shoe? This is an excellent question to ask right from the start. To answer it, let's start by talking about what makes this type of footwear so special. These shoes earned their name because they are designed to wear on the "approach" to a rock climb (even though their uses extend far beyond!), as such they have two essential features that distinguish them from other types of outdoor footwear.
First, these shoes have a "sticky rubber" sole. These rubber formulations are softer than the ones used on most hiking and running footwear, creating more friction on smooth rock slabs. Also, the soles usually do a great job standing on small rock edges. Climbing approaches often have exposed, do-not-fall rocky terrain. Sticky rubber gives you more confidence that your feet will stay put where you place them, during those times when taking a tumble is not an option.
Second, they have uppers that are more durable when used in rough, rocky terrain. This usually means full leather uppers reinforced by a protective toe rand also made of sticky rubber. The most durable models have a rubber rand that extends entirely around the upper material of the shoe. A durable approach shoe can stand up to months of abuse during activities like scree surfing in the mountains that could destroy a lightweight trail runner in just a few days.
Types of Footwear to Get You To and From Climbs
Spending time at the crags or in the mountains, you notice climbers wear all kinds of footwear to get them to and from their playgrounds. Taking a look at a few of these categories of footwear will shed some light on why folks choose different footwear for the same activities. Our discussion of these classes moves from big, burly boots (the least appropriate for most climbers) down to approach shoes (the best choice for most climbers.)
Chances are, if mountaineering boots are what you need to get to and from what you want to climb, you know this already. Big, burly, and super stiff, these boots are designed to securely accept modern crampons and keep your feet warm in frigid temperatures. So why do we mention mountaineering boots here, in a discussion of choosing approach shoes? A few high-profile ascents in recent years have been pulled off by professional climbers wearing mid-cut approach shoes on gnarly mixed terrain. For all but a few very experienced climbers, snow and ice that requires the use of crampons also require the use of mountaineering boots for security and safety.
Hiking boots provide better foot support and much more ankle stability and protection than low-cut approach shoes. One of our lead tester's regular climbing partners has a history of ankle injuries, complete with multiple surgeries. He needs the foot and ankle support provided by a burly hiking boot to cover the rough terrain on climbing approaches and descents safely.
Many climbers use trail running shoes to get to and from their climbing destinations. Whether at the sport crag or in the backcountry of Rocky Mountain National Park, you'll likely see as many experienced climbers approaching in trail runners as approach shoes. Why? Probably the biggest reason is cross-over use. Lots of climbers run these days as a part of their training and recovery for climbing and a great use for your packed out trail running shoes is hiking to and from climbs. While trail runners usually do not have sticky rubber soles - and they aren't nearly as durable - lots of folks already have a pair. The Five Ten Access makes a nod at the trail running world, and has a trail runner feel with sticky Stealth rubber sole.
Hiking shoes are the closest cousin to the products in this review. While the design and construction are often similar, very few hiking shoes have sticky rubber soles appropriate for climbing. Although the harder rubber compounds found on the soles of hiking shoes will usually last longer, they do not provide good friction on smooth rock. Increasingly, many models transcend these categories. The Salewa Firetail 3 is one such product - a hybrid hiking/approach shoe with sticky rubber. One of the downsides of the burly, durable uppers often found on the models in this review is a general lack of breathability. The Arc'teryx Acrux SL and the Evovl Cruzer Psyche both breathe much better than the leather shoes in the review but aren't as durable or as comfortable in cracks.
Sticky rubber, a snug forefoot, and toe fit, durability, the ability to climb easy to moderate technical rock these are the features that make the products in this category so awesome. The most important attribute - and the main reason to choose this type of footwear - is security when scrambling on talus or traversing rocks slabs where a slip and fall is not an option. While all of the models we tested use sticky rubber, the lug patterns on the soles are quite different. At one end of the continuum is the Five Ten Guide Tennie, with a Stealth C4 sole focused on maximizing climbing performance. At the other end, the Salewa Firetail 3 uses a lug pattern that maximizes traction on dirt, scree, and snow.
Hiking Oriented Approach Shoes
Most users will spend far more time hiking and scrambling on trails and over rough off-trail terrain than climbing on technical rock. These shoes climb much better than trail runners or hiking boots, but still prioritize hiking comfort and good traction on dirt. These models include the La Sportiva TX4, Salewa Firetail 3, La Sportiva Boulder X, and the Arc'teryx Acrux SL.
The La Sportiva Boulder TX4 is the most versatile product of this bunch. It edges, smears, and crack climbs reasonably well; as a result, it earned the highest climbing ability score among these shoes that provide good hiking traction.
There is always a compromise when choosing the size of this footwear. Size them to fit nice and snug, and they will climb better. Size them to fit like a hiking shoe, with a bit of room for your toes to move around, and you'll be more comfortable while hiking, especially over long distances. Only you know what your priorities are, but we recommend sizing these shoes with a little room to make them comfortable when hiking.
Climbing Oriented Approach Shoes
If you seek a shoe that will let you climb technical rock near your limit, these products have soles that are more suited to maximizing climbing ability rather than traction on the trail. The low profile dot lugs provide the most contact with the rock for smearing ability. These models include the Five Ten Guide Tennie and the Evolv Cruzer Psyche.
For climbing, these shoes perform best when sized to fit nice and tight. If you want to stand on small edges or get the best smearing performance, choose a snug fit with a thin sock. The downside tight fitting shoes get uncomfortable quick when hiking long distances. Sizing these models with a little more room will keep your feet a lot happier on long approaches and descents. Again, consider how and where you will use these shoes the most.
Should I consider a Mid-Cut Approach Shoe?
Two of the products we tested are available in a mid-cut version, The La Sportiva TX4 and the Five Ten Guide Tennie. While lots of climbers are comfortable carrying a heavy pack over rough terrain in a low-cut shoe, some folks want a bit more ankle stability and protection. A mid-cut model will give you the climbing benefits of sticky rubber, along with the ankle support of a light hiking boot. Easy alpine rock climbs and ridge traverses are an excellent setting for these mid-cut products. Carrying an overnight pack into the mountains over rough trails and talus fields provides many opportunities to twist your ankle. The mid-cut version of the Five Ten Guide Tennie is an excellent choice for multi-day trips to 4th class routes in the mountains.
A mid-cut model is also an excellent choice for many El Cap climbers, providing more support when standing in aiders for days and better ankle stability when humping heavy haul bags up the talus to the base and down the long, steep trail below the East Ledges rappels. Although not necessarily recommended, if you want to use an approach shoe with crampons in the mountains, a mid-cut version is the way to go.
Care and Feeding
We all want our footwear to last as long as possible. The products in this review are the durable choice for talus hopping and climbing easy technical rock, and there are a few ways to ensure you get maximum longevity.
First, keep them as clean as possible, inside and out. Little bits of sand and dirt that work their way into your shoes cause abrasive wear and tear. When you get debris inside your shoe, stop and shake it out as soon as possible. Most climbers change into and out of their approach shoes several times during a climbing day - use this as an opportunity to remove the insole and shake out any debris that has gotten inside. Removing the insole will also allow any accumulated sweat to evaporate. If you are hiking through mud or traversing wet scree fields, do your best to clean as much as possible from the outside of your shoe as soon as you can. Don't put your dirty shoes away at the end of a trip til you clean 'em up. A soft bristle brush and warm water is the best way to remove caked on mud and dirt.
Second, consider treating the upper with a leather conditioning product. Both suede and nubuck leather will benefit from treatment. This is especially important if you often get your shoes wet when approaching a climb. Untreated leather absorbs more water and is more prone to shrinking or becoming brittle after multiple wetting and drying cycles. Nikwax offers an extensive line of leather conditioners that work well.
Third, if you plan to use your shoes for a lot of technical climbing - especially jamming them in cracks or standing in aiders while big walling - reinforcing critical parts of the upper is a great idea. The rough, flared cracks found in Joshua Tree, Vedauwoo, and other areas can quickly chew up even full leather uppers. Seam Grip generously applied over wear-prone regions, will increase the lifetime of the upper.
Shoes used for big wall climbing can wear very quickly. Some folks tend to wear the toe of the shoe quickly while standing in aiders or jugging fixed lines. In addition to reinforcing key wear areas with a seam sealer, applying a coating of ShoeGoo or Barge Cement to the front of the toe is an essential trick for "toe draggers."