Updated October 2017
We added in our favorite shoes for beginners and folks on a tight budget: the La Sportiva Tarantula. It's not for top performance, which is an advantage if you're just starting out and want comfort while your feet build the right muscles for micro edging.
Best Overall Climbing Model
La Sportiva Genius
Highest end performance shoe on the market
Excellent edging and sensitivity
Great comfort and pocket performance
From the folks that first brought you downturned shoes, the La Sportiva Genius
is the product of multiple advancements in climbing shoe technology. More than just the evolution of the No Edge concept, the Genius borrows the best features from the La Sportiva arsenal for its design. This award winner is ready for a projecting session right out of the box and will stay that way until you finally wear through the toe. Use this model for sport clipping, bouldering, and high-end traditional climbing — it will not disappoint. If you aren't ready to spend almost $200 on a pair of climbing shoes, then take a look at a the Butora Acro or the La Sportiva Skwama.
Read review: La Sportiva Genius
Best Bang for Your Buck
La Sportiva Skwama
Tend to stretch more compared to other models
Not as supportive as stiffer shoes
is the hot new shoe we see everywhere - on the feet of the pros and at the gym - for a good reason. This simple slipper with a single velcro closure features out-of-the-box comfort and sensitivity. La Sportiva bills the Skwama as a high-end sport climbing and bouldering shoe, and while this model is definitely up for the task, our testers loved them the best in splitter cracks. These shoes are broad in the mid-foot, so they don't hurt in hand cracks, and the low profile soft toe wiggles into thin cracks and pods better than any other shoe in the lineup. When the cracks become too small for toe jamming, the Skwamas can still edge on jibs and nubbins with the best of them. A wonderfully designed, high quality, versatile shoe for under $150, this award winner bucks the trend of high priced, high-end climbing shoes, so you can afford to gas up the car for your next 16-hour drive to the Red River Gorge.
Read review: La Sportiva Skwama
Best for Beginners and Tight Budgets
La Sportiva Tarantula
$90 - least expensive shoe in review
Comfortable and less aggressive design
Not particularly precise
If you are just starting out climbing, it's hard to beat the Tarantula. Few shoes are cheaper at the same quality and versatility. While it doesn't have the precise design of the other award winners, that can be an advantage. More advanced shoes put your foot in an aggressive position that can be painful and unnecessary if you're just starting out. Best of all, this shoe climbs well just about everywhere: the gym, cracks and multi-pitch routes for the velcro lets you quickly give your feet a break.
Read review: La Sportiva Tarantula
Top Pick for Narrow Feet
Great for edging
Substantially more narrow than other shoes
Lacing system enables you to dial in the fit
Wider feet will hurt in cracks
Designed in the limestone mecca of Spain, the Tenaya Tarifa
is the master of technical terrain, and a perfect balance of sensitivity and
edging power. They are substantially narrower than all the other models, and while our wider footed testers could appreciate their edging prowess and high-quality construction, wearing them on longer pitches brought on whining and discomfort. Our slender footed testers fought over who got to wear the Tarifas ("but I need
them! I'm getting close on my project") and felt they were the raddest climbing footwear. So, if your feet are more like skis and less like flippers, pick up a pair, tie-in, and send.
Read review: Tenaya Tarifa
Top Pick Award for All Day Comfort
Five Ten Quantum
Soft, padded, perforated upper
Excellent in cracks
Not as supportive as stiffer shoes
Synthetic material tends to get stinky
The Five Ten Quantum
is the most comfortable pair we tested this year. Don't be fooled by the aggressive looking downturn! These shoes are soft enough for smearing, and that downturned toe comes in handy on steep headwalls. The wide fit and padded tongue make climbing long cracks dreamy and drama free, and the lacing system lets you dial in the fit as your feet swell, or the shoes stretch during an all-day mission. Designed with input from the Huber brothers, the Quantums are an excellent choice for those looking for an all-day shoe that is more sensitive and wider than the popular TC Pro.
Read review: Five Ten Quantum
Analysis and Test Results
With so many brands and models of climbing shoes out there, selecting the right shoes for your feet and preferred climbing style can be a daunting task. On the other hand, with so many manufacturers creating high-quality shoes, the chances are that perfect fit is out there. So fear not, it's a perfect time to be a rock climber! As climbers and guides, the single most important thing we wear go on our feet (OK mom, it's the helmet and harness), and it's hard to place too much emphasis on having the right shoes. They're often the difference between sending and whipping, and the harder the climbing gets, the narrower those margins become.
The manic devotion climbers develop toward a brand or model of shoe is warranted. Once you find a shoe that fits and functions for you
, it feels like the skies open up and you can step off the plateau you're stranded on. The longer you climb, the more seldom it is to have one of these epiphanic moments. Progressing takes a lot of devotion, rigorous training, and time spent on the rock; doing all of that in shoes that make you miserable, or that underperform, will drain your psyche faster than any climbing porn can restore it. The critical goal is to find shoes that fit you and to determine what you'll be using them for. Even if you're a veteran climber, read our Buying Advice
to help you make the best choice.
Start your engines...
The ability to make use of even the smallest edges are paramount in climbing shoe performance. The more weight you can get on your feet, the less weight burdens your throbbing forearms, and the more likely you are to send. The top edgers are the La Sportiva Genius
and the slender Tenaya Tarifa
. Both of these models offer an excellent balance of support and sensitivity. While wearing these shoes, our testers could balance on small edges and make use of the tiniest ripples, despite the Genius and Tarifa being relatively soft shoes. The Tarifa employs a reverse bi-tension rand design to keep your toes firmly in place at the front edge of the shoe.
The Genius gets your toes even further into the front of the shoe with its "no-edge" technology, holds its shape with a Permanent Power Platform (P3), and remains flexible due to its soft mid-sole. These technologies all come together so that we can get a little closer to having one shoe that can do it all. The Scarpa Instinct VS and the Butora Acro are also edging champs
, but lack the sensitivity of the top contenders. Keep in mind that the best shoe for you is going to be the one that fits the best and provides the comfort and performance you deem necessary.
The Tenaya Tarifa are edging machines and a favorite of our testers with narrow feet.
We evaluated each shoe's edging capabilities by climbing vertical routes at Wild Iris where the ability to stand securely on tiny edges and points is crucial. We paid particular attention to how difficult it was to stand on small holds as well as how hard it was to feel the holds under our feet. Stiffer shoes like the Scarpa Vapor V
tended to be less sensitive but were more supportive on longer pitches where our testers unlocked techy, difficult edging sequences over periods of 20 minutes or more. The Five Ten Quantum was our favorite shoe for all day climbing on long routes
, but it fell short in the edging metric. Compared to stiffer, less sensitive options like the TC Pro
it's not as supportive for all-day edging.
The best shoes for crack climbing are wide in the midsole, so your feet aren't crushed in hand cracks, complete with a low volume toe so that they can fit in cracks from thin hands down to fingers. If the shoe is so tight that your toes become completely curled, they won't be able to wiggle into small cracks. We climbed cracks in Idaho's City of Rocks and in Yosemite National Park, where cracks of many sizes are on the same pitch.
While crack climbing in each shoe, we took note of how much pain and fatigue we felt as we twisted and torqued our feet. Narrow shoes like the Tenaya Tarifa
hurt the most, while wider shoes like the Five Ten Quantum
and the Scarpa Vapor V
felt the most comfortable. Laces like those on the Quantum felt more comfortable and fared better on long crack climbs. Velcro buckles like those on the Vapor V can press uncomfortably on some feet in cracks, and and the buckles have the potential to become damaged.
The Skwama (left) fairs much better in cracks that the Tarifa (right) due to its low volume toe box that allows it to fit in the thin cracks.
The Best Buy Award winning La Sportiva Skwama
is one of our favorite crack climbing shoes based on its perfect shape for fitting in all sizes of cracks. The thin layer of rubber on the top of this model also offered a little extra protection for our sore feet, and the single velcro closure remained out of the way while we jammed our feet into cracks hand sized and up. This shoe is ideal for Indian Creek or Zion, where the thin cracks on cutting edge free climbs are often too small to accept shoes like the famous La Sportiva TC Pro
Barbara Zangerl and Jacobo Larcher used these shoes to make the 3rd and 4th free ascents of the Zodiac on El Cap - a further testament to the versatility of this shoe, which is designed for "high-end bouldering. The Scarpa Instinct VS
is a wide shoe and felt comfortable to our wide-footed lead tester in hand cracks, but the high volume toe didn't fit into smaller cracks (think tight hands and down); we found the same results with the Skwama
and the Quantum
. Finally, the Butora Acro
isn't comfortable enough for all-day jamming at Indian Creek but performed well on single pitch granite cracks, where a low volume toe can fit into small pods and
where you still need some edging power to take advantage of micro footholds outside the cracks.
Pocket pulling at Wild Iris
A shoe's performance in pockets is a function of its edging ability, the shape of the toe, and in the case of steep, pocketed terrain, how downturned the shoe is. Our testers spent a month in Lander WY, home to Sinks Canyon and Wild Iris, one of the pocket climbing meccas in the US. Some of the climbs here feature only small pockets for hand and footholds.
The pointy-toed, narrow fitting Tenaya Tarifa
and the No-Edged La Sportiva
Genius again came up as the top performers in this metric. When wearing the Tarifa, our testers were able to gain a little purchase, even in mono pockets.
The ultra sensitive Genius
allowed our testers to feel their way into shallow pockets. On steep pocketed terrain, the downturn of the Evolv Shaman came in handy when pulling into larger pockets and keeping our bodies pulled in to the wall.
The Butora Acro
and the Scarpa Instinct
come in close behind the top performers in this metric. The Acro lost some pocket points because of its blunt toe shape, which didn't fit into small pockets as well as the models with narrower toes. The Instincts are pointier in the toe than the Acro, but they don't edge on the lips of pockets as well. Our Best Buy award winner, the La Sportiva Skwama
, performed surprisingly well in pockets, despite being soft, because we could wiggle lots of rubber into shallow pockets. The Scarpa Vapor V
and the Five Ten Quantum
fared the worst in pockets, due to their thick rubber and round toe shape.
Sensitivity is key when balancing your way up lower angle rock with tiny foot holds.
A sensitive shoe will let you know where you stand on a hold or smear, so you can press down and move upwards with confidence. We tested shoes for sensitivity by lapping nearly featureless slabs in Tuolumne Meadows and scaling the gritty, technical granite in Pine Creek Canyon. The most sensitive shoes tended to be the softest, but the top scorers also had some built-in support.
The La Sportiva Genius
, with its no-edge technology, was by far the most sensitive shoe we tested. The no-edge concept puts less rubber between your toe and the rock, allowing you to feel and stand on small edges and tiny ripples. This shoe took some getting used to; initially, our testers missed the crisp edge they've come to depend on in a brand new shoe. However, after a handful of pitches, we became accustomed to the new position of our toe being in the front of the shoe and were able to take advantage of the Genius' unique sensitivity and edging power combination.
The Tenaya Tarifa
comes in a close second with its soft Vibram XS grip rubber and bi-tension rand system, which offers a surprising amount of support for such a soft shoe. Our Top Pick for crack climbing, the La Sportiva Skwama
is also no slouch when it comes to sensitivity, but it's less supportive than the Tarifa or the Genius. Finally, this year's Top Pick for all-day comfort, the Five Ten Quantum
, trades in rigid support for soft sensitivity, making it an excellent alternative for those looking for an all-day shoe without the clunky stiffness of the TC Pro
The Skwamas performed best on granite, wear our testers encountered slabs and cracks.
The Butora Acro
proved to be a surprisingly sensitive shoe, despite being relatively stiff, and our testers appreciated them on the delicate crystal holds in the Buttermilks. Stiff shoes with thicker rubber, like the Evolv Shaman
, scored lower in this metric. While the Shamans are excellent for steep climbing, it's difficult to feel secure on small footholds with so much rubber between you and the rock. Both the Scarpa Instinct VS
and the Scarpa Vapor V
failed to match the out-the-box sensitivity levels of the top performers, but after a more extended break-in and adjustment period, they'll soften up, and their techy climbing game will improve.
The comfort of your climbing shoe typically depends on a few things: how you size the shoe, the shape of your foot, and the shoe's upper material. Generally speaking, the tighter your shoe, the better it will perform. The contrary is also true: the looser the shoe, the worse it performs. Typically, tight equals painful and loose equals comfortable. Fortunately, modern designers are shifting the paradigm and creating shoes that perform well with minimal pain.
Reverse bi-tension rands, "love bumps", P3 Platforms, and S-heels all sound like a list of buzzwords designed to sell shoes, but they represent a significant leap forward in climbing shoe designs. In the past, the shoes that performed the best were often the ones you could wear the tightest, compromising comfort (and foot health) for edging power. Now, innovative designs incorporated into shoes across all the major brands can give us performance without pain.
We could comfortably wear the La Sportiva Genius
for a long pitch, and we wouldn't go any smaller since pain is detrimental to performance. The most comfortable shoe in this year's line-up is the is the Five Ten Quantum
. While it's not the top performer, it's the shoe our testers could wear the longest without discomfort, making it an excellent choice for all-day adventures. The Quantums feature a soft, padded toe, a roomy, full fit, and a low profile lacing system. The Quantums are comfortable on long crack climbs in Yosemite Valley
, and allow for loads of adjustment throughout the day as your feet swell or the shoe starts to stretch.
The Scarpa Vapor V
comes in behind the Quantums regarding comfort. It has a medium wide fit and only the slightest downturn, keeping the foot in a comfortable, neutral position. It lost a point because the buckles on the velcro closure system hurt some testers' feet in hand cracks. The Butora Acro
also has a wide fit. Additionally, the elastic on the upper part of the shoe is looser than that of Instinct or the Skwamas, making it a comfortable option for sport climbers with wide, high volume feet.
These shoes are approximately the same length, but the Skwama (right) is significantly wider than the Tarifa.
Comfort is pretty subjective, and everyone's foot is unique. The Tenaya Tarifa
felt like a torture device to our wide footed testers, while it climbed like a dream for our testers with narrow feet. We tested comfort by comparing rubbing and pressure in problem spots like the back of the heel and the toes. Additionally, we note how the shoe feels after what we feel is an appropriate break-in period of ten to fifteen pitches.
The announcement of our award winners comes with a disclaimer: reviews are inherently subjective (for example, some people think Vertical Limit is a good movie), and rock shoe reviews are no exception. Our assessment of each shoe is largely contingent on the shape of our testers' feet, what type of rock we climbed, and how tight we sized them. However, we have meticulously researched these shoes (primarily by climbing in them often) and talked to many industry professionals that use and sell these shoes routinely. There are a bunch of great shoes out there, and in an expanding market, more are appearing each year. We hope we've been able to assist you in finding the perfect pair, but we understand that you may want to know more. Our Buying Advice
will provide additional tips, helping you decipher one pair from the next.