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What are Climbing Shoes?

Good climbing shoes are critical to climbing well.
Smearers are highly flexible climbing shoes ideal for bouldering.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 24 July 2014
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Climbing shoes are shoes specifically designed for rock climbing, bouldering, and other climbing sports. Climbers have been known to say that climbing shoes are the only piece of gear which can improve a climber's ability, and all climbers know that good climbing shoes are critical to a successful climb. Many outdoor stores, especially those which focus on climbing, carry an array of climbing shoes, and they can also be ordered through catalogs, for people who know the size and style they need.

Climbing shoes have a number of distinctive features which make them easy to differentiate from other types of shoes. The first is the flexible rubber sole, which runs partway up the side of the shoe for additional support. The second is the snug fit, which ensures that the shoe conforms to the shape of the wearer's foot. Climbing shoes for men and women are also styled differently, to accommodate subtle anatomical differences.

Several functions are addressed by a climbing shoe. The first is friction. Good climbing shoes offer a lot of traction, allowing climbers to navigate a variety of difficult surfaces. The second is support, as climbers must be comfortable and their feet and ankles must be properly supported in order to climb without the risk of injury. Furthermore, climbing shoes must offer flexibility, allowing climbers to manipulate their feet to reach small climbing holds, and the shoes provide protection from scrapes and sharp protrusions.

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There are a number of different styles of climbing shoes, designed for different types of climbing and different levels of ability. As a general rule, climbing shoes are designed to only be used during climbing, and they are unsuitable for hiking, walking, or running. This is especially true of performance climbing shoes, also known as sport or bouldering shoes, because they have a rigid design and a downturned toe which are perfect for climbing, but not for navigating flat ground.

All-around climbing shoes have a basic, utilitarian design which can be used on a variety of surfaces and by climbers at all levels of ability. Many beginners start out with all-around shoes while they explore different types of rock climbing to see what appeals to them. Smearers are highly flexible climbing shoes ideal for bouldering and manufactured climbing walls. Some beginner shoes also have ankle support, to encourage climbers to develop foot strength without injuring themselves.

Fit is critical with climbing shoes. The right shoes fit snugly, allow the climber a full range of motion, and don't pinch or pull. If climbing shoes are uncomfortable in the store, they will be uncomfortable on top of a rock. For people who have never purchased climbing shoes before, it is a good idea to go into a store for a professional fitting, and to be aware that socks are typically not worn with climbing shoes. Some people also like to try renting shoes first, to get an idea of how the shoes feel in action before committing to a purchase.

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