Your Guide to Understanding Climbing Shoes

This climbing shoe guide will show define keywords and explore options that can help you consider what you want in your next shoe. The guide will refer to the Five Ten Blackwing climbing shoe for examples of major components, and show alternative material and design options for climbing shoes.

Outside View

The outsole sits beneath the climbing shoe right up against the rand which wraps the upper. Many shoes will have variable tongues depending on their closure systems, but on the Blackwing it sits above and in-between the upper material.

Outside View of a Climbing Shoe
Upper Materials

Climbing shoes use natural and/or synthetic materials for the upper. Natural materials will stretch more and have better odor dissipating properties, while synthetic materials stretch very little and do not manage odor well.


Unlined Leather Climbing Shoe
The La Sportiva Tarantulace has an unlined leather upper.

Unlined Leather Upper
Shoes that are made with unlined leather uppers will stretch sometimes even more than a full size. The benefit of unlined leather is that the shoe will better form to your foot over time.


Lined Leather Climbing Shoe
The Five Ten Verdon has a lined leather upper.

Lined Leather Upper
Adding a synthetic liner to leather climbing shoes helps reduce the stretch that is expected from unlined leather. The sacrifice of adding a synthetic liner to a shoe is that there is a reduced toe sensitivity. This is because there is more material between your foot and the rock. Also adding synthetics compromises the odor dissipating properties of an all natural shoe.


Synthetic Climbing Shoe
The Five Ten Blackwing has a synthetic upper.

Synthetic Upper
Climbing shoes that are made with synthetic materials soften overtime, but do not stretch. A synthetic upper will best preserve the original fit of the shoe. This will help keep your shoe fitting snug throughout the life of the shoe.

Natural and Synthetic Climbing Shoe
The La Sportiva Otaki upper uses natural and synthetic materials.

Hybrid Upper
Some climbing shoe manufacturers have been combining natural and synthetic materials to create uppers that have intended stretch areas. This is great improvement to climbing shoes because a hybrid shoe can selectively reap the benefits of all materials.

Many shoes in the 2017 La Sportiva line up use a natural suede and synthetic microfiber upper.

Inside View of a Climbing Shoe

Inside Profile

The inside view shows the outsole and rand continuing towards the center of the heel arch.  The closure system shown here is velcro straps which run through the buckles.

Different Closure Systems

Climbing Shoe Closure Systems
Left to right. Five Ten Team elastic and single velcro. Evolv Luchador triple velcro. Five Ten Stonelands slip-on. Five Ten Verdon lace.

Different shoe models can have one, two, or three velcro straps that secure over the tongue of the shoe.

  • Great for getting your shoes on and off quickly
  • Lack adjustability

These easy to get on shoes have no fasteners because the tongue is made of an elastic band.

  • Quickest option for easily getting your shoes on and off
  • Elastic fit can fade over time
  • Lack adjustability

The most customizable closure system is laces because they offer many points for adjustment.

  • Slowest option for getting your shoes on and off
  • Many options for adjusting shoe tension

Toe Box

The toe box is the whole front section of the shoe. This view best shows the most difficult to tell apart rand and the outsole. Specifically on the Blackwing, 3.5mm from the bottom of the outsole is a seem that reveals where it is bonded to the rand. As the rand continues over the upper, it acts as extra toe protection. Some shoes use a separate piece of rubber to protect the toes.

Climbing Shoe Toe Box

Outsole Thickness
The thickness of the outsole determines shoe sensitivity. An outsole can have variable thickness but it is measured at the tip of the toe box.

A thin climbing shoe outsole, 2-3mm, is very sensitive and can wear quickly.

An outsole of average thickness can range between 3-4mm, and has a great all around ability to offer support while not sacrificing too much sensitivity.

Thicker outsoles, 4-5+mm, sacrifice sensitivity for increased support and durability.

Heel Section

The heel cup is the whole section  that the heel sits in. The heel rand wraps up the heel cup to the pull loops which help in getting your heel seated properly in the shoe. When the heel is more aggressive it can be referred to as a “slingshot heel”.

Climbing Shoe Heel

Rock Bottom
The bottom of the climbing shoe shows the outsole running from toe to heel, turning into the heel rubber.