You’ve discovered rock climbing and the art of self-challenges, and little by little, you’ve been honing your skills. The question is, are your starter all-around climbing shoes holding you back? Put another way, when is the time right to step into a pair of more aggressive climbing shoes?
If the Shoe Fits…
In the beginning, an all-around shoe just made sense. After all, you were still exploring the sport and discovering your favorite aspects, so you needed something that could accommodate a wide variety of climbing activities. Now, maybe you’re still in the exploration phase, or you just enjoy doing a little of this and a little of that. There is nothing wrong there. The first step is to learn what is meant by “aggressive” regarding climbing shoes.
Aggressive climbing shoes are sometimes referred to as “cambered”. That describes a shoe where the arch of the sole and the toe point downward. Also bear in mind that in general, the more aggressive the shoe, the longer the break-in period is likely to be.
Don’t Torture Yourself
Don’t go from your relatively comfortable first-time climbing shoes to something that feels more like a form of torture than a shoe. Yes, your shoes should be snug, but that doesn’t mean you have to go from one extreme to the other all at once! Upgrade, by all means, but upgrade to something that facilitates a higher level of performance that still has a degree of versatility and comfort.
That said, climbing shoes aren’t designed for comfort like a “sneaker” is. They’re supposed to fit as snugly as possible without causing actual pain. If your climbing shoes are super comfortable, then they’re probably too large for you! Getting the fit just right will help you climb harder and longer.
Choosing an Intermediate Shoe
The next step up from your beginner’s shoe is a moderate climbing shoe. Their slightly down-turned shape make them better for more technical climbing, but they remain a good all-purpose shoe that can handle things like slab routes, crack climbs, longer multi-pitch climbs and slight overhangs. They’ll also have thinner, stickier soles for better grip, yet they’ll still allow for some comfort, unlike more seriously aggressive shoes. Be aware, that the thinner, stickier soles that provide better grip and feel will also wear out faster than the rubber on the soles of your neutral, “all-around” climbing shoes.
Honing Your Technique and Your Shoe
Often, the perceived need for more aggressive climbing shoes can reflect both a need for more toe grip or more flexibility and need to hone your climbing skills further. When you get to the point where you’re ready to tackle challenging overhangs, an aggressive shoe will give you an advantage. They’ll also be helpful at the gym as you progress but forget about wearing them on day long multi-pitch climbs.
A Different Shoe for Different Challenges
As you hone your skills and explore different climbing challenges, you’ll find that you probably want to have a neutral, a moderate and an aggressive climbing shoes “wardrobe” to be ready for any and all climbing scenarios. If you continue to evolve your climbing skills, that’s just what you will do! Most experienced climbers say that they have specific pairs for specific climbing occasions, and develop a particular fondness for each pair based on the performance-enhancing features each offers in those scenarios. And as with most sports, over time you’ll become more aware of what works best for you, your skill level and your climbing nuances. Good climbing shoes are an asset — and passion is essential!