Indoor vs. outdoor climbing shoes: Is There a Difference?

Individuals that are new to climbing will face the dilemma of figuring out what equipment they need to get started. Ranging from amateur to professional climbing shoes, there is an entire spectrum of shoes that can suit the needs and level of performance that fits you best. Similar to any other sport you’re new to, you likely do not need to acquire the highest performing, most expensive shoes to begin practicing the sport.

Is there a difference between indoor and outdoor climbing shoes? There is a distinguished difference between what shoe is best for both of these respective methods of climbing. Outdoor shoes can be worn for indoor climbing, but indoor shoes are usually not suitable for outdoor climbing.

Some climbers can get away with wearing an old pair of sneakers for climbing indoors where the variables are fewer and farther in between. However, climbing outdoors can present more uneven, unpredictable surfaces; this requires shoes that can handle that kind of climbing application.

For the average person that climbs 1-2 times per year in a controlled climbing gym, special climbing shoes are not an absolute must. However, if the climber seeks high performance or decides to take their routine outside, an investment in more-adept climbing shoes is advisable. Indoor and outdoor climbing present different predicaments and accommodations to be considered. Thus, this heavily impacts the best shoe for each type of climbing.

Differences In Indoor & Outdoor Shoes

The main differences between indoor and outdoor shoes needs largely depend on your own personal preferences, climbing frequency, climbing difficulty, and your budget for spending money on equipment. Every single climber should remain focused on what helps them feel safe and comfortable. This can vary quite a bit depending on the individual, so it’s best to use this information as a gentle guide.

In regards to personal preference, there are a few ways that this can impact the chosen shoe. Intense, aggressively-designed climbing shoes might be the most recommended option for outdoor climbing, but you may find that a moderate climbing shoe works best for you. While intense climbing shoes give you a greater ability to ascend harder climbs, you surely sacrifice comfort for performance in this instance. Personal preference might steer you down a different road than what is the norm.

Frequent climbers (whether indoor or outdoor) might choose to pick a shoe that is comfortable, versus top-performing as well. In contrast, infrequent climbers that only attempt long & challenging climbs might opt for the most intricately-engineered shoes out there. It’s important to evaluate your climbing shoe needs with consideration for all of the different aspects of your specific practice.

Consider that you can technically wear whatever shoes you want while climbing, but you’ll learn fast what works and what doesn’t. It’s worth figuring out an option that allows you to feel safe and capable on your routes. In summary, indoor climbing does not require the most technical shoes. Outdoor climbing and all of its variables will demand a more technical, climbing-specific shoe.

Climbing Shoe Variables

Not all shoes are made equally or similarly. As you can imagine, shoes created for different sports are often constructed with different specifications to meet the demand of each respective activity. Because different sports require different movements and performance-based needs, each type of shoe can look vastly different when comparing them in conjunction with one another.

When looking at climbing as the sport in consideration, it’s undeniable how specified these shoes can be. There are so many different options and designs, especially when compared to other sports in which the options are far more straight-forward and simple. A climbing shoe purchase is a more time-intensive process. This is due to the nature of the sport, the risks at hand (the most obvious one being falling), and all of the considerations that include experience level, comfort preferences, climbing location, etc.

It’s interesting to compare shoe considerations for climbing versus other sports. For instance, soccer cleats only have a few variables: flat bottoms or cleats. This is similar in regards to baseball and football. Sports like volleyball and basketball have even fewer variable, as they are played on a flat, grippy surface. Climbing as a sport/discipline is in a league of its own in terms of the intricacies of the footwear:

  • Sole Type – you can opt for intense, moderate or neutral climbing shoe soles
  • Special Features – extra perks like specific lining, rubber, straps, and laces
  • Fit of Shoe – finding the fit you prefer is vital. You want your shoes to be snug, but not paralyzingly tight.

Shoe Type

With increasing structure and stiffness, climbing shoes start out as a relaxed fit with a lot of wearability for the climber. In other words, neutral shoes will allow the climber to walk around off the wall with comfort and ease. The more aggressive the shoe, the less comfortable they are to wear for a long durations

Beginner

Entry-level shoes are great for beginners that are looking for comfortable, all-day wear. There are also experienced, even professional climbers that opt for a more neutral shoe when they have long climbing days with multiple pitches to ascend. Preference on this varies from climber to climber.

Some examples of neutral shoes are your everyday walking shoe, a tennis shoe, running sneaker, or even climbing-specific shoes that are rates for low-intensity climbing. Some experienced climbers prefer this kind of fit, and it’s safe to say that this is the best choice for new climbers. It’s also the most budget-friendly climbing shoe option. You can just grab an old pair of worn-out sneakers to get started.

Moderate

Moderate-soled shoes are a practical step up for those looking to climb more often or at a higher intensity. If you’re looking to get a bit more performance out of your climbing shoe, these can help. Instead of wearing your everyday tennis shoe as a climbing shoe substitute, you will be wearing shoes that have been designed with the unique demands of climbing in mind.

These shoes will have more climbing-specific features like a downturned shape and a rubber outer, both of which will make technical routes easier and provide more grip on tough routes. If you find yourself developing a climbing habit, you may find that these shoes are worth the investment. If you climb very infrequently, you may opt to put off this purchase. It all depends on your preference and shoe budget.

Intense

For the established, experienced, and/or avid climber, these aught to be a staple in your climbing equipment bag. The goal of these shoes is to put your foot in the most powerful position possible for challenging climbs. They have a distinguished, more noticeable downturned toe than moderate climbing shoes.

Most frequent climbers have a pair of dedicated intense climbing shoes. They are no longer using their old sneakers as a climbing shoe. However, with the performance of an intense climbing shoe, you give up some comfort. Wearing these shoes for an  all-day climb is not ideal unless the difficulty of the pitch demands it. They can prove to be cumbersome when worn for hours on end. Because of this, many climbers elect to wear these only for shorter, sportier climbs or single routes at the gym.

Special Features

If you’re entirely new to the world of picking out climbing shoes, think of your climbing shoes as a car. Each car provides the same general offering, right? To get you from point A to point B. But, within each car is a large amount of possibility in regards to optional features. With a car, these options could be things like heated seats, a sunroof, or a Bluetooth audio connection feature. Applying that analogy to climbing shoes, possibilities include more convenient ways to strap your shoe on, easy-off features, and fancier materials.

Closure

Similar to regular exercise shoes, everyone has their preference and different aspects that are the most important to them. There are multiple closure options in regards to climbing shoes, including:

  • Slip ons – ideal for kicking on and off at the gym
  • Lace-Up – allows for the most flexibility in fit & comfort, as you can loosen or tighten as needed.
  • Strap – strapped climbing shoes are a good middle ground between slip ons and lace-ups; they provide the adjustability of the tightness while also make for easy on to off changing

Materials

The three main types of climbing shoe materials are:

  • synthetic material
  • unlined leather
  • lined leather.

If your focus is long-lasting structure, you want to look for a shoe that is made from a synthetic material. Unlined leather climbing shoes can stretch up to an entire shoe size. While they can be more comfortable to wear, they don’t retain their rigidity over time. The same goes for lined leather shoes, to some extent. The lining helps reduce the stretch and make them a bit more comfortable, though.

The Outer Sole

The outside sole (also called outsoles) of the shoe that makes contact with the bare rock or rock wall has big implications & responsibility. This is the point that can provide the desired grippiness or sturdiness. More often than not, you will sacrifice some grippy attributes when you opt for sturdiness and visa versa. Just like the other shoe features, the sole you opt for will vary based on the type of climbing you’re doing and what your goals are for that climb.

The two main areas of variance with outsoles are the rubber type and the thickness. These factors will influence the overall feel of the shoe and what climbing it is best suited for. For instance, a grippier outer sole will give you a better grip, but it wears out faster than a firmer sole. With a firmer sole, you get more longevity and endurance, but you will sacrifice some grip-ability.

Rubber thickness around 3-4mm is typically best for experienced climbers. It’s not as substantial, but it allows the climber to get a better feel for the rock or rock wall, which is something often desired by avid climbers. Rubber thickness around 4-6mm are the most durable and best suited for newer climbers who have not refined their footing strategy when climbing. This thickness is also more durable and will prevent your feet (and surrounding muscles, tendons, and ligaments) from tiring out as fast.

Indoor Climbing Shoes

At this point, you’ve acquired a good amount of base knowledge surrounding climbing shoes and all of the different possibilities. Your individualized choice for indoor climbing shoes will vary based on your experience, what you desire as far as feel goes, and what your budget is. In general, you can get away with a lower profile, less expensive, less technical shoe for recreational indoor climbing.

Another factor to consider is that indoor climbing gyms are specifically designed for climbing. In other words, the holds, routes, and even balay equipment is pretty high quality and is meant to help you hang on. This contrasts outdoor climbing vastly. When you climb outdoors, there are more variables, the surfaces and holds are less grippy, and there’s a higher risk factor. This is one reason why you can get away with worn shoes when climbing indoors.

This is not to say that a dedicated pair of climbing-specific shoes will not help you when climbing indoors. They will absolutely elevate your climbing in whatever application that is. There’s just not required right away. You can gradually upgrade your climbing shoes as your climbing frequency increased. Fancy, highly engineered indoor gyms allow for the average joe to participate in climbing without having the most advanced gear. This lowers the barrier of entry for the general public and makes the sport more inviting & accessible.

Outdoor Climbing Shoes

As we’ve previously discussed, climbing outdoors is a whole new beast in itself. Climbing outdoors presents you with a multitude of new things to consider and plan for. Some major differences between indoor and outdoor climbing (which affects the need for specific shoes) are:

  • Wind vs. No Wind – climbing inside is a controlled environment in which you don’t have the concern of wind throwing you off your route. Outside, you may be impacted by swirls or large gusts, which will require you to hang on tighter to your holds.
  • Slick/Varied Surfaces vs. Controlled/Constant Surfaces – climbing holds and surfaces inside a climbing gym are specifically designed to help keep you up and on route. They are often made with the shape of your hand in mind. Outdoors, it’s simply nature in all of its glory. Nature doesn’t cater to our hand shape. You will find that you need to be able to hang on more effectively because of the inconsistencies in the holds & surfaces.
  • Short Climbs vs Long Climbs – you are somewhat limited at an indoor climbing gym, as you can only climb as high as the ceiling. Outdoors, you can often access much longer routes, which will demand grippier shoes that provide more longevity for your route.

Getting the Right Fit

When considering what climbing shoe is best for you, there are several options. Each of them have different attributes and are geared towards specific climbing types & methods. Climbing shoe fit is described as having a certain “last.” Last refers to the shape of the shoe and how it is molded. Here are the 2 different last types:

  • Board – these tend to run a bit more stiff than slip-lasted shoes. They are typically more resilient than slip-lasted shoes and provide more support, making them more comfortable to wear for long durations.
  • Slip – this type tends to be a bit more flexible and not as structured of a form

In addition, there are 3 different last shapes:

  • Asymmetric – this design is engineered to provide a climber, a strong, narrow point of contact through the big-toe portion of the shoe. This makes this design best suited for moderate or intense climbing routes.
  • Straight – also used interchangeably with the term “neutral” shoes, straight shoes are excellent for long-term wearing and comfort.
  • Downturned – this is a high-performance shape. They’re made to provide the climber maximum gripability through the feet. This will allow them to hang on better to toe and heel holds.

With all of these factors considered, you can then decide how you actually want the shoe to fit on your foot when it’s time to climb. Once again, this decision largely comes down to climbing type and personal preference. Many top-performing climbers strap their shoes on very tightly, sacrificing comfort but increasing potential for performance, posturing, precision, and grip-ability.

However, most novice to moderate climbers will be best suited finding a middle ground in which the shoe is secured tightly but not impeding blood flow. This will insure that you can climb for a while, walk around comfortably at the bottom of your route and not have to take them off due to foot pain (it’s a real thing in climbing, similar to the foot pain that ballerinas experience). This sport can be hard on the feet.

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