Rock Climbing Gear Guide: Best Approach Shoes

The approach … Some love it, some hate it. However, if you want to venture away from roadside crags and gyms, you must approach.

I say approach rather than hike because more often than not, this part of the adventure is not exactly a “hike.” Climbers trails are frequently not really trails at all, and instead, involve forging your way through fields of talus and scree, exposed 3rd or 4th class terrain, and/or countless other challenges that make climbing approaches far more technical than what your average hiking boot can handle.

So how do we choose a good piece of footwear that will get us to and fro our objectives in comfort yet with the technical performance to keep us safe? Fret not, for this guide will teach you everything you need to know about choosing the right approach shoe for any situation.

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How to fit/size an approach shoe

A common mistake when choosing an approach shoe is to size them like a climbing shoe in order to get the best performance.

While this idea may work while climbing 5th class rock, it is by no means beneficial to your feet while you are approaching. You need to keep your feet comfortable, otherwise, they will be beat up before you even start climbing.

On the other hand, sizing an approach shoe too large can make the shoe performance feel sloppy, especially when the terrain gets steeper and rockier.

When sizing an approach shoe, you want to land in the middle. Put on a mid-weight sock, not something thick, and then size the shoe so that it is comfortable but with no room for forward movement. If you’re happy with the comfort level of the shoe, then try manipulating your toes and feet in the shoe. Simulate some of the motion your feet do while hiking and climbing. If it feels like there is not enough control, then try sizing down, keeping all day comfort in mind.

Different styles and how to choose

There are several different styles of approach shoes to consider; weight, material, profile, and fit are all factors in determining the right shoe for you. For ease, recommendations are divided into the following categories:

  • Mid-weight jack-of-all-trades
  • Light and fast
  • Heavy-weight high-tops
  • Crag to town
  • Other top approach shoe picks

Mid-weight jack-of-all-trades

Five Ten Guide Tennie (men’s and women’s)

Marketed as the first shoe designed for approaches in 1985, the Guide Tennie still remains a staple amongst modern approach shoes.

The upper is all leather, giving the shoe the durability to keep you scrambling through scree or jamming up cracks. It is also very stiff and features Five Ten’s beloved C4 Stealth Rubber. This rigidity gives you plenty of support to keep comfortable on hikes and also offers incredible edging power on more technical terrain. Weighing 1.8 pounds, this is a good rugged do-it-all shoe sacrificing a little weight for added durability.

La Sportiva Boulder X (men’s and women’s)

La Sportiva’s Boulder X is an all-around shoe that’s well-suited for nearly any approach, and it has much in common with Five Ten’s Guide Tennie.

It sports a leather upper for enhanced durability and is similar in stiffness to the Five Ten’s model. The difference here is that the Vibram Idrogrip rubber that La Sportiva has outfitted this shoe with boasts good performance even in wet conditions. This makes the shoe ideal if you encounter any river crossings or mossy and wet terrain.

They have also given these shoes their high-performance EVA insoles and an impact brake sole for added comfort on long approaches. Coming in at 2lbs 2oz, this is another great all-around shoe with some extra weight, but a little more security where it matters.

Light and fast

La Sportiva TX2 (men’s and women’s)

At 1lb 3oz, the TX2 is about half the weight of the Boulder X. This shoe has a knitted polyester upper making it extremely light and compressible.

The TX2 will fit in your pack with ease or clip to a harness with the built-in combo cord around the heel. La Sportiva outfitted these with the super sticky Vibram Megagrip rubber for all-around great friction on both wet and dry terrain. The knit upper is surprisingly durable and the whole fit gives a feel that is somewhere between an approach shoe and a trail runner. The TX2 is a great shoe for any approach where speed is necessary and performance is crucial.

Scarpa Iguana

If we are talking about light, then we can’t leave out the Scarpa Iguana. This thing weighs only 9oz and is designed to be extremely collapsible.

The upper is made of a polyester mesh, not only adding to collapsibility but also making the Iguana very breathable on hot days. Scarpa uses Vibram Reptilia rubber and a toe lacing system to give the Iguanas the secure feeling of a rock shoe when laced up. These shoes are truly designed with light and fast in mind.

The heavy-weight high-tops

Five Ten Camp Four GTX Mid (men’s)

five ten camp four mix gtx

This is the shoe to handle the biggest of objectives.

It is a mid-height shoe that not only protects your ankle in cracks but also gives extra stability to help you avoid that dreaded ankle roll. With the Stealth S1 rubber and a compression molded EVA midsole, these shoes yield an amazing amount of support for carrying heavy loads. Outfitted with Gortex, the Camp Fours are extremely durable and water resistant.

If you anticipate long approaches with an extensive supply of gear, the Five Ten Camp Four GTX Mid should be a consideration to your shoe quiver.

Scarpa Zen Pro GTX Mid

Scarpa took Sock-Fit XT technology from their alpine boots and gave it to the Zen Progave it to the Zen Pro to provide a sensitive fit for when the terrain gets technical.

Scarpa also added a rigid climbing zone under the toe for edging stability and a Vibram Spyder 2 sole for a rubber that does not pick up pebbles, yet gives the same friction you’d expect from your rock shoes. Further, the Zen Pro’s Gortex liner ensure year-round water resistance.

Lastly, these shoes are extremely durable: the side leather has been reinforced to withstand even the most brutal of conditions. Coming in at 2lbs 4oz, Scarpa’s Zen Pro GTX Mids are not light. They are, however, an extremely durable and high-performance shoe optimized for long and tough alpine approaches.

Crag to town

Evolv Cruzer Classic (men’s and women’s)

evolv cruzer

The day is thankfully not always centered around long and technical approaches. Sometimes we just want to have a ten-minute hike to the crag and a quick jaunt back to town for the after-climb beer.

The Evolv Cruzers (just 8.4oz) are an everyday low-profile shoe outfitted with a Trax High Friction Sole for incredible support and friction. The cotton canvas upper keeps these shoes durable and breathable, making them stand up to everyday wear in town or abuse on approaches. On top of that, they keep you looking pretty fly wherever you may be.

Five Ten AEscent

five ten aescent approach shoe

The Five Ten AEscents are slightly less minimalist than the Cruzers (weighing in at 14oz) but are still a great crag-to-towner.

With comfort provided by an EVA mid-sole and incredible support and friction from Stealth MI6 Rubber, the AEscent will confidently conquer any terrain. The lightweight synthetic and suede upper will keep your feet cool and dry no matter how hard you are racing down the trail to civilization.

Final takeaways

Approach shoes are an often overlooked piece of climbing gear; however, this does not make them any less crucial than the packs on our backs or the gear inside them.

They provide our feet with protection and give us the frictional confidence akin to that of our climbing shoes. We are able to safely access a much greater area with comfortable and supportive sticky rubber under our feet. Approach shoes inspire confidence and that is exactly how every climbing session should begin.


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