Well-fitting climbing shoes are an essential item in the climber’s toolkit. However, the perfect pair of climbing shoes don’t just come about spontaneously. Historically, it has taken climbers many days of uncomfortable and even painful breaking-in before a set of climbing shoes fits perfectly. In this guide, we’ll go over all the steps you can take when learning how to break in climbing shoes.
How Should Climbing Shoes Fit?
For years, rock climbers and other climbers have believed that rock-climbing shoes should fit uncomfortably tightly. In recent years, we have started to discover that this punishing fit isn’t essential, but it’s still traditional for climbers to purchase tight-fitting shoes and stretch them out for weeks.
If you’re looking to getting into rock climbing, but have heard that you need to purchase shoes that fit uncomfortably small, don’t listen! While your footwear needs to conform to your foot and fit snugly, buying footwear that’s too small is a recipe for foot problems down the road.
In the end, there’s little difference between buying a pair of well-fitting climbing shoes and stretching a pair of too-small shoes anyway – the only difference is that one will hurt more than the other.
To make matters even more confusing, the climbing that you’re wearing your shoes for makes a difference, too. If you’re wearing your shoes for bouldering, for example, they should fit differently than they would for another type of climbing activity.
Any fitting expert at a store that sells climbing shoes should be able to educate you on your proper fit, but it’s always good to do your research before heading out there, too.
Should I Stretch My Shoes?
Whether or not you should stretch your climbing shoes is not an easy question to answer. However, the essential thing is that you know how to break in climbing shoes in a safe, productive way. If you attempt to stretch your shoes in a way that’s not advisable or safe, you could end up doing more harm than good to your shoes or your feet.
In any case, you will need to decide for yourself whether your shoes need stretching or not. Some scenarios that may warrant extending your shoes include:
- You determine that your shoes are too small, but you can no longer return them
- You find out that one of your feet is larger or smaller than the other, and thus, it fits into one shoe differently
- Different types of climbing shoes (i.e., unlined vs. lined) stretch differently over time and may require pre-stretching
How to Break in Climbing Shoes (Safely)
Knowing how to break in climbing shoes is essential, but knowing how to do it safely is even more critical. As with anything on the internet today, there is a wide variety of methods available for stretching your climbing shoes, but not every way is ideal for every situation. In this section, we’ll go over the various techniques so that you can decide which one is best for you.
Take a Shower
Believe it or not, taking a shower with your shoes on is the most popular (and most recommended) method of stretching your new climbing shoes. To start, put on a thick pair of socks – as thick as you can fit underneath your climbing shoes. Then, put your climbing shoes on, take a hot shower with them on your feet, and walk around the house in them until they dry off. It’s an uncomfortable method of stretching your shoes, but it’s widely considered the best.
Once you’ve worn your shoes for as long as you can stand, take them off and stuff them with newspaper. The paper will absorb the water still left in your shoes while also maintaining their new shape. The next day, take your shoes to your favorite climbing spot, even if they’re not fully dry yet. This will help them mold even more effectively to your feet.
You may need to repeat this process once or twice before your shoes acquire the fit that you’re looking for.
Use a Hair Dryer
A hairdryer can give your shoes a quick stretch in a pinch, but it’s not the most effective method to use. If you need a bit of stretch on your shoes yesterday, the hairdryer method is the way to go! Start by stuffing your footwear full of several pairs of socks to start the stretching process. Next, pass your hairdryer over them for about a minute on its medium setting.
Be careful not to use the hottest setting, as this could potentially damage your shoes. Check to make sure your footwear is warm to the touch after about a minute. If they’re not yet warm, do this for another minute, and so on. When your shoe is warm to the touch, pack even more socks into it – it should stretch slightly more than before.
Once your shoes have cooled down, remove the socks and check the fit. If you need even more of a stretch, you can repeat this process as long as you’re careful not to damage the material of your shoes.
Freeze Your Shoes
While freezing your shoes might, at first, seem like a counterproductive measure, several critical properties of water make it an excellent way to stretch them evenly. These properties are:
- Water expands as it freezes
- Water moves to fill its vessel evenly
- Water can freeze and thaw to make inserting and removing it easy
Even though most things tend to contract as they freeze, water doesn’t! This means that you can use water’s expanding properties to stretch your shoe comfortably and effortlessly, and you don’t need to get your feet wet, either!
To begin, fill two large plastic bags with water. It may take a bit of trial and error to fill them with enough water to fill (but not over-fill) your shoes. Once you have the right amount, squeeze any excess air out of the bags, then seal them tightly. You may want to double-seal them with tape or adhesive to make sure they do not open during this process.
Next, insert the bags into your shoes, making sure that they’re full enough to fill any gaps, especially the toes. Next, place your shoes, bags and all, into the freezer. Leave them there for about eight hours, but not more than twelve, as too much time can risk damaging your shoes.
After eight hours have passed, remove your shoes from the freezer and let everything thaw. Try to remove the ice and water bags from your shoes as soon as possible, as you don’t want your shoes to get too wet from condensation. You’ll most likely need to wait a few minutes for the ice bags to thaw before they’ll come out of your shoes.
You’ll need to let the shoes themselves thaw for a few hours after removing the ice bags, too. Resist the urge to put them on when they’re still cold, as you could risk snapping or cracking any fibers made brittle by the freezing process. Once your shoes feel warm to the touch, remove them and try out their new fit. You can repeat this process as needed, too, but be careful not to do it too many times, as repeated freezing can dry or damage your shoes.
Wear Your Shoes
The safest, most natural way to stretch out a pair of tight climbing shoes is to wear them often. Because climbing shoes can cause a lot of discomforts, we recommend doing this in short spurts and removing them often when you get a break. Causing permanent damage to your feet in the process of stretching your shoes is something we all want to avoid.
If you can, take the time to transition between your old climbing shoes and your new ones slowly. For example, if you’re at your favorite climbing location, do one climb in your new shoes, then wear your old ones for the next, and so on. This way, you’ll work on breaking in your new shoes without making your feet feel miserable in the process.
Wearing your shoes around the house is another excellent way to break them in gently. Try putting your climbing shoes on while doing things like:
- Grocery shopping
- Household chores
- Working at your desk or computer
- Walking the dog
Health Issues of Tight Climbing Shoes
Unfortunately, there is a pervasive old-school mentality when it comes to climbing shoes that tighter is better. While it’s essential to have well-fitting footwear to be able to climb correctly, there is a line to be aware of, too. Shoes that suffocate or disfigure your feet aren’t helpful for climbing; on the contrary, the pain of wearing them may end up distracting you more as you climb, leading to accidents or unpleasant experiences.
Instead of fighting with a small pair of shoes to stretch them out, it’s always better to buy a pair that fits you correctly in the first place. If you’re not sure how to find a shoe with the right fit, look for someone who’s experienced with fitting climbing shoes to help you. This could be a colleague, a worker at a shoe store, or an instructor.
Climbing shoes that are too small don’t just cause persistent pain, blisters, and soreness. They can cause long-term health issues, also, such as:
- Hallux Valgus (or bunions)
- Acute or chronic pain
- Nerve or blood vessel compression
- Ingrown toenails
Overly-tight shoes can even result in foot disfigurement if left unchecked. If you need more proof of the harmful effects that tight conditions can have on feet, look at the practice of foot binding in Chinese history. In this practice, women’s feet were bound and prevented from growing, resulting in permanent disfigurement and life-long pain.
Read Also: How to Clean Climbing Shoes
Bunions occur when the alignment of your toes becomes skewed at the base. While the most common form of bunions, or Hallux Valgus, is when the big toe becomes pointed inward toward the other toes, it can happen at the pinky toe, too.
Hallux Valgus and all bunions are entirely progressive. They only come about from years of wearing tight or improperly-fitting shoes. It’s possible to correct a bunion that’s just forming by wearing better shoes or adding orthotics to your footwear.
Bunions can develop alongside a host of other unpleasant symptoms, too. More often than not, red, painful sores appear on the misaligned joint because of its tendency to protrude. The joint itself can become inflamed and painful, too, if left unchecked.
Corns are a type of callus that tend to develop in painful, blistered areas of the feet. Corns tend to hurt when touched, and they’re usually found on tender areas of the feet, such as on or between toes. A corn and a callus are not the same; one develops over time and is not painful, while the other tends to develop from repeated, painful friction over a short period.
Corns typically aren’t any reason for alarm. However, the presence of corns does mean that your shoes fit improperly. They can become inflamed or infected if you don’t treat them right away. Wearing comfortable socks is an excellent way to prevent the formation of corns, but make sure not to wear socks that slip or cause friction, as these can make the problem worse.
Hammertoes happen when your toes curl into a shoe that’s too small for them. If they stay in this position for long enough, your toes could keep this curled position even when you take your shoes off. Hammertoe generally happens at the second joint; when your toes end up curled at the first joint, they’re called “mallet toes” instead.
While hammertoes and mallet toes generally won’t affect your quality of life in any significant way, they can sometimes be painful, especially when wearing shoes. This is doubly true if your curled toes rub against your excellent as you walk, resulting in blisters or sores. If enough of your toes become curled, they may eventually affect your ability to walk correctly.
As anyone who wears too-tight shoes knows, keeping them on for too long often results in sore feet at the end of the day. While most climbers expect sore feet after a long day of climbing, a shoe that fits too tightly will make this pain much worse than it needs to be.
Any shoe that alters the way you naturally walk will result in foot pain. If you’ve worn high heels before, as most women have, you’d be familiar with this phenomenon. While wearing the uncomfortable shoes enough will eventually get your body used to the feeling and sensation, that doesn’t mean that your feet are in a healthy state.
If you wear too-tight climbing shoes for much of your life, you may end up with chronic, recurring pain, especially if you end up disfiguring your feet over time. Many climbers who wear overly-tight shoes end up losing a shoe size or two over time. While some climbers might even brag about this, this is not good for your feet!
Over time, compressing your feet in too-small shoes can end up squeezing the inner workings of your feet, too. This can affect your bones, skin, and muscles, of course, but it can affect your blood vessels and nerves in subtle ways, also. Compressed feet can result in pinched nerves that cause chronic pain, and compressed blood vessels can result in foot tingling and loss of sensation.
A Morton’s Neuroma is a thickening of the sheath around nerves that can result in loss of sensation, pin-prick pain, and even the feeling of a lump in the ball of the foot. This neuroma comes about when the nerves between the bones of your feet become compressed or rubbed to the point of irritation.
Ingrown toenails happen when your toenail grows into the flesh of your toe, resulting in redness, discomfort, swelling, and sometimes infection. While ingrown toenails are unpleasant and painful, they’re generally not a problem if you take care of them quickly. Most ingrown toenails won’t even require a doctor’s visit, assuming you remove them and take proper steps to prevent them from happening again.
Shoes that fit too tightly can push your toenails down, encouraging them to grow into the fleshy, sensitive skin of your feet. Generally, good nail-cutting habits are enough to prevent or take care of ingrown toenails, but if your footwear doesn’t fit properly, you will still be at risk.
Ingrown toenails generally affect your big toe most, but they can rarely happen on any toe. If you wear tight climbing shoes, be sure to stay vigilant for any signs of infection or discomfort around your toenails.
Gone are the days of needing to bind your feet into torturously-small shoes to be a good climber. The previous generations of climbers are there to tell us that torturing your feet isn’t necessary (if logic couldn’t tell you first). As such, while any shoe will have a “break-in” period, don’t make it one that puts your feet through hell in the process.