WHEN GEARING UP for the gym, there's no decision you'll agonize over more than your choice of climbing shoe. And we do mean agonize. For optimal performance, a rock shoe must fit as snugly as shrink-wrap on a pork loin. The seal should cup the Achilles tendon firmly, bracing the heel while buckling the ball of your foot up and torquing your toes down. This contortion keeps your foot compact and stiff, enabling you to exploit minute variations in the climbing wall without twisting off the hold. Unfortunately, it feels only slightly better than wedging your dogs into a wood chipper.
To get the effect you want, request shoes at least one to one and a half sizes below that of your streetwear. Beginners, however, get a small break: Until the muscles of your feet have been strengthened by six months of regular climbing, you need to avoid cramp-inducing slip-ons with newspaper-thin soles, and instead go with an inexpensive lace-up with a stiffer, more supportive mold. For experienced climbers, the range of options is huge. There are shoes with Velcro closure systems, shoes with stretch-neoprene openings, and shoes with nylon midsole stiffeners to increase edge-holding power without losing flexibility.
Whether you're a novice in the market for inexpensive lace-up support, or a veteran looking for the new steep-climbing sensation, the ten shoes we've reviewed will get you up and down the wall with aplomb. Just remember: Rock shoes are gear, not bedroom slippers. If they feel comfy in the store, they'll be worthless on the wall.
La Sportiva, Cliff
($100; 303-443-8710; www.sportiva.com)
Testing your climbing prowess for the first time? The Cliff's thick Vibram bottom and suede upper offer enough support to let you stand on the tiniest of edges without yelping in pain. Built with a strip of flexible material along the eyelets that prevents the upper from overstretching—a common problem for heavier climbers—the slim midsole and low-cut heel provide the flexibility and dexterity you need to maneuver your toesin awkward places. The Cliff's relatively low-volume fit, however, makes it a bad choice for those with high insteps.
Lighter climbers should try Boreal's Diablo ($108; 949-498-1011 ). More flexible than the Cliff, the Diablo boasts a relatively supple fiberboard midsole and a forgiving upper fashioned from split-hide leather. The Diablo's sensitive sole is better at molding to the shapes of footholds, and it grips well when smearing (using friction with the ball of the foot to gain purchase).
Intermediate to Advanced
Red Chili, Dos Equis
($125; 603-356-5590; www.redchili.de)
Between climbs at the gym, you'll find yourself standing around belaying a friend, eyeing new routes, or chatting up an attractive visitor in skintight Lycra (we strongly advise against attempting all three at the same time). In any case, you'll have trouble concentrating (read: workin' it) when your feet are trussed up in agony—that's where the Dos Equis from Red Chili comes in. For instant relief, simply peel back the Velcro closure tabs and whip off the shoe. The Dos Equis, which is especially suitable for wide feet, also features a soft nylon midsole—for additional forefoot support when you're perched on a wafer-thin edge. Although pliant enough for smearing, the Dos Equis has ample strength to support intermediate climbers balancing on even the tiniest of divots.
For a narrower-fitting Velcro shoe with similar performance, think La Sportiva's Mistral ($140; 303-443-8710; www.sportiva.com). Though expensive, the Mistral creates a lock-tight fit with a flexible synthetic leather lining arranged in a patchwork pattern on the back half of the shoe.
($100; 801-278-5552; www.bdel.com)
Designed for advanced climbers, the Minima is an excellent choice for training and bouldering. To don this skintight slipper for the first time, though, you'll need to intern with a Chinese foot binder. Step one: Ram your thumbs under the elastic tongue while jamming your toes forward and plopping your Achilles into the heel cup. Step two: Wince. Give it time, though. In two weeks the leather will stretch a bit, and you'll be yanking it on and off like a sock. The Minima handles everything but the most painful heel-lockers dreamed up by sadistic route setters.
For another high-performance slipper, check out the Terabyte from Climbingshoes.com ($80; 888-899-7625; www.climbingshoes.com. This narrow shoe edges as well as the Minima, but is available only by mail order, phone, or via the Internet—an arrangement the Massachusetts-based company uses to keep down costs.
Five Ten, Women's Zlipper
($112; 909-798-4222; www.fiveten.com)
Women constitute 32 percent of the rock-climbing scene. In the early years, women enduring the loose-fitting heels and painfully high, Achilles-digging support typical of men's models was the norm. No more: Designed for the slimmer female foot, the narrow Zlipper has an amplified instep and a smaller heel cup. The Zlipper also has a zipper—it's the only climbing shoe that does—allowing for quick relief. (A strip of Lycra prevents the zipper from riding next to your skin.) And thanks to a narrow fiberboard midsole curving under the toes, the shoe stands up on edges with ease.
The Zlipper is also available in a men's version, which has all the performance of the women's, plus a synthetic leather upper that resists stretching. Both shoes have soles made with Stealth, Five Ten's proprietary sticky rubber.
Call it a surgical glove for your foot: Unlined, with an ultrathin, three-millimeter sole of sticky rubber, the Matrix is as supple as a climbing shoe can get. Grab and pull with your feet on severely overhanging gym routes, or ram your toes into crevices like a second set of fingers. The synthetic leather upper is comfortable, yet doesn't stretch much over time. The same sensitivity that works so well on overhanging artificial caves, however, can make the shoe unbearable on the small, sharp edges of an outdoor rock face.
If you're the kind who'd climb in bare feet if not for bloody toes, La Sportiva's Mantra ($136; 303-443-8710; www.sportiva.com) is the answer. This synthetic-leather, slip-on shoe has an elastic, heel-wrapping rand that secures your foot lengthwise. The two-millimeter rubber sole is the thinnest on the market, offering an all but imaginary line of protection between your feet and the wall. It's like dipping your feet in rubber.