Barefoot rock climbing, can you do it? Should you do it?
Climbing can be a very expensive sport as opposed to many others such as running or ball sports, especially for people from low-income countries. For someone who wants to have a full set of climbing gear, you need an investment of around a thousand dollars, but even if all you want is a pair of shoes, they can be quite expensive.
So, this has led me to ask myself: Couldn’t we just climb without climbing shoes?
Can You Rock Climb Barefoot?
In the early days of humanity, there was no such thing as shoes. And yet, humans wandered anywhere and everywhere, and that must have included some climbing as well.
But nowadays we have all-purpose regular shoes and even specialized shoes for many different uses. One of these uses is rock climbing.
Right now, the widely predominant practice is to use shoes while climbing and many climbers have not even tried barefoot climbing due to all the advantages that come with shoes—which we will discuss later—but we technically have the physiological build and capabilities to rock climb barefoot.
So, answering the question, “Can you rock climb barefoot?”: Yes, barefoot rock-climbing is doable. But, “Should you do it?”: Most of the best climbers would say probably not as shoes and rock-climbing shoes were designed for a reason.
Keep on reading to find out why you should or shouldn’t wear your crushing shoes the next time you hop onto a stone face or rock-climbing wall.
Advantages of Climbing Barefoot
To be quite frank, climbing barefoot does not have many advantages over climbing with shoes that were designed specifically to enhance our capabilities as rock climbers. However, there are some aspects that could be considered advantages and we’ll list them here.
- It’s doable. I know, it’s obvious, redundant, and almost ridiculous to point out, but the fact that it’s possible to climb without any shoes has its uses. Have you ever traveled all the way to the crag just to find out you forgot to pack your shoes? Well, I have, and I know others who have as well. In that scenario, you will definitely not be able to crush at your level, but at least you can still get some easy climbs just for fun while barefoot.
- It’s cheaper. Climbing shoes can be quite expensive, and throughout your rock-climbing life, you will burn through new pairs of climbing shoes every once in a while. If you just climb using your feet, you won’t have to spend money on repairing or getting new shoes once the shoes you’re using wear out.
- It adds an extra challenge. Since using shoes makes climbing way easier, safer, and more efficient, suddenly shifting to climbing without them is an easy and quick way to add an extra challenge to your climbing.
- It’s more natural. I’m someone who really likes walking barefoot pretty much everywhere because I enjoy the feeling of touching the outside world directly with my skin rather than through my shoes. And I know I’m not the only one. Barefoot climbing, just like barefoot walking, can make you feel more connected to the earth. Living more grounded.
Here we can see Avatar Aang rock climbing barefoot to become one with nature…
Disadvantages of Climbing Barefoot
After the short list of advantages of climbing barefoot now comes the opposing view.
Advantages of Climbing Shoes
Rock climbing shoes are specifically made for climbing, so they ought to bring some nifty advantages into the mix to cater to most climbers. Some of the main advantages of shoes designed for climbing are:
- They protect the skin from the rough or even sharp rocks one encounters while rock climbing. This is the main purpose of everyday shoes, to protect the feet from the environment, but this environment can be especially harsh when rock climbing.
- They are made of rubber to increase friction with the rock, granting you a better grip that lets the shoe stick to a small ledge.
- They focus the force of the toes into a single structure, sharing strain between all toes and allowing much more force to be applied at a specific point and with extra grip in comparison to using a single toe.
- Due to their solid sturdiness, they allow you to step on small ledges that could hardly be used without the extra layer of solidity—a disadvantage when using only soft, flexible skin and flesh.
Messing Up Your Foot
We already mentioned how rock-climbing shoes protect your feet, but as it is so important, we really want to emphasize it. When you climb without shoes, you put yourself at risk of different possible injuries.
- Even in the best-case scenario, where nothing bad happens, the sharpness and roughness of the rock will hurt your feet since it is constantly being damaged, albeit in a small way.
- If your foot slips, you can lose skin, and if things go awry, you are at risk of losing a nail. And that can be incredibly painful and will end your climb for the day due to the agonizing pain of losing your entire toenail.
- You put more strain on your tendons by carrying your entire body weight on a single toe, and that can end up in tendonitis and several other long-term health problems.
- Stronger impact on a fall. Not that noticeable when bouldering, but taking a lead fall barefoot and ricocheting towards the wall can easily result in an injury if there is nothing softening the impact.
- And in the case of a very bad, unexpected fall, the foot has two main arteries (Posterior and Anterior Tibial artery) and plenty of tendons that could be severely damaged if things went wrong.
Barefoot Rock-Climbing Technique
Since rock climbing shoes alter how force is transferred from our feet to the rock, as well as protects us from damaging our feet, you will need to change your technique if you want to try barefoot climbing.
Namely, you will need to get used to using the big toe a lot, as well as the edge of the sole of your feet that’s just at the base of the big toe. This is the strongest toe and the one that will allow you to latch onto footholds more efficiently and with a lower risk of injury as opposed to the other toes.
You will also need to keep your hips in a lot more in order to position your body to use these two points of force just mentioned, as well as the sole of the heel, either for stepping or for hook holds, since they are the 3 most solid points to apply force from.
Some pockets will become available for you to insert your toe, where shoes would only fit the very edge. This is great to apply stronger force with but there is a higher risk of injury as well, so this must be done with caution.
Barefoot Climbing Alternatives
If you want to feel like you’re climbing barefoot without actually climbing barefoot, there is one main alternative that allows you to feel some of the experience.
You can use Vibram Five Fingers, which are sock-like flexible shoes where each finger is covered by a thin layer of a hard rubber material that lets you keep some of the sensitivity and flexibility of being barefoot while bringing some of the protection that shoes possess.
There are many versions of Five Fingers, focused on many different sports, but the Vibram FiveFingers Men’s V-Trail 2.0 Trail Running Shoes ( here ) would probably be the best for climbing since they are made with mountain environments in mind.
So far, we have only discussed how climbing barefoot affects you, but the truth is that barefoot climbing does affect others and these concerns should be considered.
Indoors – No Go
Barefoot climbing indoors should not be done, plain and simple. While your local climbing gym provides the safest environment where you could climb barefoot with a lower risk of harm, it is also where hygiene matters the most.
When you climb indoors, other people will be grabbing the same holds you step on, sweat on, and potentially even leave blood, bacteria, or fungi particles on. It is unhygienic, rude, and potentially a health hazard to do so, especially since there is very poor ventilation indoors as opposed to outdoors.
Anyone can have athlete’s foot or fungal nail infection and it is hard to know it. Bare feet can be pretty gross.
So please, for the sake of everyone else, DO NOT climb indoors without wearing shoes. Most climbing gyms simply won’t allow barefoot climbing, but even if it is allowed, please do not, and it will be appreciated by all of the climbing community.
Wearing Socks With Climbing Shoes
It is also worth mentioning that not only is it required to shoes while climbing indoors, it is also very common to wear socks with your climbing shoes.
It is for the same basic hygiene reasons, we all have to share!
Climbing barefoot while outdoors is a bit more acceptable than in climbing gyms since the mountain is not a man-made hygienic and safe place to climb on, which an indoor facility is meant to be. However, you should still consider others since the same thing is happening; you are leaving feet bacteria, fungi, blood, and sweat on footholds that might affect others.
And as an additional consideration, it can be seen as rude to barefoot climb something someone else is having trouble on. I do climb barefoot every once in a while and have been called out for (unintentionally) disrespecting people by climbing what others are currently struggling on, without wearing shoes.
It might not be your intention to disrespect, just as you do not mean anything bad when warming up on someone else’s project, but people can get offended by our actions and we should keep that in mind.
Famous Barefoot Climbers and Ascents
Nevertheless, while shoes make climbing much easier and efficient, there are some notorious barefoot climbers out there, both in bouldering and wall climbing. The two most known barefoot climbers out there are probably…
Vu Nguyen is a famous Vietnamese climber and he’s a guide at Asia Outdoors who mostly climbs in Cat Ba Island. He’s mostly known because he’s a strong climber that can often be found climbing without shoes.
Few people can climb 5.14, but Vu Nguyen does it on Butterfly Valley’s limestone sport routes and at many of the deep-water solo venues the island has to offer.
Charles Albert is a young French boulderer who grew up climbing around Fontainebleau. He is probably the most widely known barefoot climber in the world.
He started climbing barefoot from simply messing around with his friends, as a way of adding cool and fun challenges (such as bouldering V9 blindfolded). However, he then started climbing barefoot as his main discipline and became unbelievably good at it.
Charles has been sending impressively hard problems in Font, but he is probably most known for his ascent of No Kpote Only, a problem proposed at V17, which is currently the hardest in the bouldering world. The problem was then proposed to be downgraded to V16, but the ascent is still quite notorious and had only been climbed barefoot by Charles.
So, can you rock climb barefoot without any foot protection? Yes indeed. But even though there are a couple of very strong rock climbers out there sending some very difficult routes without any shoes on, we wouldn’t encourage you to do so. It severely hampers your climbing ability, but feel free to give it a try!
And if you decide to do so, we would strongly encourage you to practice it with caution, since a fall while climbing barefoot could cause serious damage.
Alex is a computer scientist from Mexico currently studying a PhD on cancer genomics. He is a full-time researcher, a regular weekend warrior, and someone who enjoys sharing his thoughts through writing. He first started climbing at uni, where he fell in love with the beautiful places it took him. So, he promised himself he would someday experience the beauty of climbing and nature in every continent. Nowadays, after several years with this motivation in mind, school and work have taken Alex to 4 different continents already. This has given him the opportunity to make friends all over the world, experience different cultures and their communities, as well as the chance to listen all the stories these people have to share. Alex hopes these adventures will continue for many years, and is eager to share his experiences as a wandering climber.