Whether it’s your first time or your seventeenth, getting a new pair of rock climbing shoes is super exciting.
You might catch yourself admiring the fresh, shiny rubber and clean, brightly colored material every time…
Unfortunately, such excitement fades fast once you try to slip them on your feet.
The experience of wearing a fresh pair can be best described as rigid and unforgiving.
Like jumping into a pool of cool water, it’s shocking at first but your body will soon acclimate.
The nice thing about new climbing shoes is they also acclimate to you! As you break them in with use over time, they will stretch and gain flexibility – becoming more comfortable as a result.
Thankfully, there are several ways to expedite this process; and finding the right size is the first step.
How Should Your Climbing Shoes Fit?
If your climbing shoes fit it wrong, then it will be impossible to ever feel good wearing them. You can even cause long-lasting damage to your feet with prolonged use.
It is very unlikely that your climbing shoe size will be the same as your regular shoe size. This is because they are designed to fit your feet in different ways.
Climbing shoes that fit correctly should fit tight.
If you’re climbing at more advanced levels, this is especially important. The looser the climbing shoe, the less sensitivity and precision you’ll have with your footwork on routes.
How Tight Should Climbing Shoes Be?
Having your toes right against the front of the shoe but still having the ability to gently curl your toes is how it should fit. Shoes should also be snug all around, which is important for maximizing control. You need to be able to feel and balance on those dime-sized edges!
Combined with the stiffness that comes with a fresh pair of shoes, a properly tight fit will feel less-than-comfortable at first.
However, they should never ever be painful.
If they are painful, you should get a larger shoe size, or try out a different pair or brand.
Every climbing shoe brand is different, and some are better for wider feet than others.
Never trust that your size and experience with one shoe will be the same for another – even if they’re made by the same company.
Our best advice: Any time you look to buy a new pair, consider trying them on at your local outdoor store (or climbing gym if they sell gear).
Another option is to online order 2-3 pairs in different sizes, and return the ones that don’t work out.
Once you’ve found the right pair of climbing shoes, it’s time to start breaking them in so they can feel even better on your feet.
If they fit just right, you might not even need to do much at all besides relax their rigidity.
They might even feel great after just one single climbing session.
Breaking In Synthetic vs Natural Leather Climbing Shoes
The type of material a shoe’s upper is made with will affect how you should size them and how long it takes to break them in.
The upper is the non-rubber material covering the top and sides of the shoe. You cannot stretch the shoe rubber, but you can stretch the upper.
Leather uppers stretch anywhere from a half to 1.5 times their original size.
Unlined leather also stretches more than lined leather.
This is why many people will choose a smaller size (aka “downsize”) when shopping for leather shoes: they will stretch to the perfect snug fit and not become too big.
Downsizing leather shoes is an art of its own. If you want to learn how to downsize without going too far, check out our definitive guide on intermediate climbing shoes.
Alternatively, synthetic uppers stretch very little. Avoid downsizing (no more than a half size) if you go with a synthetic option.
When you size your synthetic shoes to fit your feet perfectly right out of the box, you won’t need to put in a bunch of effort to make them feel more comfortable.
However, they will never feel 100% great – no matter if they’re sized right. You will still need to work out the stiffness of the fresh material.
Believe it or not, wrapping your feet in plastic wrap for the first couple of wears can make this experience more pleasant.
Breaking In Very Aggressive Climbing Shoes
Climbing shoes fall on a spectrum between neutral, intermediate, and aggressive.
This spectrum denotes the degree of downturn that a shoe has.
The greater the shoe arches downward towards the toes, the higher its performance on overhanging and challenging terrain.
More aggressive shoes tend to be less “comfortable” overall than neutral shoes.
This is because they force your feet into an unnatural position. To preserve their shape and sensitivity, they also tend to be stiffer.
As a result, an aggressive shoe may take longer to break-in and just to get used to in general.
But you also don’t want to break them in too much, because you want to preserve their shape.
You might end up needing to repeat one of the following techniques more than once to reach the right fit.
But don’t take it too far; at a certain point, you’ll need to accept that aggressive shoes are not meant to feel like slippers or be worn for long periods.
How to Break in Climbing Shoes: The Methods
You can naturally break in climbing shoes by simply climbing in them… Your warm, sweaty feet will inevitably cause some stretching.
That being said, this process can take a very long time – from weeks to months – and can give you a lot of painful blisters.
But it doesn’t have to!
Learn how to break in climbing shoes using one of the following methods and you might end up with a perfect fitting pair faster than you think.
Using Plastic Wrap To Stretch Climbing Shoes
Plastic wrap is your best friend.
Much of the initial discomfort of new shoes is caused by the friction between your bare feet and their unworn, rigid material.
You can eliminate such friction by wrapping your feet in saran wrap or wear a plastic bag on each foot like socks for the first couple of times you wear new shoes (while relaxing, walking around the house, or climbing).
This is a great way to mold them to your feet and reduce their stiffness without experiencing any pain.
But, if you downsized and need even more room for your feet, consider the other options listed below.
Stretching Shoes With Ice
This is one of the slower methods (but it is still faster than strictly climbing in them):
- Empty the shoes of any paper stuffing, tags, stickers, etc. provided in the packaging.
- Pour enough water into two Zip Lock bags so that they are close in size to your feet. Make sure they are closed nice and tight!
- Slip a water bag into each shoe, then tighten and tie their laces with mild tension.
- Leave them in a freezer overnight.
- The next morning, pull them out and wait for them to thaw. Do not remove the bags until the water inside is no longer frozen.
If you’ve ever tried to chill a glass-bottled drink in the freezer and accidentally left it in there for too long, then you may know a thing or two about the science behind this method:
When liquids are frozen, they expand.
In this case, the water in the bags will expand into each shoe and force them to stretch. Kind of like one big, relentless ice foot.
You may have to go through multiple icing sessions to stretch the shoes big enough to feel good on your toes.
Stretching With Rubbing Alcohol
If you have purchased a pair of climbing shoes with leather uppers, consider using rubbing alcohol.
No – not the kind for drinking!
Alcohol loosens the leather fibers, making the upper fabric more malleable and thus easier to stretch.
- Use a cotton ball or spray bottle to apply rubbing alcohol directly to the leather upper (not the rubber).
- Even though they will be wet, put the shoes on and wear them until they are dry. Alcohol dries very quickly.
The shoes should be roomier – but if they do not break in enough, you can also try using another method.
Stretching Shoes With Hair Dryer
Heat also makes climbing shoes more malleable.
That is why climbing alone can gradually cause them to become roomier – because your feet get hot, swollen, and sweaty while training on the wall.
However, even your exercising feet can’t beat the heat of a blow dryer.
Whenever you are done adding some volume to your sweet locks, take some time to use the blow dryer on your climbing shoes:
- Before starting, heavily stuff the shoes with things like socks and your evil roommate’s favorite band t-shirts.
- Turn on the dryer, hold it several inches to a foot away from the shoes, and direct it towards their fabric uppers.
- Occasionally flex and bend each shoe as they’re heating up.
- Once they are nice and toasty, turn off the dryer and remove whatever things you stuffed the shoes with.
- Put the shoes on and wear them around until they cool off. This step is important, because the heat will cause them to mold to the shape of your foot better.
As with the ice, you may need to repeat this process numerous times to achieve the desired results.
Warning: Avoid blowing hot air on the shoe rubber – this could cause the shoe rubber to delaminate!
Hot Water/Taking a Shower
Sometimes, you love your new climbing shoes so much that you just want to admire them all the time – even in the shower!
But, taking your shoes with you into the washroom is actually a fast and effective way of breaking them in. It might even be the fastest method of them all.
- Put on your climbing shoes and make sure the closure is secured nice and snug.
- Turn on the hot water in your shower, and step in there. If you have a bathtub and don’t feel like getting your whole body wet, you can also sit on the edge of the tub and rest your feet under the faucet.
- Hang out under the water for 5-10 minutes, making sure your shoes get soaked. Be sure to wiggle your toes, bend and flex your foot every once in a while.
- Step out of the shower with your shoes still on, and walk around in them for a while; ideally for half an hour.
- If you can go to the climbing gym right afterwards, climb in the shoes while they are still damp.
- Once you take them off , stuff them with socks or newspaper until they dry out.
If you decide to try this method, be wary: your climbing shoes might bleed their color dye when wet. This is not a bad thing in general, but can be if you walk over carpet or fabric items during step four…
Benefits Of Buying A Used Pair of Climbing Shoes
Re-using climbing shoes is not only better for the environment and your wallet, it can also be better for your feet!
Used climbing shoes are often already broken in, so you won’t need to force your toes to go through the torturous process of dealing with a new pair.
Although you might be a squeamish person when it comes to wearing the same shoes that someone else’s stinky feet were in, rest assured, they can be washed and disinfected.
As long as the sole’s rubber is in good shape (and shoes can be resoled), then you can get plenty of performance out of a used pair.
How to Buy Climbing Shoes in the Correct Size
Now, if you do decide to buy your own pair instead, here’s some key points to keep in mind.
First thing to note: your street shoe size will be different to your climbing shoe size. Try out shoes that are a size or two below your normal shoe size and go from there.
For the fit, make sure it’s nice and snug all around, from toe to heel, but not painful. It can be uncomfortable at first though, and that’s normal because the material is still stiff. Also, if your shoe is difficult to slip on, it might be that the size is too tight.
Second: know which upper material you want for your shoe, because this will hugely affect the size you buy.
- If you choose a synthetic upper, then be sure to get a pair that already fits quite snug and well to your feet. Don’t worry if it’s stiff at first – that’s normal for a brand-new pair if it hasn’t been broken in yet.
- For a leather upper shoe, you should downsize from a half to a whole size for your correct size. This is because leather will stretch significantly more and will mold to your feet once broken in.
We do highly recommend trying out shoes at your local outdoor store or climbing gym, if they sell gear, because many brands will differ in sizing, design, and fit, even between a brand’s own products.
This way, it gives you a better idea of what suits your feet best, ultimately maximizing your climbing ability.
Importance of Choosing the Correct Shoe Size
No climber wants a loose pair of shoes that’ll hinder their performance on the rock. And on the other hand, no one likes climbing for long periods while stuck with uncomfortably tight shoes.
Taking the time, putting in some effort and considering your choices carefully will pay off greatly when you get to climb with comfort and a better performance, with a pair of shoes that’ll give you both sensitivity and control.
Frequently Asked Questions
How To Break in Climbing Shoes Fast?
You can always break in your climbing shoes by simply climbing in them. However, using the above listed methods can help break them in faster.
You may have to repeat a method multiple times and put forth a little more effort, but doing so might be worth the reduction of discomfort.
How Long Does it Take to Break in Climbing Shoes?
How long it takes depends on shoe material, how much you downsize, and what method you use. Synthetic shoes take a couple climbing sessions. Leather shoes stretch more and take longer.
The climbing-only break in method takes from weeks to months. Although, you can break them in much faster with the other methods in the article.
How Many Days to Break in Climbing Shoes?
If you’re using the methods in this article, it can take several days to a week with a few repetitions to break in those climbing shoes. The amount of days will also depend on which shoes you have and the method you choose.
Using the climbing-only break in method may take anywhere from weeks to months.
How to Break in Climbing Shoes Hot Water?
To break in climbing shoes with hot water, take a hot shower in them or sit on the edge of a tub and rest your shoes under the faucet, with the closure tight. Stay under the shower for 5-10 mins, flexing your feet now and then.
Get out and walk around with the shoes on for half-an-hour. Take them off and stuff with socks or newspaper. Wait until they dry out.
Instead of Using a Hair Dryer or Hot Water, Could I Microwave or Put My Climbing Shoes in the Oven?
If you want to break in your shoes, do NOT: bake them in the oven, leave them in a hot car, or place in direct sunlight. Prolonged heat exposure can cause them to shrink. Sometimes, this might also cause the rubber quality to worsen. Microwaves are a big no; they can cause the rubber to melt and release toxic chemicals.
Can You Shrink Climbing Shoes?
Yes you can shrink climbing shoes, but note that synthetics will not shrink much. These methods work more on leather.
- Wash them, then air dry. Do not wear until completely dry. More of a temporary fix and may need to be re-shrunk again in the future.
- Keep in the sun. It’ll shrink the leather if left out long enough, but there’s the risk of the rubber quality worsening from overexposure.
Alternatively, you could wear socks to fill in gaps.
How to Break in Scarpa Climbing Shoes?
Breaking in Scarpa climbing shoes is different for each product because some are entirely leather while others are synthetic, and some are mixed.
If you have a leather pair, you can use the methods in this article, but synthetics won’t require much to be broken in and can be done after a few climbing sessions.
How to Break in Python Climbing Shoes?
Breaking in the La Sportiva Python is necessary as it’s made from unlined suede leather, which stretches a lot! You can use the usual method of climbing to break them in or use one of the methods above for a faster process.
Make sure to downsize one size to get the correct fit when stretched.
How to Break in Climbing Shoes TC Pro?
Breaking in the TC Pro requires more effort and time because of the way its constructed to be stiffer. However, their leather will accommodate most foot shapes as it stretches.
We recommend using one of the methods above rather than breaking it in naturally, as it’ll take longer and be an uncomfortable experience in the process.
Are Climbing Shoes Supposed to Be Comfortable?
Climbing shoes are meant to be comfortable after broken in. Although, they’ll tend to be a bit stiff and uncomfortable at first. They should not be painful, however, and can mean you’ve gotten a size too small. The only exception to these points is for shoes with an aggressive downturn – uncomfortable because of the way they’re shaped. (1), (2)
Melissa is a full time van-living outdoor enthusiast hailed from Florida. After deciding to spend her freshman summer of college living out of a tent to work and climb in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky, her life changed forever. She found her way to El Potrero Chico, Mexico in the winters, where she fell in love with travel and community. Post-graduation, she drove from Florida to Alaska to experience its world-class backpacking, then worked her way back south to explore climbing spots throughout the western U.S.
Meeting countless amazing people, hearing their stories, and learning the histories and struggles of local areas through minimalist travel, climbing, and hiking has inspired her to share these experiences with others. Her passions include improving intersectional access to the outdoors and responsible environmental stewardship.