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 that 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 don’t fit right, 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.
Having your toes right against the front of the shoe is also 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 more stiff.
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, and 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.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Can I Break in My Climbing Shoes Faster?
You can always break in your climbing shoes by simply climbing in them.
However, using the above listed methods can help you 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?
It depends on the shoe material, how much you downsize them, and what method you use.
Synthetic shoes don’t stretch much, so you want to buy them at the ideal fit. Thus, breaking them in (reducing their stiffness) will only take a couple climbing sessions.
Leather shoes, alternatively, should be downsized. Breaking them in will become more of a challenge because they will need to be stretched out further.
If you plan to stick with a climbing-only break in method, expect it to take anywhere from weeks to months.
If you use the other methods listed in this article, you will be able to break them in much faster. Depending on which one you choose, it might take a few repetitions to get the fit just right.
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 them out in direct sunlight.
Prolonged heat exposure can actually cause them to shrink. Sometimes this might also cause the rubber quality to worsen.
Microwaves are also a huge no-no, as it can cause the rubber to melt and release toxic chemicals.
For further reading see: “How to Clean Climbing Shoes: Ultimate Guide” and “Best Bouldering Shoes For Beginners: The Ultimate Guide”
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.