You’ve been rock climbing for a while and one day, you hear about “smearing” but you aren’t completely sure what it means and what you do, exactly. Well then, this one’s for you!
Here, we’ll go into everything you need to know about this foot technique, how to do it, what the common mistakes are, and most importantly, why it’s such an essential skill in climbing!
Let’s get right into it.
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What Is Smearing In Rock Climbing?
Smearing describes a specific rock climbing foot technique that uses the friction between the sole of your shoe and the rock or climbing wall.
You achieve this friction by pushing your feet directly into the wall, using it as a foothold via the friction you create with your weight. This way, you can climb up a seemingly smooth piece of rock or wall with no real holds.
Technique VS Muscle
You won’t need a lot of strength to smear, as this rock climbing technique relies more on technique and balance than brute force.
What’s more, discovering the smearing technique and how to use the blank space in between obvious holds will really open up a whole new world of rock climbing to you and give you many more possibilities on whatever route you’re climbing.
When Do You Smear While Climbing?
You can smear in a lot of different scenarios, but it is a climbing technique most commonly used in slab climbing.
This type of rock climbing is done on a less-than-vertical wall and is also called friction climbing because it relies so heavily on your footwork and the friction you create between the rubber of your climbing shoes and the rock beneath you.
The smearing technique is easiest on a rough and sticky type of rock, like coarse granite or sandstone. It can also be done on vertical or overhanging walls, however, it is more challenging.
Because smearing is a climbing technique that is all about body position and the angle at which your foot pushes against the rock, you can also use it on a vertical climb, but it is a bit more difficult in that situation.
Overall, it’s a very important climbing technique that serves you especially well when climbing outdoors on a route with little footholds or where they’re far apart.
For those perhaps a little unsure, slab climbing is classified as any rock face that has an angle of less than 90 degrees, so it is less steep than a vertical wall. As you might image, it is very common to use smears while slab climbing.
Rock Climbing Smearing Technique
Smearing is more about technique than muscle, and these are the most important things you need when applying the smearing technique:
- Good sense of balance
- Precise foot placement
- Mental strength, trust in your feet
- Clean shoes
Because smearing doesn’t rely on pure strength, it’s a climbing technique that even beginners should learn early on, as it can really broaden your climbing horizons and enable you to climb a greater variety of routes with ease.
How To Improve Your Climbing Smearing Technique
Now, to smear properly, you need to push your foot perpendicular to the wall and put weight on it to create friction. Make sure your shoes are clean to help stick even better and remember that your whole body needs to be in the correct position so you can generate pressure in the right direction.
Here are some other important things to keep in mind while smearing:
- Foot angle: maximize the contact surface between the soles of your shoe and the rock by pointing your shoes directly towards the rock and pushing inwards, pulling the heel down to keep your foot active
- Weight and confidence: confidently step to where you want to place your foot and leave it there. Wriggling and moving your foot increases the risk of slipping as it reduces friction.
- Body position and balance: keep your weight directly above your feet to have maximum pressure on the balls of your feet and create more friction
- Steady pressure and strong core: apply pressure steadily while you move through this movement to keep your foot stable and engage your core for more balance
- Move fast: when you are leaving the smearing position, take your foot away in one brisk and confident movement. Taking it away slowly and hesitantly can cause you to slip
- The right shoes: make sure you wear a flat shoe with a sticky rubber bottom to make smearing even easier
Sounds simple enough, right? The most difficult thing when you are starting to smear is to believe that it will actually work. It takes some time to get used to the sensation of the shoe just sticking to the wall.
The thing is that, if you’re hesitant, you probably will slip because you’re not putting enough weight on your foot. So be confident and push down on the balls of your feet, and you’ll be surprised by how well it works.
Smearing Tips For Beginners and Advanced Climbers
If you’re new to climbing and haven’t done a lot of smearing, try to slowly introduce it on climbs you have done before and experiment with the range of your foot and at what angle it sticks best.
Here are some more great tips to successfully smear:
- Don’t twist your foot, but instead keep your heel and toes in a line to exert maximum pressure on the front of your foot where the soles of your shoes are in contact with the rock
- Look for small irregularities and wrinkles in the rock before you place your foot, and make sure to place it with confidence and leave it where you stepped
- It’s better to do several small smears than one big dynamic movement, as this makes it more difficult to control the shift of your weight from one foot to the next
- Keep your feet about as wide as your shoulders to have better balance
- The steeper the wall, the more pressure you will need. So it might be scary, but leaning your hips further away from the wall will actually make you more stable, as it makes it easier to put pressure on your feet
Now you know how to smear and how to improve your technique! In the next section, we’ll talk about the most common mistakes while smearing, and maybe you’ll find out why you haven’t had a lot of success with this technique so far.
Common Smearing Mistakes
Here’s the truth – smearing is all about confidence. But how do you gain confidence if you’ve never done it before? Well, that’s kind of the catch 22 of smearing because the more insecure you are, the more likely you are to slip.
So, remember the physics behind it: pushing the rubber sole directly into the rock and applying pressure creates friction, which makes you stick to the wall. It’s science!
Another important factor is to keep your shoes nice and clean. Make sure to wash them with soap and water on a regular basis to keep them nice and sticky.
However, using aggressive shoes with a strong downturn will make smearing very difficult because you won’t be able to bend your toes in the right direction and you’ll also have very little surface contact. Flat shoes with a sticky rubber are best for smearing.
The position of your foot and the rest of your body are very important. Not lowering your heel enough is a common mistake, and this reduces the amount of rubber that’ll be pressing against the rock, therefore reducing friction. Keep your heel nice and low and your calves engaged for maximum pressure.
And by the way, leaning towards the wall to feel more secure can actually cause you to slip because you’ll be lifting your foot upwards and reducing the pressure inwards. So, keep your hips away from the wall and your center of gravity directly above your feet.
How to Practice Smearing Effectively in Climbing
Now we’ve given you heaps of tips on how to smear, how to improve your technique, and what to avoid.
So, let’s talk about how you can practice!
Like most good things in life, smearing is simple, but not easy. And it requires practice. So, go out there and look for smearing opportunities to practice as much as possible.
Maybe try it on a rough granite or sandstone first, or on an easy slab route to get a feel for it. Rough rock will make it easier for your foot to stick, and if the wall is less-than-vertical, you will need less pressure. Build up your confidence over time, and soon, you’ll be smearing like a pro!
Something to note – Make sure to keep your arms straight, push the toes and balls of your feet flat against the wall, and bring your hips away from the rockface.
Why is Smearing Important in Climbing?
You see, having good technique saves you a lot of effort while climbing. Even if you are a new climber and still working on your biceps, don’t worry. Focus on your technique while you improve your strength and you’ll be surprised how fast your climbing will improve.
Smearing is one of those important basic footwork techniques that every climber should have in their repertoire, and it will open up many new possibilities for you on the rock.
Smearing matters because:
- Good footwork and technique helps you save strength
- You can use the flat surface in between holds to climb
- You will learn to trust your feet, improving your overall climbing
What Climbing Shoes Smear Better Than Others?
To have maximum surface contact with the rock or climbing wall, a flat climbing shoe works best.
Make sure to wash them on a regular basis to keep the sole clean and sticky, to create more friction. A soft and sensitive rubber also makes it easier to feel irregularities in the rock that might be helpful while smearing, and such rubber tends to be more sticky as well, but it also does wear down faster.
Note again that an aggressively downturned shoe does not work well for smearing, as you won’t be able to create a lot of friction with your toes because the shoe is stiff and bent “the other way”.
However, a stiff midsole gives your feet and calves some extra support while smearing and helps you to stay steady on the rock.
An Affordable Beginner’s Shoe
Some recommended shoes are The Black Diamond Momentum shoes, which are affordable and work well for the smearing technique and climbing on slabs because of their flat shape and sticky sole. These are ideal for practicing smearing and are generally a solid pair of rock climbing beginner’s shoes.
The Tommy-Caldwell-Approved Option
Another model that is more expensive and for more experienced climbers is the La Sportiva TC Pros.
This is a high-top shoe with a Vibram XS Edge rubber that lends itself well to smearing and edging because of its stickiness. The shoe has a flat sole and is quite stiff, giving you some extra support while on the wall.
What Is Edging In Rock Climbing?
Edging is another useful rock climbing technique that heavily focuses on your feet. This technique is used when there are only very small footholds available that don’t fit your whole foot.
Because the holds are so small, you have to work with the tip of your climbing shoe and the area around your big toe.
Inside and Outside Edge
Now, the area along the inside of your foot down from your big toe is called the inside edge, and the rand down from the pinky toe is the outside edge.
Typically, the inside edge is stronger because in climbing, the big toe is where you concentrate most of your strength. Most of the time, you’ll therefore be edging on the inside of your foot, as outside edging is more common for traversing and lateral movements along the wall.
How to Edge
To successfully edge, you need strong feet, good balance, and precise foot placement. Clean and stiff climbing shoes also make it a lot easier!
You will be placing the tip of your shoe on the narrow ledge or hold and pushing down heavily on this area of your foot. This means lifting up your heel and bringing your hips closer to the wall to have your center of gravity directly above your feet.
Similar to smearing, it’s best to place your foot confidently and with precision, and not to move it anymore once you’ve weighed it. This helps you to stay stable and wastes less of your energy from wiggling your foot and potentially losing your balance.
Remember to keep your heels high and calves engaged to push down precisely where your foot touches the hold, which creates some friction at the same time.
Edging vs Smearing
These are both very useful climbing techniques that focus on your feet and are used when there are only very small or no footholds available.
However, they do differ in foot position and where you apply them.
The smearing technique uses the sole of your foot and relies on friction for your foot to stick. It’s therefore important to keep your hips away from the wall and your heels downwards. Position your body directly above your feet so your center of gravity and body weight are well-positioned.
On the other hand, edging also uses the front of your foot but is characterized by stepping with the rand of your shoe and not the sole at the bottom of your feet because the available footholds are too small for that.
There is inside and outside edging, depending on which side of your foot you are on, and it’s important to keep your hips close to the wall and your heels lifted, to exert maximum pressure on your tiptoes.
How Difficult is Smearing?
Well, smearing is quite a simple technique once you get the hang of it. It can be used in a variety of circumstances, and the most difficult part of it is to get the confidence to actually rely on it working.
The best way to build up your confidence is just to keep practicing it, and start on some easier routes so you can see that it really does work!
Hi there, I am Mirjam and have recently discovered rock climbing for me while backpacking in Colombia. Originally from Switzerland I currently live in Venezuela and work as a freelance writer and translator. I have always loved being in nature and the mountains and am stoked to explore more of the world’s best climbing in the years to come!
You can find me at @mirigoesround or www.bosstranslations.com