Once upon a time, there was no such thing as shoes. As such, people back then walked around barefoot. And likely, they climbed up and down on trees, mountains, you name it… all of it barefoot.
But these days, shoes are plentiful and designed for all kinds of purposes. Some shoes are designed for running. Some are designed for style or pure agony, depending on which way you see strappy high heel shoes. Some are designed for crunching through snow and ice without slipping and falling on your behind in the frigid winter air. And of course, there are a whole segment of shoes designed with rock climbing in mind.
So, while yes, you can rock climb barefoot, it’s not the best idea to do so. Shoes were designed to protect your feet and help them work together, especially when it comes to rock climbing. It’s like having an extra tool at your disposal to make achieving new heights a better success, and don’t you want that?
Besides, when wearing rock climbing shoes, your toes get to share the burden of helping you get that extra grip. And those shoes prevent you from straining something, or worse, ripping off a toenail which would be even more excruciating than wearing a pair of stilettos for a day.
Which begs the question, can you actually rock climb barefoot?
I’ve done the research and tried it to come to the following conclusion.
Yes, rock climbing barefoot is doable but not recommended for many solid reasons. Keep reading to find out why you should put your climbing shoes on before you hit the climbing wall or other vertical for your next climb.
You shouldn’t climb barefoot indoors
When it comes to climbing barefoot, if you ever want to try it, the place you definitely shouldn’t do it is at the indoor climbing gym. We’re going to detail the reasons why you shouldn’t do that, but even if you decide to disregard this, we can assure you that the gym staff will probably halt you before you can even get up there.
They’re not trying to spoil your fun, but rather, keep the environment safe and clean for everyone using the climbing wall. What could go wrong, you ask?
– Climbing barefoot is not hygienic
Now, not ALL gyms will shun you for climbing barefoot. Some do allow it and if you’re really itching to try a climb without any shoes on, it’s best you take a look at what is and isn’t allowed in your local climbing gym. For the most part, you’ll find it listed in the rules. The biggest reason it’s not usually permitted is because of hygienic reasons.
Maybe YOU take excellent care of your feet. But what about everyone else? What kind of foot grit, fungus, and other yuck might get transferred to the holds? Feet shouldn’t get all the blame though. After all, plenty of people don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom. And people will walk into the bathroom with their climbing shoes on and then get up on the wall and… well, now we’re grossing ourselves out.
Needless to say, there are lots of germs lingering on those climbing holds and adding foot grime to the list is definitely disgusting. If you had your own personal climbing wall, sure! But even then, you’d still want to disinfect it regularly.
Sorry to get even further into the grossness, but even people with excellent hygiene can get a fungal nail infection. You might have one and not be aware of it. You might simply mistake your feet for being dry and calloused, something that’s relatively common. But if someone climbs up on that wall barefoot with a fungal nail infection and you come into contact with the lingering fungus, it can infect your fingernails.
If you climb up barefoot, even with absolutely pristine feet that your podiatrist has signed off on, you won’t be immune to any lingering foot fungus from someone else who has climbed before you.
– Climbing shoes will enable you to climb better
Aside from cleanliness, climbing shoes definitely help you climb better. As mentioned, they help your toes work in unison to get you on that hold and stay there until you make your next move. But climbing without shoes could be really invigorating. After all, some of the more aggressive performance climbing shoes can be really uncomfortable. They can also cause joint problems in your feet.
While climbing shoes are definitely urged in the gym, out in the wild, technically you could do a barefoot climb. But your climbing shoes, even when they’re painful, will keep you from stepping on something sharp. A rough edge could send you tumbling over, relying on your belayer to help you recover.
Incidentally, if your climbing shoes are too tight, you’re doing it wrong. Read our post about how to choose the right size for your climbing shoes!
– The alternative to climbing shoes and climbing barefoot
Perhaps you’d like a happy medium that straddles the line between climbing shoes and going barefoot. In that case, the Vibram Five-Fingers (Check the current price on Amazon) are a rather popular choice. They’re ideal for overhangs and helping you hook holds with ease though can be a bit trickier for wall climbing and edging. Smearing certainly helps with these.
By using shoes like Vibram Fiver-Fingers, you get a better grip and protection for your feet that you wouldn’t get if you were barefoot. My friends truly love the skin-like, glove-like wear of these climbing shoes and they basically swear by them. They give you the impression of going barefoot though, at least once you get used to them. As with any shoes, they will take getting used to but this is an ideal solution for anyone that wants to climb barefoot without actually going barefoot.
But alas, some of you are still going to attempt climbing barefoot because you want to see for yourselves. We get that. So, if you’re going to go shoeless in the wild, keep reading for a few tips to ensure your success.
Climbing barefoot technique
When you climb without any shoes, you need to change your technique. The rocks are rough, which of course is obvious, and they are incredibly capable of cutting up your feet. Aside from that, you really need to latch your toes to small ledges to get that grip and you can really feel the strain in your tendons as you try to balance on your toes.
Some people just love the thrill of this. It puts you in touch with nature, getting you back to earth and becoming one with it. And it can certainly be done on easy routes, though for tougher stuff, we definitely urge you to keep your shoes on. At least bring them along so when the going gets tough, the tough put their climbing shoes back on for the duration of the route.
But some of you may try it out and find the pain unbearable. That doesn’t make you any less of a climber, however if you do find it hurts and you just can’t take it going barefoot, there’s zero shame in that. Climb the way that makes it comfortable and safe for you. You can definitely build up a tolerance to the roughness of the rocks though. Just like those that live and breathe on the beach have tough feet from stepping on shells, yours will adapt and toughen up, but you don’t need to go through all that trouble if you’re just not keen on it.
Climbing without socks
The sock debate is one that has raged on for some time and likely will continue to roar through the climbing community for all of time. Some firmly believe that climbing with socks on is a major faux pas. You’ll get snickered at when you’re at the gym, even if you aren’t a newbie. People will come at you from all directions trying to run beta like you have zero clue all because you’re sporting socks.
Climbing shoes are designed to help you put your weight in a targeted way onto an angled face or small ledge. So you want those climbing shoes to be as snug as possible without reaching the extent of being painful. That extra layer of sock in your shoe could cause it to be too tight and uncomfortable. It can also prevent you from feeling the rock. And socks, like in regular shoes, can bunch up. We all know what great fun that is, right?
When socks bunch up in climbing shoes, they reduce the friction that flows between your feet, those climbing shoes, and the wall you’re on. You may even find you’re unlucky enough to pop your shoes off while trying to execute a heel hook because of wearing socks.
Climbing with socks
Those who are strongly opposed to wearing socks with climbing shoes do make excellent points. However, looking at the other side of the argument, you can see why some people, even expert climbers, will go climbing with socks.
For one, the reason anyone wears socks in any pair of shoes is to absorb any sweating that occurs while wearing them. Socks can also add a bit of cushioning inside too. And by this logic, wearing socks in your climbing shoes can be a good thing. Climbing shoes are hard rubber for the soles and sides with synthetic or leather uppers which aren’t uncomfortable by any means, but would you wear them if you weren’t climbing? Definitely not. Socks can make them more comfortable by adding more cushioning, especially in parts where the seam makes it uncomfortable against your foot.
There’s nothing like being in the middle of a climb and agonizing about your feet and how much they hurt. How can you enjoy it? Plus, it makes things more unsafe for you when your mind is occupied with enduring the pain rather than enjoying the view and the thrill of the sport.
The trick with wearing socks in your climbing shoes is that you must buy your shoes accordingly. We’ve got a great guide about climbing shoes, but the essence of it is that if you plan to wear socks, buy your climbing shoes just a half size larger to compensate for them. You should have the perfect fit.
Other reasons you might want to wear socks would include when you climb at the gym. Perhaps you are new to climbing and haven’t yet invested in a pair of climbing shoes. Perhaps you had a lousy day at work and stopped by the gym only to realize you’d forgotten your gear. Thankfully, climbing gyms rent out this equipment, including climbing shoes.
While climbing gyms will spray rental shoes with deodorizer after each rental, that’s still pretty gross. Think about bowling shoes. At least they require you to wear socks in them and that still makes some people cringe about wearing borrowed shoes (skates too!). You just don’t know what kind of feet the people who rented those shoes out before you had.
Sprays technically should kill off any bacteria, but there’s no guarantee. To keep your feet from coming into contact with bacteria, a thin pair of socks can provide SOME peace of mind and more sanitary conditions.
Many will still climb barefoot despite the warnings
We can’t tell you what to do, but we do urge you to really REALLY think twice about climbing barefoot. We want all climbers to be safe so they can enjoy the sport and we surely don’t want anything bad happening to you.
Remember, climbing shoes were invented for a reason, as were all shoes. Here’s why we hope you’ll heed our advice:
– You risk losing your toenails when climbing barefoot
Have you ever trimmed your toenails by just a wee bit too much and found yourself in agonizing pain? Ok, now imagine accidentally tearing off an entire toenail while you’re straining to get a grip on a hold. Yeah, that’s not a pretty picture.
When you go climbing without climbing shoes, it’s every toe for themselves. They don’t help each other in unison like they do while you’re wearing shoes and it’s just a dangerous situation all around. We all know climbing requires focus and even if your climbing shoes are just a teensy bit uncomfortable, we can assure you that you’d rather that slight discomfort than ripping off your toenails. Ouch!
In fact, much can be learned from those in Ireland that climb up Croagh Patrick on what’s known as Reek Sunday. Every year, this pilgrimage occurs on the last Sunday of July. From the tiny church located on top of the mountain which only open for Mass on this one day each year, thousands of people do the climb. And many of them do it barefooted even though there are major warnings for them not to.
During last year’s climb, the number of people that needed assistance from the rescue team increased a whopping 30% from the year before. The Order of the church continued to urge that those embarking on this adventure wear proper clothing and shoes and to bring along the right equipment.
Rustic as it sounds to climb barefoot and get back to the roots of times when people didn’t have shoes, most people are impressed to discover that in Mesopotamia around 1600 to 1200 BC, the mountain people along the border of Iran created moccasin-like shoes. Rudimentary as they were, they served an important purpose for protecting from the sharpness of rocks and other things.
– Take precautions despite climbing indoors
As we mentioned, most climbing gyms will not permit you to climb barefoot, but if you do find one that allows it, be cautious when climbing. Those holds might not be as sharp and rugged as the ones out in the wild, but you can definitely hurt yourself.
Also, it stands to reason that if you do have a fungal toe infection, athlete’s foot, or any other contagious foot problem, you should be considerate to others and wear climbing shoes. You might very well be the one that infects your own fingernails if you’re not careful.
And honestly, if you need more reasons why you should climb with climbing shoes on, just see our post about climbing after toenail removal. If you love climbing, don’t ruin your chances of doing so by leaving your toes vulnerable to chance.
Climbing barefoot can be done but it’s not recommended by most people, especially the experts. When you climb barefoot, your toes have to stand up to the intensity alone, and while it might seem like a cool challenge, you’ll leave yourself more susceptible to injury. The pain of having a toenail ripped right off your foot while climbing can be so debilitating that you’ll need to get right down from the rock, if you don’t fall off first.
The sharpness of the rocks can definitely hurt your feet too. If you desperately want to get back to the earth and make contact with the ground, we feel you, but please do so safely on flat, solid ground before you get up there for your climb. You’ll make the connection you need to ground yourself and get to keep all your toenails.