A climber using his climbing shoes to climb a wall

How Tight Should Climbing Shoes Be?

Did you get a chance to see our post on the different types of climbing shoes? After reading that, you should definitely be right here. I gave you some tips about how to choose the right climbing shoes for the types of climbing you plan on doing, and I briefly touched on one really important thing: climbing shoes should never hurt!

They might be tight when you first start breaking them in, but they should never ever cause you pain. In this post, I’m going to talk to you more in-depth about how tight your climbing shoes should be and everything you need to know to make sure once you determine the best kind of climbing shoe for your needs that you choose a pair that fit just right.

Climbing shoes should never hurt!

I’m saying it again and I want you to say it with me! Even the pros will tell you this. Climbing shoes that are too tight are bad news. When they’re too tight, lots of problems can arise.

You will find as you get more into climbing that you’ll start buying different pairs of climbing shoes like me. I personally have 5 of them because they each help me with different types of climbs. But none of them are too tight. They need to be tight enough but not so tight that it feels like a boa constrictor is crushing the bones in your feet. When climbing shoes are too tight, at the minimum they’ll give you nasty blisters that will have you hobbling around your house when you get home. At their worst, they can do major damage to your feet.

The wrong climbing shoes have the potential to cause incredible orthopedic damage, so please keep reading so I can help you avoid a very painful consequence down the road. There were a few times when I first started out climbing, before I invested in my own shoes, that I’d rent them from the gym. I remember thinking they had to be uber-tight but the whole time I was climbing, it was all I could think about.

As I got to know some of the experienced guys though, they clued me in about climbing shoes and told me they should never cause me pain. The next time I rented climbing shoes, I chose them a bit bigger and voila! I wasn’t constantly thinking about my feet and was much more focused.

Do climbing shoes expand?

Yes, they most certainly do. The leather uppers definitely begin to feel like a second yet very comfortable skin after a while. The more you use them, the more they should conform to your feet. If this is still too tight for you, then you’ve likely bought them too small.

With leather, it’s always wise to buy the smaller size so they will expand, but they should be tight without feeling excruciating. Climbing shoes will expand out when they get warm, like when you’re busy climbing, but they can feel tight again the very next day when you go to put them on again.

Preparing for the fact that they will expand out some, it’s important to know that your shoes aren’t going to suddenly become loose either. So think of it this way when you’re trying on climbing shoes – does it hurt so bad you can’t think of anything else or does it feel a bit snug? If it’s the former, go up a half or full size. If not, you’re good to go.

Is it really that bad if your climbing shoes are too small?

There are few things I can think of that are worse than climbing shoes being too small. Ok, I can think of worse things, but seriously, when they’re too small and your feet hurt, they will interfere with your climb. And that’s not what you want. Those shoes are your grip and support on the wall or crag so it’s important you can tolerate them. Here’s why:

– Distraction from climbing

One of the biggest problems with climbing shoes that are too small is that they distract you from your climb. You won’t notice it at first. It will just kind of come in waves, like a car alarm going off in the distance while you’re trying to sleep.

But then it becomes louder and more persistent, like your pet cat that won’t quit when it wants food and it’s 5 am. Louder, louder, and louder until it’s all you can hear in your head. While your shoes will not be meowing, they will most certainly make your dog bark and that can take your mind right off what you’re doing.

The more uncomfortable your feet are, the less you’ll enjoy your climbing experience. All you’ll be thinking is how much longer will it be until you get down and not about the strategies and techniques you need for a good climb. I can tell you that when I was renting those too-small shoes, I wasn’t really enjoying myself. Once I got that top tip though and switched shoes, it allowed me to free my mind and embrace the sport without wincing at the pain in my feet later on.

– Potential injuries resulting from small climbing shoes

Small climbing shoes can cause major damage to your feet over time. That goes for any regular street shoes too. Women in particular are always torturing themselves with high-heeled shoes and they’ll be sorry when they’re older and have to go to the podiatrist every week like my grandma!

Don’t panic if you rented shoes a few times that were too tight. Once or twice isn’t going to cause long-term damage. But the time to correct the issue is now by getting the right size for your feet to avoid causing foot deformities. You could get those claw toes, or hammer toes, or even make them cross over each other, like when you’d cross your fingers behind your back, but with toes! Eek!

Bunions, corns, fungal infections, bruised feet, bleeding under your toenails, and nerve compression disorders are other very unpleasant physical damages you can get by forcing yourself to wear too-tight climbing shoes. This is why I urge you to go try them on before buying. But don’t do it at some place that doesn’t know anything about it where you have some poor teen after school just trying to make enough money to take his girlfriend to the movies on Friday night. Go to a place where they KNOW climbing shoes and know how they should fit. A place like REI for example will have personalized fitting assistance available. You can also ask the experienced climbers at your gym or even the folks in charge at your gym where you can go to try them on with expert guidance to help you get the right fit.

Once you find one you really like in the right size, you can order another pair online (Check out my top recommendations here) if you’d prefer. The thing I really want you to know above all is that if you’ve got the right shoes with the right fit, you’re going to love climbing. You shouldn’t be thinking about how your feet feel in your shoes, and if you are, you definitely have them too tight. One to look for is Butora Wide Fit. Great comfort and performance with those. I know a lot of people feel the same so try them on for size.

Anyway, let’s delve further into some of the uglier things that can happen if you don’t heed my climbing shoe advice.

– Calluses and pressure points

Either of these might not be hideous to look at to the point where you’ll never take off your socks again, but they might always be sore. And when they’re ugly, woo-wee! No one will want to see you barefoot, believe me. You’ll be the person at the pool everyone avoids.

– Claw, cross-over or hammer toes

These are just like what they sound like. Have you ever seen those old photos of the women in China that had their feet bound to keep them small? Yup! That’s what’s going to happen to your feet if you keep wearing too-tight climbing shoes.

– Subungual hematoma

This is the medical term for bleeding under a toenail. This is very common, and extremely painful.

– Bunions

Technical term: hallux valgus. Bunions are awful. My grandma has them and we’ve all had the displeasure of seeing her barefoot. I’ve also know some older climbers with them too. In fact, climbers are much more prone to them than regular population, so do everything you can to keep from getting them by wearing shoes that fit right. When you keep putting pressure on these joints, it creates a painful lump on your joint at the toes.

– Corns

Like bunions, these guys come up at pressure points but they aren’t related to joint pain. They’re a hardened, thickened patch of dead skin and they can be truly painful.

– Dermatomycosis

Ok, so this one isn’t about the fit of your shoes, but more about hygiene. And with overly tight shoes, this will just get worse. It’s a fungal problem that will make you less popular with anyone who has to get near you, especially your fellow climbers.

– Nail bed infection

Be careful how you cut your toenails. If your shoes are too tight, you may be overcompensating for that by cutting your toenails too short. Then you cut the nail bed and leave it vulnerable to a nasty infection. It can get dangerous in some cases if you don’t treat it promptly!

– Hallux rigidus

When you have partial stiffness in the joint of your big toe from overexertion, it can be painful to climb. Avoid damage like this by getting your shoes to fit just right.

– Nerve compression disorders

This happens when you put too much pressure on certain parts, like as in squeezing, which is what happens with shoes that are too tight. The common symptoms of this include pain, numbness, and muscle weakness, something that will severely impact your ability to climb.

How to get the right fit for your climbing shoes?

To make sure you’re getting the right fit, again, I urge you to work with a professional who can provide assistance as you’re trying on different shoes, but they won’t know how YOU feel. You’ll be happiest if you keep the following in mind:

– On the toes:

Make sure your toes are slightly bent at the knuckles and that there isn’t any space between them and the inside of the shoe. Your toes should be flat and curved comfortably. If you put a shoe on and your toes feel bunched, it’s the wrong shoe for you.

– On the heel:

The heel should enjoy a snug fit. Stand on your toe and make sure the back of your shoe isn’t pinching anything back there, particularly the Achilles tendon.

Conclusion on how tight climbing shoes should be

In short, you should wear shoes that feel comfortable to you. The fit and size are so important. Don’t just order your first pair because they “look way cool.” Big mistake! Get out there and try them on to truly feel them.

Common sense is very important too. If your feet hurt after you wear your climbing shoes, they don’t fit you right. And if you notice an infection or a problem with your feet, get it taken care of right away. While a blister here and there isn’t a huge concern, when these happens often, it’s time to consider your shoes and their role in the pain you feel.

If you love climbing, you have to take care of your feet. So many beginners think climbing has to do with upper-body strength, but it’s really all in the legs and feet. If you’re not taking care of your feet, it will lead to some major problems for you that might require surgery and could put an end to your climbing days for good.


Attention: You have to take care of your own safety and health when climbing. The information on www.expertclimbers.com only serves for learning and entertainment purposes. Before climbing, make sure you have been properly instructed by an expert and adhere to all safety precautions. This site is owned and operated by Mohamed Foued Ben Slama, Mohamed Foued Ben Slama is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for websites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

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