How to Break In Climbing Shoes | 7 Easy Ways

Last Updated: June 25, 2022
Close-up on intermediate climber tying her shoelace

There are few more satisfying experiences in the vertical world than strapping on a brand new pair of rock climbing shoes for the very first time.

But buying a new set of shoes for climbing is just the first step in a long road toward making your shoes comfortable enough to wear on your project. The reality is that most climbing shoes require a sizable break-in period before they're ready to join you on all your adventures.

That said, getting past that awkward and uncomfortable stage in your climbing shoes' lifespan when they're uncomfortably tight isn't easy.

The good news? If you're wondering how to break in climbing shoes, you've come to the right place. In this article, we'll walk you through 7 methods for prepping your new set of shoes so that wearing climbing shoes is something you actually look forward to.

Let's get started.

How Should Climbing Shoes Fit?

Before we start discussing methods for breaking in new climbing shoes, we first need to discuss how your shoes should fit. A solid understanding of what your boots should feel like once they're broken in will help set you up for success as you try to stretch climbing shoes to best fit your feet on the rock.

So, how exactly should climbing shoes fit?

Every climber has their own idea of what "comfortable" means when it comes to shoes, so you may develop your own opinions on this matter as you gain more experience. However, as a general rule, your shoes should fit snugly, but they shouldn't be unbearably uncomfortable to the point where they're causing pain.

In other words, you shouldn't want to wear your climbing shoes for hours on end in the great outdoors when you're not actively on a route. But if you find yourself breaking out into tears when putting your boots on, they're probably too tight.

Keep in mind that the ideal fit of climbing shoes varies depending on their aggressiveness. Here's what you can expect your shoes to feel like at first based on different climbing shoe profiles:

  • Neutral Profile – In more beginner-friendly shoes, your toes should press up against the front of your boots. But there shouldn't be any extra space inside and you shouldn't develop any hot spots. You can often get a model that's your street shoe size or maybe a half size smaller when investing in neutral profile shoes.
  • Moderately Aggressive Profile – With moderately aggressive shoes, you should get about the same fit as a neutral profile, but your big toe might be slightly curled at the front of the boot. The shoe should also be slightly more snug around your foot and toes.
  • Aggressive Downturn Profile – If you opt for an aggressive model, be prepared for your feet to feel fairly uncomfortable throughout the stretching process—at least at first. Your toes will feel smushed in your new shoes as they press up against the rubber toe cap, though this should get more comfortable with time.

Ultimately, no one can tell you what the right shoe should fit like—you need to decide that for yourself. Most people find that getting 1/2 to 1 size smaller than your street size is ideal for your first pair or second pair of climbing shoes. But over time, you'll figure out how you like your climbing footwear to fit and the break-in process will get much easier.

7 Ways to Break in Rock Climbing Shoes

Breaking in new shoes for climbing is no easy feat. Here are 7 different methods to consider as you get your climbing shoes ready for all your upcoming adventures.

1. Wear New Climbing Shoes in the Shower

One of the most popular ways to stretch out a climbing shoe is to wear it in the shower. This process works surprisingly well, especially if you invested in a leather shoe model.

The idea behind the shower method is that hot water helps to soften the leather on the upper of the shoe so that it's more likely to stretch and mold to your foot.

All you need to do is wear your shoes into the shower, get them soaking wet, and then walk around in them until they start to dry. Once that happens, place some newspaper in the shoes to speed up the drying process. If possible, go climb in the shoes before they're completely dry to help them stretch properly around your toes.

Note that you may need to do this a few times before your feet feel comfortable in your new shoes.

2. Wrap Your Feet in Plastic Before Climbing

If you don't quite have time to use the shower method before your next climb, you can try wrapping your feet in plastic before your next climb.

This might sound very odd, but it's a tried and true method for making your shoes more comfortable on your feet during your first few climbs. That's because much of the pain that comes from wearing a new climbing shoe is a result of friction on your foot. Wrapping your feet in plastic can help reduce friction and help your toes fit better in each shoe while you climb.

You can use either saran wrap, plastic grocery bags, or even two zip lock bags for this method. This isn't our favorite option because of the amount of plastic bag waste involved, but it can be useful if you need to stretch out your shoes just a little bit.

3. Blow Dry Your Climbing Shoes

If you have a pair of tight leather climbing shoes, the blow-dry method is a particularly effective way to break in your new boots. In fact, heat is one of the most effective ways to stretch leather because it opens up the pores in the fabric.

There are a few ways to use this method. The most common is to put on a set of thick socks and to slide on your new shoes. Then, take a blow drier and use it to heat up your shoes for a few minutes at a time. This will encourage the leather in the shoe to stretch around your foot to reduce any hot spots or pain while climbing.

4. Freeze Your Shoes

Although heat is an effective option for shoes made from real leathery fabrics, the cold is often a better choice for use with synthetic shoes.

To use this method, you'll take two plastic bags, use them to line the inside of each shoe, and then fill those bags with water. Once that's done, place each shoe in the freezer until the water inside is completely frozen.

Since water expands when it freezes, this process should help a tight shoe expand to make it more comfortable around your foot. But, you may need to repeat this method a few times for the perfect fit.

5. Wear Socks When You Climb

Most climbers don't wear socks when they're actively on a route, but doing so can be an effective way to break in shoes with minimal pain.

That's because wearing socks makes your feet larger than they would normally be without socks. By putting a sock-covered foot into your shoe, you can encourage your shoe to stretch around the natural shape of your foot.

This method is particularly effective if you wait to go climbing in your socks until the end of the day. Since your feet swell naturally throughout the day, waiting until later in the evening to go climbing can help stretch your shoes as much as possible in less time.

6. Use A Shoe Stretcher for Stretching Climbing Shoes

Tight, ill-fitting shoes aren't just a problem for climbers. As a result, the shoe manufacturing industry has long tried to create ways to speed up the shoe break-in process for other kinds of footwear like hiking boots and dress shoes.

To do so, many cobblers and shoe repair shops will use a commercially made shoe stretcher. These shoe stretchers are designed to fit inside your shoe and expand them incrementally over time with minimal hassle.

However, shoe stretchers are best used in climbing shoes with a neutral profile. Using these devices in a shoe with an aggressively downturned profile can damage the shoe and cause it to deform. When in doubt, consult a professional cobbler for guidance on the dos and don'ts of using shoe stretchers.

7. Climb As Much As Possible

This final method might not be the most comfortable thing for your foot (at least at first), but it's a solid, straightforward way to go about stretching climbing shoes so that they conform to your feet.

Climbing definitely isn't the fastest way to stretch out a shoe, but it's certainly the most fun. So, when other methods fail, just lace up your boots and hit the rock for short climbing sessions to help loosen up your latest pair of shoes.

What to Avoid When Breaking in a Climbing Shoe

As you can see, there are many ways to go about breaking in a climbing shoe. But while you have plenty of different strategies to choose from when stretching out your new boots, there are some other methods that are best avoided completely.

The following methods should be avoided at all costs:

  • Heating Shoes in an Oven or Microwave – While using a blow dryer to heat your climbing shoes can help with the breaking-in process, adding heat using an oven or microwave is not recommended. Doing so might seem like a faster way to apply heat to the leather parts of your shoes, but it's hard to control the amount of heat that you get when you use these methods. Plus, the harsh heat from ovens and microwaves can ruin the other parts of your shoes or cause the soles to delaminate.
  • Placing Shoes in Boiling Water – Although the hot shower method can be a great way to stretch climbing shoes, trying to speed up the process using a pot of boiling water isn't wise. Boiling water is much too hot to use around climbing shoes and it can destroy them fairly quickly. Plus, the rubber on most shoes is attached to the upper using a heat glue that can melt around the boiling point of water, causing your boots to fall apart in the process. Yikes!
  • Cutting the Shoe Rubber – If you spend enough time on Reddit or on other similar platforms, you might hear a suggestion that placing small cuts in the rubber of your shoes can help them feel more comfortable. While it is true that the rubber is often the primary cause of stiffness in a new pair of rock climbing shoes, cutting it isn't a good idea. Doing so can lead to irreparable damage, which certainly isn't ideal.

Moral of the story? Stick to one of the 7 different methods to break in climbing shoes that we've listed above whenever you have a pair of tight shoes that isn't as comfortable as it should be. Patience is often the key to stretching climbing shoes, so give yourself time to get used to your new kicks before you use them to send your boulder problem project.

How to Break in Climbing Shoes FAQs

Here are our answers to your most commonly asked questions about breaking in a new pair of climbing shoes.

Do Climbing Shoes Stretch?

Yes, some climbing shoes stretch out after frequent use, but not all of them do. Whether or not your shoes will stretch depends on what upper material they're made of. A climbing shoe with a soft leather upper will stretch about 1 to 2 full sizes over time. Meanwhile, shoes with synthetic uppers rarely stretch more than 1/2 size, even with years of frequent use.

How Long Does it Take to Break Climbing Shoes In?

It normally takes 2 to 3 weeks to break in a new pair of climbing shoes. However, this depends on how much you climb, why kind of shoes you have, and what break-in method you choose. With daily use, a pair of leather shoes can start to feel comfortable in a week or less, but synthetic shoes may take a bit longer to break in properly.

How Tight Should My Climbing Shoes Be?

The appropriate tightness of climbing shoes is a matter of much debate. Some advanced climbers prefer to wear very tight and aggressive shoes, almost to the point where they're painful to wear for more than a few minutes at a time. But, most climbers should try to avoid pain in their shoes. Instead, opt for a snug fit with no dead space and no curled toes for optimal climbing performance.

Gaby Pilson is a professional outdoor educator and climbing instructor with over ten years of experience delivering outdoor experiences. She holds multiple outdoor safety and education certifications and specializes in guiding expeditions to the polar regions. Gaby also works as a Wilderness Medicine Instructor and Climbing Wall Instructor Course Provider.
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