Climbing Shoe Design and Lasts

Rock Climbing Shoe Construction

Tight-fitting slippers are ideal for smearing on micro edges.
Slippers are soft and flexible slip-lasted shoes, offering precision footwork for bouldering and extreme climbing. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

A good pair of rock climbing shoes is the one piece of climbing equipment that will immediately help you climb better. It's an art, however, to pick the right shoes for you. Which rock shoes you wear depends on several factors, including your skill level and the type of climbing you do. Many climbers own different types of shoes so that if they are going sport climbing at Rifle, they can select a pair of extreme rock shoes from the closet or if they are going crack climbing at Joshua Tree, they can take an all-around shoe.

Understand the Construction of Rock Shoes

Before you start fitting and sizing a new pair of rock shoes, it's best to first understand the various parts of a climbing shoe, how each part functions, why variations in each part are designed for different kinds of climbing, and how rock shoes are constructed.

Rock Shoes Built on Lasts

Rock climbing shoes are built around what shoemakers call a last. A last is simply a three-dimensional form in the shape of the human foot and includes all of the foot's essential anatomical information. The last determines how a shoe fits the foot as well as the size and shape of the foot bed, toe box, and heel cup. The shoe is constructed around the last, with fabric, leather, and rubber cut and then glued and sewn to the shape of the last. Rock shoe manufacturers like La Sportiva, Evolv, 5.10, Scarpa, and Mad Rock use different kinds of lasts to build different kinds of climbing shoes.

Traditional and Aggressive Shoe Lasts

Lasts for traditional all-around climbing shoes are traditionally modeled on the shape of a relaxed foot. These have a comfortable fit, allowing for all-day wear on long routes. Newer lasts, however, are molded to the shape of a pointed foot for extreme climbing routes.

These lasts create generally uncomfortable and aggressive climbing shoes that keep the foot from moving and rolling inside the shoe and to increase sensitivity to the rock surface and allow more foot control.

Two Basic Last Shapes

Rock shoe lasts come in two basic shapes:

  • Semi-Flexed Last. Also called a traditional last. This last, made in the anatomical shape of the human foot, is comfortable, has a generally flat foot bed, and has little camber or downward bend. These lasts are used for all-around shoes and are particularly suited for shoes used by beginner and intermediate climbers. Shoes with a semi-flexed lasts are good for crack climbing and slab climbing where the flat foot bed allows for smearing.
     
  • Cambered Last. This last is used to make aggressive shoes used in overhanging climbing. The cambered or downturned last is bent downward toward the toe of the last. This downward curve makes the climber's toes bend slightly downward and cants the toe box downward, allowing more control for precision edging and forcing the foot's power onto the toes, particularly the big toe. A rock shoe built on a cambered last takes on the rough shape of a banana, with the bed of the shoe curve upward from the heel to the arch and then downward to the toe. Shoes built on a cambered last are best used on extremely difficult routes and for competition climbing. The big downside is that the shoes are very uncomfortable and can sometimes create foot problems. These shoes are not good for all-around climbing or for beginners. Some manufacturers use two shapes of cambered lasts-an asymmetric last that bends the foot into a banana-shaped shoe and a downturned last which makes a shoe that is bent like a claw.

    Board-Lasted and Slip-Lasted Shoes

    Besides the shape of the last, climbing shoes are either board-lasted or slip-lasted.

    • Board-Lasted Shoes. A board-lasted shoe uses a stiff insole as a platform , puts the last on top of the insole, and then the upper part of the shoes is built around the board and the last. Board-lasted shoes are stiff, have lots of support, and are comfortable, making them ideal for long climbs, slab routes, edging climbs, and crack climbing. These shoes tend to be durable, stretch very little, wear well so they can give years of service, and are easily resoled. Board-lasted shoes are more expensive than slip-lasted shoes.
       
    • Slip-Lasted Shoes. A slip-lasted shoe uses a thin midsole and insole for the platform. These shoes are made in a sock-like shape, placed over the last to form the shoe's upper, and then the midsole and rubber added. Slip-lasted shoes are responsive, offer sensitivity to the rock surface, more flexibility than board-lasted shoes, and are perfect for overhanging climbing, bouldering, indoor climbing, and competition climbing. Slip-lasted shoes, with thin soles and midsoles, let the climber feel the rock and allow for precision footwork. They are also soft and very flexible so they're great for smearing but terrible for edging. Most rock shoes, like slippers, are slip-lasted shoes.