How to Break In Climbing Shoes | 5 Simple Hacks [2020]

Breaking in a pair of new climbing shoes doesn’t have to take a long time or be unnecessarily painful.

Buying a new pair of climbing shoes is a bittersweet event. On the one hand, we all love new gear – and those new shoes are going to help you crush SO hard. On the other hand, breaking in climbing shoes can be annoying and downright painful. 

You know you want the absolute best performance from your shoes, but you also know you don’t want to be in agony while you try to enjoy a climb. So, our first tip on how to break in climbing shoes is to actually buy the right shoe in the first place.

How to Buy climbing shoes

Knowing how to buy climbing shoes is an acquired skill, and one that must unfortunately be learned through trial and error. Few climbers find their “perfect shoe” right away. Most will continue trying new shoes for different styles of climbing or to address specific fit and performance issues. Five Ten provides some great advice on how to size climbing shoes:

  1. Street shoe size is only a starting point
  2. Eliminate dead space but don’t fit so tight as to create hot spots
  3. Climbing shoes should not be uncomfortably tight, otherwise tears might keep you from seeing micro edges
  4. Feet swell during the day, from 1/2 size to a full size. Try on shoes in the afternoon if possible
  5. Synthetic uppers won’t stretch – you’ll have the same fit in 6 months. You should have no hot spots when you are up on your toes

To assess the fit of a shoe, you’ll want to look at each area of the shoe independently. The toebox should not have dead space, but your toes should not be overly bent inside the shoe unless you’re looking for an extremely aggressive fit. The heel should be secure and snug but not painful. The sides of the shoe should also be snug around your foot – if it’s loose AND your toes/heels are loose you may need to go down a size. 

If only one of these areas is too loose/tight, you may want to look at different shoes. Overall you don’t want your climbing shoes to be so tight that you can hardly wear them, but it should fit snugly and feel secure on your foot. Remember that the best shoe for each climber is going to be one that fits correctly. Don’t buy a shoe just because it works for someone else, or looks a certain way.

Also note that the rubber on shoes will not stretch, though it may become more pliable and comfortable over time. The following methods are instead focused on stretching the upper of the climbing shoe. How much climbing shoes will stretch is determined by a few factors: amount/location of rubber, synthetic vs leather, lined vs unlined leather. An unlined leather upper with very little rubber will stretch the most – up to a full size or more. Lined leather may only stretch a half size, and synthetic uppers really won’t stretch at all. Keep this in mind when trying on and deciding how tight your climbing shoes should be. 

Now that you’ve picked out the right shoe and know how much to expect it to stretch, let’s talk about how to break in climbing shoes. Here are five things you can do to break in new climbing shoes without causing pain and blisters.

1. Wear them in a hot shower

Strange as it may sound, wearing them in the shower is the fastest and most effective method of stretching climbing shoes. Start by removing all packaging and stickers, and put on your new shoes. Lace/velcro them snugly, but not overly tight. Get into a hot shower for 5-10 minutes, wiggling your toes periodically and flexing/extending your foot. 

Note: Your feet are likely to get discolored as the dyes bleed from the shoe. This isn’t harmful to you or the shoe, but you’ll want to be careful to avoid staining carpets, clothes, etc.

Keep the climbing shoes on after you get out of the shower and walk around in them for about 15-30 minutes. Then take the shoes off and stuff them with newspaper for a couple hours. Before they’re completely dry, go climbing with these shoes for a short session – the movement will help break them in and mold them to the shape of your foot while climbing. After climbing, stuff them with newspaper again and let them completely dry. Though this method stretches climbing shoes in larger increments than the other methods, you may still need to repeat the process a few times to get your shoes completely stretched out and broken in.

2. Freeze them overnight

Another odd-seeming trick, but we promise it works. Fill two zip-lock bags with water until each of them is approximately the size of your foot. Place the water-filled bags into the climbing shoes and lace/velcro them loosely. Then place your shoes into the freezer and leave them overnight. As the water inside freezes it will expand, stretching your climbing shoes in the process.

After at least 10-12 hours, take your shoes out of the freezer and let them thaw completely. Repeat several times as needed – this process stretches out climbing shoes less than the shower method so it may require more time, but it also allows you to stretch your climbing shoes for a precise fit – and doesn’t require dying your feet purple, green, or red!

3. Use a blow dryer

This is a no-fuss method that also uses heat to loosen and stretch new climbing shoes. Start by stuffing your shoes tightly with socks or any other fabric. Then turn your blow dryer on high and warm up the shoe for 2-3 minutes, focusing on the leather upper. Flex and bend the shoe several times. Next, push the socks/fabric against the inside of the shoe – filling it as tightly as possible. Go back to the blow dryer and warm the shoe for another 2-3 minutes. You can repeat this part of the process several times, alternating between heating and flexing/stuffing the shoe.

After completing those steps, heat the shoes up one last time and take the fabric out. Put your climbing shoes on your feet and try them out on a short route or boulder problem if you can, otherwise just stand and walk around for a minute. This whole process will stretch out your climbing shoes gradually, and may need to be repeated a few times to get a proper fit. 

4. Wear a plastic liner on your feet

Trying on a new climbing shoe can be painful largely because of the friction between the shoe and your foot. This also prevents your foot from filling the shoe properly. To address this, wrap your foot in a plastic bag or saran wrap, then slide it into the climbing shoe. You should immediately notice the shoes go on a bit easier, and may even feel more comfortable right away. 

Wearing the shoes like this for a few minutes while relaxing or climbing will help stretch out the upper a small amount, and using your own feet ensures the shoes stretch in exactly the right places. This method is most effective when you only need to stretch your climbing shoes a small amount, making it useful after employing one of the other methods, for synthetic uppers which don’t stretch but still need breaking in, or if you bought shoes that weren’t overly tight to begin with.

5. Wear socks with your climbing shoes

Whether or not to wear socks under climbing shoes isn’t a new debate (go search “do you wear socks with climbing shoes?”), and we aren’t here to ruffle feathers. Wearing socks to break in new climbing shoes, however, is less controversial. It’s the easiest method mentioned here, and gets you on the wall the fastest. Simply wear a pair of socks for your first few climbing sessions – the thicker, the better. The extra volume of the socks will help to stretch out new climbing shoes while also minimizing hot spots. 

how to stretch climbing shoes
Adam Ondra might know a thing or two about breaking in climbing shoes.

There you have it – now you know how to break in climbing shoes with these 5 easy methods. I hope these hacks help you get that next pair of shoes stretched out without suffering for hours of climbing sessions. Have you had any luck with one of these methods, or have another trick to share? Let us know in the comments!

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