23

I recently went bouldering for the first time and liked it a lot. One thing I wondered about are the climbing shoes. The mostly form your feet to a very firm, compact package. So the following question came up in my mind:

Why don´t climbers embrace the power of their toes? Why can´t I find anybody climbing barefoot or in (toe-)socks or shoes like Vibrams fivefingers?
Would it be worth a try or can I be sure it doesn´t work as well as climbing shoes?

_

Of course, you would need to train your feet to get the strength you need. But considering the amount of training climbers put into their hands and fingers for things like "one-finger-holes" I think this is probably no good reason for not trying it with your feet...

I am primarily interested in indoor bouldering, but aspects for other types of climbing are welcome as well. I am aware that most gyms probably don´t want you to climb barefoot for hygienic reasons...

Some background:
Here whatsitsname describes for him climbing barefoot and in vibrams didn´t work well.
This question is about the use of vibrams five-finger shoes.
This closed question is about a specific five-finger model for climbing...

  • 3
    I guess part of the appeal of bouldering is its elemental simplicity and the ability to do it without a lot of complicated and expensive gear, so from that point of view this might make sense. However, modern rubber climbing slippers are the result of about a century of evolution, going back to when climbers at Tahquitz established the first technical routes using hobnailed boots. If you could hypothetically buy five-fingers shoes with soles made of climbing rubber, I suspect that certain moves would still be much harder -- specifically, foot jams and edging with the outside of the foot. – Ben Crowell Apr 6 '15 at 15:34
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    Saxony Swiss expert Bernd Arnold climbs a lot difficult routes barefooted. Others seem to do similarly...klettern-in-rostock.de/die-another-day klettern-in-rostock.de/t/barfuss – Wills Apr 6 '15 at 21:31
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    The great thing about climbing is that you can do it any way you find enjoyable. So why not give it a try and see how you get on? You'd have to have pretty tough feet, though, before you'd want to try in on rougher rock such as the gabbro, gritstones and granites we have here in the UK... – Tullochgorum Apr 6 '15 at 21:57
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    @Wills Nowadays even Arnold often climbs in modern shoes (Source: seen it) and the soft sandstone of the Elbsandstein is a huge contributing factor. – pmr Nov 25 '15 at 15:06
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    I think for most people, for most routes, climbing shoes will enable them to climb better. But you may well enjoy climbing more and be able to climb at a standard you are happy with barefoot. Another consideration may be that very aggressive "performance" climbing shoes are uncomfortable and hard on your feet and may contribute to foot/joint problems. – aucuparia Aug 1 '17 at 10:23
16

I climb barefoot and in vibram five-fingers (KSO's), climbed in them for the first time in 2008 and loved them, where they excel is in roofs and overhanging problems because you can hook holds a lot easier with your toes, but for tougher wall climbing with small features (5.11+) I still use climbing shoes.

There are some gyms that allow climbing barefoot, but for the most part it's not allowed because of hygiene reasons-not many people want to touch toe grime on climbing holds, and feet just stink for the most part.

Vibram five-fingers don't work very well for edging, so you have to change your footwork when you're climbing in them and think of your feet more as another pair of hands. The technique I use is to basically smear your foot on the front of the hold and use you toes to crimp on the top of it, you'll get some pretty bad cramps in the bottom of your feet while you're training them, so roll out on a tennis ball after. The only way you can really get purchase on small chips is to use the tip of your big toe while you point it, which takes the toe strength of an accomplished ballerino, so practice your en pointe poses.

  • For the record, I am not an accomplished ballerino... – ShemSeger Apr 6 '15 at 19:19
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    I don't beliefe that. – Wills Apr 6 '15 at 21:41
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    Although one of the most extreme guys I know, who is a climber on top being a base jumper, extreme mountain biker, and parkour runner, is also into balet, because he says it is the most technically challenging thing he's ever tried doing. – ShemSeger Apr 6 '15 at 22:00
  • I never tried it but can imagine that it's really tough. Maybe especially for men. By my previous comment I referred to your first comment, so it was just a joke. I believe that ballet helps for climbing, especially when you try the harder routes. – Wills Apr 6 '15 at 22:22
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    saying shoe soles don’t carry fungus or bacteria is misleading and wrong – raam86 Nov 7 '18 at 18:26
9

I'll chime in from a fairly unique position with anecdotal evidence only.

I feel like most of the advice you'll get is from experts that talk down to you condescendingly if you even mention the b-word.

I'll describe my scenario and you can interpret it however you wish. I have been wearing minimalist 'barefoot' type shoes casually since probably earlier than 2005 and as time went on I did more and more barefoot, though I am careful not to do damage to my feet (e.g. running barefoot shoed on pavement etc or on sharp rocks/tarmac where glass may be present, running barefooted on grass/sand/dirt only etc.). On top of this, I trained barefoot doing Kung-Fu for a few years. So, needless to say, barefootedness resulted in some strength being developed in my feet.

Because of this, my feet became extremely sensitive (in a good way) to the ground beneath them; I could balance my body using individual muscles in my feet. So when I first tried indoor rock climbing, sure, I tried their shoes, and hated them. Put on my barefoot shoes (0mm cushion 0mm drop, Merrell 'Vapor Glove' FYI) and I just felt better. I then did an outdoor climb on sharp limestone in Greece. Same thing: tried their pro shoes, took them off after one climb because I hated them. Put on my barefoots (this time they were by a brand called 'Cushie', VERY soft!), and loved the feel of them against the rock. Went indoor after that, same story.

My most incredible experience was literally last Saturday. I went climbing at Mt Piddington near Sydney. Again, I had hired a pair of pro shoes. One climb, hated them, had to take them off. Then I did the unspeakable: I actually climbed everything else barefooted. No, actually no shoes at all. You can check out photos of the barefooted climbing here. Why "incredible"? I felt so connected to the rock, I had the most intense exhilaration and adrenaline through my body. I had so much feel and control through my toes and feet. The two downsides is that there are some places you can't place your bare feet (e.g. wedged tight between cracks) and after a few climbs you'll experience a fair bit of pain. But I didn't get any cuts or bruising, and the pain subsided after a couple of days anyhow. Also it's true that 'edging' is a fair bit harder.

I'll confess that as a n00b, I was only able to complete one climb, rated at around an 8-9, whatever that means. I've been told that the only reason I was able to do it barefoot was because it was easy, and that harder climbs would be impossible barefooted. Well, I say: "challenge accepted", why not?

There was a wall that I couldn't conquer due to it's technicality. I attempted it first in the day, with the shoes. I'll just say that at the end of the day, with throbbing feet and fatigue setting in, I re-attempted the wall, and doubled my climb height barefooted. Take from that what you will, but it's enough evidence for me.

It wasn't until today that I realised what it was about the "pro" climbing shoes that I hated so much, but now it's clear: aside from the discomfort of having the foot squashed/arched in the shoe (which, by the way, I can sort of do naturally because I needed to do things like this in Kung-Fu), the shoes are just so rigid. My feet are used to being free and wearing flexible soles, not rigid soles (with a few exceptions like cycling shoes or going out shoes etc.). In essence, the rigidity in the climbing shoes didn't allow me to use the muscles in my feet or to feel the rock.

I am excited to continue training my feet to endure pure barefooted rock climbing whenever climbing outdoors. Though, to satisfy the requirements of gyms, I'll be purchasing a pair of Vibram Fivefingers because that's the closest thing I can get to being barefoot (socks only are counter-productive because soft fabric has less grip than human skin). I haven't decided which pair yet; I came here from a Google search trying to find the answer. You can't wear rock climbing shoes casually, but you can with the Fivefingers so it's a solid investment.

I'll finish by saying this: the pros all say wear shoes. On paper, the physics says wear shoes. Logic says wear shoes. But emotion defies logic. And even if it may be harder on my feet, I enjoy barefooted (with barefoot shoes or naked feet) climbing, and ultimately, I do the climbing for enjoyment, not to follow the textbook rules. Each to their own, your mileage may vary, I won't be held responsible, the usual disclaimers etc. I am a complete amateur: I've only climbed four times (twice indoors, twice outdoors), so I am no expert whatsoever. But this is my story, perhaps you may find the information you need from the scenarios I've described.

Take care, good luck, and happy climbing! :)

George

  • Hi, and welcome to The Great Outdoors! Thanks for sharing your story. It may be a little to subjective and personal for our site, but I like it in this context. I tried the vibram fivefingers KSO for indoor climbing and found them a lot worse than conventional climbing shoes. but that might be due to poor fitting... – Paul Paulsen Mar 16 '16 at 10:44
  • My favourite are the looks you get when you climb something barefoot that people have been struggling on all day. I went to an annual outdoor climbing event not long ago and it was funny meeting people who remembered the guy climbing barefoot from the year before. They remembered my barefoot, but didn't remember the face connected to them. – ShemSeger Aug 1 '17 at 16:13
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Aside from the excellent answer by Michael Borgwandt, I have to add that a climbing shoe isn't just there for better gripping. Just like any other shoe, it also protects your feet from any sharp objects or rough surfaces that you may encounter along your trip. The more widely used paths have probably been worn down, but if you're on a new path, it is likely that there are sections that you can do fine with your hands, but where your feet can get injured by the larger amount of pressure when doing this.

And of course, shoes protect you against any small objects that might fall out of your hands or off the cliff face.

While these answers aren't really related to indoor climbing or bouldering, they are relevant to climbing in general.

5

One thing is that I doubt it's possible to train the toes to have significant strength; unlike the fingers, they are simply not built for that job. And most of the time, you have a lot more weight on your feet than on your hands. Injury and strain would be a big problem.

Then there's the sweating: there's actually more sweat glands in your soles than anywhere else on your body! And you can't use them to get chalk directly; I don't even want to think about going one-armed and one-footed to reapply chalk while hanging in a tricky spot...

Finally, the most important factor is probably that the rubber soles of climbing shoes are a much bigger aid to your climbing than you seem to realize; it's very specialized rubber specifically designed to give you maximum grip on tiny footholds.

Not the latter two points might not apply if you had toe-shoes specifically designed for climbing, but the first one still holds.

  • Click here for a guy chalking his feet! – Tullochgorum Apr 6 '15 at 21:52
  • Referring to the links I gave above: Chalking the feet is no issue in the Saxony Swiss because chalk is prohibited anyway :) – Wills Apr 6 '15 at 22:17
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    Ballet dancers can put their entire bodyweight on the tip of one big toe. I can't. Presumably therefore it is possible to train toes for strength? – aucuparia Aug 1 '17 at 10:17
  • @Tullochgorum I see a rope, and trad gear, but no harness... Is that guy trad climbing barefoot with naught but a waist belt? – ShemSeger Aug 1 '17 at 16:18
  • @ShemSeger - you're right - it does look like he's only got a waist belt. But his footwear choices would suggest that comfort and safety aren't too high on his list of priorities! Anyway, although it is too extreme even for a "barefoot" walker like me, it seems that barefoot climbing really is a thing. Here's someone who sport-climbs to a high standard in bare feet: outsideonline.com/2043921/… – Tullochgorum Aug 1 '17 at 22:30
3

Barefoot climbing is awesome. You learn to to climb more intuitive and natural. To a barefoot climber haveing shoes on is like climbing with no feeling in your legs. You have no idea what is going on with special awareness with shoes on. To a barefoot climber there is no way to progress with shoes on. You also learn bad technique with shoes. No hand foot matches, always heel hooking(an epidemic lol) and shoe climbers never use high feet with any understanding of how to use them. Falling is scetchier so soft catches are a must but the extra feeling you get makes falling fun so I say the future is bare foot climbing and sometimes shoes for the send on certain climbs but not to much or climbers won’t get better

-6

the real reason you shouldn't go climbing mountains barefoot is that you can't walk back to get medical attention if you cut your foot.

for indoor climbing try a pair of sock-shoes, there are a few brands available online

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