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How to Break in Climbing Shoes: The Definitive Guide

Last updated January 24, 2022| Gear

Find the right pair of climbing shoes can be tricky, and very few climbers find their perfect match right away. It’s often a matter of trial and error before you find a pair that fits you well. But most likely, you will be trying on different pairs of shoes for different climbing styles.

But finding the right fit for climbing shoes has a lot to do with breaking them in. It is completely normal for climbing shoes to hurt a little when first trying them out, but as you start wearing them more often, they will eventually break in and become more comfortable. It’s important to remember that even the fitting shoes could be stiff when buying and will require break-in time!

Breaking in shoes is a struggle for both newcomers to rock climbing as well as experienced climbers. Climbing shoes that are too tight can cause unnecessary pain, even that much that you need to take them off after each session of rock climbing or bouldering. Finding a shoe that fits your foot correctly solves this problem.

In this guide, we will give you some practical tips on how to break in climbing shoes, so you can wear them without hurting your toes. As you will see, it’s not rocket science, but a matter of common sense and some basic foot care.

How to Break in Climbing Shoes: The Definitive Guide

Climbing Shoes Buying Tips

Before we dive in, let’s first look at some basic climbing shoe buying tips. These will be a good starting point for your quest!

  • First, determine the street shoe size, which is only a starting point
  • Look that the different areas of the shoe are not too loose/tight, they should fit snugly and feel secure;
  • Eliminate dead space in the area of your toes and heel but don’t fit so tight as to create hot spots;
  • The type and size of shoe that works for someone else might not work as well for you; never buy a shoe just because it looks good;
  • Often, your feet swell during the day (half a size to one full size), we recommend trying on shoes in the afternoon;
  • Rubber will not stretch, it may only become more pliable and comfortable.

For more tips on how to pick the right type of climbing shoes, we highly recommend checking out our 2022 climbing shoes buying guide!

How Much Can You Stretch Climbing Shoes?

How much you can stretch climbing shoes is mostly determined by a few factors: the material for your climbing shoes, such as lined or unlined leather, and the amount/location of rubber in your shoe. Unlined leather-upper climbing shoes stretch the most, up to a full shoe size or more. Lined leather may only stretch a half size, and synthetic uppers are usually not stretching at all. It’s important to keep these facts in mind when buying a new pair of climbing shoes.

As we mentioned before, rubber won’t stretch. The methods listed below are instead focused on stretching the upper of the climbing shoe.

Tips and Tricks for Breaking in New Shoes Quickly and Efficiently

Now that you’ve chosen the right climbing shoe and know to expect it to stretch, let’s discuss how to break them in. Here are five simple steps to break in your climbing shoes without causing pain or blisters.

1. Shower While Wearing Your Climbing Shoes

Although it might sound strange, putting on your climbing shoes while showering and covering your shoes in hot water is the single best way to help get them out of their box shape and stretch them.

After unpacking, just get into a hot shower for 5-10 minutes while periodically moving your foot and toes. Small movements such as wiggling your toes and flexing/extending your foot will help your shoes stretch under the hot water.

The hot water could bleed the dyes off your shoes and your feet are likely to get discolored a bit. Don’t worry, this isn’t harmful to your foot or shoe at all.

Once finished in the shower, walk around the house in them for about 15 to 30 minutes. Then take them off and stuff them with some newspaper to dry for a couple of hours. Before they have fully dried, it’s a good idea to wear them for a short climbing session; the movement will help them mold to your foot better. After climbing, use some newspaper again to finally dry your shoes completely.

Once done, they should already be stretched and comfortable enough for you to wear during your next rock climbing, indoor climbing or bouldering session!

Note, just like the other methods below, you may need to repeat this process to stretch your shoes even more. It all depends on the size and shape of your feet and how quickly your pair of climbing shoes start to feel comfortable.

How to Break in Climbing Shoes: The Definitive Guide

2. Use Ice Bags to Freeze Your Shoes

The second method may sound as weird and unexpected as the first, but it’s just as effective: using ice bags to freeze your shoes.

You know water expands as it freezes, so putting water inside the shoe and freezing it will expand and thus stretch your new pair of shoes.

The best way to put water in your shoes is by using an ice bag for each shoe. For this, you can just use simple zip-lock bags or plastic bags with water which you put in each shoe. Next, lace/velcro your shoes loosely and place them in the freezer for about 10 to 12 hours.

After a night in the freezer, take your climbing shoes out and leave them out long enough so that they are thawed completely. Although we mentioned this method is just as effective as showering with your shoes, it’s not 100% true. Using ice bags will stretch your shoes less and you may have to repeat the process more often, but it will allow you to stretch them for a more precise fit. Also, using cold water doesn’t require dying your feet in different colors, which is always a plus!

3. Blow Dry Your New Shoes

Another method that uses heat to help stretch your shoes is by blow-drying them.

Stuff the shoes with fabric or socks tightly and then use the blow dryer to heat them. Make sure to put the dryer on high, and warm up the leather upper for 2-3 minutes. While doing this, flex and bend the shoe several times and push the fabric/socks 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.

Finally, warm the shoes up one last time and take the fabric out. Put your climbing shoes on your feet and try them out with a short route or boulder problem if you can, otherwise just walk around for a minute.

The process will be stretching your shoes gradually, so you should repeat this process several times as needed, alternating between heating and flexing/stuffing the shoe.

How to Break in Climbing Shoes: The Definitive Guide

4. Wear a Plastic Liner on Your Feet

Removing the tightness from climbing shoes is no easy task, and it is mostly caused by the friction between your feet and the shoe. Most of us don’t realize how tight they are until we try on a new pair and hope that it stretches out within just a few minutes.

To break in climbing shoes, wrap your foot in saran wrap or plastic liner before putting your foot into the shoe. You will notice how easy it is to get your foot into the shoe now, and how much more comfortable it feels to wear them this way for a while, instead of how uncomfortable it felt before you wrapped your feet.

This method is best if you need to stretch your shoes a small amount, as it can be used when also employing other methods for synthetic uppers which don’t stretch but still need breaking in. Also, if you bought shoes that weren’t too tight to begin with, this is a great method for just that little extra stretching.

5. Wear Socks in Your Climbing Shoes

The fifth and final method we will discuss here is probably the easiest: just wear socks.

The topic of wearing socks while climbing has been debated a lot, but using them to break in shoes is less of a controversy.

Stretching your shoes while wearing socks is the simplest way to do it, because the extra volume inside your shoes will help them stretch more. For this, we recommend the thicker the socks, the higher the volume and the better/quicker this method will work.

How Can You Tell When Your Shoe is Fully Broken in?

Finally, you may be wondering how you know when your climbing shoe has been fully broken in.

This is closely related to figuring out how long it takes to break in a new pair of climbing shoes. However, there’s no one answer, but there are some clues. The first is how tight the shoe felt when you bought them – if they were already pretty comfortable at that point, then you should only need to do some minor stretching and using one of the above methods just once.

If you make sure to buy a proper fitting right away in combination with one or more of the above methods (and repeating when necessary), then your new climbing shoes should fit like a glove soon!

How to Break in Climbing Shoes: The Definitive Guide

Final Thoughts

Breaking in climbing shoes can be a frustrating process, we understand. But with the right methods, you should have your new pair of climbing shoes broken in and feeling like a second skin before you know it.

We hope this article has taught you all you need to know about how to break in climbing shoes and help you get that next pair of shoes stretched out without being painful for hours when your climb!

What’s next? If you’re looking for more tips on finding the right climbing shoes, we highly recommend checking out our 2022 climbing shoes buying guide, or our specific climbing shoes guide for beginners, men, women and children!

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