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How and When to Wear Socks With Climbing Shoes

Last updated January 24, 2022| Gear

Being a good climber is about more than just being strong. You also need to be flexible, agile and have a great sense of balance. And wearing socks with climbing shoes can help you develop these attributes.

However, wearing climbing socks or not has been a subject of controversy among climbers. Some purists argue that socks are not necessary and could actually detract from performance. But wearing socks with climbing shoes can be beneficial if you know when and how to do it.

Below, you will learn how socks with climbing shoes impact your climbing performance and what you should keep in mind when wearing a pair of socks when climbing.

How and When to Wear Socks With Climbing Shoes

A Little History About Climbing Socks

For many years, it was the norm for people to wear socks with their climbing shoes. Back in the day, mountaineers wore boots that had nails at the toes and thick woolen socks – until sneakers became more popular as technical rock climbing progressed. In the 1970s, specialized rubber-soled climbers were introduced; but even then there wasn’t a lot of interest in going sockless or barefoot.

Even though models like the Boreal Fire and La Sportiva Mariacher marked big steps forward in the 70s and 80s, the shoes still did not offer a tight enough fit. The biggest climbers at that time (including John Bachar, Peter Croft and John Long) all wore socks when performing their legendary climbs.

How and When to Wear Socks With Climbing Shoes

John Bachar climbs a 200-foot rock near Yosemite Valley in 1984, using no ropes.(Los Angeles Times)

Today’s designs are made specifically for going without any footwear whatsoever; 95% of all climbers don’t use socks.

So why do 95% of climbers don’t wear any socks when climbing nowadays, and what’s different for the other 5% of climbers?

Why Some People Wear Climbing Socks and Others Don’t

Whether you wear socks while climbing or not is mostly dependent on personal preferences. Hence, opinions on this matter are hugely divided among beginner and advanced climbers.

Climbing socks clearly have their advantages, so why would you not wear socks with climbing shoes? There are many reasons why some climbers choose to go sockless while others don’t. Some climbers prefer socks because they find it easier to grip the rock, while other people feel socks can reduce sensitivity and precision needed for very difficult climbs. Other climbers believe socks in climbing shoes can prevent the feet from reaching their natural limits by limiting their ability to expand and contract.

Some climbers don’t find socks comfortable as they are tight and can reduce circulation in the feet, which is vital if you plan on going a long way up for your climb.

Why People Wear Socks With Climbing Shoes

When asked why people wear socks with their climbing shoes, the general consensus seems to be around 1 major advantage: improved comfort when climbing.

The majority of climbers who wear socks do so because they are either used to it, or because their climbing shoes don’t feel comfortable without them. If the latter is the case, this usually means the climbing shoes you are using are not the right fit, as your shoes should not feel so uncomfortable that the only bearable way of climbing is with socks.

Climbing shoes come in many shapes and sizes, but you need to find the one that fits your foot. If you’re not sure where to start then read our climbing shoe buying guide on finding the best climbing shoes and how to choose between brands such as Five Ten, Evolv and La Sportiva. There are a lot of factors at play!

Now, if you prefer climbing with socks because your feet feel more comfortable, there’s nothing preventing you from doing so. The “right fit” is entirely subjective and socks may just offer you that little extra feet comfort you are looking for when climbing.

Climbing Socks and Sensitivity

Whether you are wearing socks or not, it is vital that you get the right shoes for your feet – if they don’t fit properly then your climbing performance will suffer. Climbing shoes should be worn snug, not tight and uncomfortable.

Now, if your toes are closer to the rock, you’ll have a greater sense of feeling on the surface. This increased sensitivity does potentially come with some additional discomfort.

When you push down onto a small hold, foot placement is very important. You want your toe to be in the right place – pushed back into the area where you saw a tiny little crevice. This will give you more confidence and hopefully keep you on better footing.

Other Reasons to Wear Socks With Climbing Shoes

Socks do indeed ensure that your feet are more comfortable and you get a better fit in climbing shoes. This can help to prevent blistering and the socks also act as an additional layer that keeps your feet warmer, which for cold-weather climbers is very welcome.

But there are also a few other situations when wearing socks with climbing shoes is a good idea.

Rental Shoes

First, many beginners rent climbing shoes from their gym. If you’re renting shoes, we recommend wearing socks for hygiene reasons. We recommend getting a pair of antimicrobial sports ankle socks, which kill bacteria and improve overall hygiene, while also offering some additional comfort.

Also, there’s a risk of infections that could be transmitted through your rental shoes. If a previous climber has broken skin on his/her toes or nails, you can end up with fungal infections such as Athlete’s Foot if the shoes haven’t been cleaned and disinfected.

How and When to Wear Socks With Climbing Shoes

Old Climbing Shoes

An old pair of climbing shoes that you bought too big or has stretched out over time can be saved by wearing socks with them. Wearing the sock will fill up any empty space in the shoe, and it provides extra comfort for your feet. Many climbers have both a “comfort” pair of older climbing shoes they use while climbing in a gym, and another pair of (aggressive) rock climbing shoes for more challenging outdoor routes where precision footwork is required.

The downside is socks do tend to make older shoes smell worse after a while because sweat tends to get trapped within their fibers.

Big Walls & Multi-pitches

On bigger walls and in multi-pitch situations, extreme precision is often not required. Make it yourself comfortable by wearing socks on those longer routes; they will improve your comfort and offer an additional layer to keep your feet warm on colder days.

The last thing you want is to scale a big wall and start suffering painful or cold feet halfway through. your climb.

Socks For Crack Climbing

To prevent your feet from abrasion and grinding against rocks, many climbers use socks when crack climbing. If you jam your foot and a crack, you can get injured and socks are a great way to give yourself that extra layer of protection. Often, people also wear slightly larger/wider climbing shoes for the same reasons.

To Prevent Smells With Sweaty Feet

Lastly, wearing socks with climbing shoes is a good idea if you have exceptionally sweaty feet when climbing. They can save you from some serious smell issues and it’s a lot easier to wash them than a pair of stinky climbing shoes.

Disadvantages of Wearing Climbing Socks

Although socks do add comfort, they don’t necessarily improve performance.

We already talked about sensitivity when climbing with socks. Socks can reduce sensitivity and your ability to ‘feel’ the rock. Some gym rats commonly ditch socks for this reason;

However, if you invest in a lightweight sock (like the ones we will recommend below), it will have little to no effect on you or your shoes’ climbing abilities.

Also, your heel is often more susceptible to slipping on large heel hooks, which is especially troubling when you need a gnarly heel hook on a bouldering problem.

Finally, Wearing a sock can also make your foot slide around in the shoes – especially if you start to sweat.

If socks work best for you, feel free to stick with what works!

How and When to Wear Socks With Climbing Shoes

The Best Socks for Climbing

When you decide to wear socks with your climbing shoes, you need to consider which socks to get. Mostly, the thinner the sock the better. If you buy thicker socks, your shoes can fastly become more uncomfortable.

Many climbers recommend Wigwam socks for climbing, they are thin socks that come up to your ankle with a bit of cushioning. Another type that is often used is running socks, and they tend to be just as good as climbing socks.

Keep in mind that there isn’t a specific sock for each shoe model or material so you may need to try a few socks before you find the one that is just right for you.

Final Thoughts

Wearing socks with your climbing shoes offers a number of benefits, but there are also disadvantages.

If you’re planning on wearing socks to improve the comfort and warmth of your feet while climbing, it is important that they be thin socks such as Wigwam socks or running socks. Thick socks will make your shoe uncomfortable and can even compromise precision when rock climbing because they reduce sensitivity.

When navigating big walls or multi-pitch routes where extreme precision isn’t required, sock wear may help you stay comfortable throughout the climb by providing an extra layer for warmth in cold weather conditions. However, if you’re seeking maximum control over footwork and heel hooks then ditch those socks!

However, if you want to wear socks with climbing shoes, feel free to stick with what works!

Recommended reading

A Rock Climber’s Guide to the Basics of Climbing Footwork

A Rock Climber’s Guide to the Basics of Climbing Footwork

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How to Break in Climbing Shoes: The Definitive Guide

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The Best Climbing Shoes for Beginners in 2023

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The Best Climbing Shoes for Men in 2023

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The Best Climbing Shoes for Women in 2023

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