What are approach shoes? Our guide to this popular purchase for climbers and hikers alike

what are approach shoes: approach shoes
What are approach shoes? Our guide reveals all... (Image credit: Getty)

We often are asked: what are approach shoes and how do they differ from climbing shoes, hiking shoes and trail running shoes? Approach shoes appeared on the market about 30 years ago, occupying the middle ground between hiking and climbing, offering the comfort of a hiking shoe, with the sticky grip of a rock-climbing shoe.

The ‘approach’ in approach shoes refers to their use by rock climbers. Often – especially in the mountains – the technical part of a climb is reached by walking substantial distances and scrambling over easier terrain to reach the main cliff, crag or buttress. Once the climbing is finished, there’s usually a bit of a hike back to the trailhead. Climbing shoes are not designed for walking, as anyone who has ever tried to cover any sort of distance in them will know. They’re pretty uncomfortable.

what are approach shoes

Rock climbing shoes are very uncomfortable to walk in (Image credit: Getty)

However, wearing heavy hiking boots to approach a crag used to mean that climbers  had to then haul their weight up as they climbed: not ideal. The lighter option of wearing hiking shoes or trail running shoes hits a snag once technical ground is encountered before the main climb. Here we're talking about terrain too challenging for shoes that are designed to grip muddy trails, rather than rock faces.

Enter the approach shoe, the ideal halfway house between the climbing shoe and the best hiking shoe. They are much comfier than climbing shoes for taking on hard scrambles and easier climbs, the sort where you still might be moving fast and doing plenty of walking and clambering between more vertical sections. Meanwhile, the grippy soles of an approach shoe give you much more confidence and stability in this potentially dangerous middle ground between scrambling and climbing.

In short, if you're a rock climber who often heads to the mountain crags or an adventurous hiker who enjoys scrambling and easy climbing, approach shoes are exactly the right fit for you.

What are approach shoes? The features

Approach shoes

Approach shoes are subtly different to hiking shoes (Image credit: Ross Taylor)

What is an approach shoe in terms of its features? Well, approach shoes are not that dissimilar to a standard hiking shoe or even some trail running shoes, but they have a couple of important differences. The first is that they are normally shod with the same rubber used on climbing shoes, which is a softer, more sticky compound that gives way more grip on rocky terrain. Standard hiking shoes use a harder rubber compound that is more durable but doesn’t provide anywhere near the grip on rock. 

Secondly, approach shoes tend to be a bit stiffer across their length for edging, a rock climbing term for using the side of your shoe to step on small holds or ‘edges’ sticking out of the rock. This rigidity is what makes approach shoes more suitable when it comes to safety on technical ground. As well this, they are usually narrower for jamming into cracks in the rock. Many approach shoes will also have a rubber rand around the side to provide more grip when they’re placed in cracks, which also protects the shoe’s stitching from being damaged.

As a rule, approach shoes also have a loop on the heel tab that is easily clipped into a karabiner and attached to a harness. This makes them easily interchangeable with climbing shoes, which have the same feature.

What are approach shoes? The uses

What are approach shoes' main uses? Approach shoes are obviously primarily designed for climbers, who spend most of their time in rocky places and enjoy the increased security and safety of having something super secure on their feet when accessing crags. Many climbing guides also wear them when taking their clients up easy routes. Working out what kind of difficulty level you are comfortable with in approach shoes compared to climbing shoes means having a good grasp of climbing rating systems and the experience of a few climbs under your belt – or harness, as it were.

Approach shoes are also preferable to hefty winter boots when there's a long walk in to a winter walk or climb. There's no need to trudge along easy trails for kilometer after kilometer in your B2s if there's room in your day pack for them. Instead, give your feet a rest and let them enjoy the feel of approach shoes until you reach the snow line. Bear in mind though, that approach shoes won't keep your feet warm like winter boots will, so there's always a compromise.

They are also perfect for hikers who enjoy traversing exposed, rocky ridge lines or enjoy hikes with some easy scrambling. The only downside for some hikers may be the extra stiffness or lack of insulation in cold weather, although there are some heavier approach shoes designed for the greater ranges that are better insulated.

what are approach shoes

Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell completed the Fitz Roy Traverse in Patagonia mainly using approach shoes (Image credit: Getty)

What is an approach shoe to the very best in the business? Do the pros and stars of the rock-climbing world bother with them. Well, in the right hands (or feet, to be accurate), approach shoes also have the ability to take on some formidable vertical terrain, as proved by legendary climbers Alex Hannold and Tommy Caldwell. The American duo mostly wore approach shoes on the long-awaited Fitz Roy Traverse in Patagonia, often climbing together up to a grade of 5.10 (as hard as most regular climbers will ever climb) in their approach shoes. They only switched to proper rock climbing shoes when things got a little too tasty.

What are approach shoes? How to choose

Approach shoes

It's important to test approach shoes before you take them out properly (Image credit: Ross Taylor)

The first commercial approach shoe was the legendary Five Ten Guide Tennie, but these days nearly all climbing-shoe brands produce their own approach shoes, including the following:

The best way to pick an appropriate approach shoe is to try a bunch on and see how they feel. If you imagine approach shoes on a continuum between a pure climbing shoe and a pure hiking shoe, then you’ll find that some models will be more focused on rock performance while others are aimed at the hiking end of the spectrum. If you enjoy trad climbing or often head onto long, multi-pitch sport climbing routes, you will want something that is geared towards rock performance, with a stiffer sole, sticky rubber and performance fit.

Whereas if you’re after more comfort for walking and occasional scrambling, you can get something softer and less specialised with bigger sole lugs for muddy trails.

Alex Foxfield

Alex is a freelance adventure writer and mountain leader with an insatiable passion for the mountains. A Cumbrian born and bred, his native English Lake District has a special place in his heart, though he is at least equally happy in North Wales, the Scottish Highlands or the European Alps. Through his hiking, mountaineering, climbing and trail running adventures, Alex aims to inspire others to get outdoors. He's the former President of the London Mountaineering Club, is training to become a winter mountain leader, looking to finally finish bagging all the Wainwright fells of the Lake District and is always keen to head to the 4,000-meter peaks of the Alps. www.alexfoxfield.com