Reading some of the product descriptions is sometimes like looking at another language. Am I symmetric or asymmetric? What volume is my foot? Why do they keep talking about lasts? These are maybe some of the questions that you could find your self asking when looking for a new pair of shoes. 

This section of our sites explains some of the common terminology used and what that means to you!

Shoe material

Leather or Synthetic?

There are 2 main types of material used in the body (the upper) of the climbing shoe – leather or synthetic. If you are Vegan then you will of course want to head straight to the synthetic option and we have a section on our site dedicated to Vegan products.

But what are the advantages/disadvantages of each:


Leather is a reliable material that has been used on climbing shoes for a long time. The benefits that it gives are in its strength to weight ratio and its ability to hold the shape of the shoe. Leather shoes are renowned for stretching more than synthetic shoes due to the nature of the material but this can be minimised by looking for a lined shoe. Stretch will vary between models and depending on how tight you size them but it can be as much as 1 size so you want to ensure a snug fit to account for this. Leather shoes are also known for the dye used in the colouring process to bleed on to your feet so don’t be alarmed when you take your shoe off to find some colour transfer to your foot!


Synthetic shoes are becoming more and more popular, especially in the higher end models from brands. This is because synthetic shoes have a much lower stretch tolerance and therefore you can be assured that the out of the box fit is going to remain as you wear the shoes in. Some of the other benefits is that shoe manufacturers are now beginning to use perforated material which allows more breathability.


The last is very simply the shape that the shoe was built around to give it structure. As everyone’s feet are slightly different shapes and sizes, manufacturers will use different lasts on their range to try and accommodate for as many people as possible.

Symmetric or asymmetric last?

A symmetric last is best for climbers where your big toe is not the furthest forward. This means that the shoe can be slightly more rounded and more accommodating for your toe ensemble. These shoes also make good all day shoes as there is generally more room in the front of the shoe giving a more comfortable fit.

An Asymmetric last builds the shoe around the big toe being the most forward of all your toes. This design means more precision with foot placements and lends itself well to aggressive downturned shoes.

Flat, mid or downturned

If you place a range of shoes on a flat surface you will see that the amount of space under the arch of the foot tends to vary across models. The reason for this is by arching the foot it puts more power and precision towards the toe meaning better accuracy on smaller holds can be achieved. This works particularly well with overhanging climbs. The shoes with the most ‘arch’ in them are referred to as downturned shoes.

A flat shoe gives a more neutral position and you will find this in more entry levels shoes where you  may need more support having not built up strength and confidence in standing on the very end of your toes.

A mid range shoe tends to have a be slightly downturned giving a good compromise between performance and comfort. 

The other advantage of a downturned shoe is that it also puts more tension through the heel of the shoe. This means that they are less likely to come off when heel hooking holds.


The toebox is the shape of the shoe at the front that unsurprisingly – is where your toes sit! The shape of the toebox varies from different models and is usually most important to how the shoe fits. Everyone’s toes are different shapes and lengths and this is why it is important to try different models to see which one fits your foot the best.



This is usually a piece of plastic (or similar) that is sandwiched between the sole and the base of the climbing shoe. This determines how stiff the climbing shoe is. Generally speaking, entry level shoes have a stiffer, longer midsole to offer the foot more support. As you progress in climbing and you build strength in your feet and legs relative to climbing, you can afford to wear shoes with thinner midsoles (and sometimes no midsole!). The advantage of this is that you get more sensitivity of the holds and can begin to use the shoe to pull into footholds.

In higher end models the midsole tends to only be at the front of the shoe and can vary in shape to give different levels of support. This is why it will be easier to smear and heel hook in higher end shoes as they are more flexible and allow the foot to bend more easily.


The slingshot is the piece of rubber that goes around the back of the heel. This determines how much your toes are pushed towards the front of the shoe. On entry level shoes the angle of the slingshot is generally quite gentle but as you move into more advanced shoes the angle gets steeper pushing your toes right to the front to ensure that there is minimal space and you get the tightest fit possible.

LV or women’s shoes

Different brands have differing opinions on what makes a women’s shoe. Some brands such as La Sportiva believe that there is no real difference in the shape of women’s feet compared to men’s but do understand that often women are lighter than men so make their shoes slightly softer to accommodate this.

Other brands such as Scarpa, Tenaya and Evolv make changes to the actual last of the shoe as they believe that the shape of women’s feet is different and lower in volume hence why these shoes often get referred to as LV shoes.

Are Women’s shoes only for Women? No! If you have narrower feet or are a lighter climber then you may well find that the women’s or LV models are the ideal shoe for you.

Written by Ben Read

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