The Jack of All Trades: Modern Approach Shoes
Whether roadside belaying at Rifle or hiking 10 miles into the Sierra backcountry, most climbers today wear approach shoes. They tend to be more supportive than running shoes, more streamlined than hiking boots, and have stickier soles than any other light shoes on the market.
Dozens of approach shoes are available, nearly all of which are advertised for both hiking and easy climbing. This makes me cringe. Sure, most approach shoes are better than nothing, but unless you’re comfortable soloing 5.9 in flip-flops it’s best to choose wisely when planning to climb in approach shoes. The most important factor in deciding which ones to buy is how they fit your particular feet.
After writing extensive rock and approach shoe reviews for Climbing magazine over the last three years, I’ve become intimately acquainted with what most companies are producing. I have a foot fetish – what can I say? I’ve personally worn the majority of available approach shoes. For the rest, I’ve relied on detailed feedback from more than 20 testers who – just like me – have hiked, scrambled, climbed, and cruised downtown in them.
I’ve chosen the three best climbing approach shoes – all low-tops – from three different companies. All have different features for various applications, but all of these babies will get you to the cliff in style and climb as hard as you push them.
Designed by the late John Bachar, the Scrambler ($110)is aptly named, as it’s basically a souped up rock shoe, more at home on rock than on the trail. The Scrambler has a flat, rubber sole made with Acopa RS rubber, a low toe profile, and generous toe and heel rands. These are the only approach shoes that perform as well as a loose pair of rock shoes, especially on cracks and slabs. All-leather uppers – with a fancy, red and white retro look – guarantee the shoes will stretch and mold to your feet. I sized my pair on the tight side, and am glad I did.
The trade-off for high performance is the lack of cushion and support for approaches. The wedge-shaped EVA midsole is comfortable and sensitive, but minimal. Very long walks on rough terrain will leave your feet and legs more beat up than with most other, beefier approach shoes.
That said, the Acopa Scrambler made the top three because it fills a niche that no other shoe company has addressed: short trails and miles of rock. Think Flatirons, Joshua Tree, Red Rocks, Bishop, the Gunks, Hueco Tanks …
Five-Ten Guide Tennie
The Guide Tennie ($99)is one of the most popular approach shoes on the market. It’s durable enough for rough approaches, yet it climbs remarkably well. This shoe is a favorite among Yosemite Valley locals. I’m willing to bet the Guide Tennie has climbed El Capitan more than any other approach shoe.
Full, reinforced leather uppers, compression molded EVA midsoles, and a new, internal rocker offer comfortable walking support. Stealth C4 dotted rubber soles are super sticky, and thin enough for high sensitivity on slabs and edges. The high toe rand jams cracks with aplomb and the ankle-to-toe laces offer a fine-tuned fit for climbing.
The down side of the thin, sensitive sole is foot fatigue, noticeable only on super long walks and hours standing in aiders. It doesn’t climb quite as well as Acopa’s Scrambler, but it will take you farther on the trail.
This is a perfect shoe for medium-length approaches, moderate climbing, and big walls routes with some easy free climbing. The Guide Tennie now comes in a narrow-lasted women’s version.
La Sportiva Ganda
The Ganda ($215) is much stiffer than the Scrambler and Guide Tennie, due in part to the board last in the rear of the shoe and the thick rubber sole. It’s also the heaviest of the three, the most durable, and the best suited for long approaches over rough terrain. The Vibram sticky dot rubber compound on the sole grips rock remarkably well but wears quickly over miles of trail. No worries though. The Ganda is made to withstand several resoles.
The Ganda is built around an anatomical polyurethane midsole that molds to your foot. The front of the shoe is slip lasted, giving it more flexibility and comfort for walking. This also improves its smearing performance. The uppers are part leather/part synthetic with sticky rubber heel and toe rands. It also comes with a sock liner stiffener to insert after the approach and before the climb for even better edging than it already has.
The only real drawback to The Ganda is its price – nearly twice the cost of most other approach shoes. But when you’re climbing confidently on the Diamond, the Incredible Hulk, the Tetons, and in the Bugaboos, I bet you won’t miss that extra $100.