You might be wondering with the question: Just what exactly are approach shoes? They look like your regular trail kicks, so why not simply call them “hiking shoes”? For the rock climbing enthusiast, shoes that fall under this category need no introduction, but for the seemingly uninitiated or just uninformed, they do. Approach hikers are a hybrid of sorts, falling somewhere between standard hiking footwear and rock climbing shoes. To put it simply, they are most suitable for the approach—that specific journey leading towards the base of that climbable rock.
Characteristics that set approach shoes apart from regular hikers
Best approach shoes - November 2019
They have stickier outsoles, crafted specifically for adhering to rock surfaces and steep terrain. These outsoles are also built extra tough so that they may be used for jamming into pockets on low-grade or warm-up climbs.
Approach shoes are extra rigid overall to give it a kind of durability that can withstand the beatings of craggy terrain.
Their uppers have protective and extra-sticky rands, usually at the forefoot, to help climbers purchase edges without the need to switch to their preferred rock climbing shoes.
Technologies seen in men's and women's approach shoes
To own a pair of these kicks means to know some of the technologies that make approach traversals convenient, enjoyable even. Whether you are looking to keep your feet dry throughout your trip or you prefer to have enhanced underfoot grip over rocky surfaces, chances are such tech exists. The following are technologies considered staples in approach shoes:
Sticking to surfaces and sticking well is a priority, if not THE top priority, in approach shoes (or in any type of outdoor footgear for that matter). In this ballgame, Vibram, arguably, takes most of the cake. Hiking products built for approach endeavors often have outsoles engineered with the Megagrip compound which provides wearers with enough surface traction over a variety of surfaces, whether wet or dry. If the path leading to your favorite rock climbing area involves more elevation, a Vibram outsole with Climbing Zone is never a bad idea.
Are you tired of getting soaked feet after every approach? Treat yourself to a pair that are engineered with one of Gore-Tex’s waterproof membranes (Extended Comfort and Performance Comfort come to mind). Getting to your favorite climbing spot may not be as long as your regular day hike, but the journey may be just as unpredictable weather-wise. As such, being in Gore-Tex-imbued shoes is considered a wise choice. In addition to waterproofing, footwear products with Gore-Tex also have adequate internal breathability.
It is quite easy to know whether the shoes you are eyeing are engineered with Gore-Tex technology—they often have names that end in GTX. Footwear with this waterproofing will also have the Gore-Tex logo stitched on or glued to the upper.
Products made for approach trips need all the underfoot cushioning they can provide. In light of this, many footwear brands turn to Ortholite to deliver a level of plushness that could make rocky and uneven terrain comfy to walk on. If you are prone to sweaty feet, look for shoes that come with Ortholite footbeds with anti-microbial properties.
Shanks are quite needed in approach shoes in that they give each pair enhanced stiffness to grant owners more support underfoot. While not owned by any one company by default, shanks are often personalized by known brands and given trademarked names—each promising some improvements to the midsole’s offered support system.
Can I use my approach shoe with a shank for backpacking?
While it is true that a rigid sole is pretty much a requirement for backpacking (as more rigidity often translates to better balance and support), an approach shoe may not have all the other features of a beefy backpacking boot for such adventures. Also, shoes intended for approach outings may not have the longevity of boots built especially for multi-day escapades.
Things to consider when purchasing approach shoes
Randing. The terrain along the route you frequent should dictate the amount of rand your next pair should have. This protective coating is often seen covering the forefoot of many approach shoes; however, some are built with full rand coverage, reinforcing even the entire toe box, for even more protection against abrasive hazards. Note that most rands are made of rubber, and the more area they cover, the heavier the shoe gets.
Waterproofing. If you are someone who prefers to stay dry in the inclement weather, consider buying a pair of waterproof approach shoes. Gore-Tex is among the top brands to look out for when scouting for such kicks, although rival waterproofing companies have gained traction in the approach scene over the years too. If perhaps the approach paths you take do get little-to-no rain year round, you may instead opt for a pair without waterproofing which should be less expensive than waterproof ones.
Outsole. This layer, which is often made entirely of rubber, is the bread-and-butter of any type of shoe when it comes to surface traction. In approach shoes, however, extra-sticky low-profile lugs are common so as to help users latch on to boulder-like surfaces more effectively. Look for an outsole that has a smoother front end if the approach route you often take require some smearing and edging. An outsole with a heel brake may also be a plus for when tricky descents are part of your journey.
Support. Do you need extra security underfoot for that stretch winding to your rock climbing destination? Get a pair of shoes sporting a midsole with a shank. As mentioned in the previous section, the main purpose of a shank is to double down on support as it stiffens and reinforces the medial zone of the midsole. Besides improved supportiveness, it also gives users extra spring in their step, thereby granting enhanced comfort during strides.
Weight. Most shoes of this type come in low-cut variants and therefore are not that heavy in general. That said, if your climbing session requires you to bring climbing tools other than your rock climbing shoes, it would be wise to gear yourself up with the lightest pair possible.
What are the common characteristics of a lightweight approach shoe?
Its upper is made of synthetic materials—typically mesh fabric.
It has minimal rand coverage.
It is unlined or not engineered with a waterproof membrane.
Its midsole is without a shank. If somehow you require extra support around the arch, opt instead for a half-length shank, especially one that is made of nylon and not steel.
A lightweight approach shoe has a low-profile sole unit whose midsole is made of, preferably, EVA or ethylene-vinyl acetate.
Buying guide for getting the best-fitting approach shoes for men and women
Scout for your next pair of approach shoes sometime in the afternoon to early evening. The reason behind this is simple: the human foot swells and enlarges towards the afternoon, especially after doing some strenuous pedal activities (walking, running, jogging, etc.). You would be able to get the most accurate shoe size for your tootsies if you shop for footwear within these times.
Socks matter. When fitting approach shoes, make sure that you have on the socks you plan to wear on your next trip. They may be only a few millimeters in thickness, but they do factor in especially when snugness is part of the equation.
Toe box space is a must. Ideally, your big toe and the end of the toe box must have a breathing room of about half an inch to get a comfortable and pain-free fit. That said, you can opt for a tighter forefoot space if you intend to use your shoes for slightly more technical climbs.
Consider a pair in half sizes. If your toes tend to swim in full-size shoes more often than not, then perchance it is time to shop for approach-oriented footwear in half sizes. The takeaway here is that you can really zero in on the snugness or extra room you want to the T.
Mind your orthotics. By default, approach shoes come with removable insoles. This is excellent news for those who would rather remove them and slip in their preferred orthotics for even more personalized comfort. If you find yourself part of such a group of people, make sure to include your custom footbeds in the equation when test-fitting shoes.
Gender-specific fit. Just like regular hikers, many approach-centric pieces come in men and women’s versions. Most kicks built for men are engineered around lasts that offer extra volume, while women’s shoes put special emphasis on curves as they are crafted on more contoured lasts.
Test-run the gear. Once you have narrowed down your selection to a few pairs, find the time to walk/stride in them around the store to give yourself a general idea of the kind of performance they have on offer. While doing so, take note of any sign of discomfort, heel lift, or a combination of both. Since shoes, in general, have a softening phase (also known as break-in period), some pinching here and there is inevitable at the onset. That said, you must aim for a pair that yield minimal-to-no discomfort and heel lift.
Know the store’s return/refund policy. Sometimes you will not be able to tell if a pair fit well until you get to use them in a real-life scenario. What fit perfectly at the store may no longer be as accurate in an actual approach adventure. In such a situation, being able to return your newly bought shoes for a refund or replacement would prove to be a blessing. So before you bag that lucky pair, know your return/refund options with the store.
Be brave online. If the approach shoes you so desperately need are only available online, do not hesitate—make that purchase, especially if the store’s return/refund policy is that generous. What you can do is order two pairs: the first in your actual size, the second a half/full size smaller or larger (depending on your preference). Once you can tell which pair have a better fit, send back the other for a refund.
Brands that offer some of the best men’s and women’s approach shoes
If you are someone who has never shied away from the trail, whether on or off, chances are you have heard of an Italian footwear brand known as La Sportiva. Founded in 1928, this company is home to a variety of outdoor shoes for men and women, a decent bunch of which are, you guessed it, approach shoes. A good amount of their offerings (especially the TX series) are waterproof courtesy of Gore-Tex, so in such a pair come rain or shine, the lead-up to your go-to climbing location should pose no threat to your dry feet. Most brands are content with low-cut styles, but not La Sportiva. While their line-up indeed has a slew of low-top pieces, they do offer supportive mid-cut approach shoes as well.
In the world of approach and the footwear available for this particular activity, having options is never a bad thing—options that yet another Italian shoemaking company, in the name of Scarpa, so generously provides. Their selection consists of offerings catering to both men and women with some ankle-supportive variants thrown in the mix. Their approach products also consist of waterproof types and those that sport breathable uppers, ideal for arid regions and summer use.
A manufacturer of quality outdoor footwear founded in 1985 by Charles Cole, Five Ten (or 5.10) has a raft-load of approach hikers on offer. Many of their shoes are sneaker-like in terms of design, lending wearers not just adequate hiking performance but also a sense of style. Their approach pieces are not to be scoffed at either on the pricing front, as many of what they got are generally in favor of the budget-conscious. Fun fact: Adidas acquired Five Ten back in 2011, making their offerings distributed in the United States under the Adidas Outdoor banner.
Having felt the need to respond to the demands of climbers in their approach pursuits, Salewa has joined in the fray of approach footwear. Although their roster pales in comparison to the competition, what they got does not hold back in sturdiness. Indeed, their approach-centric shoes come with beefy soles with heavy-duty rands and generous amounts of protective upper overlays. When it comes to aesthetics, sporty is the name of the game in their approach line-up.
Head-to-Head: Approach Shoes vs. Rock Climbing Shoes
Approach hikers should not be confused with their close relatives climbing shoes. Approach shoes are used across the terrain leading to a climbing spot, while a rock climbing pair are for the ascent itself. Having that said, the following points will clear up further confusion between the two:
Walking comfort. Hikers built for approach pursuits have soles closely similar to most hiking footwear when it comes to overall build and thus provide sufficient cushioning over different types of terrain. Rock climbing shoes, on the other hand, are extra stiff and concave in construction (a design dictated by the aggressiveness of their downturn), making them not recommended for walking.
Fit. A well-fitting pair of approach shoes usually translate to a precise-yet-comfy interior where ample room is reserved around the toe box. In the case of rock climbing shoes, however, extra space is not an option; every inch needs to be in contact with the foot for precision.
Rand placement. While both products in this head-to-head come with rubber rands, the way they are placed are different in each type. Most approach shoes are randed at the forefoot for protection purposes, with some sticking power for mild edging. Climbing shoes, on the other hand, have rands covering a good portion of the toe box and heel zone to help users perform toe hooks and heel hooks respectively.
Usability beyond their intended purpose. Of the two, only hikers built for the approach can be used outside their area of expertise. They can be used for short hikes, especially over rocky ground, and even hanging around campsites.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the best approach shoes?
The answer to this question depends on several factors, most of which come from your personal preference. That said, to get the most enjoyment out of your approach escapades, prioritize comfort and fit in your next pair. If your feet sweat a lot and the places you frequent hardly receive moisture all year long, get something breathable without a waterproof liner. Do you have weak ankles? Scout for mid-top approach shoes instead. Their number is far less than low-top ones, but they do exist.
Are approach shoes good for walking?
Leisurely walks and strolls in approach hikers may not be as enjoyable as when you are in your regular sneakers. However, if you are at a rock climbing campsite, feel free to keep them on for some walking. Remember that the sole of an approach shoe has a kind of stiffness that could cause pain if not used on the types of terrain for which it is designed.
Can you run in approach shoes?
Approach shoes may not have the sole flexibility to give you comfort while doing so. If your outdoor adventures involve mostly running, your needs will likely be met or exceeded in a pair of trail runner instead.
Are approach shoes necessary?
Hikers of this sort are built especially for taking on approach routes, and therefore their utility takes center stage during such undertakings. They become quite useful when the terrain gets too rocky where the sticking power of their rubber soles and rands is required. That said, some more learned and experienced climbers opt for trail or backpacking shoes/boots instead.
How long do approach shoes last?
The lifespan of any given pair of approach shoes depends on several factors. One of them is the overall quality of their construction. Another is the frequency at which they are used. Then, there is how well they are taken care of and maintained. Speaking of care and maintenance, consider the following tips:
Keep them debris- and mud-free after every use. If your approach shoes are completely waterproof and if the brand permits, hose down foreign substances off them. You may use a soft-bristled brush to remove stuck dirt and other sticky substances from hard to reach areas like seams and treads. Tip: remove the footbeds if you prefer not to get them wet.
With the insoles taken out and debris removed from the inside, leave your gear to dry in a breezy and shady place—away from direct sunlight. To speed up the drying process, stuff the shoes with newspaper or like material.
If your approach hikers have leather parts, conditioning and waterproofing them is a wise choice. Treatments with the use of approved products can extend the longevity of such kicks by preventing them from getting soaked and catching mold with time.