Firstly, what in heaven’s name do you mean by soft and stiff?
Generally speaking, a soft climbing shoehas thinner rubber on the bottom and is more flexible. The stiffer the climbing shoe, the thicker the rubber and the less flexible is it. Some brands make different types of rubber, so it’s worth paying some attention to the qualities of the rubber itself too.
Stiffer shoes are more supportive
…and soft shoes are less supportive, so the muscles and ligament in your toes will be working harder when you wear soft shoes.
Generally speaking, your feet won’t get as tired in stiffer, more supportive shoes. This makes stiff climbing shoes ideal for new climbers who are still developing their toe muscles and ligaments. They’re also a better option when you’re going to be wearing your climbing shoes all day - getting the bouldering mileage in, trad climbing or doing long multi-pitch climbs.
That said, if you’re planning to downsize shoes considerably you’ll get a much snugger fit with a pair of compliant and flexible soft climbing shoes.
Softer shoes are more sensitive
With less rubber on the bottom of your feet, you’ll have a much better idea of what’s going on beneath them. This allows you to be more precise about your footwork, ideal for those delicate foot swaps on miniscule holds and especially noticeable when you really need to dig your feet in on a steep, overhanging problem.
That added sensitivity also helps you to develop your balance, technique and footwork – winner!
Stiffer shoes help you power down on small holds
Stiffer climbing shoes are unyielding - they don’t conform to the shape of the foothold. This means they create a solid platform for your foot that inspires confidence when you’re transferring all your weight onto that miniscule edge; the kind of platform that you can really push off on those dynamic moves or long reaches. Remember that vertical, crimpy slabs you’ve been rolling off for weeks? Well that, my friends, is stiff shoe terrain!
But… (why is there always a ‘but’?)
Softer shoes create more friction
There are some terrains that call for more ‘yielding’ rubber. Whereas stiff shoes create a platform that sits on top of a hold, a soft shoe will mould to the shape of that hold. This creates more surface contact and, ultimately, more friction – you’re more likely to stick to the hold. So soft shoes are much more effective for smearing or standing on volumes.
Does it really matter?
Yes and no: we don’t all need to carry two pairs of shoes round like Adam Ondra!
Like many aspects of climbing, it’s all about finding the right balance. In an ideal world we’d all have a pair of shoes for each climbing style (and preferably someone to break them in for us), but in the real world we have to make compromises (and break in our own shoes).
Shoe manufacturers understand this and design their shoes accordingly so that you aren’t limited to certain footholds by your choice of shoe. No matter the stiffness, climbing shoes are usually designed with a stiffer outer edge and softer mid-sole so that you can stand on both tiny holds and big volumes! After all, climbers aren’t known for following the rules...
Finally, remember that a soft shoe won’t automatically make you a smearing pro – a good shoe helps, but technique comes with practice and time.
Aaaah so what shoe should I get?
To sum up…
Get stiffer shoes if you’re:
- A new climber developing their foot and toe muscle,
- Climbing for long periods at a time,
- Looking for more ‘edging’ capabilities.
Get soft shoes if you’re:
- Downsizing your shoes considerably,
- Trying to develop foot strength to move onto the next level in your climbing,
- Looking for more sensitivity in your shoe, either to develop your precision and technique or dig into holds on steeper problems,
- Looking for a shoe that is better for smearing.
To be really sure, why not come along to the Hangar and put your footwork to the test in as many shoes as you can get your mitts on (or your feet in, I suppose).