Fitting Rock Shoes to Problematic Feet

My rock shoes are too tight, but a half size up is too loose. I want a performance fit, but without pain. Am I asking too much?


My rock shoes are too tight, but a half size up is too loose. I want a performance fit, but without pain. Am I asking too much?

—Onus via online.


I visited a sports-medicine expert up in Aspen yesterday, hoping he had a magic formula that didn’t include drugs or surgery for making my aching feet feel better. He examined my dogs, pulled and poked them, and concluded that I have “complicated” feet. They are stiff where they should flex, and have high arches.

Part of my problem is 40+ years’ worth of trying to get my feet to fit into rock shoes, rather than getting shoes that fit my feet. It doesn’t help that my feet, like yours, land in between sizes. A size 41 is too tight, 41.5 is loose. Even when a size seems right, which depends on the model, the shoe usually curves where my foot is straight and is narrow where my foot is wide.

Shoehorning your feet into shoes that are too small, then suffering in them until they stretch is the norm, but I’ve learned tricks that hasten the process.

Leather shoes, I’ve found, stretch more and faster than ones with synthetic uppers and tend to mold better to your feet. I almost exclusively climb in leather shoes. I get them a bit too small, then water stretch (below). Rock shoes with copious rubber on the uppers won’t stretch much, since rubber is elastic and unaffected by water anyway.

Water stretching is a technique as old as moccasins, and simple. Soak your shoes in hot water, drain and wear. Your footwear should stretch almost instantly. I do a few routes in the wet shoes to dial in the perfect fit. After use, the shoes will shrink a bit as they dry, but next time you wear them they should fit as if they were made just for you.

The risk of water stretching is the shoes might stretch too much (if they do, let them dry, and don’t wear for a week), or they could fall apart. The last is a mostly or entirely theoretical risk; I’ve heard it said but never had the problem myself, and I’ve water stretched dozens of shoes.

If water stretching seems too extreme, try a variation. Put a quart-sized, heavy-duty Ziplock baggie in each shoe, fill the baggies with water, lace up the shoes, and freeze. When the water turns to ice it will expand and stretch your shoes. This technique might add a quarter to half size to your shoes without getting them wet.

Last technique: Visit a cobbler and have him put your shoes on a stretcher. This takes just a few minutes and works well for spot stretching where you have a bunion or other malformation, such as a claw. Gear Guy has spoken!

This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 236 (August 2016).

Also read How to Stretch Climbing Shoes