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Approach shoes are a fun type of outdoorsy footwear that grant the wearer fundamental climbing capabilities (smearing, edging, jamming) while offering support that lands somewhere between a proper trail running shoe (or hiking boot) and a standard everyday sneaker.
Many options on the market come from rock climbing shoe companies who slap their highly specialized, sticky rubber compounds onto more typical footwear designs intended for climbers to wear with socks on varied terrain. (Our deepest condolences if you’re one of those people that wears socks in their climbing shoes.)
What Makes a Good Approach Shoe?
A good approach shoe should provide two prime traits: traction and support. The distance from the trailhead to start of a climbing route can be several miles of rugged trail or backcountry travel, and a pack full of gear is going to put some extra weight over your two feet. Those same two feet are going to need sticky rubber soles to hold fast over bouldery trails, too.
Our only hangup with approach shoes is that the hyper-functional but outrageous technical climbing aesthetic can be a bit much for those of us looking to fly under the radar. The following ten options, however, are more subtle, yet will still keep you on your feet and in control whether you're running down the subway platform to catch a closing door or scrambling a descent on a chunk of talus.
When Five Ten founder Charles Cole bestowed upon the climbing world his Five Tennie, the approach shoe was born. It has been revived with modern construction and materials, but its lively 80's colorway lives on and hearkens to the shoe's early provenance. (Don't worry, it comes in black too.) A modified version of Five Ten's Stealth rubber dot soles go to work sticking on a variety of surfaces.
A technical update to a classic mountaineering design, these handsome options from everyone’s favorite Dead Bird brand feature 3D-molded toe caps, thick leather uppers, and a beefy lugged Vibram outsole for traction on even the slickest surfaces.
La Sportiva’s TX series offers some of the best approach shoes available and come with a very technical look to go with those chops. The sturdy TX Guide sits in the middle of the high-performing range, providing a decent level of support at a manageable weight and no shortage of grip, with extra credit due to the funky two-tone Vibram sole. Laces travel well down to the toe, but this shoe, designed for climbing guides, is easily one of the most casual-looking options from Sportiva.
The Catalyst stands out as one of few options designed from the ground up to function as both an everyday shoe and a trail shoe, with heavy inspiration from the approach shoe category. The design-forward 1TRL version features recycled materials in the lining, laces, webbing, and even 30% of its Vibram EcoStep sole. The standard Catalyst Suede version lacks sustainable materials but maintains the casual trail style.
Women's Option: No
Price: $120 SHOP NOW
Borrowing its name from the taxonomic title of mountain-trekking goats, the Caprine is a lightweight everyday shoe from Portland OG bootmakers Danner, whose stylings bring a bit of mountain vibe to your everyday wear. Suede uppers are shaded to give the visual effect of a wraparound rand guard, but it’s simply for style. When you’re ready to head for the hills, a mini-lug sole will do a fine job of gripping onto most trail surfaces, save for slicker rock faces that warrant bonafide climbing rubber compounds.
This casual number comes from the Italian footwear maestro’s at Scarpa. The Kalipe is so simple in design that the uninitiated might not even be able to recognize it as anything more than a regular sneaker. Protective rubber caps at both ends and multicolor woven laces sprinkle in some functional mountain style, and a grippy Vibram MegaGrip sole features a flat patch over the forefoot for edging surfaces.
A recent entry into the arena, Black Diamond now has a small collection of approach shoes that are intended for both lifestyle and hard-wearing use. The Session falls slightly more into that lifestyle category while fitting in some smart features. Our favorite is an elastic strap across the heel that makes for easy on-and-off while maintaining a snug fit. This heel also folds down easily (think: self-inflicted flat tire) so there's no excuse to be caught barefoot while giving a belay.
From the footwear offshoot of fashionable retailer Slam Jam, the Italian-made Katharina shoe takes significant design cues from approach shoes to create a premium low-top hiker that’s as capable as it is expensive. The silhouette launched in early 2022 as part of ROA’s Cave collection in two colorways, with the option for suede or sturdy nylon uppers protected by wraparound rubber rands. The heeled Vibram Megagrip outsole guarantees traction on the most rugged surfaces you can throw under it.
Women's Option: Unisex sizing
Price: $450 SHOP NOW
Portland footwear brand Keen took plenty of inspiration from climbers (and climbing shoes) when designing their playful Jasper shoe, which features tongue-to-toe lacing. The low-profile soled shoe leans towards lifestyle applications, but it's perfectly serviceable for less demanding approaches where a more rugged option overshoots the need. For those interested in wetter climates, it’s also available in a waterproof suede version.
Evolv's Rebels read more like a skate shoe than an approach shoe in our eyes, and that's pretty cool. Being that it's actually capable of smearing granite thanks to the sticky Trax rubber outsole means it probably shouldn't be your first choice on griptape–but by all means don't let us stop you from pulling off tre flips at the crag. Love animals? They come in a vegan version too.