Well, we’ve talked about rubber, and lasts, so I suppose we should talk about uppers, then, shouldn’t we? I think that’s the subject we’ll tackle in this week’s Shanatomy discussion.
Uppers are interesting things. They can be made out of different materials. They offer different amounts of stretch. They can be lined or unlined. Some are more breathable than others. There are different fastening systems (a separate Shanatomy discussion for another day) for the uppers. So let’s dive into uppers, shall we?
Let’s start with the materials uppers can be made out of. Higher-end climbing shoes are likely going to have leather uppers. These can either be lined or unlined. Unlined leather uppers are going to take the most breaking-in and offer the most stretch when fully broken-in. The moisture from your feet is going to help the leather stretch to form-fit to your particular foot and this, depending on how aggressive the shoe is, may make the shoe downright comfortable, but even if it’s not “comfy”, it’ll fit YOUR foot as well as any shoe can. This is why it doesn’t work very well to borrow someone else’s broken-in climbing shoes… Those shoes are broken-in to fit their feet, not yours!
Unlined leather uppers can stretch a full shoe size. Lined leather isn’t going to stretch as much or offer as much give because the fabric it’s lined with won’t allow it to. You might get lined leather to stretch a half-size.
Synthetic uppers are going to be what-you-see-is-what-you-get right out of the box most of the time because they aren’t going to respond like leather to the moisture of your feet and don’t have the stretching capabilities that leather does. An example of this would be a climbing shoe with a mesh upper. This has advantages and disadvantages. If you want to know pretty much for a fact how your shoes are going to fit, and continue to fit for the life of the shoes, then synthetic uppers are for you. If you want a more form-fitting shoe that takes more breaking-in but offers the reward of a really tailored fit on your foot, go with unlined leather uppers!
There are some considerations to be made depending on how much rubber is covering the uppers of the climbing shoes, too. This rubber can be in the form of toe rubber, heel rubber, and the rand, which is the part of the shoe that covers the area between the actual sole of the shoe and the part of the upper that you can see from the outside of the shoe. We’ll talk more about the rand another time.
For now, just know that there are plenty of synthetic materials that uppers can be made out of and that they don’t offer as much stretch and individual fit as unlined leather uppers do. It’s up to you how much breaking-in of the climbing shoes you want to do, and remember that the break-in process may not be fun, but it offers great rewards when you have the right size of climbing shoes on your feet!