I spotted an employee demonstrating beta while barefoot at my local climbing gym on a very slow Monday night. This got me wondering, can you rock climb barefoot? And if so, are there any advantages in doing so?
Although you can climb barefoot, most climbing gyms do not allow it and require climbers to either rent out or bring their own climbing shoes. These gyms consider climbing barefoot to be unsanitary and unsafe as it does not provide climbers with the proper grip or protection.
Rock climbing barefoot is generally not considered a great idea for more than just these two reasons. That being said, there are some benefits to doing so.
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Why Rock Climbing Barefoot Is Discouraged
Portions of the rock climbing community have considered climbing barefoot to be insane. This is coming from a community full of people who love to climb large rocks and cliffs with minimal safety precautions just for the heck of it. If that doesn’t clue you into how ludicrous this is I don’t know what will.
In contrast to the community, I believe barefoot climbing would be a standard practice if climbing shoes were never invented.
Shoe gurus designed climbing shoes to allow climbers to send incredibly hard routes by only using foot holds measured in millimeters. Advanced shoes allow climbers to concentrate their entire bodyweight into a very small area (the tip of the shoe). This provides the climber with incredible grip and friction on almost non-existent holds.
Climbing barefoot distributes your weight on each individual toe instead of a single point on a shoe. This prevents you from putting a lot of weight onto smaller foot holds and will increase the amount of weight your arms need to support. Therefore, not wearing shoes will cause you to burn out your arms quicker and reduce your overall climbing ability.
When compared with using unbelievably advanced and widely available climbing shoes, climbing barefoot does not measure up. Climbing barefoot nowadays is like deciding to fight a professional UFC match while wearing a blindfold.
Climbing Barefoot Is Dangerous
Besides performance enhancement, rock climbing shoes provide climbers with foot protection as well. Placing all of your weight onto small and potentially pointy/sharp holds while barefoot can be incredibly painful. In addition to causing yourself immediate pain, you open yourself up to a laundry list of potential foot injuries such as:
- ripping off a toenail (or many)
- cutting your foot on a hold
- straining a tendon in your toe (or toes)
- straining tendons in your feet
- stubbing a toe or five
The list above is not meant to be comprehensive by any means. On top of this list, more severe climbing injuries can stem form barefoot climbing as well. If you are not accustomed to barefoot climbing, there is a potential that your foot could slip leading you to take an unexpected fall. In my opinion, unexpected falls are the most dangerous climbing incidents and have the highest injury potential.
Basically, climbing barefoot is painful and needlessly increases the injury potential of an already dangerous sport.
Climbing Barefoot is Unhygienic
Rock climbers are not exactly known for their impeccable hygiene. Climbing barefoot however, takes the term dirtbag to a whole new level.
Feet are not exactly the prettiest thing in the world to look at (unless you have a foot fetish I guess). But that’s not the worst of it, feet are known to spread diseases and be unhygienic.
Your feet are generally cooped up all day long in dirty socks and shoes. This causes them to be one of the sweatier parts of the body. Bacteria just love to hang out in these sweaty areas. Your feet end up smelling like expired cheese due to this high concentration of bacteria and sweat.
If the smell wasn’t bad enough, feet are commonly home to fungus and contagious bacterial diseases such as fungal nail infections and athlete’s foot. Your fellow climbers will not appreciate it if you spread either one of these diseases to them via your dirty feet.
Potential Benefits Of Climbing Barefoot
While climbing barefoot definitely has its drawbacks, it doesn’t come without perks.
Physical Benefits – Climbing barefoot will provide many of the same benefits to your feet and toes that traditional climbing provides to your hands and fingers. One of these benefits is the strengthening of ligaments and tendons in your toes and feet. In addition to this, you will develop massive callouses on your feet and toes. Overtime these callouses will minimize pain and the scraping off of live skin.
Monetary Benefits – While climbing shoes are incredibly helpful for both performance and safety, they can be pretty pricey as well. Climbing barefoot is incredibly cheap as it completely eliminates the need for shoes and eliminates any drawbacks they have. Some of these drawbacks include: your toes feeling bunched up, your feet feeling uncomfortable, and having to dry out your shoes after taking a fall deep water soloing.
Mental Benefits – On top of the physical and monetary benefits, climbing barefoot can potentially provide you with mental/spiritual benefits as well. Some climbers have reported that the simplicity of climbing barefoot has provided them with a completely new outlook on climbing. They felt more connected with nature and it helped them discover a deeper meaning in their climbing journey. While I personally did not experience that, it may help others along their spiritual path.
Successful Barefoot Climbers
Several climbers have adopted a barefoot climbing style and have become very successful. One of these climbers is Vu Nguyen. Vu began climbing in Vietnam and has climbed grades as high as 5.14 barefoot. He frequently deep solos incredibly hard routes without the use of any climbing shoes.
“Now, I prefer to climb without shoes because I am able to feel every detail of the rock with my toes, and I love feeling so close to nature”Vu Nguyen
Charles Albert is another barefoot climbing legend. Charles has notably climbed very difficult routes in Fontainebleau, Magic Wood and Val Bavona. He is able to routinely send V15 and V16 problems without the use of climbing shoes. Recently, he sent a route that is a proposed V17… while barefoot.
Tips And Techniques For Rock Climbing Barefoot
If the first section of this post didn’t scare you off, congratulations, you are one crazy climber! You may even be able to become one of the select few people to send V15 and V16 routes barefoot. Before you go off on your barefoot climbing journey, I have put together a list of a few helpful tips I have picked up from personal climbing experience and by watching videos of the legends themselves: Vu Nguyen and Charles Albert –
- Chalk your feet. Just like your hands, your feet will get sweaty as you climb. To counteract this, you will need to chalk them up to provide yourself with the necessary friction.
- Start climbing barefoot like it is your very first day climbing. By climbing the easiest routes first and working your way up, your feet will build up the necessary callouses. In addition to that, you will become accustomed to the feel of climbing barefoot. Trying harder routes barefoot when you are not ready could lead to unexpected falls.
- Use the ball of your foot on larger holds. This part of your foot has the most padding and will be the least painful to use.
- Use your big toe often. Your big toe is your strongest toe and will provide you with the most grip. Think of this as your power toe, much like your power fingers (middle and ring finger).
- Use your toes to hook holds when climbing on overhangs. This will allow you to get a better grip on overhang holds and extend your reach when needed.
The bottom line? Climbing barefoot is dirty and dangerous. With that being said, it is indeed possible and select individuals have even been very successful at doing so.