Soft vs Hard Hiking Shoes: How Are They Different?

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Soft vs Hard Hiking Shoes

Wondering about soft vs hard hiking shoes? Hiking shoes are an important piece of equipment for staying safe and comfortable on the rocks. Climbers usually have their favorite type of shoes, whether soft or hard. One might think that there is not much difference between the two types, but in fact, each type has its advantages in certain situations. So, between soft and hard hiking boots, which is better rubber?

Soft climbing shoes shrink more than hard climbing shoes. A smaller size means a tighter fit. Soft climbing shoes are more responsive, which means they provide better power transfer from heel to toe when climbing overhangs. Soft climbing shoes are also easier to apply because they compress under pressure—making them ideal for bouldering, where feet often slip off tiny points of support. Soft hiking shoes have a sole thickness of up to 3.5mm, while hard hiking shoes have a sole thickness of 3.5-4.5mm.

Just like size, the softness or hardness of hiking boots is a relative factor. Hiking shoes can be softer or harder than other brands. Your weight can also affect your performance when climbing in soft and hard shoes. So please read this guide to the end as I will give some examples of climbing shoes based on difficulty level and climbing conditions.

What Factors Determine the Stiffness of Hiking Shoes?

Midsole thickness and rubber quality will be some of the characteristics that determine the stiffness of the shoe. The thicker the midsole, the greater its torsional stiffness and less flexibility. Soft hiking boots have a thinner midsole and are more flexible. Also, different types of rubber can affect the stiffness of hiking boots. I will discuss them later in this article.

Harder hiking shoes are more supportive

A thicker midsole provides more support and a more stable base than soft hiking shoes. When the heel hook or toe hook, they do not conform to the shape of the kick. This makes them useful when you have to stand on small heels with just one foot.

A stiffer midsole is more responsive to the force you apply when hooking your toes or heels. In this way, it is beneficial for beginners who are in the developmental stage of strengthening ligaments.

The larger the ledge, the more force the climber must exert to pull their body weight. The greater the force, the stiffer the shoe needs to be to withstand it. If the hiking shoe is soft, it will bend with a lot of force and absorb its impact.

Soft hiking shoes only seem to smear the grip when you try to put your big toe on the grip and apply a lot of force to it from your foot. This causes the force response to be blocked and you cannot pull your weight.

The soft hiking shoes provide more grip

Stiff shoes will have a stiffer midsole that won’t deform as much when you put the pedals on hold. A hard hiking shoe sits at the top of the steps. This reduces the amount of grip you can get out of them because they can’t squeeze, allowing the rubber to fully touch the rock and provide maximum grip.

Because soft hiking shoes are flexible, they actively conform to the shape of the foot and provide you with better support than stiff hiking shoes. However, as mentioned earlier, this type of flexibility is not suitable for small lasts as it reduces control over the position of the foot.

Stiff hiking shoes for heavy climbers

Climbers or mountaineers over 220 lbs often opt for stiffer hiking boots for support, as they are tall enough to push the boots high enough on the handlebars to achieve the required traction.

Which Rock Is Suitable for Soft and Hard Hiking Shoes?

Based on the factors discussed earlier, such as grip, support, and flexibility, soft hiking shoes are suitable for thick boards and steep overhangs. These shoes are usually made of very soft rubber that provides maximum flexibility, sensitivity, and lubrication. As such, they are great for low-level climbers who need to feel around the footing before transferring weight to them.

If the slab has a small positive kick, stiffer hiking shoes will work well.

On literally raw edges or Smith Rock nubs, you may need a pair of stiff climbing shoes for better support on the tiny edges. On indoor climbing walls, the steps are usually larger. So soft hiking shoes should only be used if you are not a beginner.

What Are the Different Types of Climbing Rubber for The Soft and Hard Climbing Shoes?

There are many different types of rubber used to make hiking boots. Each has its own unique characteristics that help climbers perform better on specific surface conditions.

Before diving in, keep in mind that the feel of the rubber depends on the overall design of the shoe, including the thickness of the rubber sole.

Vibram rubber

Vibram is one of the most commonly used rubbers in the manufacture of rigid climbing shoes. Vibram is the global leader in high-performance sneakers with outstanding durability. Vibram rubbers are available in a variety of hardness grades.

Vibram rubbers come in different qualities. The first is the Vibram XS Grip. It is characterized by an excellent balance between all properties in terms of grip and durability. Made from a medium-density compound, it has a good balance of tack, support, and edge/smear ability on a variety of rock surfaces. This will help you climb any rocky surface.

It gives very good results in many situations and works well on steep routes, friction boards, and small difficult steps on overhanging walls.

The second category is the Vibram XS Grip 2. It is very close to the grip of the Vibram XS Grip1. However, the Vibram XS Grip2 rubber is more durable. It is suitable for aggressive sport climbing and bouldering. It’s designed to help you stand on the smallest edge and take advantage of every break available. You’ll find Grip 2 rubbers on Testarossa, Solution, Futura, Python, and Cobra.

The third category is the Vibram XS Edge. The Vibram XS Edge sacrifices some bars (grip) for durability. It is specially made for edging. This rubber is used in one of the toughest hiking shoes, the TC Pros. It would be great to wear comfortable Trad climbing shoes. If you’re a heavyweight, you can buy hiking boots with Vibram XS Edge rubber.

Stealth rubber

This type of rubber is very soft and sticky, great for smearing and crack climbing (when you need to use the side of the shoe to push against a cliff). All Stealth rubber softens as the temperature rises.

There are the following categories of Stealth rubber.

First up is the Stealth Mi6. This category is the stickiest gum on the market. You can find this rubber at Team VXis. It’s literally designed to apply like glass on polished surfaces. The company calls it a molded “full blade,” which is extremely thin for maximum feel and sensitivity. It wears quickly but spreads well. The sticky, thin layer of rubber is great for draping.

The second category is Stealth HF. It is the second stickiest rubber. It has very high friction and sensitivity. You can find this rubber on 5.10 Dragons. By accommodating minimal edges and crystals, the Stealth HF helps climbers climb steep slopes, allowing them to pull with their feet.

The third category is Stealth C4. C4 is an excellent choice for temperatures below 40F. When it’s hot, it can’t hold the edge. It is the most flexible rubber in the 5.10. You can find this rubber at Five Ten Aleon. It is considered a competitor to the Vibram XS Grip 2. This rubber is suitable to be tried on a real rock to get a feel for its performance. People call it all-purpose rubber, and it starts out as a hard material but softens over time. This is great as it is not as durable as the Vibram XS Grip2. However, the stickiness makes up for the lack of durability.

The fourth category is Stealth Onyx. It is the hardest rubber of any sole in the Stealth line. Onyx is a good edge rubber. Onyx wears longer than other types of Stealth rubber. It feels very stiff when you pull on small edges or pockets. Onyx is too hard for indoors. It is not as sticky as C4 or Vibram XS Grip 2. But the thickness can be adjusted to improve grip.

Onyx rubber has some disadvantages. It performs worst in the colder months. So I only recommend using the rubber in the warmer months for better performance.

Soft vs Hard Hiking Boots: Final Verdict

The choice between the firm and soft hiking shoes comes down to your personal preference. Stiff shoes are better for “edging” standing on small edges. Softer shoes are better for “smearing,” where you use more friction when the foot is placed.

As a beginner, I would recommend firm climbing shoes as they give you a better grip on those tiny edges. Even if you’re going to buy softer hiking shoes at some point, it’s best to carry a harder pair with you and just a very precise one.