The Best Barefoot Shoes For Women Review
So you like the idea of going barefoot. But what is the best barefoot shoe for women? To find out, we tested seven of the most popular FiveFinger models in head-to-head tests to figure out which are the best for specific activities and which are most versatile overall. We wore them in sand, snow, and mud, and took them for runs on rocky trails and pavement trails. We wore them around the city, to the office, and walking the dogs. After months of comparison tests, we put together this review, rating each pair on barefoot feeling, warmth, traction, foot protection, breathability, comfort, and style.
But before you go any further, we recommend first learning more about the decision to go barefoot in our Buying Advice article. Also check out our Men's review for other options.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Selecting the Right Product
First and foremost, you need to decide that you want to transition to barefoot or minimal footwear. Our Buying Advice article discusses this decision at length. Then you need to choose between FiveFinger shoes, which have separate toe compartments, or "barefoot" shoes that don't have the weird look of separated toes.
Once you've decided that you want to try the full barefoot experience and have settled on FiveFingers, you will also need to consider which activities you will want to use them for. Vibram makes many different versions of FiveFinger shoes, and each one is appropriate for different situations. Whether you want a rugged shoe to take you exploring in the mountains, or a stylish slipper to wear for a night on the town – Vibram probably has a FiveFinger to suit your needs. So in order to choose the product that will make you the happiest, you need to have a good idea of what you want to use it for.
Note: The Atlantic has noted that anyone who purchases a pair of Fivefingers from Vibram's site between July 22, 2014 to December 31, 2014 can try them out for six weeks, and if they aren't happy with the shoes they can be returned for a full refund. This is an excellent opportunity to try these shoes if you aren't sure about this style of footwear.
Vibram is the forerunner of barefoot shoe manufacturers. All of their FiveFinger shoes have separated toes and aim to closely mimic the feel of actually being barefoot. Then there are companies such as Merrell, that produce "barefoot" shoes with very thin soles but that look more like traditional shoes and do not have separated toes. The benefit to separated toes is that shoes like this provide much more "barefoot" feel than shoes without. The downside is that they look rather strange – most people don't like the style of them.
If you want to dive headfirst into barefoot shoes, and have decided upon FiveFingers, then we are here to help. Below is our comparison and analysis of seven top models.
Criteria for Evaluation
To organize and standardize our testing, we selected the following seven metrics to rate and compare each contneder. The ratings we gave the shoes are in comparison to the other shoes in the group. At times we tried to mention how we thought a barefoot shoe might compare with more traditional shoes, but the ratings and main evaluations were between the barefoot shoes tested here only.
If you are looking for the utmost barefoot feeling without actually being barefoot, Vibram's FiveFinger shoes are the gold standard. But even between the different models of FiveFingers, you can get a very different perception of the ground under your feet. If your goal when wearing FiveFingers is to get the maximum barefoot feeling possible, you need to know where each shoe stands. When scoring this metric, we looked for overall freedom of your feet and toes to move around, as well as sensitivity to the ground. The thinnest and barest pair in the bunch is the low-cut Vibram FiveFingers Alitza. Second to these are the simplistic Vibram FiveFingers See Ya- Women's.
Of course, we compared this metric against only the other shoes in this group. So keep in mind that all of these shoes have a unique barefoot feeling compared to traditional or even minimal shoes. For example, the thick and insulated Lontras received the lowest score here for barefoot feeling, but they still provide a far better barefoot experience than any traditional shoe and most minimal shoes.
Staying at the proper temperature is important in any outdoor pursuit. If you are living or recreating in cold climates, making sure your feet are warm means that you can continue doing what you love to do. Most FiveFingers are inherently lightweight and highly breathable, which means that they aren't incredibly warm. Generally FiveFingers are meant to be worn with bare feet – no socks. If you prefer or need socks, there are a few sock makers out there that offer toes socks, such as Ininji and Smartwool. The trick is this: since FiveFingers are so close-fitting, you'll likely need a bigger-sized FiveFinger if you plan on wearing socks. This makes it a bit problematic to wear the same FiveFinger shoes both with and without socks – you need to pick one state (socks or sockless). This metric compares the warmth of each the FiveFinger products in our group.
The Vibram FiveFingers Lontra - Women's are made for colder conditions and have an insulating layer of fleece in the uppers, among other features, to help keep your feet warm. The Lontras received our highest score for the warmth metric. On the end of the spectrum, the Alitzas got the lowest score for warmth. Their purpose is for general around town and casual situations and don't require much warmth. The trade-off is that these two models also fall on the opposite end of the barefoot-feeling spectrum. More insulation = less barefoot feeling while thinner and less insulated = more sensitive.
Traction gauges a barefoot shoe's ability to grip and stick on the whole array of surfaces a runner or hiker may encounter. This includes loose rocky trails, icy and snowy roads, well-groomed dirt roads, singletrack, pavement, wet rock or other wet surfaces, desert slick-rock, and indoor office and gym environments. All of the barefoot shoes we collected here had outsoles made of Vibram's TC-1 rubber. This is a durable, sticky, and well-performing rubber. Therefore, most of differences between the shoes were mostly due to the thickness of the rubber/outsoles and the tread design.
The barefoot shoes with the best traction were the trail running oriented Vibram Spyridon LS - Women's, the Lontra, and the Vibram FiveFingers Treksport - Women's, all of which have thick, grooved tread to grip variable terrain. Another model worth mentioning is the Vibram FiveFingers KSO - Women's, which has a unique sipe design that is meant to grip on wet surfaces. We found this to be the best pair for watersports.
One of the biggest concerns when you are barefoot (and here we mean truly barefoot) is that you could bruise or cut your feet. This is where FiveFingers come in – their goal is to offer your feet some basic protection while still giving you the maximum barefoot feeling. The amount of protection each shoe gives you depends on its purpose – the tougher the conditions the show is meant for, the more protection it will have.
The Alitzas offer the least amount of protection for your feet, but their main purpose is casual, around-town wear. On the other end of the spectrum, the Spyridons received one of the highest protection ratings - they have a unique midsole material to help disperse the impact from rocks which makes them ideal for rugged, loose trail running.
The amount of breathability you want depends on the shoe's function. In most conditions, allowing your foot to breathe and dissipate moisture is preferable as it keeps you blister-free. However, in moderately wet conditions (a puddle here and there around town, or rock-hopping across a stream), a waterproof or water-resistant shoe can be very helpful in keeping out the moisture, but this water resistance can also reduce the breathability. In a downpour, low-cut shoes will not protect your feet from getting wet. In cold conditions, a waterproof or less breathable upper can lock heat in and help keep your foot warm, but this same shoe will become uncomfortable in warm conditions when your feet get sweaty.
The Lontras are the least breathable but they are also the only shoes in this group that are water-resistant. All the rest of the shoes have uppers made of highly breathable mesh, offering no protection for keeping moisture out, but they do a great job of allowing your feet stay dry from within.
The comfort metric is all about general fit and coziness. This is one of the most important factors in choosing a shoe, especially such a close-fitting shoe as a FiveFinger. If the shoe that gets the best overall performance score doesn't fit your foot, you'll have all sorts of injury and discomfort potentials that usurp any performance measures. For this metric, we try to mention factors that are general and not fit-dependent, but we also describe anything that stood out about how each shoe fit our main reviewer's foot. One nice thing about the FiveFingers is that they are mostly made of really flexible materials, which seems to help them adapt to a variety of foot shapes. For this group of shoes, the comfort metric often had more to do with how much freedom the shoe gave your foot – the more freedom, the more comfortable it was, which is why the Alitza and the KSO score in the top. The Treksport also provides extra comfort with details such as additional padding in the heel.
Style, in regards to most things, is generally a matter of opinion. And for all of these shoes style is a touchy subject. Separated toes tend to create strong opinions: love them or hate them. We try to get past the look of the toes and evaluate style on the look of the rest of the shoe. Generally don't like flashy graphics and lean towards basic black or more discreet looks. But there are plenty of people out there that are looking for something flashy and showy. When we make judgments about style, we try to explain why we give a poor or good rating so that if you don't share the same opinion, you can make your own judgment. Our consensus is that the Spyridon has ugly striped graphics even though we love the shoe's performance, and the Alitza's feminine straps are cute for a casual shoe.
Editors' Choice Award: Vibram TrekSport
Best Buy Award: Vibram Alitza
Top Pick Award for Cold Weather Barefoot Running: Vibram Lontra
The History of the Barefoot Shoe
It's no secret that humans have been walking around on the soles of their naked feet for centuries. With a growing interest in connecting to a simplistic lifestyle, minimalist shoes close the gap for those whose feet do not bear the tough calloused skin required to travel barefoot, but want to feel the undulations of the earth beneath their feet, (instead of a big wedge of rubber).
You can't talk about minamilist footgear without talking about barefoot running, the sport most closely associated with the gear. However, the original intent of the minimalistic design was created as a more natural alternative for outdoor activities such as sailing, kayaking, canoeing, and as a camp shoe. The infamous Vibram Fivefngers (basically a rubber glove for the foot), was originally marketed towards sailors racing on slippery yacht decks. It was Barefoot Ted, a successful barefooted runner and coach, who first suggested the use of fivefingers for the use of running.
As recently as the mid 1960s, humans ran in minimal footwear or simply barefooted. Athletes such as Zola Budd from South Africa excelled in racing unshod long before it became the mainstream phenomenon that it is today. In 1984, at the young age of 17, Budd broke the world record in the 5000 meter race without the complex foot gear that her fellow competitors wore. Kenyan runner Tegla Loroupe started running on her naked feet at the age of six as a way to get to and from school, (a twelve mile distance). In 1994 and 1998, Loroupe won the Goodwill Games and she continued on to be the first African woman to win the New York City Marathon in 1994.
Many advocates of minimalist footgear look to Evolutionary science as validation for their decision in choosing minimal cushioning between their skin and the pavement. This field of study suggests that humans were evolved to run. The endurance running hypothesis supports this by proposing that the evolution of certain human characteristics can be explained as adaptations to long distance running. The theory says that endurance running played a key role in hominids' ability to obtain food and ensure survival: humans were born to run. Let's look at a tribe whose usage of simplistic footgear is an active part of their cultural identity, and who have been a source of inspiration for the growing footwear trend.
The people of the Tarahumara Indian tribe live deep in the rugged copper canyons of Mexico. Running is the most practical of navigating the challenging landscape for inter-village communication, transportation and for chasing down prey with bow and arrow. These fabled Ultra runners cover distances of up to 200 miles over the span of several days. They accomplish these incredible feats wearing Huaraches, which are primitive sandals made with rawhide, recycled tire, or rubber soles.
Chris McDougall weaves the story of the Tarahumara tribe throughout his best-selling book, Born to Run. McDougall explores the history of man's innate desire to run and looks into the benefits of running as the Tarahumaras do with the thin protection of huaraches. McDougall was interested in this method due to a personal history of running related injuries. Research has shown that the injuries associated with cushioned running shoes can be relieved with the transition to less padded soles, but are often replaced with different types of complaints. It is possible that the injuries associated with the transition are due to poor training as it can take up to one and a half years to properly adjust from running shod to unshod.
The popularity of McDougall's book coincided with an upswing of the minimalist footwear revolution. In 2009, the same year that the book was released, The Barefoot Runner's Society was founded for athletes running with bare, or thinly protected feet. In 2010, The Boston City Marathon saw a substantial increase in unshod participants.
By 2011, most major athletic shoe companies offered some type of minimalistic footwear. These shoes are based on a scale from one to ten, one being no sole and ten being a typical athletic shoe sole. Socks with Kevlar incorporated in the yarn as well as Vibram Fivefingers which have no cushioning (2-3 mm), no heel drop, and separated toes are rated at the bottom of the scale, around 1-2. The Nike Free line, which provide moderate cushioning and segmented soles, land somewhere in the middle with models ranging from three to seven on the scale.
With an increase in minimalist footwear, there has also been an increase in related injuries. Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard evolutionary biologist researched the arch structure of Tarahumara people who wear the traditional huaraches versus those who wear western foot wear. He found that "the Tarahumara who [wore] huaraches had stronger intrinsic muscles that lead to a stiffer longitudinal arch." The arch of the foot absorbs the shock from impact so in barefoot running, it is essential to have a strong arch. The modern day shoe is the environment in which the foot is shaped and has direct effect on the bio-mechanical structure of the foot. This explains the difficulty that people have encountered in attempting to run with thin protection after years of wearing shoes with arch support.
Another relevant factor that contributes to injury is the mechanics of the way that people run shod versus unshod. With extra cushioning protecting the heel, shod runners tend to hit the ground and absorb impact with their heel first, also known as heel striking. Barefooted runners often strike with either their toes first or mid footedly where they are more able to absorb force. If they do run heel first, they do so more softly. In making the switch to minimal protection, runners must also change the way that they run to reduce the risk of injury.
The benefits of wearing protective, cushioned footgear as opposed to the minimalistic option continues to be a hot debate. In the end, it has a lot to do with personal preference and adaptability. Some people switch to the thin soled footgear and never look back and while others may think it idiotic not to protect their feet with the cushioning available with modern technology. Regardless, why not try it and see for yourself?
— Sarah Hegg
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