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Best Barefoot Shoes for Men of 2020

Combining sticky outsoles with its super lightweight, racing-flat styl...
Photo: Jill Rice
By Aaron Rice ⋅ Review Editor
Tuesday December 1, 2020
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Over the past decade, our team of experts have run and trained in more than 30 of the best barefoot and minimalist shoes available. For 2020, we purchased 9 of the top models to test side-by-side. Through hours in the gym and over miles of pavement and technical trails, our team of experts walked, ran, lifted, and exercised in every pair in an attempt to exhaustively examine these shoes. Unlike conventional footwear, minimalist shoes require a dedication to training to properly develop foot strength. Our field testing requires a similar dedication. Whether you're training for your next race or just kicking around town, it is our aim to help you free your feet.

Related: Best Barefoot Shoes for Women of 2021

Top 9 Product Ratings

Displaying 1 - 5 of 9
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Awards Editors' Choice Award Top Pick Award Top Pick Award Top Pick Award  
Price $79.95 at Backcountry
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$59.99 at Amazon$119.95 at Amazon$90 List$69.96 at Backcountry
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Overall Score Sort Icon
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Pros Super lightweight, exceptional ground-feel, freedom of movementSuper tacky outsole, low profile, extra durableTough exterior, stable, snug lacing systemDurable, versatile, minimal stack heightUltra-lightweight, breathable, specialized toe/heel grips
Cons Inconsistent grip, short stock laces, potentially short lifetimeOversized, not very versatile, outsole loses grip when dirtyOdd flex pattern, decreased sensitivity, lack of dexterity in toesWeighty, bulky, overly padded upperOverly supportive, finicky to lace, lack of resilience
Bottom Line A perfect mix of road and trail runner, our Editors' Choice for outstanding barefoot accuracyA true barefoot gym shoe designed with durability in mindA FiveFinger shoe that earns our Top Pick for Adventure and Trail RunningMuch more impressive than it looks, this versatile trainer stays true to its barefoot designSomehow both ultralight and supportive, this racing flat is designed to go fast
Rating Categories Merrell Vapor Glove 4 Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V2 Vibram V-Trail 2.0 Xero Shoes Prio Altra Vanish R
Performance (30%)
7
9
8
8
8
Barefoot Accuracy (25%)
9
7
6
8
6
Weight (15%)
8
6
7
5
10
Traction (15%)
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5
Versatility (10%)
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Durability (5%)
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Specs Merrell Vapor... Inov-8 Bare-XF 210... Vibram V-Trail 2.0 Xero Shoes Prio Altra Vanish R
Style Barefoot road Barefoot gym Barefoot trail Barefoot road Minimalist road
Weight (oz per shoe) 5.4 oz (size EU 42) 7.5 oz (size US 9.5) 6.9 oz (size EU 42) 8.4 oz (size US 9.5) 4.2 oz (size US 9)
Stack Height (mm) 6.5 mm 4.5 mm 3.7 mm 5.5 mm 14 mm
Heel to Toe drop (mm) 0 mm 0 mm 0 mm 0 mm 0 mm
Outsole (mm) 3.5 mm, Vibram TC5+ 3 mm STICKY rubber 3.7 mm, Megagrip Rubber 5.5 mm, FeelTrue Rubber <1mm laminated rubber pods
Midsole (mm) None None 2 mm EVA None 14mm exposed EVA with Propel Plate
Insole None 3 mm Power Footbed None Optional 2 mm Flat, or optional 5mm insole
Upper Material Cordura mesh and TPU Lightweight mesh 3D Cocoon Mesh Mesh with synthetic leather overlays Engineered mesh
Best For (running, hiking, etc.) Running, gym Gym, running Running, hiking Running, gym Running
Width Options Regular Regular Regular Regular Regular

Best Overall Barefoot Shoe


Merrell Vapor Glove 4


Merrell Vapor Glove 4
Editors' Choice Award

$79.95
at Backcountry
See It

76
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Performance - 30% 7
  • Barefoot Accuracy - 25% 9
  • Weight - 15% 8
  • Traction - 15% 7
  • Versatility - 10% 7
  • Durability - 5% 6
Weight (per shoe): 5.4 oz | Stack Height: 6.5 mm
Ultra-lightweight
Uncompromising barefoot-accuracy
Comfortable fit with freedom of movement
Great price
Potential durability issues with thin outsole
Inconsistent grip depending on trail conditions
Intended for those already used to barefoot shoes

The Merrell Vapor Glove 4 offers the thrill and benefits of running barefoot without completely ditching the protection of a shoe. The Vapor Glove 4 continues to represent the best value of any pair we tested, delivering superior barefoot accuracy and ground-feel and performing well on both roads and trails. With only 6.5mm of material between your feet and the ground, the Vapor Glove epitomizes the principles of minimalist design: a zero-drop profile; a complete lack of midsole cushioning or conventional support structure; a super-thin outsole with unparalleled flexibility; a Cordura-mesh upper that combines breathability and durability; and an ultralight build that tips the scales at just under 11 ounces per pair.

This is a well-balanced shoe without superfluous features, despite any attempts of engineers to "maximize" barefoot-feel. While an efficiently designed sole helps it glide over the pavement, the low-profile lugs won't necessarily grip loose dirt without direct toe flexion. The intense ground-feel will likely only appeal to hardcore, barefoot runners and should not be taken lightly by those without experience with this style of running. However, the stable platform is equally suited to weight lifting, thanks to a tight-fitting heel pocket and wide toe box that offer a snug fit without reducing mobility. Once again this top contender continues to define what it means to be a barefoot shoe.

Read review: Merrell Vapor Glove 4

Best Barefoot Gym Shoe


Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V2


Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V2
Top Pick Award

$59.99
(48% off)
at Amazon
See It

74
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Performance - 30% 9
  • Barefoot Accuracy - 25% 7
  • Weight - 15% 6
  • Traction - 15% 7
  • Versatility - 10% 6
  • Durability - 5% 8
Weight (per shoe): 7.5 oz | Stack Height: 4.5 mm
Super sticky outsoles
Comfortable, padded upper
Reinforced for increased durability
Runs large
Outsole loses traction when dirty
Lack of downward flexion

Sometimes, strength training can be rougher on your shoes than running — especially the demanding workouts found in a Crossfit gym. Unlike any of the other models we tested, the inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V2 incorporates the critical aspects of barefoot shoes into a reinforced construction designed to stand up to even the most rigorous training sessions. An extra-wide, dual-layer mesh toe box is laminated directly into a zero-drop, 3mm, flexible outsole, providing you a stable, low-profile platform for improved agility and heavy lifts. And this outsole is sticky — the first time we laced them up, the Bare-XF actually stuck to the tile floor.

Tipping the scales at 15-ounces per pair, this is far from the lightest pair of shoes in this review. But unlike other barefoot models we tested, the Bare-XF does not shy away from adding extra material to the upper to improve comfort and durability. Distinguishing features, like TPU-reinforced quarter panels and padded tongue, improve gym-specific performance. But other choices, like completely smooth lugs, decrease versatility and pigeon-hole this as a gym-specific shoe. However, for those who already own a dedicated running shoe, we couldn't suggest a better barefoot option for indoor strength training.

Read review: inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V2

Best Barefoot Road Runner


Xero Shoes Prio


Xero Shoes Prio
Top Pick Award

$94.99
at Amazon
See It

72
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Performance - 30% 8
  • Barefoot Accuracy - 25% 8
  • Weight - 15% 5
  • Traction - 15% 6
  • Versatility - 10% 7
  • Durability - 5% 8
Weight (per shoe): 8.4 oz | Stack Height: 5.5 mm
Versatile
Unique design
Economically priced
Heavier than most
Bulky profile
Unreliable traction

The Xero Prio scored consistently well across the board, making it a great option for those looking for a consistent, zero-drop road runner. As the first foray into a technical shoe for a manufacturer known for sandals, the Prio hits the mark for both comfort and barefoot-running performance. With adjustable wrap-around straps, a reflective band, and an optional removable insole, this shoe includes a number of thoughtful extras that do not detract from its overall barefoot accuracy.

While this is the heaviest shoe in this review — tipping the scales at 16.8 ounces per pair — it is still impressively lightweight compared to many other trainers on the market. The bulk of the Prio may be off-putting to some barefoot-enthusiasts, but the few points it loses in terms of running performance are made up with regard to versatility and durability. For those just making the switch to minimalist footwear, the extra comforts afforded by this shoe will make that transition a little easier. You can confidently lace these shoes up in the morning, run to the gym, and then wear them to run errands, knowing that you chose a versatile, minimalist shoe with maximum value.

Read review: Xero Shoes Prio

Best Barefoot Trail Runner


Vibram V-Trail 2.0


Vibram V-Trail 2.0
Top Pick Award

$119.95
at Amazon
See It

72
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Performance - 30% 8
  • Barefoot Accuracy - 25% 6
  • Weight - 15% 7
  • Traction - 15% 8
  • Versatility - 10% 6
  • Durability - 5% 9
Weight (per shoe): 6.9 oz | Stack Height: 3.7 mm
Comfortable in rough terrain
Durable exterior
Water-resistant
Thick outsole decreases foot sensitivity
Dexterity
Heavy-duty upper is less breathable

Based on the innovative FiveFingers platform that helped launch the barefoot-running movement, the V-Trail 2.0 adds to the success of Vibram's minimalist designs by introducing a quality trail runner. Asserting the definitive qualities of an adventure racing shoe, this model is a great choice for trail running. Striking a nice balance between minimalism and brawn, the V-Trail 2.0 is lightweight, durable, and stable moving through uneven terrain. We had a blast setting out at speed onto our favorite alpine trails, knowing that our feet were protected from rocks and roots. The fully-wrapped upper also did an impressive job of keeping our feet dry, even through multiple creek crossings.

As a trade-off for comfort and confidence, this shoe loses some points in terms of ground-feel. While the shoe has a small, 3.7 mm stack height, it does incorporate 2 mm of EVA foam in a non-removable insole. Where we mainly found problems with regards to barefoot accuracy was in the dexterity of the toes. The relatively thick rubber outsole continues to wrap up the front of each individual toe, restricting flexibility and diminishing proprioception. Despite its few pitfalls, we thoroughly enjoyed trail running in the V-Trail 2.0, and would suggest it to the adventurous barefoot-runner looking for ultimate trail protection.

Read review: Vibram V-Trail 2.0

Top Minimalist Road Runner


Altra Vanish R


Altra Vanish R

$69.96
(30% off)
at Backcountry
See It

70
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Performance - 30% 8
  • Barefoot Accuracy - 25% 6
  • Weight - 15% 10
  • Traction - 15% 5
  • Versatility - 10% 6
  • Durability - 5% 5
Weight (per shoe): 4.2 oz | Stack Height: 14 mm
Unparalleled weight advantage
Enhanced rebound
Ultra-minimalist upper
Loose traction
Short lifetime

For those who want all of the weight advantages of barefoot-style shoes without the raw feedback of a thin sole, then the Altra Vanish R is a sure bet. This ultra-minimalist racing flat weighs in at an astounding 8.4 ounces per pair — yes, you read that correctly. With an unparalleled weight advantage, we wouldn't be surprised if this pair of shoes helps you knock off more than a few seconds from your personal bests. It cleverly exposes the 14mm EVA-midsole and inserts laminated rubber grips only under the critical areas beneath your toes and heel. This improves ground-feel while enhancing rebound, giving you the feeling of flying over the road.

Unfortunately, this unique design has some serious drawbacks when it comes to durability. We didn't expect the unlaminated portions of the outsole to withstand the normal wear-and-tear of the road. However, we hoped for a longer lifetime out of this extraordinary shoe — even after only a few dozen miles, we noticed an appreciable breakdown in the shoe's structure. So while the Vanish R may help you reach the podium, don't expect them to last much longer than a single race season.

Read review: Altra Vanish R

Top Minimalist Trail Runner


New Balance Minimus Trail 10v1


69
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Performance - 30% 8
  • Barefoot Accuracy - 25% 5
  • Weight - 15% 6
  • Traction - 15% 7
  • Versatility - 10% 8
  • Durability - 5% 9
Weight (per shoe): 7.2 oz | Stack Height: 15 mm / 11 mm
Versatile on trails and road
Tough construction
Exceptional lightweight performance
Decreased proprioception due to stiff midsole
Deceptive traction

Whether you are just looking to dip your toes into the world of minimalist running or are a hardened competitor wanting to cut down on some of the bulk of your current trail runner, the Minimus Trail 10v1 is a shoe that offers serious potential across the board. With a higher stack height than almost all of the other shoes in this review, a slight 4mm drop, and a midsole, this shoe offers a much more moderate transition between a more conventional trainer and a true barefoot running shoe. The Trail 10v1 is a predominant shoe among the trail crowd, and we are very pleased that New Balance is continuing to stick to the beloved design.

Designed for the trail — but with a lug pattern that ironically offers better traction on the road — the Trail 10v1 is a versatile shoe that gracefully transitions between the two disciplines. The ACTEVA foam used in the midsole is incredibly stiff, offering more protection underfoot than cushion when running. If you are hoping for the outstanding proprioception offered by some barefoot shoes, then this is not the shoe for you. But if you are looking for the combination of featherweight striding and uncompromising durability, look no further than the Minimus Trail 10v1.

Read review: New Balance Minimus Trail 10v1


Watch your step! The Vapor Glove 4 is plenty agile to dodge all of...
Watch your step! The Vapor Glove 4 is plenty agile to dodge all of the Paintbrush on a beautiful alpine run.
Photo: Jill Rice

Why You Should Trust Us


Our barefoot and minimalist shoe expert is Aaron Rice. Growing up on the Atlantic coastline, he spent summers comfortably barefoot — only donning thin sandals to navigate hot pavement. One of his earliest coaches encouraged Aaron and his teammates to go barefoot as much as possible, explaining the important role our feet play in developing strength. Moving westward to Colorado for college, Aaron embraced his natural roots — and maybe a bit of a hippy-mindset — often hiking the trails around Boulder barefoot.

Now living full time in Santa Fe, NM — a city that sits at 7,200 feet above sea-level — Aaron maintains a lifelong devotion to mountain fitness to further his ambitions in endurance sports like trail running, alpine climbing, and ski mountaineering. He works as a writer, farmer, ski patroller, and avalanche educator. He spends much of his time outside and draws on past experience as a retail buyer to dissect and discuss the nuances of technical gear. As a point related to barefoot running: Aaron hates wearing socks.

Related: How We Tested Barefoot Shoes

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

We purchased all the models discussed in this article and put them through a rigorous testing process. Based on the fact that each shoe is designed for specific purposes — mainly road versus trail running — each pair was given preference in its respective specialty. But based on the mantra of minimalism to do more with less, we also considered how well these shoes performed when crossing disciplines. We took into account that many people use this style of shoe in the gym and considered how well they handled that environment. We compiled research, closely examined shoes, and took a lot of notes to put together our opinions on which models will perform best for barefoot and minimalist running. Most of all, we went running; each shoe saw at least 15 miles of pavement, trail, or both.

Analysis and Test Results


There are a few points that are worth pointing out before we dive into the metrics we used to score each shoe. First and foremost, all of the shoes included in this review comprise some of the best and most popular options available on the market for barefoot and minimalist running shoes. Since our side-by-side testing is based on comparisons, a low score does not mean that a particular pair of shoes does not run well. It simply means that they did not perform quite as well when placed up against other models.

Minimally designed with maximum performance, the Merrell Vapor Glove...
Minimally designed with maximum performance, the Merrell Vapor Glove 4 earns top marks due to their extraordinary level of barefoot accuracy.
Photo: Aaron Rice

The other, perhaps more important thing to consider is that your specific needs may differ from the weighting we applied to each metric. We encourage you first to consider your own preferences and your specific running habits. Then, with that as a baseline, use our suggestions to help inform your purchase.

Related: Buying Advice for Barefoot Shoes

We rated our selection of barefoot shoes on six scoring metrics: performance, barefoot accuracy, weight, traction, versatility, and durability. Within each metric, we assigned scores ranging from 1 to 10 based on how well they compared to the competition. For minimalist footwear, we consider some qualities to be more important than others — namely overall performance and barefoot accuracy — so these metrics weighed on our overall performance rating more heavily than the others.

While some shoes are more suited to the road than the trail, we made...
While some shoes are more suited to the road than the trail, we made sure to put every pair through rigorous testing, including miles of trail runs with racing flats like the Altra Vanish R.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Value


Whether you are a seasoned barefoot-enthusiast or looking to purchase your first pair, it can be tricky to figure out which shoe is going to offer the best value. While many assume that the highest priced shoe will perform the best, our experience in this category — and with outdoor gear in general — has proven that this is often not the case. It just so happens that the least expensive shoe in our review, the Vapor Glove 4, is also our top scorer.


But it is worth noting that the Vapor Glove 4 may not be the right shoe for those with a new interest in barefoot running shoes. These shoes are the real deal — they provide zero support, and you are guaranteed to feel every bump in the road when running in them. Fortunately, for those looking to crossover from more conventional running shoes, we offer a few pairs that will help ease the transition into this style of shoe. For road runners, we suggest the minimal (and ultra-lightweight) Altra Vanish R; for trail runners, the New Balance Minimus Trail 10v1 is designed with durability in mind. For those in the midst of strength training their feet, the Xero Prio offers an optional 2mm insole for those days when you need a little extra support.

These shoes may not look like much, but the burly construction of...
These shoes may not look like much, but the burly construction of the Minimus Trail 10v1 means that they will likely last you through many a running season.
Photo: Jill Rice

Performance


While much of this category can be majorly determined when you are — you guessed it — running, there are a few critical factors that come into play when determining a shoe's overall performance. First and foremost, we examined how well each shoe performs in its intended discipline. If it is a trail runner, how well does it handle uneven terrain, mud, rocks, and water crossings? If it is a road shoe, how well does it move over and handle the abrasion of concrete and rough gravel in road shoulders? We also awarded points based on how well a shoe could crossover between disciplines.


With testing notes in hand, we then examined the structure of each shoe, indicating design-specifics that likely influenced our running experience. For minimalist shoes, we awarded points to those shoes that ran well without many extras and deducted points if shoes included any stability or motion control devices. We also awarded points on how well a shoe fit — notably, how well it mimics the natural shape of the foot. Knowing that everyone's feet are different, we tried not to dock any points for places where the shoe rubbed and might create hotspots. But, any obvious constrictions and a shoe lost a few points. Finally, we noted the stability of each shoe. While we recorded observations when out running — especially on trails — this was easiest to test side-by-side in a gym setting. We performed exercises that require a stable platform, like squats and deadlifts, and awarded points accordingly.

Supportive and breathable, the Merrell Trail Glove 5 impressed us...
Supportive and breathable, the Merrell Trail Glove 5 impressed us with its ability to transition from the trail to the gym.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Additionally, we made sure to take each shoe out for at least one extended run, and then the next day made notes of how our feet felt in recovery. If there was any acute pain, points were deducted. Finally, we adjusted points based on the fit and sizing the shoes, awarding points if they fit exceptionally well right out of the box, and deducting a point or two if they were particularly difficult to size correctly. It was these qualities that severely affected some shoes that otherwise would have scored highly in terms of comfort. We found the Vibram FiveFingers KSO and Merrell Trail Glove 5 particularly tricky to size — having to trade up a few times before getting it right. With regard to the Trail Glove 5, this shoe also was the only one in this review whose midsole design actually gave us foot pain after extended runs.

With a comfortable fit, and great all around performance, the...
With a comfortable fit, and great all around performance, the Minimus Trail 10v1 gave us the confidence to launch past any obstacle on our trail runs.
Photo: Jill Rice

While nearly every shoe in our review performed highly in terms of performance, there are a few stand-outs in terms of specialty, and a few models that crossover remarkably well between disciplines. The Vapor Glove 4 performed well regardless of environment, cruising miles of pavement just as easily as it tackled tough alpine trails. Even though the Xero Prio does a great job on the road, it lacks the ability to navigate uneven terrain confidently.

The shallow, v-shaped lugs of the Prio don&#039;t perform nearly as well...
The shallow, v-shaped lugs of the Prio don't perform nearly as well as other shoes we tested when it comes to loose, dry terrain.
Photo: Aaron Rice

The Vibram V-Trail 2.0 rocks in its particular specialty (trail running), but they were also not quite as comfortable crossing disciplines. Similarly, the inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V2 is a near-perfect barefoot gym shoe, but loses force once you step outside. While some shoes may have scored lower overall due to their less-than-ideal barefoot designs, minimalist options like the Altra Vanish R and Minimus Trail 10v1 are, respectively, super fun for running roads and tackling trails.

The protection offered by the Vibram V-Trail 2.0 was a nice change...
The protection offered by the Vibram V-Trail 2.0 was a nice change of pace, giving us some freedom to spend time looking at the flowers, instead of each step ahead.
Photo: Jill Rice

Barefoot Accuracy


Barefoot accuracy is what running in minimalist shoes is all about, and it all comes down to ground-feel — how close can each shoe come to feeling like you are actually running barefoot. The best minimalist shoes achieve this feeling through a precise combination of design features like a thin outsole, zero-drop, a wide toe box, a lot of flexibility, and, of course, a lack of conventional support that would otherwise inhibit the foot's ability to feel the ground.


We took all of the shoes to a grassy sports field where we first ran a few laps barefoot, then in each pair to gauge, side-by-side, how closely they resemble the natural feeling of being barefoot. By then running for weeks on various surfaces — pavement, sidewalks, rocky trails, gravel paths, dirt roads — we were able to genuinely evaluate how well each shoe allows one to feel the ground, and appropriately assign ranked values. Finally, we examined each pair of shoes based on the essential design qualities mentioned above — also factoring in weight — and adjusted points based on how well each of these aspects contributes to barefoot accuracy.

A flexible shoe is able to adjust to the natural flex of your foot.
A flexible shoe is able to adjust to the natural flex of your foot.
Photo: Aaron Rice

At the top-of-their-class are some obvious winners: the Vapor Glove 4; the Bare-XF; the Prio; and the classically designed Vibram FiveFingers KSO. These shoes help define the barefoot running category thanks to simple designs that incorporate zero-drop, minimal cushioning, lightweight structure, and a flexible fit that only minimally obstructs the natural feeling of being barefoot.

The Merrell Vapor Glove 4 has a low-profile design similar to a...
The Merrell Vapor Glove 4 has a low-profile design similar to a running flat, and is an efficient shoe for cruising miles of pavement.
Photo: Jill Rice

In order to best mimic the barefoot running experience, it is expected that these shoes are designed with minimal, if any, cushion. The reality is, it kind of hurts to run barefoot, at least for the majority of consumers who are not used to life without shoes. Four of the models tested, the Bare-XF, Prio, Primus Lite and Trail Glove 5 all offer optional insoles to help soften the blow of running on hard ground. The Minimus 10v1 doesn't offer any cushioning, but does include a stiff midsole to help protect the bottom of your feet.

The Vibram V-Trail 2.0 holds true to the original FiveFingers...
The Vibram V-Trail 2.0 holds true to the original FiveFingers design, but is beefed-up to suit the rigors of trail running.
Photo: Jill Rice

At the other end of the spectrum, we find our trail running specialists. These shoes, like the V-Trail 2.0, opt to trade a certain level of barefoot accuracy for comfort and protection during extended trail runs. While the V-Trail does not stray too far from the light, others like the Trail Glove 5 have over 10mm of stack height, and incorporate midsoles into their build with the intention of "enhancing" your running ability — not something sought after in the minimalist game. For road runners, the Altra Vanish R is essentially all midsole, and provides plenty of support for miles of pavement. The Minimus 10v1 goes as far as breaking the solemn vow of zero-drop, with a stack height that tapers from 15mm in the heel to 11mm in the toes.

A wide, flexible toe-box helps the Merrell Vapor Glove 4 create a...
A wide, flexible toe-box helps the Merrell Vapor Glove 4 create a stable platform when it came to moving through gym workouts.
Photo: Aaron Rice

For trail runners, it is very important to have your feet protected from the harsh realities of off-road travel, and this fact holds true even for minimalist trail-running shoes. We awarded points to shoes that utilized design specifics to help protect feet — such as well placed lugs on the outsole, or a rubber rand wrapped around the front of the toe box — but points were only awarded if these were thoughtfully applied so as to not detract from ground-feel. Indeed, trail running options like the V-Trail 2.0 and Minimus 10v1 scored highly in terms of overall performance. While the Trail Glove 5 did a good job of protecting our feet, its bulkier midsole detracts a little too much from ground-feel to score highly in this category.

With individual toe articulation on the FiveFingers KSO, you can use...
With individual toe articulation on the FiveFingers KSO, you can use the power of your own feet to grip.
Photo: Aaron Rice

It slightly surprised us that the FiveFingers KSO did not blow this category away — from the outside it looks like a shoe that should feel the most barefoot. But taking into account the 2mm of cushion built into KSO's midfoot, a slightly heavier build, and difficulties with sizing such a specific shape, we believe the ultrathin outsole of the Vapor Glove 4 not only offers better freedom of movement but better overall ground-feel as well.

Training Tip
If you do not have experience running in barefoot shoes, we cannot stress enough how important it is to take the minimalist nature of these shoes seriously. Trying to run your normal distance or at a normal pace may result in nagging injuries, even if you feel OK during the run. We suggest cutting back significantly on your usual mileage until your feet have time to adjust to this particular type of shoe.

Weight


The weight of a running shoe can greatly influence the overall running experience, and for minimalist running shoes, we want our feet to feel as free and unencumbered as they are in their natural, barefoot state. We started off by weighing each shoe on a digital scale and comparing those numbers against the manufacturer's stated weight. We awarded points based on a sliding scale, with the lowest scale-weight earning the highest marks, and then decreasing in value with each additional ounce.


We then took each of these shoes out on many, many runs and made subjective comparisons about how light they feel when running. Without a doubt, the ultra-lightweight Altra Vanish R earns top marks in this category. These shoes weigh an astounding 8.4 ounces per pair — that's equivalent to the weight of a single Prio shoe.

With minimalist design in-mind, the Vapor Glove 4 shoes are...
With minimalist design in-mind, the Vapor Glove 4 shoes are impressively lightweight.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Swing weight, of course, relates to scale weight. But there is much more that goes into a minimalist shoe feeling particularly lightweight and providing a more natural running experience. Beginning with an assessment of the material used in the design of the upper, we then tested breathability and temperature control by running in the heat of the day. Not only do hot, sweaty feet make you feel sluggish, but a more breathable shoe can actually dump water weight through progressive evaporation.

The Trail Glove 5 ran well enough on the roads (for short...
The Trail Glove 5 ran well enough on the roads (for short distances), but are definitely better suited for life on the trail.
Photo: Jill Rice

We also awarded points based on how cool our feet stayed while running, and deducted points based on how much moisture built up inside the shoe by the end of a run. Besides the obvious Altra Vanish R, other winners in this category, the Vapor Glove 4 and Prio, both have breathable, mesh-uppers supported by internal mesh-linings that help evaporate sweat. While the Minimus 10v1 may not score well on the scale, it feels as light on your feet at these other shoes and also sports enhanced breathability thanks to an internal, synthetic wrap.

The Altra Vanish R is not only unbelievably lightweight, but also...
The Altra Vanish R is not only unbelievably lightweight, but also looks super fast.
Photo: Aaron Rice

It is also important to know how these shoes will perform when wet, as trail runners are likely to encounter stream crossings, and road runners often face puddles. Will your shoes stay dry and light, or take on water weight like a sinking ship? We subjected each shoe to the hose before taking off on a short loop, testing each pair sequentially in the same day to directly compare their performance. Again, our trail running options, this time including the Trail Glove 5, scored highest in terms of performance when wet.

A low-profile and individually articulated toes gives the Vibram...
A low-profile and individually articulated toes gives the Vibram V-Trail 2.0 the natural ability to make those awkward moves a bit easier.
Photo: Jill Rice

Traction


For barefoot runners, grip is an essential sensory input that feeds into our greater perception of movement. The best minimalist shoes are designed with outsoles that support this natural function without diminishing ground-feel. Maximum points were awarded to shoes with thin outsoles made of sticky-rubber compounds that utilized lugs to assist — not outperform — the natural grip of the feet. The tacky, FiveFingers design of the V-Trail 2.0 certainly helped our toes grip the ground with accuracy. But it fell slightly behind the front-running Vapor Glove 4, whose impressively thin outsole is made of a stickier rubber compound and utilizes well-designed lugs to enhance traction. The uber-tacky outsole of the Bare-XF works extraordinarily well in the gym, but as soon as they get the least bit dirty practically lose all traction.


To assess the grip of an outsole, we tested shoes side-by-side, scrambling up and down the same rock face — much like how we would test the stickiness of a climbing or approach shoe. We even took these shoes for a spin on boulder problems in the climbing gym, which gave us a better idea of how a shoe's flexibility plays into its grip-ability. We also noted how well the shoes gripped on downhills; particularly, how well the lugs help with braking when running down loose dirt or on pavement covered by loose gravel — points for grip were adjusted based on a shoe's braking ability. The best performance was offered up by the Trail Glove 5, whose deeply lugged (3mm) outsole climbed with ease, assisted braking on loose downhills, and efficiently scrambled over rock. We found the V-Trail 2.0 to be a bit inconsistent in terms of traction, scrambling particularly well but occasionally slipping on loose trail conditions.

A thin outsole and sticky lugs help keep the Merrell Vapor Glove 4...
A thin outsole and sticky lugs help keep the Merrell Vapor Glove 4 feeling stable and grippy, even through tricky creek crossings.
Photo: Jill Rice

The essential function of a lugged sole is to shed loose dirt and water. In the lab, we poured water over the outsole to examine how quickly it passed through the lugs and grooves. We also sought out puddles, mud pits, and sandy spots while out on runs to test this ability — points for traction were adjusted based on how well, or how poorly, the outsole of a shoe shed material from the bottom. It can be deduced that Merrill has nailed the design of the outsole. Both the Vapor Glove 4 and Trail Glove 5 performed well in this aspect — even with very different lug constructions.

Two types of rubber are used in the construction of the outsole. The...
Two types of rubber are used in the construction of the outsole. The rubber over the forefoot is particularly sticky, which helps the Trail Glove 5 scramble well.
Photo: Jill Rice

Although the Minimus 10v1 has the versatility to attack the road or trail in wet conditions, the unique, rounded lugs do not offer great traction in dusty or dry conditions. With an outsole similar to the classic Vans-design, the Prio held firmly to the road in all weather conditions, but could not perform well when it came to running dusty trails either. At the bottom of the barrel, we have the KSO, whose slick outsole did a poor job of keeping hold even on damp sidewalks.

The FiveFingers design of the Vibram V-Trail 2.0 improves traction...
The FiveFingers design of the Vibram V-Trail 2.0 improves traction, by allowing our toes to individually flex and grip terrain.
Photo: Jill Rice

Versatility


To fall in line with a basic principle of minimalism, it is important that a single shoe works well for more than just one purpose. We awarded points to shoes that performed well in multiple disciplines — for instance, trail runners that were also comfortable running on pavement and performed well in the gym. While we did not want to dock points for fashion — after all, these are athletic shoes — extra points were awarded if a shoe was stylish enough for casual wear. No surprise that the Vapor Glove 4 took high marks for well-rounded function.


For running shoes, it is important that they perform consistently in many types of weather — we want to be able to get out for a run every day, and not just on those "perfect" weather days. The main considerations here are water resistance on rainy days, appropriate insulation for cold-weather runs, and breathability for mid-summer hot laps. Taking shoes out for runs that would test performance in many different conditions, we adjusted points for versatility based on these three critical factors. We were impressed by the design of the Trail Glove 5 when it came to performing not only well in all weather conditions, but nearly as well on the road and in the gym as on the trail.

Minimalist shoes, with their lightweight and flexible packability...
Minimalist shoes, with their lightweight and flexible packability, have appeal for the backpacking crowd as well.
Photo: Aaron Rice

We also considered a pair's potential in helping someone transition from conventional running shoes to minimalist and barefoot designs. This was noted in running performance, but became apparent when examining a shoe's structure — we believe shoes with slightly increased cushioning or stack height will help moderate the shock some might feel from fully-minimalist designs. While a shoe in this category may lose marks in barefoot accuracy, it gained back some of those points in versatility. We found the Prio — with a style reminiscent of a skate shoe — to be adaptable to pretty much any situation, except for technical trail running. If you are looking for a minimalist shoe that performs well on roads and trail, but one that sports a taller stack height and even a little bit of drop — GASP — we suggest looking to the Minimus 10v1 to help ease the transition from more conventional running shoes.

The Minimus 10v1 may help you move into the realm of minimalist...
The Minimus 10v1 may help you move into the realm of minimalist running, whether you primarily stick to roads, trails, or often mix it up with both!
Photo: Jill Rice

Durability


Our testing took these shoes through their paces on many runs and on a variety of terrain. While our test period is limited in its ability to find out how well these shoes will hold up after a couple hundred miles, any early signs of material failure were noted and points were subtracted accordingly.


To support any conclusions we reached on durability, shoes were closely examined for any manufacturing flaws or shortcuts, and material specifications were researched to give us a good idea of how long a shoe might hold up to regular running regimens. We also considered the warranty-programs offered by manufacturers, giving some preference to those who might offer to replace a shoe that is inherently less durable than thicker-soled, traditionally-designed running shoes.

What&#039;s life without a little adventure? The Merrell Trail Glove 5...
What's life without a little adventure? The Merrell Trail Glove 5, in its element climbing rough terrain off-trail.
Photo: Jill Rice

Thankfully, none of our shoes fell apart during the testing period. However, some details caught our eye on particular shoes — elements that made us question how well they might hold up throughout a couple running seasons. The Vapor Glove 4 has a ripstop-like Cordura-mesh upper that does a good job of protecting it from abrasion. But the thin quality of the outsole, coupled with reviews made online by others, led us to deduct durability points from this ultralight shoe. While the Primus Lite has an unbelievably thin outsole, Vivobarefoot stands behind their rugged PRO5 puncture-resistant design.

The thickness of the sole and design of the lugs can have huge...
The thickness of the sole and design of the lugs can have huge implications when it comes to how long a minimalist or barefoot shoe might last. A side-by-side of the Vapor Glove 4 (left), which has a much thinner sole compared to the Minimus Trail 10v1 (right.)
Photo: Jill Rice

Unsurprisingly, trail runners like the V-Trail 2.0 and Minimus 10v1 scored the highest for durability. The Minimus has a devoted fan-base that has developed around its proven performance and ruggedness. Vibram has a reputation for outsole design and keeping shoes alive season-after-season with their superbly durable rubber. Combine that fact with a tough mesh-upper, and the V-Trail 2.0 is a tank of a minimalist shoe. The same holds true for the KSO — there is a reason why this particular design has stood the test of time. For tough Crossfit-style workouts, the reinforced uppers of the Bare-XF and Prio are nearly guaranteed to stand-up to repeated beatings.

The TPU-wrap of the Bare-XF not only helps hold this shoe together...
The TPU-wrap of the Bare-XF not only helps hold this shoe together, but makes it nearly abrasion proof along the sides.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Conclusion


We put each pair of these shoes through more than just their metaphorical paces. Even in a niche-market like barefoot shoes, there are dozens of models available each season — narrowing down your options can be a real challenge. We hope that through our extensive, side-by-side testing that we offer up information to make your selection process a little bit easier. We encourage you to research the field of barefoot running to decide if it is the right style for you.

The Merrell Vapor Glove 4 is a great overall barefoot running shoe...
The Merrell Vapor Glove 4 is a great overall barefoot running shoe. Grab a pair and go run!
Photo: Aaron Rice

Aaron Rice