Looking to transition from conventional to minimalist running shoes? After researching over 50 models, we purchased 8 pairs of the best barefoot shoes to challenge across our rigorous performance metrics. We tested each shoe in different environments, running in climates stretching from the desert Southwest, into the alpine trails of the Rockies, and across to the forests of the Shenandoah Valley. We break down the important attributes of each shoe and offer our professional recommendations to help guide your decision in purchasing a new pair of barefoot or minimalist running shoes in 2019.
The Best Minimalist and Barefoot Shoes of 2019
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|Pros||Super lightweight, exceptional ground-feel, freedom of movement||Versatile, durable, tough, unique||Durable, rugged, tough on the road, stylish||Tough exterior, stable, snug lacing system||Multi-purpose for trail or road, flexible, lightweight, breathable|
|Cons||Inconsistent grip, short stock laces, potentially short lifetime||Weighty, aggressively barefoot in design||Expensive, low traction, fit larger than most||Odd flex pattern, decreased sensitivity, lack of dexterity in toes||Fit very snug, not for people with a high bridge, costly|
|Bottom Line||Impressive barefoot accuracy from a road trainer that performs equally well on trails.||This versatile, rugged shoe is a bit bulky and clunky looking but performs as well or better than more established minimalist designs out there.||If you can afford the sticker shock, these are a great road shoe that you can wear around town without looking foolish.||Our Top Pick for trails, run in comfort and confidence in this tank of a FiveFingers shoe.||This durable, multi-purpose trainer from New Balance offers a repeat of the same design users have come to love over the years.|
|Rating Categories||Merrell Vapor Glove 4||Xero Shoes Prio||Vivobarefoot Stealth 2||Vibram V-Trail 2.0||Minimus 10v1 Trail|
|Running Performance (30%)|
|Barefoot Accuracy (25%)|
|Specs||Merrell Vapor...||Xero Shoes Prio||Vivobarefoot...||Vibram V-Trail 2.0||Minimus 10v1 Trail|
|Weight (per shoe, size EU 42)||5.4 oz||9.3 oz (9.7 oz w/ optional insole)||8.4 oz||6.9 oz||8.0 oz|
|Stack Height (mm)||6.5 mm||5.5 mm||3.0 mm||3.7 mm||15 mm/11 mm|
|Cushion (mm)||0||Optional 2 mm Insole||0||2 mm EVA Insole||0|
|Heel to Toe drop (mm)||0||0||0||0||4mm|
|Upper||Cordura mesh and TPU||Mesh with synthetic leather overlays||EVA cage with mesh||3D Cocoon Mesh||Synthetic mesh|
|Outsole||3.5mm, Vibram TC5+||5.5mm, FeelTrue Rubber||3mm, V Road Rubber w/ PRO5||3.7mm, Megagrip Rubber||Integrated, Vibram rubber w/ Flex Grooves|
|Width Options||None||None||None||None||Wide Version Available|
|Style||Barefoot road||Barefoot road||Barefoot road||Barefoot trail||Minimalist trail|
Best Overall Barefoot Shoe
Merrell Vapor Glove 4
For those seeking the thrill of running barefoot from the comfort of a protective trainer, check out our Editors' Choice for best overall barefoot running shoe, the Merrell Vapor Glove 4. You may notice that we do not have a separate Best Buy Award because the Vapor Glove 4 also represents the most value of any pair we tested. This shoe delivers superior barefoot accuracy and ground-feel, performing well on both roads and trails. With only 6.5mm of material between your feet and the ground, this shoe epitomizes the values of minimalist design: zero-drop, no midsole cushioning, super-thin outsole, 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.
Despite it carrying the mark of Merrell's "Barefoot 2" design, this is a well-balanced barefoot shoe that does not sport many extras. The Vapor Glove 4 excels as a road trainer, with an efficiently lugged sole that helps it glide over the pavement. While the low-profile design of this shoe might pinpoint it as a road flat, we believe its intense ground-feel will also appeal to more hardcore, barefoot trail-runners. A tight-fitting heel pocket and wide toe box offers a snug fit without reducing mobility, and creates a stable platform equally suited to weight lifting. The Vapor Glove 4 is truly a versatile, barefoot shoe with top-of-its-class value.
Read review: Merrell Vapor Glove 4
Top Pick for Everyday Use
Xero Shoes Prio
The Xero Prio wins our Top Pick Award for everyday use. This shoe scored consistently well across the board, making it a great option for those looking to move into the realm of minimalist running shoes without fear. As the first foray into shoes for a manufacturer known for sandals, the Prio hits the mark for quality 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 it is the heaviest shoe in this review — tipping the scales at 18.6 ounces per pair — it is still impressively lightweight compared to many other trainers on the market. The Prio's bulk may be off-putting to some barefoot-enthusiasts, but we believe 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. Wear this shoe while running roads, in the gym, and around town, knowing that you chose a minimalist shoe with maximum value.
Read review: Xero Shoes Prio
Top Pick Award for Road Running
Vivobarefoot Stealth 2
The Vivobarefoot Stealth 2 combines superb ground-feel with a stylish design, earning our Top Pick for road running. It performs stunningly well on the road across almost all categories, and will genuinely shift your perspective on what is achievable in translating the barefoot experience. At 8.4 ounces, they are in the middle of the pack regarding weight, yet they feel much tougher than some of their competitors in this review. The PRO5 puncture-resistant outsole will protect you out there on the road from stray rocks, glass and the like, but expect to feel a lot of feedback from the road.
Like our Editors' Choice winner, these shoes might not be the best pair for a brand new barefoot runner. Prepare to adjust to an even higher level of fidelity for barefoot-feel than you might expect, even if you are a seasoned user of barefoot running shoes. The price is also higher than many others we tested. But, if you're a dedicated road runner, this pair should absolutely be on your short list.
Read review: Vivobarefoot Stealth 2
Top Pick for Trail Running
Vibram V-Trail 2.0
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 earns our Top Pick 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
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, outdoor educator, farmer, and ski patroller. 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. Fun fact related to barefoot running: Aaron hates wearing socks, but appreciates their function.
Related: How We Tested Barefoot Shoes
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 scoring metrics. 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.
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: running performance, barefoot accuracy, comfort, 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 running performance and barefoot accuracy — so these metrics weighed on our overall performance rating more heavily than the others.
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 in this case, the least expensive shoe in our review is our Editors' Choice for best overall barefoot shoe.
While much of this can be majorly determined when — you guessed it — running, there are a few critical factors that come into play when determining a shoe's overall running performance. First and foremost, we examined how well a 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 a shoe's structure, 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.
While nearly every shoe in our review performed highly in terms of running performance, there are a few stand-outs in terms of specialty, and a few models that cross-over remarkably well between disciplines. As our Editor's Choice, the Vapor Glove 4 performed well regardless of environment, cruising miles of pavement just as easily as it tackled tough alpine trails. While the Xero Prio does a great job on the road, it lacked the ability to navigate uneven terrain confidently.
Our Top Picks for both road and trail, the Vivobarefoot Stealth 2 and Vibram V-Trail 2.0, respectively, rocked in their particular specialties, but they were not quite as comfortable crossing disciplines. And while other shoes may have scored lower overall due to their less-than-ideal barefoot designs, options like the New Balance 10v1 Minimus and Merrell Trail Glove 5 were still particularly fun for running trails.
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 we 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.
So we took all of the shoes to a grassy sports field where we first ran a few laps barefoot, then in each pair of shoes to gauge, side-by-side, how closely they resemble the natural feeling of running 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.
At the top-of-their-class are some obvious winners: our Editors' Choice, the Vapor Glove 4; our Top Pick for road running, Stealth 2; and the classically designed Vibram FiveFingers KSO. These shoes help define the barefoot running category thanks to simple designs that incorporate minimal drop and cushioning, lightweight structure, and flexible fits that only minimally obstruct the natural feeling of being barefoot.
At the other end of the spectrum, we find our trail running specialists. These shoes, like the Top Pick 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. The 10v1 Minimus 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.
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 Vapor Glove 4's ultrathin outsole not only offers better freedom of movement but better overall ground-feel as well.
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 running shoe.
The comfort of a running shoe can greatly influence the overall running experience, and for minimalist running shoes, we want our feet to be as comfortable as they are in their natural, barefoot state. Beginning with an assessment of the material used in the design of the upper, we then tested breathability and temperature control by running often in the heat of the day — this also provided good information on how much heat the sole of a shoe absorbs, like when running on the dark surface of a freshly paved road. We 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. The winners in this category, the Vapor Glove 4 and Prio, both have breathable, mesh-uppers supported by internal mesh-linings that help evaporate sweat.
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 10v1 Minimus scored highly in terms of overall comfort. While the Trail Glove 5 did a good job of protecting our feet, its midsole detracts a little too much from ground-feel to score highly in this category.
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. We subjected each shoe to the hose before taking off on a short loop, and tested 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.
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 of 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 KSO and 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.
In order to best mimic the barefoot running experience, it is expected that these shoes are designed with minimal, if any, cushion at all. 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 Prio, KSO, V-Trail 2.0, and Trail Glove 5 offer 2-3 mm of cushion to help soften the blow of running on hard ground.
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 utilize lugs that assist — and do not try to outperform — the natural grip of our feet. The super-thin outsole of the Stealth 2 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.
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 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. Despite winning our Top Pick for trail running, 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.
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 of a shoe. 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 — with very different lugged constructions.
The Minimus 10v1 is a top-performer as well in this category, with New Balance's unique design for the outsole — the result is a shoe that offers versatility to attack the road or trail. 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 even dusty trails. At the bottom of the barrel, we have the KSO, whose slick outsole did a poor job of keeping hold even on damp sidewalks.
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 our Editor's Choice, 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.
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 10v1 Minimus to help ease the transition from more conventional running shoes.
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.
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.
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 Stealth 2 and Primus Lite have equally thin outsoles, Vivobarefoot stands behind their rugged PRO5 puncture-resistant design.
Unsurprisingly, the V-Trail 2.0 and Minimus 10v1 scored the highest 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. Combined 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 — take a quick look at user reviews, and you will find people lauding the same pair of shoes they have had for many years.
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 on the market 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.
— Aaron Rice