So you want to get a pair of barefoot trainers? After researching over 50 models before purchasing the best 8 models from this season that stand out as genuinely minimalist or truly barefoot-style running shoes. We put each contender through our exhaustive side-by-side testing and get into exactly what that means for this review and what you can expect from each of our top performers. It was the rainy, humid, hot season in Central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley when we tested these barefoot shoes on the road, on mountain trails, and around town to gauge their use as a lifestyle brand outside of just getting a workout. We are going to spell out the exact metrics, assessed by us and confirmed with the manufacturers of the weight, heel-to-toe drop, thickness, and other applicable features to help you make the best decision in purchasing a new pair of barefoot trainers.
The Best Minimalist and Barefoot Shoes of 2018
This fall and winter, our experts put the top 8 models to the test. The Merrell Trail Glove 4 remains our Editors' Choice winner, while the new Xero Prio cinches its win as our Best Buy, thanks to its $90 price tag, and second place finish in the fleet. The Merrell Vapor Glove 3 and Vivobarefoot Stealth 2 take home Top Pick awards, while the Vibram FiveFinger KSO is notable for a great design.
Best Overall Barefoot Model
Merrell Trail Glove 4
Our Editors' Choice Award in 2017 is doled out with the highest praise for the shockingly good Merrell Trail Glove 4. It significantly improves upon the previous Trail Glove 3 by adding a little bit of weight, incorporating the burrito tongue design — which as far as we are concerned ought to be an industry standard and perfecting the barefoot/trail hybrid model. The Trail Glove 4 is a sleek, durable, rugged trainer that despite labeling itself a "trail" shoe has us turning to it for road runs and to wear at the gym because of the superior comfort it offers. While it did not provide as brutally honest of a barefoot experience as some of the other barefoot shoes in this review, it does meld the two worlds of shoe and barefoot design in a way that's practical for people who already decided they are not going to just run around barefoot.
Read review: Merrell Trail Glove 4
Best Bang for the Buck
Xero Shoes Prio
The Xero Prio wins our Best Buy Award, and scored consistently well across the board, beating or matching the score of the best shoes in this review in the categories of Comfort, Performance, Accuracy, and Durability. A lot of training shoes, especially models designed for race day or with a gimmicky new feature can break the bank with prices well over $150, but not this shoe. The Prio is the first offering from Xero, a brand only known before now for making sandals and huaraches. At just $90, and with adjustable wrap-around straps, seamlessly blending a reflective band and an optional removable insole you get a lot of product for a fair price. The heft of this shoe is a slight drawback, but we are confident you will get plenty of miles out of this great shoe.
Read review: Xero Prio
Top Pick Award for Lightweight Minimalist
Merrell Vapor Glove 3
On your feet, the Vapor Glove 3 feels almost like nothing is there. When taking into account its performance in other categories, this is the lightest shoe we found that did not have unforgiving drawbacks in other areas. What its sister shoe the Trail Glove 4 does for melding the best of both worlds into a superior trail and road shoe, the Vapor Glove 3 sticks to its guns as a lightweight, breathable road trainer with a couple of drawbacks. We noticed, and other users have reported online, some problems with hot spots and rough areas on the shoe that persistently cause blisters. If you can get past that, or if you try them on and do not notice any abrasive issues, then we wholeheartedly recommend this excellent road trainer as our Top Pick for Lightweight shoe in 2017.
Read review: Merrell Vapor Glove 3
Top Pick Award for Barefoot Accuracy
Vivobarefoot Stealth 2
Barefoot Accuracy means that the shoes in this category portray a truly accurate representation of what it feels like to not have shoes on. The Vivobarefoot Stealth 2 stunningly accomplishes this. It performs superbly on the road across almost all categories and will genuinely shift your perspective on what's achievable in translating the barefoot experience. At 8.4 ounces, they are in the middle of the pack regarding weight, and 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. Prepare to adjust to an even higher level of fidelity than you might expect even if you are seasoned with some previous year's models of barefoot style shoes.
Read review: Vivobarefoot Stealth 2
Notable for Excellent Design
Vibram FiveFingers KSO
How could we round out this review without a single one of the iconic FiveFinger line in our top picks? Well, while the Vibram FiveFinger KSO did not steal and awards or dominate any categories, it did have the best design. If these are your type of shoe, then you will not be disappointed with the 10th Anniversary edition of the market-disrupting FiveFinger brand. The KSO does very well on less technical trails and serves as the perfect all-around gym shoe. Still, it takes a certain level of confidence to rock the toe-shoe design, but when you do, everyone can tell right away how seriously you take performance and quality. The KSO continues to improve on the same thing you expect from previous editions, a glove-like fit, puncture resistant outsole, odor-resistant insole and breathable mesh upper. If these have worked for you in the past, we know you will love this anniversary edition.
Read review: Vibram FiveFinger KSO
Analysis and Test Results
We put these shoes through a rigorous testing process. Each shoe got the obvious treatment in its respective area of specialty. The road shoes got beat up on the road and likewise for the trail trainers. But then we switched things up in the conventional review and saw how each performed in the opposite category and tested whether they worked being worn around town and as a workout shoe in the gym. We compiled our notes and broke out each shoe regarding different categories that assess metrics that matter to not just runners, but to the specific kind of runner looking to get their next barefoot or minimalist shoe. That means we brought out the scale, compared our weight with the manufacturer as well as tested them for comfort issues and level of road feedback to verify the level of commitment each shoe brought to the barefoot category.
Whether you are a seasoned barefoot shoe user or looking to purchase your first pair, it can be tricky to decipher which shoe is going to offer the best value. We've taken a hard look at the qualities we consider most important in a barefoot trainer and created the interactive chart below to demonstrate value based on what features a shoe offers relative to its price. Items that appear further into the lower right of the chart such as the award winning Merrell Trail Glove 4, Xero Prio, and Merrell Vapor Glove 3 represent a better value according to our metrics.
Each shoe in our review had a definitive staked out territory. Either it is meant for the road or trails. Here we assessed whether each shoe performed well in their home turf and measured if they could adapt to variations in ground-type. Some barefoot shoes do exceptionally well in one territory and have no overlap with others, while some do well in both terrains. This score reflects whether the shoe lives up to its named specialty, and then we discuss whether or not its adaptable to other areas as well.
Just about every shoe did well in their home turf category. The only contender that jumps out is the inov-8 X-Talon 225; with its aggressive spikes, the only ground-type this monster is good for is wet, sloggy, muddy trails. Doing a Spartan Race or Tough Mudder anytime soon? Here you go, these will probably be great. On the other end of the spectrum, there's the Trail Glove 4, which despite having "trail" in its name does well just being worn around in general. Its cleats are very sleek and do not make a road run entirely out of the question.
While no shoe in this review dominated the field with a way higher score than any other, we would give the best marks for Platform Performance to the versatile Merrell Trail Glove 4. While the Xero Prio does a great job on the road, it's just not versatile, despite its overall exceptional performance in this category. Additionally, the Stealth 2 feels excellent on the road and its aggressively barefoot in road feel and feedback.
It's worth pointing out that both the Primus Lite and Stealth 2 look good enough to wear as an around-town sneaker, at least in the black/white and black/red, respectively, that we received for this review. A lot of times, wearing running shoes doing anything other than running feels foolish, especially when they are those bright pink/orange/yellow shoes that we saw a lot of a few seasons ago. It's good to know that some companies are still considering looking somewhat stylish.
This is what you came here for, right? This review is about barefoot and minimalist shoes that adhere to a certain design aesthetic that you feel strongly about. We singled out this important metric as a way to cater to that preference. Here we lay out how well a shoe conformed to a certain set of assumptions about barefoot shoes. We assessed weight, the thickness of the sole, cushioning, heel-to-toe drop ratio and the road feel of each shoe as a way to ascertain the best of the best in accuracy.
Right up top are the apparent winners, the Vivobarefoot Stealth 2 and the Merrell Trail Glove 4. Other shoes may be lighter, or thinner, but they had fallbacks regarding road feel or flimsiness that detracted from their overall score in this metric.
Some other shoes fell to the back of the pack because of deviations from our barefoot guidelines. Both the inov-8 X-Talon 225 and the New Balance Minimus 10v1 have a 4mm heel-to-toe drop. Maybe trail runners prefer this, and the shoes are certainly not padded in any way to detract from ground feel, but the drop ratio skews them off what is otherwise a straight line of zero drop for the rest of the field.
It surprised us that the FiveFinger KSO did not blow this category away. However, we understand what the problem comes down to. This line of shoes just fits odd, and you had to dial in not only the shoe size but sometimes switching between models. Some of our users have had success fitting into the KSO but not the V-Run, both of them FiveFinger shoes.
Overall, the two highest scorers in this category, the Stealth 2 and Trail Glove 4 accomplish a realistic barefoot experience. It's essential to have a shoe that you can run in and that you want to run in and both top scorers managed an excellent feeling trainer that delivers that impact driver feedback experience of barefoot running.
Comfort almost certainly factors as the biggest determinant for the average running enthusiast. We know that you expect to get a full season out of each pair of shoes you purchase, as in over 500 miles. We took that commitment seriously and held nothing back when we lay down the results of how these shoes feel. No one has yet to invent the perfect, comfortable shoe, and these shoes are no different, but there were some obvious winners as well.
A lot of our contenders had comfortable shoes, and that's saying a lot for a category that specifically seeks out the most minimalistic design, sparing weight and padding in favor of translating the shoe-less experience. The Xero Prio stood out, mainly because it's the first running shoe from this company, for being incredibly comfortable with the optional insole left in. The road feel factor still plays for the Prio, but of all the shoes in this review, it's the only one none of our reviewers had issues with a break-in hotspot or blister.
The rest of the field of contenders all fared about equally well, except for the Editor's Choice winner, Trail Glove 4. But, the Trail Glove 4 felt great. Early on we had an idea that it would do well, so we took it on a steep 11-mile summit circuit hike. None of our reviewers have ever done ultralight long-distance hiking, but from our experience, we would recommend it to an ultralight hiker looking for a minimalist style trail shoe.
We expected that shoes designed to mimic to barefoot experience would wear your feet hard to run in shoes designed with less than 3mm of padding, often without any insole. In fact, the only model that had an insole was the Prio, which is optionally removable. The Primus Lite does the most hardcore road translation of the shoes in the bunch but also has a strange fold going on that rubs against your toe box. After a few runs, we even swapped around a runner's insole between some of the shoes to see if it helped (it did).
The second most important characteristic of any shoe purchase is how well you're going to grip the road. No one wants to slip and slide on a wet road or eat it just because they have brick or cobblestone sidewalks. Even road trainers have to have some abrasive outsole to grip the road and provide forward motion feedback. For trail runners, this is even more important: how to approach your run depends on whether or not your shoes grip on large rocks or skid while going downhill. Additionally, do they bog down in mud or puddles becoming sloshy and useless?
You got to hand it to inov-8 for the X-Talon 225 and the whole line of Talon shoes. This year's model brings out the Precision Fit and more than 18mm of rubber spike for your trail running pleasure. Trails just cannot stand up to this kind of grip. The apparent downside is exactly what you would expect: they just do not feel good for extended periods of flat hard pack or if your trail incorporates roads and walkways.
The Minimus 10v1 gave a high performance as well in this category with their unique design for the outsole. The difference between the Minimus and X-Talon 225 is that the New Balance trainer offers the versatility to attack the road or harder surfaces. Since a lot of the trails in Central Virginia go near rivers, we cross a lot of boulders and granite, and those 18mm spikes do not feel great — not awful, just not great.
Alternatively, there were some serious delinquencies in some of the road shoes. Since it gets wet in Virginia in the late summer and early fall, we had a lot of runs get swamped. The FiveFinger KSO does a poor job of keeping hold of the ground when it's just damp. One of our reviewers slipped and fell on a brick sidewalk after a morning drizzle. That is a big no-no for any trial period. Both of the Vivobarefoot trainers had a similar problem, while their outsole is not a uniformly smooth material like the KSO, for whatever reason there were a couple of close calls out there where our reviewers nearly skid and fell.
That really should not ever happen, so we tried to be fair in judging these with the fact in mind that the road shoes, except for the Vapor Glove 3 and Xero Prio - both of which kept a firm hold on the road in all weather conditions.
Thankfully, none of our shoes fell apart during the training period. Some odd design particulars caught our eye and made us think that at some point, had this review spanned a full 500-mile season, these shoes would have failed. However, that never happened, so we rate these shoes based on how well they did during our review period and point out our concerns to you in each of the individual reviews.
Unsurprisingly the New Balance Minimus 10v1 scored the highest durability. This shoe keeps coming around, and fans have developed around its proven performance and ruggedness despite its lightweight at just 8 ounces for a size 11. The Minimus Trail's Vibram outsole has been keeping shoes alive season after season with their superbly durable rubber, and it's also why the KSO is such a resilient shoe. Take a quick look at user reviews, and you will find people lauding the same pair of KSO they have had for the last two or more seasons.
Like we hinted above, we did find some odd aspects to two of the shoes in this review. No model truly failed, but we point out in detail the reasons why some models scored lower than others. The Vivobarefoot Primus Lite folds awkwardly around the layers of mesh upper between the arch and toe box. This fold creates both a stubborn hotspot and indicates to us a potential durability problem later down the line. Additionally, the Merrell Vapor Glove has a similar problem. The mesh upper seems to bunch up around the toe when running instead of folding down by the natural flex point between your toes and footbed.
Every one of these shoes was put through their paces, usually upwards of 30 miles per shoe. We also put them through the grinder of doing 11 and 9-mile hikes in the Shenandoah and wore them all around town and to the gym to make sure everyone could use them in a fluid, natural way. Each shoe has its upside and downside and we are confident users would find something to like about any shoe in this review. We tried to flesh out some of the details and stack these against each other in a competitive fashion to help you make an informed decision.
— Thomas King