For 10 years, our team has run and trained in some of the best minimalist and barefoot shoes on the market, with 8 top models in this 2021 review. Through hours in the gym and over miles of pavement and technical trails, our fitness 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, we aim to help you free your feet.Related: Best Barefoot Shoes for Women of 2021
Best Barefoot Shoes for Men of 2021
|Price||$115 List||Check Price at Backcountry|
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|$120.00 at Amazon||$119.95 at Amazon||$112.00 at Backcountry|
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|Pros||Super flexible, amazing feedback, spacious fit, breathable, optional insole||Superlight, exceptional natural feel, flexible, affordable||Super low-profile sole, comfortably padded, designed for durability||Tough exterior, stable, snug lacing system||Ultra-lightweight, grippy, surprisingly durable|
|Cons||Heavier than most, potential durability issues, short laces||Diminished grip off-road, confining stretch collar, bulky laces||Tapered toe box is a bit restrictive, traction is compromised by dirt, lack of versatility||Odd flex pattern, decreased sensitivity, lack of dexterity in toes||Expensive, tight-fitting, trail-specific|
|Bottom Line||From its airy fit to its free range of motion, this barefoot shoe offers the best in lightweight running performance||A barefoot trainer that continues to define the category, this shoe’s ultra-thin outsole helps deliver superior natural feel||An incredibly thin outsole, supportive padding, and reinforced sidewalls make this an ideal barefoot gym trainer||Run in comfort and confidence in this tank of a FiveFinger shoe||Super light, durable, and responsive, this shoe offers excellence in technical terrain|
|Rating Categories||Xero Shoes HFS||Merrell Vapor Glove 5||Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V3||Vibram V-Trail 2.0||Arc'teryx Norvan SL 2|
|Natural Feel (40%)|
|Specs||Xero Shoes HFS||Merrell Vapor Glove 5||Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V3||Vibram V-Trail 2.0||Arc'teryx Norvan SL 2|
|Style||Barefoot road||Barefoot road||Barefoot road||Barefoot trail||Minimalist trail|
|Weight (per shoe)||7.9 oz (size US 9.5)||5.8 oz (size US 8.5)||6.8 oz (size US 9)||6.9 oz (size EU 42)||5.7 oz (size US 8.5)|
|Stack Height||5.5 mm (w/o insole)||6.5 mm||1.5 mm (w/o insole)||5.7 mm||19mm (heel)
|Heel to Toe drop||0 mm||0 mm||0 mm||0 mm||7 mm|
|Outsole||5.5mm FeelTrue||2 mm, Vibram Ecostep||1.5 mm,
|3.7 mm, Megagrip Rubber||3.5 mm,
Vibram Megagrip w/ LITEBASE
|Midsole||None||None||None||2 mm EVA||Tapered
8.5 - 15.5 mm
|Insole||3 mm High Density EVA||Integrated
4 mm EVA
|3 mm Power Footbed||None||Integrated
2 mm EVA
|Upper Material||Mesh and TPU||Mesh and TPU||Mesh and Rope-Tec TPU||3D Cocoon Mesh||TPU Mesh|
|Best For (running, gym, etc.)||Running||Running||Gym||Running||Running|
Best Overall Minimalist Shoe
Xero Shoes HFS
From roads to trails and into the gym, the Xero HFS is a consistent, versatile barefoot trainer that aims to bring out the best in your feet. The highlight of this minimalist shoe is an ultra-flexible construction, allowing it to comfortably conform to the natural movements of your feet and provide an experience that the manufacturer aptly dubs "barefoot plus." The supple, proprietary rubber of these thin, 5.5mm shoes allows your toes to flex and grip naturally, while a spacious mesh forefoot enables them to spread and splay for improved stability. All of this will likely appeal to the diehard barefoot crowd, but for those just dipping their toes into minimalist footwear, the HFS also includes a 3mm high-density EVA insole to provide a bit of cushioning to ease that transition.
While this barefoot trainer hits all of the marks, it is surprisingly one of the heavier shoes we tested — weighing in at just under 15-ounces per pair. However heavy compared to the rest of the competition, this is still impressively lightweight compared to many other trainers on the market. These are specifically designed as a road-running shoe, and it is evident after a fair amount of trail time that rougher terrain quickly beats and wears on the thin outsole. Even though our testing period is limited, this points to the potential for durability issues down the road. But for those looking for a training shoe to take them down the road and into the gym, the Xero HFS is an outstanding, multi-sport barefoot shoe.
Read review: Xero HFS
Best Bang For Your Buck
Merrell Vapor Glove 5
In terms of style and grace, the Merrell Vapor Glove 5 continues to help define the barefoot category. This shoe represents the best value of any pair we tested, offering up superior natural feel without sacrificing any of its integrity in design. In fact, the latest iteration only seeks to improve upon its past success. The outsole has been completely updated in a way that benefits the even profile of this low-rise shoe but still maintains a super-thin, 6.5mm stack height which keeps your soles right against the ground. The redesigned upper features a stretch collar for improved fit, comfort, and agility. Tipping the scales at just under 12-ounces per pair, the Vapor Glove holds true to its name: a nearly-there, sock-like shoe that only seeks to highlight the natural ability of your own two feet.
Some with higher arches may find that the new stretch collar is a bit constricting, but many fans of the line claim that the new style of upper is one of the best yet. We tend to agree with the latter, as the updated construction offers a snug, stable fit without reducing mobility. While the upper gives this shoe greater versatility between road running and the gym, the homogeneous lugs of the redesigned sole offer less traction for trail runners. The intense ground-feel will likely only appeal to hardcore, barefoot runners and should not be taken lightly by those without experience with this running style. But if you are looking to build a foundation from your feet up, the Vapor Glove 5 continues to set a high bar for barefoot shoes.
Read review: Merrell Vapor Glove 5
Best Barefoot Gym Shoe
Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V3
While running can certainly beat up your shoes, often strength training can be even more demanding on your feet. That's why it is so important to build athleticism from the ground up, starting with your feet. The Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V3 is a gym-specific trainer with the capacity to crossover as a running shoe — once you build up strength in your feet. Unlike other models we tested, a supremely padded upper is designed to provide stability and protection to stand up to even the most rigorous training sessions. While the upper may be padded for extra comfort, the 210 V3 has an unbelievably low stack height of merely 1.5mm with the insole removed. The even platform of the zero-drop outsole, combined with the dual-layer mesh toe box, provides you with a stable, low-profile shoe that aims to help you improve your performance in weight lifting.
Unlike other barefoot models we tested, the 210 V3 does not shy away from adding extra material to the upper to improve comfort and durability, even if it negatively affects its weight and barefoot feel. Distinguishing features, like TPU-reinforced quarter panels and a padded tongue, improve gym-specific performance and are worth the weight sacrifice. While they excel in the gym, the completely smooth, lugless outsoles decrease versatility as a running shoe — and can even lose traction when the gym floor is dirty. But 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 V3
Best Barefoot Trail Runner
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 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 when moving through uneven terrain. We had a blast setting out at speed on 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, 3.7mm stack height, it does incorporate 2mm of EVA foam in a non-removable insole. Where we mainly found problems with regard 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 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
We purchase all of 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 — road running, trail running, or gym training — each pair is given preference in its respective specialty. But based on the mantra of minimalism to do more with less, we also consider how well these shoes perform when crossing disciplines. We compile research, closely examine each shoe, and take a lot of notes to put together our opinions on which models work best in each particular discipline. Most importantly, we workout in these shoes; each shoe sees at least 15 miles of pavement, trail, or both, as well as multiple gym sessions.
Analysis and Test Results
A few things 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 for barefoot and minimalist shoes available on the market. Since our side-by-side testing is based on comparisons, a low score does not mean that a particular pair of shoes isn't worthy of consideration. It simply means that they do not perform quite as well relative to the competition — all of these shoes are excellent in at least one aspect, and often low scoring shoes are fantastic options for specialized use.
The other — and perhaps the 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 athletic habits. Then, with that as a baseline, use our suggestions to help inform your purchase.
Related: Buying Advice for Barefoot Shoes
We rate our selection of barefoot shoes on five scoring metrics: natural feeling, weight, traction, versatility, and durability. Then, we assign scores ranging from 1 to 10 based on how well they perform relative to the competition within each metric. We consider some qualities to be more important than others, so these metrics weigh on our overall performance rating more heavily than the others. Since minimalist footwear is intended to highlight the power of your own two feet — rather than some innovative shoe design — natural feeling takes a majority stake in our scoring, weighted at 40% of the final score.
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 product will perform the best, our experience in this category — and with outdoor gear in general — has proven that this is often not the case.
We highlight products as exceptional values only if they perform well across the board, in addition to being reasonably priced. Not only does the Merrell Vapor Glove 5 continue to define the barefoot shoe category, but it is one of the few such shoes available for less than $100. But it is worth noting that the Vapor Glove 5 may not be the right shoe for everyone, particularly those new to minimalist footwear. Without an optional insole, there is very little material between your foot and the ground, and you are guaranteed to feel every bump in the road. An optional 3mm insole is a highlight of the award-winning Xero HFS; though it is a bit more expensive, its capability as a cross-trainer and small amount of added cushion make it a bit more reasonable for those transitioning away from conventional footwear.
Freeing your feet is what running in minimalist shoes is all about, and it all comes down to ground-feel and responsiveness — how close can each shoe come to feeling like you are actually running barefoot. The soles of the feet are among the most sensitive parts of our body because the information feed through our feet is directly related to proprioception, or our sense of positioning in movement. With an activity like running, in order to understand our body positioning as we move through space, our feet must flex, move, and feel the ground. The best minimalist shoes limit their interference of our natural "sixth sense."
Most designs allow for increased proprioception 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. True barefoot designs — like the award-winning Xero HFS — incorporate all of these design attributes and will provide the highest level of natural, or barefoot, feeling. Minimalist shoes are more of a comfortable crossover from conventional trainers. Shoes like the New Balance Minimus TR may include some of the barefoot attributes — like zero-drop — but will likely still include some cushioning or support structure, be it a midsole or some sort of stability or motion control device.
With testing notes in hand, we then examine the structure of each shoe, indicating design-specifics that likely influence the natural feeling, or lack thereof. First and foremost, we look at flexibility, both in the upper and outsole. A highly flexible shoe — like the Merrell Vapor Glove 5 — is going to allow for unimpeded and thus more natural movement. As we mentioned above, other key barefoot attributes include: zero-drop, a light weight, minimal outsole thickness and an overall low stack height, a wide tox box (to allow for toe splay, a critical factor for stability), lack of conventional support (i.e., a midsole, arch support, toe lift, or stability control devices), minimal ground protection (i.e., rock plate), and a breathable upper. In its conceptually ideal form, a barefoot shoe would feel as if you weren't wearing a shoe at all.
It still surprises us that the Vibram FiveFingers KSO does 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 the midfoot, a slightly heavier build, and difficulties with sizing such a specific shape, it falls a bit short. Instead, flexible shoes like the Xero HFS and Merrell Vapor Glove 5 offer better freedom of movement and an overall more accurate ground-feel.
While barefoot shoes represent an ideal, not everyone interested in the benefits of minimalist footwear wants to take it to the extreme of wearing a shoe with a 1.5mm outsole, like the Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V3. That is why minimalist shoes exist — to bridge the gap between conventional footwear and barefoot shoes. Based on our scheme of evaluating natural feel, these shoes will always score lower in this metric than the barefoot options. However, we make sure to judge them equitably in this regard. If a minimalist shoe with a midsole and thicker stack height — like the Arc'teryx Norvan SL 2 — still checks all of the boxes for flexibility, a breathable upper, and weight despite a more conventional design, then we adjust the score appropriately.
It is also important to consider each of these shoes through the lens of their intended discipline. If it is a trail runner, like the Vibram V-Trail 2.0, how well does it handle uneven terrain, mud, rocks, and water crossings? If it is a road shoe, how well does it handle the abrasion of concrete and rough gravel in road shoulders? If it is a gym-specific trainer, how well does it allow you to engage the natural support structure of your feet without slipping or feeling off-balance? Other versatile trainers — like the Vivobarefoot Primus Trail II FG — may be designed for a particular use but actually excel in pretty much every discipline.
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 right off the bat may result in nagging injuries, even if you feel OK during your run. We suggest cutting back significantly on your usual mileage until your feet have time to adjust to this particular type of shoe.
A shoe's weight can greatly influence the overall experience, particularly if it is specifically designed as a running shoe. But even in the gym, a lightweight, highly breathable trainer will allow you to push the limits of your workout without feeling like a pair of cement shoes are weighing you down. For both minimalist and barefoot options, we want our feet to feel as free and unencumbered as they are in their natural, barefoot state. The top performers are not only objectively lightweight but provide the airy experience of going barefoot.
We start by weighing each shoe on a digital scale and comparing those numbers against the manufacturer's stated weight. We award points based on a sliding scale, with the lowest weight earning the highest marks, then decreasing in value with each additional ounce. Objectively, the Vibram FiveFingers KSO is the lightest shoe in this review — indeed, it amounts to little more than a protective sock. Most amazing, however, is that the Arc'teryx Norvan SL 2 tips the scales at merely 0.2 ounces more, despite its construction as a full-fledged trail runner.
We take each of these shoes out on many, many runs and make subjective comparisons about how light they feel when running. Swing weight, of course, relates to scale weight, but these two alone do not form a full picture of a shoe's relative weight. The material design of the upper plays a major role in breathability and thermoregulation, two important factors if you plan on running in the heat of the day or at the height of your heart rate. Not only do hot, sweaty feet make you feel sluggish, but a more breathable shoe can actually dump water weight through progressive evaporation.
A standout in terms of breathability is the Xero HFS, which includes a thin liner to effectively wick moisture away from your foot and through the full-mesh upper. The Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V3 works along similar design lines but with a much more substantial double-mesh construction that also sandwiches a bit of padding for increased comfort in the gym setting. The glove-like fit of the Merrell Vapor Glove 5 balances both aspects well — the simple, majority mesh design is one of the lightest in this review, and the stretch collar wraps the shoe comfortably around your foot for improved agility.
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 subject each shoe to the hose before taking off on a short loop, testing each pair sequentially on the same day to directly compare their performance. The Vibram V-Trail 2.0 is specially designed with a water-resistant upper, giving it superior water resistance but diminished breathability.
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 are awarded to shoes with thin, flexible outsoles made of sticky-rubber compounds that utilize lugs to assist — not outperform — the natural grip of our feet.
To assess the grip of an outsole, we test 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 also seek out particularly steep and loose trails and note how well the shoes grip when running downhills. We make specific notes on how well certain lug patterns help with braking.
Shoes designed specifically as trail runners tend to perform best in this metric since they are the shoes that most often encounter varied surface conditions. The tacky FiveFingers design of the V-Trail 2.0 certainly allows your toes to grip the ground with accuracy but is a bit inconsistent in terms of overall traction, scrambling particularly well over rocky terrain but occasionally slipping through loose trail conditions.
The Vivobarefoot Primus Trail II FG offers a deeply lugged outsole with a textured arch for improved off-camber traction. Despite its trail-specific design, this shoe also performs exceptionally well as a road-runner. But the Xero HFS — with an ultra-thin outsole design inspired by tire treads — provides the best traction over pavement and still performs admirably on trails.
But no other trail shoe provides as much traction as the Norvan SL 2. Like all Arc'teryx products, this shoe is designed to push the limits of technical gear in technical terrain. The deep lugs are set into a tacky rubber outsole, which, despite its thickness, allows you to apply even pressure across its surface for supreme grip. This superlight shoe works effortlessly through rocky alpine trails as easily as it glides over pavement.
Another essential function of a lugged sole is to shed loose dirt and water. As a lab experiment, we pour water over the outsole to examine how quickly it passes through the lugs and grooves. We do our best to seek out puddles, mud pits, and sandy spots while out on runs to test this capability and adjust points for traction based on our findings. Vibram bases, no matter the lug pattern, seem to do the best in this regard — shoes that use these outsoles are the Vapor Glove 5, the Norvan SL 2, and of course, the Vibram-owned V-Trail 2.0 and FiveFingers KSO.
To stay in line with the basic principle of minimalism, it is important that a single shoe works well for more than just one purpose. We award points to shoes that performed well in multiple disciplines — for instance, trail runners that are also comfortable running on pavement, or road trainers that work equally well in the gym. Not necessarily the best in any one of these realms, but a consistent performer across all disciplines is the Vivobarefoot Primus Trail II FG, which helps make up for its expensive price tag.
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. It is also nice not to have to stick to just roads or just trails, but to have some ability to flow freely between the two. The Xero HFS is just this type of barefoot runner. It is a shoe designed for the roads, but thanks to its flexible outsole, it can manage running on technical trails — as long as your feet are up to it!
We also consider a pair's potential in helping someone transition from conventional running shoes to minimalist, and eventually barefoot, designs. This is apparent when examining a shoe's overall structure — 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.
For those who want a lightweight, flexible shoe that still maintains a midsole with a touch of drop, then try the Norvan SL 2. The Primus Trail II FG is a shoe with a true barefoot design but with a less sensitive outsole than direct competitors. While the Xero HFS epitomizes a barefoot shoe, it still includes an optional 3mm, high-density EVA insole to provide just a touch of cushioning for those who may want a shoe for hiking and running.
We put these shoes through their paces, literally, through miles of running on a variety of terrain and through hours in the gym. While we are limited by our testing period, certain design features and early signs of material failure — plus our years of experience with product testing — give us a good idea of how well these shoes might hold up after a couple hundred miles.
To support any conclusions we reached on durability through our training period, the shoes were closely examined for any manufacturing flaws or shortcuts. Researching material specifications also gave us a good idea of how long a shoe might hold up to regular running regimens. We also consider the warranty programs offered by manufacturers, giving some preference to those who might offer to replace a barefoot shoe that is inherently less durable than thicker-soled, conventionally-designed running shoes.
Thankfully, none of our shoes fell apart during the testing period. However, some details caught our eye on particular models — elements that made us question how well they might hold up throughout a couple of running seasons. The thin quality of the outsole of the Xero HFS, coupled with reviews made online by others, gives us pause when considering an otherwise top-notch barefoot shoe. Although the Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V3 has the thinnest outsole of any shoe in this review — an astounding 1.5mm thick — the rest of the shoe is specifically designed for the rigors of Crossfit-style training.
Unsurprisingly, trail runners like the V-Trail 2.0 and Norvan SL 2 rank the highest for durability. Particularly, the Norvan SL 2 employs an ultra-durable TPU-mesh for an upper — an innovative design unlike any we've seen before. Similarly, the Primus Trail II FG uses a substantial amount of TPU-like rubber to add extra reinforcement to its trail-specific offering. 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 withstood the test of time.
We put each pair of these shoes through more than just their metaphorical paces. Even in a niche market like minimalist shoes, dozens of models are available each season, so narrowing down your options can be a real challenge. We hope that our extensive, side-by-side testing highlights key differences to make your selection process a little bit easier. We also encourage you to research the field of barefoot running to decide if it is the right style for you and your feet.
— Aaron Rice