Are you curious about the hype swirling around "barefoot" and minimalist shoes and their purported benefits to posture, efficiency, and who-knows-what-else? We have been too, so we researched dozens of women's barefoot and minimalist shoes from popular and obscure brands alike, and selected the top 4 leading models to assess. But for this subject, we were also skeptical, given the history of lawsuits and controversy. So, first, we looked at the research, scoured books and advice from the industry's experts, and set out for several months of very slow and progressive foot strengthening. Then we devised a highly scrutinizing set of tests and metrics to examine the leading barefoot or minimalist shoes and set out for miles upon miles of road running, trail running, hiking, walking, and even some scrambling and urban parkour adventures. In the end, this proved to be one of our testers' more memorable gear reviews.
The Best Barefoot Shoes for Women
Test Results and Ratings
Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Women's Barefoot Shoe
Vibram FiveFingers KSO EVO - Women's
The best women's barefoot shoe in this review likely comes as no surprise: the FiveFingers KSO EVO design from Vibram. They even look like bare feet! This model is extremely lightweight with a soft sole that allows you to feel the ground under your feet. The supple upper materials make it easy to flex and spread your toes, giving them barefoot-like freedom for the days you can't run around unshod. These are an excellent shoe for the dedicated barefooter who is forced into a shoe sometimes, and they could also be a good training tool for those transitioning to more and more miles in minimal footwear or fully barefoot.
These are not a shoe to put on and run out the door without doing some serious foot strengthening beforehand, and it is essential to consider that while they score high in this review, it is because they are as true to barefoot as we could find in a shoe. So, this also means that they might not be your top pick for rugged terrain or sharp and rough surfaces. That said, if you've been training and toughening your feet, you'll hardly notice you're wearing shoes when you put these on, except that you'll feel more comfortable walking into public restrooms or through scruffy, less-hygienic terrain of all sorts.
Read review: Vibram FiveFingers KSO EVO - Women's
Best Bang for the Buck
Xero Shoes Prio - Women's
The Xero Shoes Prio resembles a standard trainer or tennis shoe but features all of our favorite attributes of a minimalist shoe. It has a soft sole and supple upper materials as well as a wide toe box that allows toes to splay and flex naturally with your stride. The sole is the same stiffness (or softness) from heel to toe instead of being firmer in the heel and softer in the forefoot like many minimalist shoes. Our testers found this consistency of sole to be true to barefoot in feel. These shoes are breathable enough for warmer weather, and with socks, they kept our feet warm for some of those cooler weather runs.
These shoes feel more like tradition shoes regarding their bulk. These are not the svelte sock-like shoe that some barefoot enthusiasts might be looking for, but this comes at little cost to the minimalist performance of the shoe overall. And they are on the heavier side of shoes in this review, but their weight is distributed over the whole shoe which helps it feel lighter and makes them swing through our stride with relative ease. Versatile enough to run through city streets without standing out when worn as an everyday pair, these shoes provide great performance with discretion and a modest price tag.
Read review: Xero Shoes Prio
Top Pick for Rest and Recovery
Merrell Trail Glove 4 Knit
The Merrell Trail Glove 4 Knit version is very aesthetic and pleasing to wear. We love slipping this shoe on for rest days and recovery hikes. They let our toes splay comfortably, and the sock-like feel is soothing and comfortable. The thicker sole, while getting away from pure minimalist specifications, is consistent in its flex and still just thin enough to allow some foot stimulation. For this reason, we like to wear this shoe when our feet are tired after a lot of running.
The thicker, burlier sole does make this shoe feel clunkier for running, as it focuses the weight of the shoe under your foot and feels less balanced overall. And if you're looking for a closer-to-barefoot feel, the 11.5mm stack height of these shoes will blunt the ground feel. But overall, this shoe retains many of our favorite attributes of minimalist footwear, especially the sock-like comfort of the supple uppers and the wide toe box.
Read review: Merrell Trail Glove 4 Knit
Analysis and Test Results
Women's barefoot and minimalist shoes might seem like an enigma to many, and certainly an irony—what on earth is a "barefoot" shoe, anyway? Don't those words functionally cancel each other out? To help dispel some of the mystery around this niche of the footwear market, we assembled six categories through which to assess the minimal footwear we bought and tested for several months. Check out our summaries of each metric below.
For our first and most important testing metric, we aimed to assess the performance of each shoe. For a category of shoe designed to be as minimal as possible, the goal of this metric is therefore to identify the shoe that does the best job of feeling as if it is not there at all. We break it down into three discrete, measurable tests: Fit, Ground Feel, and Running Performance, allowing us to identify structural flaws that impede performance. In other words, these tests allowed us to find the reasons some shoes got in the way more than others—and why some made us feel the joy we associate with running barefoot through the grass.
For the Fit Test, we wanted to capture the concept of "comfort." This was a challenging task because the very nature of the product is designed to remove many of the features we often associate with comfort, such as cushioning, padding, rock plates in the soles, etc. Instead, we decided that the comfort of the shoe is reflected in its ability to fit our feet and allow our toes the freedom to move. In this test, therefore, we looked for lightweight shoes with flexible soles, soft uppers, and wide toe boxes that allow our toes to splay, rise, fall, flex, and otherwise play freely inside the footwear. To assess, we bent the forefoot and twisted the sole to assess stiffness and stability. We looked for soft, supple soles that would bend and flex evenly and smoothly across the full length of the platform.
The next goal of barefoot or minimal footwear is to allow your foot to feel the ground. This has been suggested to help improve balance and foot proprioception and to stimulate the nerves in your feet. Whatever the effect might be for you, we wanted an objective way to assess if the shoe would let you feel the ground. For the Ground Feel Test, we spent time running, walking, and hiking on all types of surfaces from flat asphalt to soft trails to gravel and even rocky trails. We recorded what level of roughness was required for us to feel the ground with our feet.
For our third test of performance, we got down to the athletic side of things. In our research, we learned about several running methods that are promoted for those choosing to run barefoot or in minimal footwear. These included the Pose Method and ChiRunning, as well as some others like Good Form Running and Evolution Running. We read up on some of these styles, as well as interpretations from some barefoot coaches and experts, and spent some time running fully barefoot to educate and strengthen ourselves and better understand what we were looking for. Finally, for our Running Form Test, we had a sense of what we were looking for, and the things that could get in our way. Notably, we looked for low weight, as well as the weight being balanced evenly throughout the shoe to prevent any lopsided feeling. We keyed into the shoe's effects on our gait, especially due to the way the sole flexed in the forefoot and side-to-side.
For this metric, our top performers were not surprising: they were the most lightweight, supple, and minimal in the review. The Vibram FiveFingers stole the show with their impeccable mimicry of the foot itself. When we strengthened our feet to be durable and balanced enough to run for longer distances in these shoes, we felt fast and spritely and had a whole lot of fun. But the shoes in this review didn't need to look funny to perform well. We also loved the Xero Shoes Prio with the supple sole, wide toe box, and soft uppers. And for a surprise, the Merrell Trail Glove held up to the competition despite having a thicker sole, because of the smooth articulation, but fell behind due to an imbalance of weight that made them feel comparatively clunky.
To assess how accurately a shoe mimics the experience of running barefoot, we dove further into the details we identified in the Performance metric, above. For this category, we conducted a physical exam of each shoe in our Footbed Test. To get as close to barefoot as possible, there are several criteria:
- The sole needs to twist and bend easily.
- They should have no arch support so your arches can strengthen and act as your body's shock absorber.
- They should not have an elevated heel (they should have a "zero drop" sole, or something very close).
- They should not have a toe spring (that's the curled up toe that inhibits your toes' ability to flex and grab the ground).
To assess all of these criteria, we twisted and bent the sole, flexed the forefoot of the shoe, researched the stack height or thickness of the sole (which is best if under 10mm from heel-to-toe) and if it featured "zero-drop." We put the shoes on and wiggled, splayed, raised and lowered our toes to assess how freely they could move. We assessed the lacing system and how well it secured our foot on our runs, without feeling tight or constricting. And finally, we looked at the materials and assessed how soft they were on the bare skin (for use without socks) and how breathable the shoes were on our longer runs—nobody likes having sweaty feet, especially those who enjoy spending time barefoot!
The top scores in this category were, again, not a huge surprise. The Vibrams stole the show with their FiveFinger design and thin, supple sole and uppers. The Xero Shoes Prio held up in this category as well due to its supple and thin sole, though it doesn't look as minimal as some. And the New Balance Minimus grabbed our attention for its supple sole and soft interior.
Many barefoot running experts recommend starting off in your barefoot running career by running completely barefoot. Some studies have even indicated that footwear can impede our balance. And still other studies have looked at how much more energy is lost because of the weight on our feet. For runners, think about carrying a pound of weight on your feet and how many strides you make on an hour long run—how much weight are you lifting on that run? Or for hikers and backpackers, we have long known that adding one pound of weight to your feet in the form of heavy footwear is equivalent to having added anywhere between 6 and 10 pounds of weight to your backpack.
All of this is to say, weight adds up, especially over time. And we like to spend time on our feet outdoors—so this category was an easy one: less weight equals a higher score. The only nuance here was how balanced the weight felt on our foot. Some shoes, like the Xero Shoes Prio, scored better because the weight is distributed evenly throughout the shoe, meaning it feels more balanced and less cumbersome during our running stride.
Another consideration for this category, and one very specific to barefoot runners, is that some runners like to carry their shoes with them and put them on when the terrain gets too rough to continue barefoot, or for when their feet or pads start to feel fatigued. For this reason, it is ideal for these shoes to be very lightweight and compact in case you want to carry them in your hands, a small fanny pack, or a running backpack.
The winner in this category is, again, the extremely lightweight and minimal pair of Vibram FiveFingers. The Minimus gained some ground here, however, featuring an excellent lightweight and breathable foam grid pattern in the fabric of the shoe that we like.
If you love going barefoot but decide to don shoes, it is likely that traction will be a major consideration. Our bare feet do well to stick to a variety of surfaces, largely because the toes can flex and grab at the ground, and the soft skin and pads can mold to the surface. Being close to the ground also dramatically improves our balance and reduces the amount of material between our foot and the ground that can shift, squish, or otherwise throw off our sense of place.
For this metric, to be fair, we assessed each shoe based upon what terrain it was designed for. It did not seem right to give a sticky rubber trail shoes a better score than an urban trainer for its improved performance on hiking trails. For trail-centric shoes, we hiked off-road and even off-trail, in dry, dusty conditions as well as wet and slippery. For urban-focused shoes, we ran parkour-style through town and tested how well the soles stuck to smooth urban surfaces.
The top score in this metric goes to the brilliant tread of the New Balance Minimus. The supple sole combined with the sticky rubber and the spaced-out circular lugs made our feet feel like gecko toes. We stuck to just about everything. The runners-up are close contenders for very different reasons. The KSO EVO features an excellent, low profile sole that allows water to drain and therefore handles wet terrain well, but also handles loose and dusty terrain relatively well, but mainly because you are really close to the ground, well balanced, and your feet can flex and grab at the ground through the ultra-thin soles. And the Merrell Trail Glove is yet another successful version of traction, again with sticky Vibram rubber. The tread on the Merrells is smaller but supple and performs well on a wide variety of urban and off-road terrain.
Weather adaptability is another metric where we wanted to be sure shoes didn't incur any penalties for being designed for warm weather and not to be waterproof and vice versa. We took each shoe out in the full range of its intended climactic conditions, from hot asphalt to cool, wet trails.
Women's barefoot shoes, in general, proved to be fairly specific in their application. Many barefoot enthusiasts report having a quiver of shoes for a variety of conditions, and we ultimately agree with this approach. The Merrell Trail Glove knit was a real surprise in this category—it was highly breathable, but it also deflected water impressively well with its tight-knit fabric, as well as the plastic toe cap. The New Balance Minimus did almost as well with a liner that kept water and dust out, but would leak water in a bit sooner than the knitting of the Merrells. The Xero Shoes Prio scored relatively well because they were breathable, but also had a good toe rand and bumper around the shoe that helped to keep dirt and some splashes of water out.
The design of a minimal shoe is meant to be, well, minimal. As such, we expected to see a cost in the durability department, due to lighter materials and thinner soles. However, many of the companies offering products in this niche market seem to have figured out that problem, and many include top-of-the-line soles from Vibram and high-quality upper materials, as well as thoughtful, streamlined designs and quality manufacturing. Overall, we are very impressed with the durability of these shoes—and the variety of ways they prove to be durable while feeling soft and supple on our feet. Tough and sensitive, now that's impressive.
We are perhaps most surprised and impressed by the durability of the knit fabric in the Merrell Trail Glove. We expected it to snag and catch easily, yet it never did, no matter how far off-trail we went. The Xero Shoes Prio should also have a relatively long life, with thoughtful lacing system to distribute possible points of strain and tough fabrics. We also like the snake-skin-like texture and upturned rubber on the toes of the Vibrams which helped deflect debris and prevent scuffing.
We thoroughly enjoy the adventure of testing women's barefoot shoes (and minimal ones too!), and we hope this review has helped you gain insight into how to carefully and thoughtfully approach the task of transitioning to minimal footwear—or going barefoot entirely. There are many ways to enjoy the process. We encourage you to pick up a good book or find a good coach or mentor. Check in with your doctor to be sure you're aware of the possible risks, but also the benefits and all the health and fitness gains you can make if you take a progressive and mindful approach.
We spent a lot of time barefoot to prepare our feet for minimalist footwear, and it was time well spent. There is a lot of hype around the barefoot shoe industry, and also a lot of horror stories. Above all, it is essential to figure out what works for you. If going barefoot or with minimal footwear is appropriate, be sure to make the transition slowly and progressively. We hope you enjoy your journey as much as we did!
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for more info.