The Best Women's Barefoot Shoes of 2020
Best Overall Women's Barefoot Shoe
Xero Shoes Speed Force - Women's
The new Xero Shoes Speed Force takes over for our Editors' Choice award! This minimalist running shoe is designed as a performance racing flat and inspired by a nationally ranked Masters sprinter. We can tell that a lot of passion and expertise went into the design of these shoes. They are fun for a variety of workouts, including speed work on the track and long runs on your favorite trails. These shoes check all the boxes of qualities we love from our minimalist footwear.
The Speed Force is made of lightweight materials, and as such may not be as durable or weather-resistant as others. These are best for fair weather, but they're up for surprisingly challenging terrain — so long as your feet are adequately trained to handle it. Our testers enjoyed every moment in these shoes, and we think you will, too.
Read review: Xero Shoes Speed Force- Women's
Best Bang for the Buck
Merrell Vapor Glove 4 - Women's
The Merrell Vapor Glove 4 is the solution for barefoot enthusiasts who really don't like the idea of shoes that separate your toes. The Vapor Glove feels like an extremely durable running sock. We love the minimalist features: the low weight, the supple, zero-drop sole, soft uppers, secure lacing, and wider toe box. On-trail performance and barefoot feel are top tier here.
The 6.5 mm stack height of the Vapor Glove is minimal, so rough trails may be a bit too rough in these shoes. That said, If you've trained your foot strength and are able to adapt your technique and speed, you can certainly venture well off-road in these trail runners. Overall these are a pleasing minimalist shoe that will help you keep your strong feet very strong and your wallet just a wee bit heavier.
Read review: Merrell Vapor Glove 4 - Women's
Best for Closest-to-Barefoot
Vibram FiveFingers KSO EVO - Women's
Our Top Pick for Closest-to-Barefoot in this review will likely come as no surprise: the Vibram FiveFingers KSO EVO. 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 pair of shoes 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.
This is not a pair of shoes to put on and run out the door without doing some serious foot strengthening beforehand. 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 for Simplicity
Softstar Adult DASH RunAmoc
The SoftStar DASH RunAmoc look like a casual shoe — some have even thought we were wearing bowling shoes. They're fun and cute, yes, but they're also impressive for a variety of athletic activities. The fit and design are consistent with the strictest definition of minimalist footwear we have outlined out for this review. The materials are soft and supple and impressively durable. We loved running in these shoes, and we also enjoyed spending a mellow rest day out around town wearing them.
The fit is not snug on the RunAmoc, and our testers found that they had similar skin irritation on the bottom of their feet as when they run completely barefoot. With some study of gait and running mechanics, we have learned what this says about our gait, and this valuable "feetback" gives us the opportunity to learn and correct our mechanics, if we're willing to listen… Know that these shoes may not let you get away with technique errors like some other shoes, so enjoy them for gentler runs where you focus on form and technique, or for long walks to work on foot strength.
Read review: SoftStar DASH RunAmoc- Women's
Why You Should Trust Us
The lead tester behind this review is AMGA Rock Guide, avalanche instructor, and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Lyra Pierotti. During winters, she instructs avalanche education courses for backcountry skiers and climbers AIARE, and in the summers she guides clients on alpine climbs and expeditions. She is also an active member of the American Mountain Guides Association. Lyra travels extensively for work, guiding mountains all over the globe, and keeps a pair of minimalist shoes with her everywhere she goes so she can keep her heart — and her feet — as strong as possible. Her career depends upon it. Her CSCS certification also gives her more in-depth knowledge of strength training and conditioning, further underlining her passion for fitness, training progression, and the relentless pursuit of healthy and efficient movement patterns.
Before we even started testing for this review, we spent months training our feet and examining our running mechanics to make sure we were durable enough to set out on months of testing minimalist and barefoot-inspired footwear. The horror stories are real — when these types of shoes first appeared on the scene, people launched out on their usual runs and ran right into injury. The main error was a lack of adequate foot strength from years of cushioned footwear and shoes that disrupt the natural movements of the toes and feet.
As we strengthened our feet and prepped for this review, we assembled our assessment metrics: Performance, Barefoot Accuracy, Weight, Traction, Versatility, and Durability. We assigned specific field and "lab" tests to each metric to make our testing as consistent and thorough as possible. And then, we were ready. From Seattle to the Caucasus Mountains, each pair was thoroughly vetted and compared against the rest of the test group.
Analysis and Test Results
We tested each shoe in the environment it was designed for — that is to say, we did not unfairly knock down a road running shoe for poor performance on the trail. However, as enthusiastic adventurers with critical minds, we also wanted to see how far we could push the boundaries of some of the shoes. You will read thorough discussions of how we tested the shoes slightly outside of the box. This is largely reflected in the overall value of each shoe. Check out our findings below, and have fun out there.
Are you looking for a specialist shoe or more of an all-rounder? If you have a specific use in mind, it might be easier to assess the value of a shoe. For most, the value of a product relates directly to how well it performs in the activities you love. However, many of us are looking for a shoe that will satisfy several needs. Footwear is not a trivial expense, so we assess the versatility of each shoe vs. the price. We want to help you make sure your favorite footwear is worthy of its price tag.
In this review, our Best Buy Winner, the Merrell Vapor Glove 4, is not necessarily the most versatile shoe. However, it is one of the most affordable. It provides an excellent entry point into minimalist footwear, and a great complement to your regular footwear for those days you want to train your foot strength. While we love gear, we don't like for it to accumulate, so we appreciate versatility. However, due to the nuanced nature of this type of footwear, we recommend investing in a couple different pairs to cover you appropriately through different terrain types.
Durability is a big component of value as well, in our view. As outdoor enthusiasts, we can be pretty hard on gear, so we want to know that things are well made before we invest our hard-earned cash in yet another pair of running shoes…
For our first assessment category, we want to know how well a shoe performs. This is our most heavily weighted assessment category. To properly assess each metric, we must know the goals of the products. A minimalist shoe is designed to be minimal. Therefore, our assessments center around the results from two tests. In the Fit Test, we examine how well the shoe stays out of our way — essentially, letting our feet do their own natural thing. Next is the Ground Feel Test, where we examine how much foot proprioception is maintained through each shoe's sole. For barefoot enthusiasts, feeling the ground is a high priority. We get it — once you turn on your foot-sense, it opens up a whole new feeling of connection and exhilaration on your running adventures.
For the Fit Test, we aim to capture the concept of "comfort." This is a challenging task because the design of minimalist footwear is 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 look 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 went running. A lot.
It's important to note that when transitioning to barefoot shoes, since there is no arch support, your foot will bend and flex more as it (naturally) absorbs shock. This is a healthy and natural movement for a well-strengthened and well-functioning foot. It also means that your foot will spread out and you'll likely find that you need a bigger size to accommodate this extra foot motion.
The next goal of barefoot shoes 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 (or goal) 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. Yes, sometimes this was recorded in the form of expletives.
To assemble our thoughts on performance, we researched 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.
Through our training, and plenty of trial-and-error, we grew to understand the role of footwear in our running program — and ultimately felt humbled by it all. First and foremost, we learned, this is a sport that depends upon each athlete listening intently, and respectfully, to their bodies. The moment we latch on to any dogma or another expert's absolutes, that's when we verge on injury. We also learned that as much as we like to have just a straightforward gear solution, it is wise to have a few running shoes. This allows you to mix things up and vary the amount of strain you put on your feet daily.
For this metric, our top performers were not surprising: they were the most lightweight, supple, and minimal in the review. The Speed Force, our Editor's Choice, was designed specifically for performance, and it performs. The FiveFingers KSO EVO impressed with its impeccable mimicry of the foot itself and is our Top Pick for Closest-to-Barefoot. When we strengthened our feet to be durable and balanced enough to run for long 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. The Vapor Glove 4 is a lot like a pair of close-toed FiveFingers. We also love the DASH RunAmoc which look like a pair of casual shoes and perform well in a lot of activities.
To assess how accurately a barefoot 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 natural shock absorber.
- They should not have an elevated heel (they should have a "zero drop" sole, or something very close).
- They should not have toe spring or rocker (that's the curled up toe that inhibits your toes' ability to flex and grab the ground).
- They should have a wide toe box to allow toe splay
To assess all of these criteria, we twisted and bent the sole, flexed the forefoot of the shoe, and researched the stack height or thickness of the sole (which is best if under 10mm from heel-to-toe). We also checked if it featured "zero-drop" (when the heel and the toes are the same height off the ground). We put the shoes on and wiggled, splayed, raised, and lowered our toes to assess how freely they could move. We evaluated 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 are on the bare skin (for use without socks) and how breathable the shoes are on longer runs. Nobody likes having sweaty feet, especially those who enjoy spending time barefoot!
The top scorers in this category were, again, not a huge surprise. Vibram stole the show with their KSO EVO design and thin, supple sole and uppers. The Vapor Glove 4 followed close behind. This version of the Vapor Glove has more room in the toe box than we felt with previous versions of this shoe, to our toes' delight. The pliable upper allows for incredible toe lit, too.
The DASH RunAmoc required particular attention to our running form, so we wore these on days we wanted to focus on technique and go a little slower. We've keyed into certain sensations and friction on the bottom of our feet when running completely barefoot, and have learned what this says about our running economy and gait. The DASH gave us the same "feetback" as we get when running unshod.
Many barefoot running experts recommend starting your barefoot running career by running completely barefoot. Some studies have even indicated that footwear can impede our balance. Other studies have researched 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 that the 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 Speed Force, scored better because the weight is distributed evenly throughout the shoe, meaning it feels more balanced and less cumbersome during a running stride.
Another consideration for this category and one very specific to barefoot enthusiasts 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 when their feet 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 FiveFingers KSO EVO. The Vapor Glove 4 is a relatively close second. And we must admit that the weight of the DASH RunAmoc surprised us. Consisting of an entirely leather upper, it still maintains an impressively low weight, due to the simplicity of the design.
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, we assessed each shoe based upon what terrain it is 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 scores in this metric go to the New Balance Minimus Trail 10v1 and the Merrell Trail Glove 5 ECO. The supple sole on the Minimus Trail 10v1, combined with the sticky rubber and the circular lugs with flex grooves made our feet feel like gecko toes. We stuck to just about everything. And the smoother profile with finer lugs on the Trail Glove 5 ECO handled an impressive variety of surfaces.
The KSO EVO features an excellent, low profile sole that allows water to drain and therefore handles wet terrain well, but also navigates loose and dusty terrain with relative ease — 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 confusingly named Vibram FiveFingers KSO (not the EVO version) has a unique feature for traction on wet surfaces: A sole split design that opens up narrow slits when bent.
One of the more unique shoes in this review is the Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V2 with its grippy sides designed specifically for climbing ropes. We think this is awesome if also a bit "nichey." This category of footwear is designed to help us feel free and light, and footwear that is designed to help us climb as part of an ordinary gym workout seems pretty cool to us.
We love gear, but we don't have endless space in our garage to accumulate more and more of it. We like shoes, for example, that perform well for a variety of tasks, over several terrain types, and through several seasons, ideally.
To be fair, many barefoot enthusiasts do report having a quiver of shoes, and we agree with this approach — it is wise to vary your footwear and match it to the terrain. So a couple or a few versatile pairs of shoes should be adequate: one for truly rough terrain, and one very lightweight pair for technique and form work.
We took these shoes out for a variety of activities to see how well they would perform. Indoor soccer proved to be a great activity for the Trail Glove 5 ECO, and we found this shoe to be the more versatile due to its thicker sole and slight arch support. While not as strictly a barefoot shoe, these attributes are ideal for someone transitioning to a more minimal shoe and who loves a plethora of different sports. Additionally, the supposedly race-specific Speed Force became our favorite for trail running, go figure.
The design of a minimal shoe is meant to be, well, minimal. As such, we expected to see a trade-off in the durability department, due to lighter materials and thinner soles. However, some companies have approached this issue by increasing the quality of the materials used. One common treatment is to implement top-of-the-line soles from Vibram into the design. You'll also find high-quality upper materials, as well as thoughtful, streamlined designs and quality manufacturing. Overall, we are 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 recycled fabric in the Trail Glove 5 ECO. And the responsibly sourced leather uppers and simple Vibram Omniflex soles on the DASH RunAmoc make for an impressively long-lived shoe, despite being made from leather.
Testing minimalist and barefoot-inspired footwear was a great adventure. It took us down many paths we didn't anticipate — literally and figuratively. In the end, we realized that these shoes are more about the lifestyle they inspire rather than the strict performance of the product. In our effort to design the most rigorous and thorough tests, we ended up transforming our own performance. At the end of months of training and testing, we are stoked to report stronger feet and more fun on the run. But we've also learned that this is an ongoing process and one that requires diligent and consistent training. It might be a shift in lifestyle, minor for some, major for others — we found it to be well worth it.
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. Barefoot Ken Bob's is a good place to start. 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.
It's important to note that we spent a lot of time actually barefoot to prepare our feet for minimalist footwear. In the end, this 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!
— Lyra Pierotti