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We've bought and tested over 25 unique women's barefoot shoes for the past 8 years, with 9 top models in this review. Our field testing team is full of movement artists and runners of all types, who cover a variety of terrain types, move at all speeds, and get out in all weather. The result is a review full of robustly field-tested shoes and our critical perspectives on each one. The minimalist footwear category is not one to be taken lightly — even if the footwear is, in fact, very light. It is imperative to strengthen your feet diligently before launching out on a run in your new pair of kicks. But once you have done so, we are pretty sure you'll be hooked. Testing for this review makes us as giddy as kids running barefoot through the grass.
Editor's Note: We updated this review on May 25, 2023, to ensure our lineup is current and that we still stand by our award choices. We updated the Merrell Vapor Glove review with information on updates to that model.
The Xero Speed Force is a minimalist running shoe 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, from speed work on the track to long runs on your favorite dirt trails. The Speed Force meets all the criteria of what we're looking for in a minimalist shoe and takes the cake as our favorite shoe overall.
Because it's made with lightweight materials, this shoe isn't as durable or weather-resistant as other models out there. We recommend these the most for fair weather, but they're up for surprisingly challenging terrain — so long as your feet are adequately trained to handle it, as running in minimalist footwear can take some time to adjust to. Our testers enjoyed every moment in these shoes, and we think you will, too.
New Version Released — May 2023
Merrell updated this shoe to the Vapor Glove 6. The stack height has been lowered slightly from 6.5mm to 6mm, and the design of the upper has changed slightly. We're linking to the Vapor Glove 6 in our review.
The Merrell Vapor Glove 5 is the solution for barefoot enthusiasts who aren't into the toe-separated design of some minimalist shoes. 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 mixed with a barefoot feel are perfected in this "shoe."
The 6.5mm stack height of the Vapor Glove is minimal, so rough trails can be a bit harsh in these low-profile gloves. That said, If you've trained your foot strength and can adapt your technique and speed, you can certainly venture well off-road in these trail runners. Overall these are a pleasing, minimalist pair of shoes that will help you keep your strong feet very strong and your wallet just a wee bit fuller.
Our favorite "closest-to-barefoot" model 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 easily underfoot. 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 sometimes may want something between their skin and the ground. They could also be a good training tool for those transitioning to more and more miles in minimal footwear or to being fully barefoot.
Newer minimalist shoe wearers, be warned: this is not a pair of shoes to put on and run out the door in 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. This also means that they might not be your first choice 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.
The Xero HFS are a very competitive newcomer to this review. This shoe gets an award for versatility thanks to its ability to tackle various terrain and hold up well. This reliable go-to quickly filled the niche of our "daily driver" running shoe. They are simple, easy to put on and take off, and well suited to most terrain we want to go running in.
There really isn't a notable downside to the HFS. It is a classic "Jill-of-all-trades" but master of none. It is a bit heavier and bulkier than some of our favorites, but we think this is overall an excellent minimalist shoe for a great price.
Before we even started testing for this review, we spent months training our feet and examining our running mechanics to ensure 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.
Prepping for this review involved a couple of things: strengthening our feet and assembling our testing metrics. For each shoe, we assessed Natural Feel, Weight, Traction, Versatility, and Durability. We assigned focused field and "lab" tests to each metric to make our testing as consistent and thorough as possible. And then we were off. Mile after mile, each pair of shoes was thoroughly vetted and put to the test against the rest of the group.
Our testing metrics for this category are divided as follows:
Natural Feel (40% of overall score weighting)
Weight (20% weighting)
Traction (15% weighting)
Versatility (15% weighting)
Durability (10% weighting)
The lead tester behind this review is Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, AMGA Rock Guide, and AIARE avalanche instructor Lyra Pierotti. During winters, she leads 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.
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 our tested shoes. Meaning, we pushed these barefoot shoes slightly outside of the box when testing, thoroughly discussed throughout each article. 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.
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 of different pairs to cover you appropriately through different terrain types. Durability is a big component of value too. As outdoor enthusiasts, we can be pretty hard on gear, so we want to know that things are well made before investing our hard-earned cash in yet another pair of running shoes. The Merrell Vapor Glove 5 checks all the right boxes when it comes to a high-value product. Low price meets a consistent and well-rounded performance for a truly good buy. While not the very cheapest, shoes from Xero are also a fantastic way to get a top-tier shoe for a more reasonable price point.
If we are going to call this a "barefoot shoe" review, we want to know just how "bare" our feet feel when wearing these shoes. The category name is pretty ironic, so we set our standards pretty high. These shoes need to let our feet do their thing with minimal inhibition.
First, we spent a lot of time in each pair of shoes, in various environments, and at different movement speeds (walking, running, jumping, climbing trees, weight lifting). We logged our observations and then collected as much objective data as possible. From "heel-to-toe," so to speak, we researched and measured and twisted and flexed each of these shoes. Here are the parameters we checked for:
The sole needs to twist and bend easily so it doesn't control or correct your gait (this is termed "motion control" and may be advertised as a shoe correcting for over-pronation)
They should have a wide toe box to allow toe splay (your body's own motion control feature)
The sole should be thin enough that you can feel the ground
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 be lightweight to minimize the impact to swing weight
They should be breathable, so your feet don't overheat
The main 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 report how well the shoe would let you feel the ground. We spent time running, walking, and hiking on all types of surfaces — from flat asphalt to soft trails, gravel, and rocky trails. Then we twisted and flexed each shoe, comparing them, to see how supple the soles were, side-by-side. And finally, we researched each shoe to get to know its specifications for stack height (the thickness of the sole) and general sole characteristics.
More foot motion means bigger shoe sizes
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.
If you're thinking about getting into running in minimalist footwear, you might enjoy researching some of these running methods: Pose Method, ChiRunning, 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 that this is a sport that depends on 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.
The winners of this category are, not surprisingly, also overall winners in this review. The Xero Speed Force is a very lightweight performance shoe that we reached for any time it was appropriate. This is not the best shoe for wet conditions, but we loved the way we could feel the ground in these shoes and how soft the uppers are. The Vibram FiveFingers KSO EVO is a classic of barefoot lore and our favorite of their models for the simplicity and overall suppleness of the shoe.
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 in an hour-long run. How much weight are you lifting over the course of that run? 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 feet. 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 the extremely lightweight and minimal pair of FiveFingers KSO EVO. The Vapor Glove 5 is a not-too-close second. And we must admit that the weight of the Softstar Adult 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, traction will likely be a major consideration. Our bare feet do well to stick to various 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 balance and reduces the amount of material between your feet and the ground — which can shift, squish, or otherwise throw off your 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 places. For urban-focused shoes, we ran parkour-style through town and tested how well the soles stuck to smooth urban surfaces.
The Xero Shoes HFS design has a little more traction added to some of our favorite design features from that company, with an excellent lug pattern. 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 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 design that opens up narrow slits when bent.
One of the more unique shoes in this review is the Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V3, with its grippy sides designed specifically for climbing ropes. We think this is awesome if also a bit "nichey." This footwear category is designed to help you feel free and light, and footwear designed to help you climb as part of an ordinary gym workout is pretty darn cool.
We love gear, but we don't have endless space in our garage to accumulate more and more of it. For that reason, we like shoes that perform well for a variety of tasks, over several terrain types, and through several seasons. Barefoot shoes are more of a niche purchase for most folks, it's true, but it's always smart to think about the full scope of the activities you plan to undertake. This way, you can choose something that will happily get used on the regular.
That said, 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 formwork. We took these shoes out for many activities to see how well they would perform in different scenarios. The standout shoe for a reliable go-to was the Xero Shoes HFS, so good it even got an award for versatility.
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.
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. And if you're psyched on the Xero Speed Force like we are, but you want something a bit more rugged, check out their HFS.
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 delighted to report stronger feet and more fun overall while running. 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.
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 this review has helped you gain insight into how to carefully and thoughtfully approach the task of transitioning to minimal footwear — or to going barefoot entirely. There are many ways to enjoy the process, and we hope you enjoy your journey as much as we did. 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. Consider checking in with your doctor to be sure you're aware of the possible risks, but also keep in mind the benefits and all the health and fitness gains you can make if you take a progressive and mindful approach. Happy running!
GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.