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How to Choose Minimal and Barefoot Shoes

Cruising down the trail in the Merrell Bare Access 3 with Mammoth Mountain  CA in the background. The training grounds for the elite Mammoth Track Club.
By Thomas King ⋅ Review Editor
Friday February 23, 2018

You are in the market for running shoes, so why choose barefoot shoes? After two months of hellish summer and early autumn runs, we put these eight barefoot shoes through their paces and feel confident you will dig our recommendations. ,

Some History


The heyday of the barefoot craze peaked around the 2009 publication of Christopher McDougall's "Born to Run", a book about an elusive tribe (The Tarahumara) of long-distance runners in South America that run in flat sandals or completely barefoot. As public attention around the subject grew, many top shoe-makers started crafting running, hiking and general workout shoes around this model. The trend took a bit of a dive a few years later as real scientists started criticizing one of McDougall's points that running injuries stem from using over-cushioned shoes with too many gimmicks and marketing tricks slapped on them. Afterwards, an explosion of maximalist shoes took the trend to the opposite direction and for a few years, outside of a few models that have been popping up every year for quite a while, like the New Balance Minimus, runners just couldn't find barefoot shoes. Now the market has stabilized, and barefoot shoes are popular with many manufacturers.

So You Want A Barefoot Shoe?


What is a barefoot shoe, really, though? In McDougall's book, the Tarahumara run in huaraches, a type of sandal with loops around the ankle as well as between the big toe. In fact, the Xero Prio tries to mimic this design and bring it to life in a typical trainer platform.

The Xero Prio goes for the feel of traditional sandal designs with swooping straps that loop around the heel and sides.
The Xero Prio goes for the feel of traditional sandal designs with swooping straps that loop around the heel and sides.

While running huaraches are available, their relative unpopularity compared with more typical shoe constructions left them off the list for this review. We classify a barefoot shoe by some design metrics, not all of which are lived up to fully by the shoes in our review. First, they must be sleek, having little support or cushioning to allow for the most natural feeling of the road — think running barefoot through a park and that's what the shoe must go for to fit this criterion. They must also allow for natural movement of the foot, for most runners this means they should favor a toe-strike or midsole-strike and cannot force a runner to land heel first by having a steep heel-to-toe drop ratio.

We really like how the Merrell Vapor Glove does out on walkways and roads and it's lightweight material performs very well in the heat.
We really like how the Merrell Vapor Glove does out on walkways and roads and it's lightweight material performs very well in the heat.

An excellent barefoot shoe obviously must also be exceptionally light against its contemporary competitors — otherwise, what's the point of a moniker like barefoot? Finally, barefoot shoes cannot have weird support features common in many shoe models — have you ever done a "trial run" in a running store? You probably heart words like pronation and arch support, right? None of that here. You run how you run, and the shoe does not try to fix you. Conversely, these shoes completely abandon the logic of purchasing a shoe in-store, where an "expert" sizes you, analyzes your running style with expensive cameras and infrared and present an illusion of a solution to a problem you never had. Instead, these shoes just say: "Hey, here's a shoe, go for a run."

Road, Trail, Gym or Lifestyle


In our review, we split the spread of shoes between road and trail models and considered which shoes are best for using during cross-training in the gym. Many lifters and body-weight workout gurus recommend the same features from a shoe that barefoot shoes offer. For this reason, we took our 8 top shoes to the gym and made sure you could do the same without feeling too awkward.

The FiveFinger KSO is great around the gym for squats and deadlifts.
The FiveFinger KSO is great around the gym for squats and deadlifts.

Choosing the Right Shoe


When picking out the best barefoot shoe for your purposes, you should consider whether you will mostly be on the road and track or if you want to take these out on the trail or if you just want a comfortable shoe to wear around town without looking like a goofball, maybe go to the gym in, maybe do a light jog and keep it casual. We found some shoes favored the aggressive road runner versus a casual usage and spelled it out for you. If you spend most of your time on a treadmill or the sidewalk, then we feel a road shoe will cover your bases and leaning towards a trail shoe just because you want the option of doing that super muddy obstacle run will do a disservice to your feet after a few miles on flat, hard surfaces.

Maybe some people think this design looks a little quirky  but we loved it.
Maybe some people think this design looks a little quirky, but we loved it.


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