The best barefoot running shoes have come a long way in the last decade, since Vibram's FiveFingers, with their separate toe pockets, pioneered a novel approach to the trails. The enhanced ground-feel sensations they offer athletes are addictive and soon a whole new approach to trail running was in full swing.
Barefoot running shoes may not be for everyone – many people will be looking for the best trail running shoes with a bit more support – but there's a growing trend for more minimal designs.
It’s been just over 10 years since the first wave of barefoot running enthusiasm swept across the world. Christopher McDougall’s book Born To Run (published in 2009 and one of Advnture's best running books) inspired so many of us to ditch the cushioning, high heels and protection of traditional running shoes and try ‘minimal’. Fast-forward to 2021 and many running shoe manufacturers are still experimenting with minimal designs that relate back to ‘that book’.
Some runners fully adapted to minimal footwear and never looked back. Some still use barefoot shoes occasionally as a weekly ‘tune-up’. Some will have moved on to shoes that sit somewhere between minimal and regular designs, but which embrace other features that started with the barefoot movement: lightweight shoes, zero (or very low) drop from heel to toe, low stack heights, foot-shaped uppers and wide toe-boxes.
Here we have selected the best barefoot running shoes, mostly for the trails, that embrace some of these minimal design philosophies. We’ve tested them for comfort, grip and ground feel over long runs and short speed sessions to help you choose the best barefoot running shoes for you.
The best barefoot running shoes
Softstar Megagrip Primal RunAmoc
Handmade leather trail shoes, ideal for barefoot runners with very wide feet and toe splay
RRP: $170 (US)/ £160 (UK) | Weight (per shoe, men’s UK11): 339g/12oz | Drop: 0mm | Colors: Azure & navy / Black | Compatibility: Zero drop, grippy, very wide forefoot, foot-shaped
Although the asking price is high for a minimalist shoe, as soon as you open the eco-friendly paper wrap that the Softstars arrive in, and breathe in the waft of leather, you can see where your money is going, and pleasingly it is on skilled craftspeople rather than branding and fancy packaging. The leather is sumptuously soft and therefore it feels as though it breaths very naturally. The eyelet chain is smartly reinforced to allow for a good mid-foot lockdown and increase longevity – we think the whole shoe will last well if looked after.
The heel is internally padded with more leather, which makes them comfortable, but a bit tricky to get a good lockdown. The other esoteric design choice is the toe rand bumper, a thin rubber material that feels like a bike inner tube, it’s tight across the toenails and ensures the shoe’s volume is experienced as width rather than height. Softstar have used Vibram’s excellent MegaGrip rubber on the outsole, and the 4mm lugs provide impressive grip over most terrain. The addition of a firm but thin midsole introduces a well judged level of underfoot protection producing a ride that’s high in natural ground feel and low in painful impacts. At 130mm in width, the forefoot is unusually wide – if you don’t have wide feet, there is a narrow fit option that’s well worth considering.
Vibram FiveFingers V-Trail 2.0 Trail
The original minimal shoe that still turns heads due to its distinctive simian style
RRP: $120 (US) / £130 (UK) | Gender availability: Men’s & Women’s | Weight (per shoe, men’s UK11): 221g/7.8oz | Colors: Blue & orange / Black & yellow / Ivy & black | Drop: 0mm | Compatibility: Great on all trails, with the exception of deep mud
It’s imperative to tackle the ‘love it or hate it’ looks first. FiveFingers look… unusual. There’s pros and cons to that famous ‘toe pocket’ design. Pros are the natural, almost naked feel and the powerful toe-off delivered by five toes able to flex and splay independently over the terrain. Cons are mostly a design that won’t suit everyone’s foot shape – our testers’ little toes didn’t reach the little toe pocket and his big toes were a tight fit. The Vibram company are most famous for their outsoles, specified here their super sticky MegaGrip, which doesn’t disappoint (deep mud being their only foe - they’re not fell shoes!). Within the sole, 3D Cocoon technology (a plate of sorts) balances ground-feel with reduced ground pain cleverly. There’s no midsole of-course, so they’re zero drop, light and nimble. Heel striking is, by design, painful and so a fast cadence and short stride is almost automatic. Runners in very hilly areas will likely find hard packed or road descents tricky at speed. Overall comfort is impressive and the lacing system cinches up the mid-foot securely.
VivoBarefoot Primus Trail II FG
Top notch, tactile, rough-terrain creepers with excellent eco credentials
RRP: $160 (US) / £120 (UK) | Gender availability: Men’s & Women’s | Weight (per shoe, men’s UK11): 285g/10oz | Colors: Obsidian (Black) | Drop: 0mm | Compatibility: All trails
The FG in the name refers to ‘Firm Ground’, but Vivo say the Primus Trail IIs can cope with most sorts of underfoot conditions – wet or dry, rocky and rubbly or firm – with the FG sole (armed with 4mm lugs) offering multi-terrain traction and a sticky rubber compound for all round grip and durability. These claims really stood up on test, and the shoes inspired confidence on even the most slippery of surfaces. We found the Primus Trail let our feet breath really well, and was surprisingly good at keeping trail juice out (puddles need to be pretty deep before water gets in), but there was some tightness around the smaller toes. The tongue is longer than it needs to be, causing irritation, and not everyone is a fan of the quick-lace system. The shoes seem very durable so far (albeit with a few creases) and the fact that they are made entirely from recycled materials is a huge plus. They’re also easy to transport, being light and easy to squish into a bag or pack.
Xero Shoes Mesa Trail
A dependable comfortable shoe that’s adaptable over lots of trail types
RRP: $120 (US) / £105 (UK) | Gender availability: Men’s & Women’s | Weight (per shoe, men’s UK11): 250g/8.8oz | Colors: Dark grey / Clay rust / Forest / Orchid | Drop: 0mm | Compatibility: Trails of all kinds
If you’ve ever opined that some of the bigger shoe companies spend too much on product styling you won’t be similarly aggrieved at XeroShoes Mesa Trail. They are aesthetically functional. It’s not really until they’re on your feet that the excitement levels rise. They’ve chosen a subtly foot-shaped last to build these on that will please most runners. The upper is soft and comfortable and the eyelet chain, a mixture of punched holes and webbing, does a great job of securing the mid-foot. A combination of bonded overlays and a stitched toe bumper toughen up the upper where required. There’s no midsole but there is a smartly specified insole that’s made from a closed-cell foam (which won’t gain weight when soaked) and is perforated for weigh savings and airflow. Multi-directional 3.5mm lugs provide decent grip over wet grass and soft ground. The rubber compound is not tacky; this can cause grip issues on hard wet surfaces but, as a positive, should result in a long lasting outsole. For a shoe with no midsole the Mesa Trail will suit a surprisingly broad set of runners.
Merrell Bare Access XTR
An excellent blend of familiar running shoe and barefoot trail ripper
RRP: $100 (US) / £95 (UK) | Gender availability: Men’s & Women’s | Weight (per shoe, men’s UK11): 260g/9.2oz | Colors: Magma (Deep Red) / Black | Drop: 0mm | Compatibility: All trails
At first glance the Merrell Bare Access XTR have a distinctly ‘normal’ running shoe appearance, but delve a little deeper and their foot-shaped and minimal principals shine through. As an example you’d think there was a heel-to-toe drop, but your foot actually sits in the midsole, rather than on it, and more so at the rear. There’s 17mm of stack, rear and fore, including a Vibram outer, which uses 3mm lugs for grip. It’s not super sticky but performs well, only sliding around dramatically for our tester in some inappropriately deep snow and sticky mud. The midsole is firm but still provides comfort over rough terrain without muting ground-fell completely. The mesh upper is foot-shaped and broad but not super wide. The gusseted medium padded tongue helps with comfortable lacing; a good lock down and secure heel lock are easily achieved. Overlays, heel counters and toe bumper features are all subtle but present. The minimal design and lightweight encourage fast feet while the midsole adds a level of protection for worry free fast descending.
Altra Superior 4.5
Foot-shaped shoe with zero drop that’s a fun and agile trail speedster
RRP: $110 (US) / £120 (UK) | Gender availability: Men’s & Women’s | Weight (per shoe, men’s UK11): 302g/10.6oz | Colors: Black / Blue & yellow / Green & lime / Blue & lime / Yellow & port | Drop: 0mm | Compatibility: All trails
Altra don’t particularly associate with the barefoot ‘movement’ – their appeal is broader and less controversial. However, the Superior exhibits features that fit with our ‘natural running’ theme. Altra is appreciated for their twin design philosophies of foot-shaped and balanced cushioning. The former describes a shape that allows your toes to splay, especially during toe-off. The latter refers to their zero drop platform; this feels like extra ‘cush’ under the ball of your toes rather than less under the heel. As the most minimal shoe in their trail range, a considered line choice rather than a wanton blast is the best descending technique. The upper is a thin, soft and flexible engineered knit, lightly padded in the mid-foot, a little more around the heel collar. Like the padding, the midsole is ‘just right’ for a fast shoe, with 21mm of Quantic midsole and MaxTrac rubber giving responsive cushioning and dependable grip over most terrain. Only muddy conditions causing occasional slips. Under the 6mm insole is Altra’s StoneGuard; a removable plastic layer that could save you 30 grams and increase ground feel although we left them in enjoying the protection they provide.
VivoBarefoot Primus Lite III
Barefoot-style road- or training shoe for that ‘did I remember to put my shoes on’ feel
RRP: $140 (US) / £115 (UK) | Gender availability: Men’s & Women’s | Weight (per shoe, men’s UK11): 258g/9.1oz | Colors: Obsidian (Black) | Drop: 0mm | Compatibility: Designed for road running and training
Along with just a couple of other companies, VivoBarefoot are known for their foot-shaped shoes; which may leave many readers asking why all shoes aren’t foot-shaped… Sadly many daily wearers of pointy office shoes may be past the point of needing such a healthy human foot shape. But if you’ve ever felt your big toe pushed over by an upper, give Vivo a go. The shape and width give your toes room to splay, becoming more active in the toe-off stage of your gait. Your feet are more part of the shoe’s friction mechanism too, molding around terrain where normal shoes use midsole. This is a powerful and connected sensation but may feel tiring at first as your feet strengthen to this new challenge. Good form is encouraged when wearing these shoes, as heavy heel striking is essentially impossible. They seem well made and their vegan status and recycled materials will please many environment-conscious runners. A tough eyelet chain and solid welded construction should promote longevity, while smartly placed upper overlays should limit damage caused by big toes. Those with deep mid-foots should note Vivo’s shoes volume is more from width that height.
Hoka One One Evo Jawz
Lightweight pared back aggressive trail and fell racing shoe
RRP: $130 (US) / £110 (UK) | Gender availability: Men’s & Women’s | Weight (per shoe, men’s UK11): 239g/8.4oz | Colors: Cyan & Citrus | Drop: 3mm | Compatibility: All trails – especially on race day
While Hoka One One are more commonly known for maximally cushioned road and trail shoes, a cursory glance at a beefy look at a Hoka Clifton doesn’t tell the whole story. Firstly, all Hoka are low drop – usually 4mm. Secondly they also make shoes like these Evo Jaws that are low drop (3mm) and low stack too, placing your foot securely close to the ground. This midsole, although thin, manages to balance foot protection with ground feel perfectly while adding comfort and responsiveness that’s genuinely surprising. Vibram’s MegaGrip provides impressive grip on hard surfaces where compound is key. Where the Jawz really shines is where mechanical grip is called for; 6mm multi-directional lugs bite into mud and bog delivering a confidence-inspiring ride that will encourage flat out off trail silliness. Above all it’s the minimal weight that ensures the features all come together so successfully. The upper is a thin, single layer, hydrophobic rip-stop fabric. The tongue is un-padded. The heel cup, though comfortable, is just lightly padded. We think the Jawz is best reserved as a race-day shoe.
The best barefoot running shoes: running sandals
Running sandals for the true minimalist
RRP: $ (US)/ £40 (UK) | Weight (per shoe, men’s UK11): 170g/6oz | Drop: 0mm | Colors: Blue / Black / Green / Red | Compatibility: For the committed minimalist runner, these barely there sandals can be taken on any (lowland) trail
Donning these huarache-style sandals – inspired by the footwear used by the long-distance runners among the Rarámuri people of the Mexico’s Copper Canyons, as described in Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run – is about as close as you can get to really running barefoot, while minimising the risk of gashing your foot on flint or glass, which would be a really annoying way to put yourself out of action. There is nothing between the soles of your feet and the dirt except 5mm of ‘FeelTrue’ rubber, and the sandal is held on with nylon straps (with silicone grip), which go between your toes and around the Achilles strap. People who are confident wearing these sandals run all sorts of distances (including ultras) in them, across challenging terrain in various conditions.
Unsurprisingly, the trail feedback is sensational. You don’t get sweaty feet, or blisters. The soles last for ages (many years) and the string can be replaced or repaired. There are no bonded materials, so everything could conceivably be recycled with ease, and they are suitable for vegans. You have to be very conscious about foot placement, to avoid injury, but advocates of barefoot running see this as a positive – it encourages thoughtful running. When conditions are wet, however, even fans of the Genesis admit there is no traction between foot and sandal, which is fine if you are on flat ground, but not great if it’s steep and raining. You also have to deal with people pointing and being a bit sneery – and if you do get an injury, everyone will get all ‘I told you so…’.
What to look for in the best barefoot running shoes
The best barefoot running shoes – or best natural running shoes / best minimal running shoes, according to your preferred terminology – share certain very specific characteristics, yet, as evidenced here, they can also look very different to one another.
When selecting the best barefoot running shoes to test we went for quality first, but also chose a range that went from super minimal (for the true barefoot experience) to shoes featuring low stack designs with just a little midsole that still encourage natural running. We suggest that analyzing the differences between these shoes is a good tactic when you are shortlisting your next purchase. Ask yourself the following questions:
Do you want the extreme ‘barefoot’ experience?
If you’re keen on the proper barefoot experience your shoe will need to be zero drop (with no difference in height between the heel and toe) and have no midsole. It might not even have an insole, and may have been designed to wear without socks. The outsole rubber could be surprisingly thin for maximum ground-feel. The shoe should be very lightweight and barefoot brands will often keep the bumpers and overlays to a minimum – simplicity is key. And there’ll be no guide structures like medial posts or arch supports. Look for a wide and foot-shaped forefoot that will allow your forefoot to relax and your toes to splay. Many of the best barefoot running shoe brands are also proud of their eco-creds using recycled materials in manufacture and offer recycling programs when the shoes are worn out.
Or… Do you want a shoe that encourages natural running, but still offers some cushioning?
Many trail running shoes feature zero (neutral) or minimal drop between the heel and the toe, which encourages a natural running style instead of high-impact heel striking stride, but still have a little bit of a midsole. What you gain here is a little bit of cushioning, and what you loose is some trail or ground ‘feel’.
A word of warning
If you’re completely new to low-stack and low-drop/no-drop barefoot running shoes, they can cause increased calf strain at first, so transition carefully and read up on the best barefoot shoe running techniques. Try one short run a week to begin with. Listen to your body and increase mileage and frequency carefully. Our 'how to start barefoot running' guide will give you some pointers. Be warned, increased ground feel is strangely addictive.
All the latest inspiration, tips and guides to help you plan your next Advnture!
Thank you for signing up to Advnture. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.