Barefoot running shoes are designed to provide the organic experience of running barefoot, but with the protection of a shoe.
You’ll also hear them referred to as minimalist running shoes, a term that accurately describes their stripped-back style.
The Italian company Vibram led the way in barefoot shoe design with the release of their toe shoes back in 2005. This was the first introduction of the barefoot running concept to many, and the idea grew in popularity.
There is now a huge range of minimalist running shoes on the market, all designed to promote natural movement in the foot and strength in the accessory muscles for natural stability.
With so many to choose from, finding the best barefoot running shoes for your needs isn’t always easy. So in this guide, we’ve taken a closer look at some of the more popular options to help you decide which is right for you.
First, let’s review the features to expect in a good minimalist running shoe.
What to Look for in Barefoot Running Shoes
Barefoot running shoes are designed to interfere as little as possible with the natural movement of your foot.
Generally speaking, this means foot-shaped uppers with wide toe boxes that allow for complete relaxation in your forefoot. These will also provide plenty of room for your toes to splay.
You’ll find that minimalist running shoes are frequently designed with sustainability in mind. That means that they tend to be made with recycled or eco-friendly materials, which will often be suitable for vegan runners.
Other things to think about include:
#1: No (or low) heel-to-toe drop or midsole
The heel-to-toe drop is the difference in height between the heel and the toe.
For a totally barefoot experience, you’ll need a zero drop and no midsole (the layer of cushioning between the insole and the outsole).
A zero drop is believed to encourage a more natural running style rather than a high-impact stride, but the complete lack of a midsole can be problematic if you’re running on rough terrain. For that reason, barefoot trail running shoes may still have a bit of a midsole to provide a little cushioning for rugged conditions.
#2: Low weight and high flexibility
Low weight is key to that barefoot sensation – the idea is that your shoes should feel ‘barely there’ whilst providing maximum ground feel.
A good barefoot running shoe will have little in the way of overlays or bumpers, along with a highly flexible and thin outsole.
Remember to consider the type of terrain you’re running on.
Whilst the thinnest possible soles might be suitable for running on tarmac or grass, you’ll need something with a bit more grip for off-road or trail running.
#3: Little to no support
This is a characteristic unique to barefoot running shoes.
Features like superior pronation control, arch support, and shock absorption are typically selling points for other types of running shoes.
But they defeat the object of barefoot running, where the emphasis is on using natural movement to develop the muscles you need for good form and stability.
The 8 Best Barefoot and Minimalist Running Shoes in 2022
#1. Xero Shoes Mesa Trail Running Shoe
– Zero drop sole, 3.5mm lugs, and vegan friendly
– Best minimalist running shoes for road or trail
Providing the ultimate barefoot running experience, this lightweight shoe has no midsole and a soft, comfortable upper.
The 2 mm closed-cell foam insole provides just a little padding and is perforated to maximize airflow, although this can be easily removed if you prefer.
The durable rubber outsole features multi-directional lugs that give you the grip you need on the trail. At the same time, they work well on flat surfaces too – ideal if you are looking for a versatile minimalist running shoe for multiple terrains.
We wouldn’t recommend these shoes if you are new to barefoot running.
Although they do feature a stitched toe bumper and relatively hard sole, protection is otherwise pretty minimal. But more experienced runners will love the outstanding feel of the trail that this shoe provides.
#2. Vibram FiveFingers V-Trail 2.0
– Lamination around the toes for durability, water-repellent upper, and excellent grip
– Best choice for independent toe movement
Whilst it may be one of the most classic barefoot designs around, the unique FiveFingers from Vibram is one of those shoes you’ll either love or hate!
Each toe gets its own little pocket, and whether you find that comfortable is a matter of personal taste!
Fans of the design appreciate the independent toe flexion and powerful push-off it provides. But not everyone’s feet conform to the norm – and some may find these an uncomfortable fit.
Providing plenty of grip on both wet and dry surfaces, the durable rubber outsole is made with a 3D Cocoon mesh. This will protect you from sharp objects on rugged trails. It also disperses the point of impact right across the bottom of the shoe for a balanced ground feel.
Our recommendation is to go half a size down with these shoes.
Once they’re broken in, you may find they’ve stretched a little, so you’ll achieve a more snug fit around the toes with a slightly smaller size.
#3. Merrell Trail Glove 6
– Enhanced lacing system, durable Vibram outsole, and recycled TPU reinforcements
– Ideal for runners needing arch support
The latest edition of the Trail Glove has been designed with a little more cushioning and support than its predecessor.
Whilst this might not please die-hard fans of barefoot running, it does make it one of the best minimalist running shoes for athletes new to the experience.
There is still zero heel-to-toe drop, but the shoe now features a support zone through the midfoot designed to cradle your arches.
The overlays on the upper have been repositioned and are sturdier, offering better resistance to snags and abrasion from sharp objects.
The fit is relatively snug and the toe box is somewhat narrow compared to other barefoot running shoes. But the grip is excellent on light trails and in wet conditions, with the shoe adapting easily to ever-changing terrain.
#4. Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V3
– Zero drop, sticky rubber grip, and a TPU Toe Protector
– Most versatile barefoot running shoe
This minimalist shoe from Inov-8 is just as useful in the gym as it is on the trail.
It has a lightweight feel and allows for natural flexion of the forefoot, with an EHC heel system for better stability and proprioception.
The toe box is relatively wide, although not quite as wide as many other barefoot running shoes.
You may prefer these if you have a narrow foot and a tendency to slide around in a wider fit.
The thin, METAFLEX-enhanced sole feels grippy and the upper is made from a seamless piece of breathable 3D mesh.
Your toes are well protected from rocks and gnarly roots, and for use in the gym, the shoes feature ROPE-TEC protection for rope climbs.
#5. WHITIN Minimalist Trail Runner
– Zero drop and flexible, with hook and loop closure
– Best budget barefoot running shoe
If you’re new to minimalist trail running shoes, then you might not want to break the bank with your first pair.
Barefoot running isn’t for everyone, and you want to be sure you’ll stick with it before splashing out on a pricier option.
These affordable shoes from WHITIN are a great way to get started, with a rubber sole for protection that still offers that barefoot feel.
Available in a wide range of colors and designs, this comfortable shoe is made using animal-free products and processes.
The toe box is wide and the shoe contains a lightweight, perforated insole that you can easily remove if you want to enhance the barefoot sensation.
#6. Vivobarefoot Primus Lite III
– Vegan-friendly, breathable recycled PET mesh upper, and durable outsole
– Designed for hard surfaces in urban environments
This is a truly ‘foot-shaped’ shoe with a very roomy toe box – so roomy, in fact, that you might want to consider dropping half a size if your feet are particularly narrow.
That being said, the fit at the heel and the bridge is snug enough for comfort. This feeling of security is enhanced by the relative stiffness of the upper, which soon yields in the areas you need it to.
There are no lugs and this shoe is not suitable for trail running, but the thin 4mm sole provides plenty of grip on the road and allows you to experience the underfoot sensation of barefoot running.
The upper is non-absorbent and somewhat resistant to water, so you’ll stay comfortable if you get caught in a passing shower.
#7. ALTRA Escalante Racer
– InnerFlex midsole technology, FootShape toe box, and a breathable mesh upper
– A good road running shoe built for speed
This is Altra’s barefoot version of its standard Escalante shoe, made with less cushioning and zero heel-to-toe drop.
More lightweight than the standard shoe, it provides the dual benefits of allowing you to feel the ground underfoot with just a bit of responsive cushioning. This makes it a great first shoe for anyone new to barefoot running.
The width at the toe box gives your toes space to splay comfortably, and this is a good shoe if you’re a forefoot striker.
The upper is pretty thin and won’t offer much in the way of insulation, but it wicks away moisture easily and dries quickly.
#8. Xero Shoes TerraFlex
– Patented 5mm FeelTrue sole base, 4mm lugs, and a tough tech toe bumper
– Best barefoot trail running shoe
Providing excellent traction for uphill or downhill runs, the vegan-friendly Xero TerraFlex feels a bit more substantial than other minimal shoes.
This enhances the protection the shoe offers and makes it more suited to particularly rugged terrain.
There is a bit of cushioning in the heel collar which feels comfortable. Meanwhile, the 3mm embedded BareFoam and rubber FeelTrue sole base give you a soft ride yet still lets you feel the trail underfoot.
The shoe also comes with an optional 2 mm insole that gives you a little extra cushioning if you need it.
We’re not the only ones who love this shoe and it is endorsed by Chris McDougall, author of the legendary ‘Born to Run’ that was so influential in the natural running movement.
The best Barefoot and Minimalist Running Shoes: Key Takeaways
There is something addictive about barefoot running.
Once they have had a taste of the unique ground-feel sensation it offers, many athletes find the physical and emotional rewards incredibly satisfying.
We hope this guide has helped you find the best barefoot running shoes for your particular needs.
Whether you are an avid road runner or prefer to log your miles over woodland trails, these shoes will provide protection from the elements whilst engaging and strengthening the muscles in your feet.
New to Barefoot and Minimalist Running?
Then it’s important to take your time in getting started. Running barefoot requires your body to move in a different way and takes some getting used to, potentially leading to injuries if you jump in too soon.
Find out more in our Ultimate Guide to Barefoot And Minimalist Running