After scouring the market for the best minimalist and barefoot shoes for women in 2019, we ordered 8 of the top models and put them through our rigorous testing processes. We ran each shoe (literally and figuratively) through a series of field and lab tests to explore and assess the most important attributes of a barefoot-inspired athletic shoe. We went road running, trail running, did some urban parkour, and took some mellow hikes in all weather and conditions. We assessed each pair of shoes according to our mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive set of metrics: Performance, Barefoot Accuracy, Weight, Traction, Weather Adaptability, and Durability. Let us help you find the right pair to suit your needs.
The Best Barefoot Shoes for Women of 2019
|Price||$54.51 at Amazon|
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|$49.98 at Backcountry|
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|$89.99 at Amazon||$89.95 at Amazon||$114.95 at REI|
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|Pros||Lightweight, nimble, extremely minimal, moderate price||Lightweight, precise, nimble, great foot strengthening||Simple, spacious, soft and supple||Soft sock-like interior, durable, rock plate for rough trail use, tread promotes toe articulation||Great trail traction, supple forefoot, wide toe box, soft interior, good weather protection, breathable|
|Cons||Permeable to water and dust, some may experience friction||Less durable, too thin for rocky trails||Padded upper materials feel bulky, heavy||Thicker sole blunts ground feel, heavy, lacing system doesn’t cinch well||Tight in the midfoot, heel less secure, heel-toe drop of 4 mm may be more than some barefoot users desire|
|Bottom Line||The FiveFingers are a truly novel concept for a shoe that is as close as possible to barefoot in a closed-toe shoe.||This is an excellent pair of minimalist shoes for smoother trails, or for days you want to train your foot strength.||The Prio is an excellent, simple minimalist shoe that nails all of the important criteria and looks like many other “ordinary” shoes.||The Trail Glove is an excellent minimalist shoe for rocky terrain.||New Balance reintroduced the Minimus with a slight heel-toe drop to make it more approachable while retaining much of what users want in a minimalist shoe.|
|Rating Categories||FiveFingers KSO EVO||Vapor Glove 4||Xero Shoes Prio - Women's||Trail Glove 5 3D||Minimus 10v1|
|Barefoot Accuracy (25%)|
|Weather Adaptability (10%)|
|Specs||FiveFingers KSO EVO||Vapor Glove 4||Xero Shoes Prio -...||Trail Glove 5 3D||Minimus 10v1|
|Style||Barefoot road||Barefoot trail||Barefoot road||Barefoot trail||Minimalist trail|
|Total Stack Height (mm)||5 mm||6.5 mm||5.5 mm||11.5 mm||Not reported by NB|
|Weight (oz) per pair||8.5 oz||11 oz||16 oz||14.5 oz||14.5 oz|
|Drop (mm)||0 mm||0 mm||0 mm||0 mm||4 mm|
|Outsole Thickness (mm)||3 mm||1.5 mm web, 2 mm lugs||5.5 mm||1.5 mm||Not reported by NB|
|Midsole/Insole Thickness||2 mm||3 mm||Optional 2 mm insole||4 mm||Not reported by NB|
|Widths available||Regular||Regular||Regular||Regular||Regular, Wide|
|Upper Material||Polyester fabric||Mesh and TPU||Mesh with synthetic leather overlays||3D knit||Sythetic/mesh|
|Best For (running, hiking, etc.)||Running, gym||Running, hiking||Running, gym, casual||Running, hiking||Running, hiking|
Best Overall Women's Barefoot Shoe
Vibram FiveFingers KSO EVO - Women's
The best women's barefoot shoes in this review likely come as no surprise: the FiveFingers KSO EVO design from Vibram. 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 shoe 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 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 loved 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. 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.
Read review: Merrell Vapor Glove 4 - Women's
Top Pick for Versatility
Xero Shoes Prio - Women's
The Xero Shoes Prio shoes resemble a standard trainer or tennis shoe but feature all of our favorite attributes of a minimalist shoe. You can wear them on a run and as your casual kicks throughout the week. These shoes feature a soft sole and supple upper materials as well as a wide toe box that allows toes to splay and flex naturally with your stride. The sole is the same stiffness (or softness) from heel to toe instead of being firmer in the heel and softer in the forefoot like many minimalist shoes. Our testers found this consistency of sole to be true to barefoot in feel. These shoes are breathable enough for warmer weather, and with socks, they kept our feet warm for some of those cooler weather runs.
These shoes feel more like traditional shoes regarding their bulk. These are not the svelte sock-like shoe that some barefoot enthusiasts might be looking for, but this comes at little cost to the minimalist performance of the shoe overall. They are also on the heavier side of shoes in this review, but their weight is distributed over the whole shoe well. This helps it feel lighter and makes them swing through our stride with relative ease. Versatile enough to run through city streets without standing out when worn as an everyday pair, these shoes provide high performance with discretion and a fair price tag.
Read review: Xero Shoes Prio - Women's
Top Pick for Trail Running
Merrell Trail Glove 5 3D - Women's
The Merrell Trail Glove 5 3D - Women's is a minimalist shoe that can handle rough, rocky trails. It has some uncommon features for this footwear category that might make some folks skeptical, like the TrailProtect rock plate and a thick, 11.5 mm stack height. This will blunt some ground feel on more moderate terrain, but its ideal for barefoot enthusiasts looking for a minimalist shoe worthy of rugged off-road running. The zero drop ensures this shoe still promotes a natural and unimpeded running style, and the split tread improves the articulation and traction of the foot, improving ground feel through these thicker soles.
For some, these shoes may feel clunky, as the thicker sole does feel a little bottom-heavy. Additionally, there is more arch support that we have become accustomed to in our minimalist footwear, but this may ultimately be a nice change of pace and a welcome rest for your feet. The lacing system on this version is a mild disappointment and was difficult to cinch and adjust to get a perfect fit. That said, the sock-like uppers improved the free feeling in these shoes, making them easy and comfortable to slip on and off, with or without socks. Another great shoe from Merrell!
Read review: Merrell Trail Glove 5 3D - Women's
Why You Should Trust Us
The mastermind behind this review is AMGA Rock Guide, avalanche instructor, and coach, 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 undergoing further training with the American Mountain Guides Association. She travels extensively 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.
We first trained our feet and bodies over several months to ready them for barefoot running—then they conducted the field tests. We identified six key metrics that capture the essential characteristics of a barefoot shoe and do not overlap in their scope. These are Performance, Barefoot Accuracy, Weight, Traction, Weather Adaptability, and Durability. We tailored our specific procedures to suit each metric. For example, we assessed traction on a variety of running surfaces during field testing. We assessed barefoot accuracy by carefully inspecting the shoes to see how well the company adhered to true minimalist design principles. From Seattle to the Caucasus Mountains, each pair was thoroughly and equally 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 asses the versatility of your 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 is not necessarily the most versatile shoe, the Merrell Vapor Glove 4. 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. On the other hand, we think the Xero Shoes Prio is an excellent value because of its versatility. This shoe is at home around town, on road runs, and even up for some light hiking and trail running on smooth trails.
There are many factors to consider when purchasing minimalist footwear. It's like women's bathing suits—it seems like you pay more for less material. Ironic. And we didn't see much correlation between higher price and higher quality among the products we tested.
First and foremost, we want to know how well a shoe performs. This is our first, and 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 examined how well the shoe stayed out of our way—essentially, letting our feet do their own natural thing. Next, we conducted the Ground Feel Test to examine how much foot proprioception we retained 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 wanted to capture the concept of "comfort." This was a challenging task because the very nature of the product is designed 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 looked 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 bent the forefoot and twisted the sole to determine stiffness and stability. We looked for soft, supple soles that would bend and flex evenly and smoothly across the full length of the platform.
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 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 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 an injury. We also learned that as much as we like to have just a straightforward gear solution, it is wise to have a collection of running shoes. This allows you to mix things up and vary the amount of strain you put on your feet daily.
We found some of our favorite information on running form and foot strengthening drills in a book called Barefoot Running: How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth by Michael Sandler and Jessica Lee.
For this metric, our top performers were not surprising: they were the most lightweight, supple, and minimal in the review. The Vibram FiveFingers stole the show with their impeccable mimicry of the foot itself. 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 Merrell Vapor Glove 4 is a lot like a pair of close-toed FiveFingers. We also loved the Xero Shoes Prio with its supple sole, wide toe box, and soft uppers. And for a surprise, the Merrell Trail Glove 5 3D held up to the competition despite having a thicker sole, because of the smooth articulation, and became our favorite for rocky trails.
To assess how accurately a 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 our longer runs. Nobody likes having sweaty feet, especially those who enjoy spending time barefoot!
The top scores in this category were, again, not a huge surprise. Vibram stole the show with their FiveFinger design and thin, supple sole and uppers. The Vapor Glove 4 followed close behind the Vibrams. 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 Xero Shoes Prio held up in this category as well due to its supple and thin sole, though it doesn't look as minimal as some. And the New Balance Minimus grabbed our attention for its supple sole and soft interior.
The SoftStar PRIMAL RunAmoc deserves a notable mention here for its bold design. This shoe has an extra-wide toe box, designed at the request of SoftStar's loyal customers. They look different, and definitely caught some eyes—and earned compliments. Our feet loved the feel of the soft leather, and our toes thoroughly enjoyed the extra space. This was not a great shoe for running on uneven terrain, but an excellent choice for road running and mellow, non-technical trails.
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 Xero Shoes Prio, scored better because the weight is distributed evenly throughout the shoe, meaning it feels more balanced and less cumbersome during our running stride.
Another consideration for this category and one very specific to barefoot runners 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 Vibram FiveFingers. The Merrell Vapor Glove 4 is a relatively close second. And we must admit that the weight of the SoftStar PRIMAL surprised us. Consisting of an entirely leather upper, it still maintains its weight at 13 ounces for a US women's size 10.
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 score in this metric goes to the brilliant tread of the New Balance Minimus. The supple sole combined with the sticky rubber and the spaced-out circular lugs made our feet feel like gecko toes. We stuck to just about everything. The runners-up are close contenders for very different reasons.
The KSO EVO features an excellent, low profile sole that allows water to drain and therefore handles wet terrain well, but also handles loose and dusty terrain relatively well, but 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.
The Merrell Trail Glove 5 3D is yet another successful version of traction, again with sticky Vibram rubber. The tread on the Merrells is smaller but supple and split in a way that promotes the articulation of your toes. It performs well on a wide variety of urban and off-road terrain. The lighter of the two Merrells we tested, the Vapor Glove 4 also has an excellent and sticky sole that articulates well and sticks easily on a variety of terrain types.
One of the more unique shoes in this review is the Inov-8 Bare shoe 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.
Weather adaptability is another metric where we considered a pair's intended use. We wanted to be sure shoes didn't incur any penalties for being designed for warm weather and not to be waterproof and vice versa. We took each shoe out in the full range of its intended climatic conditions, from hot asphalt to cool, wet trails.
Women's barefoot shoes, in general, proved to be fairly specific in their application. Many barefoot enthusiasts report having a quiver of shoes for a variety of conditions, and we ultimately agree with this approach. The Merrell Trail Glove 5 3D was a real surprise in this performance metric. It is highly breathable, but it also deflected water (and dirt and debris) impressively well with its tight-knit fabric and solid single-piece uppers, as well as the plastic toe cap.
The New Balance Minimus did almost as well with a liner that kept water and dust out, but would leak water in a bit sooner than the knitting of the Merrells. The Xero Shoes Prio scored relatively well partially due to their breathability. It also has a good toe rand and bumper around the shoe that helps to keep dirt and most splashes of water out.
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 knit fabric in the Merrell Trail Glove 5 3D. We expected it to snag and catch easily, yet it never did, no matter how far off-trail we went. The Xero Shoes Prio should also have a relatively long life, with a thoughtful lacing system to distribute possible points of strain and tough fabrics. We also like the snake-skin-like texture and upturned rubber on the toes of the Vibrams which helped deflect debris and prevent scuffing.
Testing minimalist and barefoot-inspired footwear was a great adventure. It took us down many paths we didn't anticipate. 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 original Barefoot Running website 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