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How We Tested Barefoot Shoes

By Aaron Rice ⋅ Review Editor
Thursday November 10, 2022

Before setting out to test the best minimalist and barefoot shoes on the market, we first considered what features are most important to this very particular type of shoe. From there, we assembled five metrics, designed to be both mutually exclusive and comprehensive. Within each metric, we considered the relative importance of each design attribute when assigning values to score each pair of running shoes. With these essentials in mind, we then took them out to test, side-by-side.

barefoot shoes - flexibility is paramount for ground-feel, so we seek out rough...
Flexibility is paramount for ground-feel, so we seek out rough terrain to test both qualities. The thin, supple outsole of the Merrell Vapor Glove 5 excels in both aspects.
Credit: Jill Rice

Where We Tested


Our test runs took us over sidewalks, down gravel side-streets, on river trails and dirt running paths, on hot desert loops, up into the mountains on longer trail runs and hikes where we scrambled up rock faces and ran through creeks, back into the gym for weight lifting, and to kick around town. We researched, measured, and examined these shoes to verify manufacturer specifications and better understand the design components that factored into what we felt while running. Through our in-depth analysis, we gained insight into what makes the best minimalist and barefoot running shoes.

barefoot shoes - desert trail runs are a great arena for testing. the harsh terrain...
Desert trail runs are a great arena for testing. The harsh terrain gives us good data on natural feel, traction, durability and breathability. The Merrell Trail Glove 6 is specifically designed to tackle technical trails.
Credit: Jill Rice

Natural Feel


A conventional shoe that attempts to enhance your natural abilities is very different from a barefoot or minimalist shoe that is designed to highlight your feet. We examine the design, material construction, and specifications of each shoe before testing. There are specific minimalist attributes we are looking at: the drop and stack height; the thickness and lug pattern of the outsole; whether or not the shoe includes a midsole, or any forms of conventional support or ground protection; the material of the upper related to weight and breathability; and the overall flexibility of the shoe, both torsionally and longitudinally.

barefoot shoes - a naturally fitting shoe allows us to engage into the sensors on the...
A naturally fitting shoe allows us to engage into the sensors on the soles of our feet, which allows us to tap into our "sixth sense", known as proprioception.
Credit: Jill Rice

The sum of these minimalist attributes contributes to our understanding of the natural, or barefoot, feel of a shoe. Then to test, we take all of the shoes to a grassy sports field to compare their actual ground-feel side-by-side. We first run a few laps barefoot to develop a baseline and then in each pair successively to gauge how closely they resemble the feeling of actually running barefoot.

barefoot shoes - some shoes, like the xero hfs, include a removeable insole. the...
Some shoes, like the Xero HFS, include a removeable insole. The negligible addition of stack height and weight does not negatively affect the ground-feel of this shoe, or any other we've tested with an insole.
Credit: Jill Rice

Then for the next few months, we set out on runs to test the shoes against their intended purpose. If it is a trail runner, can it handle uneven terrain and variable trail conditions? We tested on trails both in the desert and alpine (benefits of having a testing ground in northern New Mexico), on well-buffed paths, and rocky scrambles. If it is a road shoe, how efficiently does it move over concrete? And if it is a gym-specific trainer, how does its natural feel reflect its performance in the training arena? The gym is also a particularly good setting to test platform stability, with exercises like kettlebell swings and deadlifts, which require good footing and solid grip.

Weight


This may seem like an easy metric to gauge — just put it on a scale! But much more goes into a shoe feeling lightweight enough for you to sail over trails or concrete. On the quantitative side, we used a digital scale to weigh each individual shoe, and then compare those numbers to the manufacturer's claimed weight.

barefoot shoes - the robust upper and hard rubber outsole contribute to the weight of...
The robust upper and hard rubber outsole contribute to the weight of the Vivobarefoot Primus Trail II FG. While it is strong, it is not light compared to the rest of the pack.
Credit: Jill Rice

The qualitative side of this metric was gathered over miles of running — do these shoes feel light on your feet? There are also some important design features directly related to weight. A more breathable shoe will effectively evaporate sweat, not taking on water weight over the course of a run. We test breathability by running in the heat of the day — with the shoes subjected to direct sunlight — and adjust points based on how much moisture builds up inside the shoe by the end of the run.

barefoot shoes - even after plunging through multiple, ankle deep puddles, the vibram...
Even after plunging through multiple, ankle deep puddles, the Vibram V-Trail 2.0 were only slightly wet across the forefoot and toes.
Credit: Aaron Rice

We also want to judge water resistance — an important attribute, particularly for trail runners, who may encounter multiple creek crossings without any bridge options. We dose each pair of shoes with the hose before setting off on a short loop and judge how well each pair resists taking on water weight.

Traction


We approach this metric with a rock climber's mentality — testing shoes side-by-side while scrambling up and down the same rock face. To assess braking ability, we run the same steep, loose, rocky slope with each pair sequentially and gather notes on how well each shoe performs running downhill in questionable terrain.

barefoot shoes - specifically designed as a gym trainer, the inov-8 bare-xf 210 v3 is...
Specifically designed as a gym trainer, the inov-8 BARE-XF 210 V3 is an outlier as a shoe without any sort of lugs. Instead, this shoe is designed to put your foot right on the ground, so you can engage the natural grip of your toes.
Credit: Jill Rice

Traction is also directly related to an outsole's ability to shed dirt and water efficiently. As a lab-style test, we pour water over the outsoles to examine how quickly it passes through the shoe's various lug designs. We also examine the thickness of the outsole and lugs to help determine how well these shoes allow our feet to grip terrain naturally and compare that to our actual findings through field testing.

Versatility


The best way to test this metric is to try and do everything we possibly can in these shoes. At the end of our test period, we adjust points based on how well they transition between road running, trail running, and gym exercise.

barefoot shoes - stability is directly related to balance, and barefoot shoes like...
Stability is directly related to balance, and barefoot shoes like the Vivobarefoot Primus Trail II FG offer your feet the chance to engage across an even platform. The gym is a great place to test this capability.
Credit: Jill Rice

We also award points in this category based in part on pieces of other metrics, namely water-resistance, insulation, and breathability. We also try to consider how a shoe's particular design may help one transition from conventional to minimalist running shoes, awarding points for increased cushioning and stack height.

barefoot shoes - it's also important to crossover between disciplines to discover a...
It's also important to crossover between disciplines to discover a shoe's full potential. Even though the Arc'teryx Norvan SL 2 is designed as a technical trail runner, it also performs well on paved surfaces.
Credit: Jill Rice

Durability


This is easily the toughest metric to judge because of our limited testing period — it is difficult to say how well a shoe will hold up over extended use. However, we do our best to seek out harsh terrain — talus slopes, coarse-sandy arroyos, rough concrete. The best way to judge durability is by examining the shoes closely for any manufacturing flaws initially and then early signs of breakdown at the end of our test period. Our testers also consider the warranties offered by various manufacturers.

barefoot shoes - we sought out rough terrain to test the durability of the trail...
We sought out rough terrain to test the durability of the trail running options. The Altra Lone Peak 5 fooled us with its ripstop nylon upper, and isn't quite as durable as it appears.
Credit: Jill Rice

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