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Minimal living is a concept we might all be dabbling with, even when it comes to our shoes. Barefoot or minimalist shoes continue to be popular because of the benefit they provide and their versatility. They work for running, walking and weightlifting. Luckily, the options have expanded and are more aesthetically pleasing.
What are barefoot shoes?
“When you’re standing barefoot, your heel and forefoot both make contact with the ground,” explains Ben Stark, an avid ultra-marathoner and performance marketing senior specialist at Merrell. “Barefoot shoes replicate the natural biomechanical movement of being barefoot while still offering a layer of underfoot protection.”
Celebrity personal trainer and weight lifting expert Mike Matthews adds that, “barefoot shoes typically have a thin sole that’s the same thickness throughout (referred to as “zero drop,” since the forefoot is the same thickness as the heel) and a lightweight upper.”
The benefits of barefoot shoes
Barefoot shoes are great for running as they’re lightweight and keep feet low to the ground. Matthews says they can also help reduce injuries. Runners who wear them tend to “take shorter, faster strides; bend their ankles, knees and hips less as they move and tend to plantarflex (point their toes downward) more when they hit the ground,” he explains. This movement can cause them to land on their forefoot or midfoot, rather than their heels, which reduces the force on ankles, knees and hips. Matthews also notes that the shoes can strengthen your foot and ankle muscles, which will decrease the risk of injuries and increase stability, especially during off-road runs. “Trail running in barefoot sneakers allows the athlete to build better adaptability by training your body to find balance and strength throughout the foot,” Stark adds.
In addition to running, barefoot shoes are excellent for many fitness activities. “Wearing barefoot shoes likely improves proprioception (your awareness of the position of your body), and thus be beneficial for many sports,” Matthews says. The flat sole is also ideal for cross-training activities, HIIT or Crossfit-style workouts. Many people find barefoot shoes to be comfortable, making them a popular choice for walking or everyday life.
While barefoot styles can benefit most foot types, they’re also some of the best shoes for people with flat feet. “Research shows that walking barefoot can help people with flat feet strengthen and heighten their foot arch and prevent pronation, so it’s reasonable to assume wearing barefoot shoes would offer similar benefits,” Matthew shares. Keep in mind, however, that if you have certain foot conditions or any injuries, it’s best to consult your doctor first before starting to wear barefoot shoes.
You’ll want to ease into a minimalist experience by switching your barefoot shoes out once a week for regular workout shoes. From there, you can build up your tolerance to more frequent wear. Ahead, shop the 10 best barefoot shoes available.
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Top Barefoot Shoes for Women
- Best for Trail Running: Merrell Trail Glove 6 Eco Barefoot Shoes
- Best Barefoot Shoes For Work: Vivobarefoot Geo Court Knit Barefoot Shoes
- Best Minimalist Shoes for Everyday Wear: Whitin Barefoot Minimalist Shoes
- Best Barefoot Walking Shoes: Xero Shoes Kelso Barefoot Shoes
- Best Barefoot Shoes for Running: Xero Speed Force Barefoot Shoes
- Best Barefoot Training Shoes: Vivobarefoot Primus Lite III All Weather Barefoot Shoes
- Best Barefoot Waterproof Shoes: Xero Shoes Aqua X Sport Water Shoes
- Best Slip-Ons: Merrell Cozy Gloves
- Best Barefoot Sandals: Xero Shoes Aqua Cloud Sandals
- Best Barefoot Hiking Shoes: Vivobarefoot Tracker Forest Esc
Merrell Trail Glove 6 Eco Barefoot Shoes
Best for Trail Running
- Contains recycled materials
- Sizes: 5-11
- Available Black, Marine, and Nightfall
“The Trail Glove encourages agility, and it’s super lightweight,” Stark says. “These shoes feel like an extension of my feet when I’m wearing them.” These maintain the zero-drop minimalist design while offering a small amount of cushion, more than previous models, Stark adds, to help protect your feet on a rocky trail. They’re a great option for anyone just getting into barefoot shoes.
Vivobarefoot Geo Court Knit
Best Barefoot Shoes For Work
- Contains recycled polyester
- Sizes: 5.5-11.5
- Available Limestone and Sea Green
Looking for a more casual style that double as a work shoe? The streamlined, elevated look of Vivobarefoot’s Geo Court Knit makes them appropriate for the office and ready to modernize your suit. Leather, Woolmark wool and recycled polyester combine to create a flexible upper. These will also regulate your temperature so your feet won’t overheat. Matthews points out that these look like a classic ’70s tennis shoe, but with a sole that supports your organic foot movement.
Whitin Barefoot Minimalist Shoes
Best Minimalist Shoes for Everyday Wear
- Removable insole included
- Sizes: 6-11.5
- Available in 12 colors
With a cute, streamlined silhouette, these Whitin sneakers are the perfect pair of everyday minimalist shoes. The durable rubber sole with imprints will help support your steps and ensure you don’t fall. A low-to-the-ground feel will encourage proper posture, while the knit upper offers a flexible fit and makes these versatile enough to style with jeans and dresses.
Xero Shoes Kelso Barefoot Shoes
Best Barefoot Walking Shoes
- Sizes: 6-11
- Available in Black/White and White
If you’re curious about barefoot shoes, start with a beginner’s style. With the look of a typical sneaker, the Kelso can easily blend in with the rest of your wardrobe. The construction, however, is minimal, with a rubber sole that has no elevation, which keeps your feet low to the ground. A wide toe box and moisture-wicking lining promote a comfortable fit. Once you get used to the feel, you can remove the lining for a more full-on experience.
Xero Speed Force Barefoot Shoes
Best Barefoot Shoes for Running
- Sizes: 6-10.5
- Available in Blue Glass
- 100% Vegan-Friendly
“Studies show that people who run barefoot tend to change their gait to run more efficiently, which means they consume less oxygen and energy and may thus be able to run further,” Matthew says. His personal favorite for training is the Xero Speed Force. “They’re so light, you barely realize you’re wearing them,” he mentions. “They’re stylish, durable and come in several different colors. Plus, you can leave the insole in for slightly more cushion or take it out for maximum sensation.”
Vivobarefoot Primus Lite III All Weather Barefoot Shoes
Best Barefoot Training Shoes
- Sizes: 5.5-11.5
- Available in Obsidian, Midnight, and Obsidian Molten Lava
- Made with some sustainable materials
Flexibility and stability are two important factors for training. Vivobarefoot’s Primus Lite III is wider than your average shoe, so it allows toes to have a more natural grip. Plus, a thin outsole ensures feet have full range of motion. The water-resistant textile upper consists of recycled and sustainable material, making these sneakers not only good for your workouts but also the planet.
Xero Shoes Aqua X Sport Water Shoes
Best Barefoot Waterproof Shoes
- Made with vegan-friendly materials
- Sizes: 6-11
- Available in Sparrow or Steel Gray/Sapphire
When your hikes take you near rivers or the beach, these waterproof Xero shoes will help protect your feet. A mesh upper empties water fast and dries quickly and an adjustable strap system ensures security, even while you’re traversing slippery surfaces. Additionally, a super flexible rubber sole allows feet to move naturally.
Merrell Cozy Gloves
- Vibram TC5+ rubber sole
- Sizes: 5-11.5
- Available in Erika (pink), Aluminum, and Black
Chic and cozy, this slipper-style shoe from Merrell will protect your feet while you pad around the house or make quick trips to the mailbox. “It replicates the natural biomechanical movement while still offering a layer of underfoot protection,” Stark says. With a fleece construction, the silhouette is also naturally breathable and antimicrobial. And no need to worry about stepping on slick surfaces in these; their treaded rubber sole will keep you upright and protected.
Xero Shoes Aqua Cloud Sandals
Best Barefoot Sandals
- Sizes: 6-11
- Available in Black and Blue Glow
- Made with Vegan Materials
Sandals can be rough on your feet, but not this Xero style. The super minimal look has a sturdy rubber sole that’s lightweight and water-friendly, so you can take these for a dip and not worry about tripping due to a cumbersome underfoot feeling. While straps on many sandals create friction, the patented lacing system on this silhouette removes pressure from hot spots yet will securely stay on feet. At only a quarter of an inch thick, these can be rolled up to fit into your pocket or backpack, too.
Vivobarefoot Tracker Forest Esc
Best Barefoot Hiking Shoes
- Sizes: 5.5-11.5
- Available in Obsidian and Bracken
- Created in collaboration with wilderness experts from Wild Human and the Independent Adventurer
You’ll truly feel at one with nature on your next hike or camping excursion in these Vivobarefoot boots. Since they’re shaped like a foot and not a traditional hiker, their toe box is a tad wider to help with stability. Also providing a secure grip is the shoe’s flexible lug sole that’s made to tackle rocky, muddy and hilly paths. The sole is water-resistant and breathable, which combined with the mesh lining, helps keep feet dry and comfortable.
Meet the experts
Ben Stark is the performance marketing senior specialist at Merrell, which carries a range of the best barefoot shoes for women. He’s also an avid ultra-marathoner and hiker. He was previously a leader/Instructor for backcountry trips at Calvin College and has hiked 1,200 miles on the Appalachian Trail.
Mike Matthews is a weightlifting expert, certified personal trainer and founder of all-natural sports supplements brand Legion. He’s also the author of the bestselling books “Bigger Leaner Stronger” and “Thinner Leaner Stronger” aimed at helping men and women achieve “their best bodies ever.”