Best Overall Minimalist and Barefoot Shoes
New Balance Minimus 10v1 Trail
Great traction and flexibility
Outsole lacks significant protection
Where to start with the New Balance Minimus 10v1 Trail
? First of all, these shoes are versatile for most outdoor activity. Even though the Minimus scored highest in only one of our six categories, they are an exceptionally well-rounded minimalist running shoe. Of the six categories, this shoe finishes as one of the top three in four of them. The Minimus 10v1 Trail earns our Editors' Choice Award for many reasons, including having a phenomenal ground feeling, comfort, and traction. They are also the lightest pair in our test group. One way we feel New Balance could change the already wonderful Minimus is to add a full Vibram outsole, improving foot protection and durability.
Read full review: New Balance Minimus 10v1 Trail
Top Pick for Trail Running
Inov8 Trailroc 245
Excellent foot protection
Heavy and stiff
Lacks comfort on pavement
We can't imagine a better trail specific minimalist running shoe than the Inov8 Trailroc 245
. The aggressive lugs rip through any terrain we run through, and it doesn't stop there. With a Meta-shank rock plate integrated into the outsole, rocks and unexpected sharp objects along the trail don't stand a chance. This does mean that the Trailroc 245 loses significant ground feeling, scoring much lower than our Editors' Choice Award winner because the protective rock plate cuts off most sensation with the ground. Even with this rock plate protection, the Trailroc 245 is not as stiff as you might suspect. The Meta-flex outsole provides sufficient enough flexibility to feel like we are still running in a minimalist running shoe. Unfortunately, because of the aggressively lugged outsole, the majority of your miles will be limited only to trails in the Trailroc 245.
Read full review: Inov8 Trailroc 245
Analysis and Test Results
For more details on the differences between barefoot and minimalist shoes and for tips on transitioning, check out our Buying Advice article
Selecting the Right Product
It's easy to feel bombarded with all the different running shoe options available. How do you feel when you show up to the local running shoe store displaying a hundred different shoes on the wall, and the retail associate has only personally run in two of them? Should you keep running in the standard shoe you've owned the past five years? What about transitioning to something more minimal? Or dare you try a barefoot shoe? Here at OutdoorGearLab, we'll do our best to help you answer those questions. Below, we briefly describe the different types of running shoes and explain which might suit you best. For more detailed advice to help you make an informed purchasing decision on the right style of shoes, check out our Buying Advice article
Types of Running Shoes
There are three primary broad categories of running shoes.
Traditional Running Shoes
Depending on how long you've been a runner, traditional running shoes are likely what you've been wearing most of your life. Traditional running shoes typically have plentiful cushioning, range from moderately flexible to stiff, contain thick upper materials, and sometimes have extra dense posting in the midsole to prevent over-pronation. If you're interested in this style of shoe, take a look at the Road Running Shoe Review.
The Editors' Choice Winner in our this review is the silent but deadly Brooks Ghost 6
Minimal Running Shoes
When looking for a quality minimalist running shoe, we gravitate towards those that have a high degree of ground feeling, are lightweight, flexible, and maintain a reasonable amount of foot protection. We also like to see traits such as a low heel-to-toe drop (0 mm to 6 mm), light cushioning (4 mm to 6 mm), and a low stack height (12 mm or less). This review compares several shoes in this category.
Barefoot Running Shoes
It can be tough to distinguish a barefoot shoe from a minimalist shoe. When you first think of a barefoot shoe, the Vibram FiveFingers with separated toes is likely the first that come to mind. Though, the Merrell Trail Glove 2 has the appearance of a minimalist running shoe
, yet provides the exact same drop and cushion as the Vibram FiveFingers Treksport
. So, how do you really know if a shoe is a barefoot running shoe? To us, a shoe in this style allows ample ground sensitivity, has roll-in-a-ball flexibility, very minimal uppers, and ditches all the bells and whistles that many running shoes have these days. This review also includes multiple models that are considered barefoot models.
Criteria for Evaluation
Our favorite part of running in a minimalist shoe is feeling the road or trail under our feet. The connection between our body and the earth is amplified when running in a minimalist shoe, and we love to feel the rocks, sticks, and dirt beneath our feet. Having high ground sensitivity is an important factor in a good minimalist running shoe and is our highest weighted factor in this review. Deciding which minimalist shoe has the best ground feeling is not too difficult; we were able to rate the shoes on ground feeling in just the very first or second run in them.
Ground feeling in the group of minimalist shoes we tested varies greatly. Just a 3 mm difference in the midsole or outsole can create a significant change in ground sensitivity. We rate the barefoot style Merrell Trail Glove 2
and the Vibram FiveFingers Treksport
as providing the highest ground feeling in the whole group. These two shoes offer more sensitivity than the other shoes we tested, yet still have a substantial enough outsole to protect the feet from anything sharp that could potentially injure. Unlike the New Balance Minimus, which has significant midsole foam exposed on the outsole, both the Trail Glove 2 and Treksport feature a full-length Vibram outsole to completely protect the feet.
"Roll-in-a-ball" flexibility helps give the New Balance Minimus 10v2 Trail its wonderful minimalist ride. Flexibility is one of the distinguishing characteristics of barefoot and minimal footwear.
Choosing a minimalist running shoe with sufficient traction is a necessary factor, especially if you're a runner who gravitates towards more trail running or technical terrain. We logged runs on a variety of terrain and conditions in every shoe in our test group to decide which one provides us with the best traction. All of the shoes give us similar traction when running on the road, so when rating the traction on each shoe we looked more into how well they perform on trails and off-road terrain.
After logging miles in each shoe on brutal trails, through creek crossings, and while rock hopping, we found the Inov8 Trailroc 245
offers the most traction. The Trailroc 245 has large lugs covering the whole outsole, which grip to any type of terrain amazingly. Inov8 calls this their TRI-C Sole, which contains three different rubber compounds to provide the best grip available in any shoe. The New Balance Minimus 10v1 Trail
come in at a close second. Though, we find that the Minimus are more versatile and can still be used comfortably on the roads, unlike the Trailroc, which we notice the ride comfort to significantly decline when running on the road.
Comparing the lugs on the Trailroc (left) and the Minimus (right). Both are designed to be worn on trails, but the Trailroc has much burlier tread for more rugged terrain.
Less shoe doesn't have to mean less comfort. In fact, we feel that the New Balance Minimus has as comfortable of a ride as many of the top rated standard road running shoes we tested earlier this year. In addition, the Minimus has an almost non-existent break-in period.
What we look for in the most comfortable minimalist running shoes is reliable comfort that lasts through the whole run on varying terrain. We want a shoe that's not too stiff or too soft, and provides the perfect balance of comfort on road or trail.
Stretchy snug and sock-like upper on the Nike Free 5.0, our highest rated shoe for comfort.
If you're a runner who is used to training in regular cushioned or stability shoes and is transitioning to minimalist running shoes, all of the shoes in our test will likely feel very light for you. The ideal weight for a minimalist running shoe hovers between 6-7 ounces, though, the difference between a six ounce and an eight-ounce minimalist running shoe is significant. We notice that the lighter the shoe is, the more significant the weight difference becomes. We really feel a big difference in the two ounce discrepancy of the New Balance Minimus and the Inov8 Trailroc 245. The lightest of all the minimalist running shoes we tested are the New Balance Minimus weighing at 6.3 ounces.
In some places, winter conditions can be harsh. The weather doesn't care if you've come out for your run unprepared, and before you know it your feet are wet, cold, and on the brink of numbness. If you plan to be logging a significant amount of your miles in such conditions and don't want a standard, somewhat suffocating Gore-Tex running shoe, we recommend choosing a minimalist running shoe. Most minimal shoes are light and meshy with very thin uppers, but a few models in our test provide a little more insulation than others. Understand that there is more to a shoe's warmth than having a thicker upper, which you might have initially believed. With someone on the brink of hypothermia, covering them with a blanket doesn't provide nearly as much warmth as throwing a thick ground pad beneath them. The same goes with minimalist running shoes, the thinner the outsole, the less warmth the shoe will provide.
The barefoot Vibram FiveFingers Treksport and Merrell Trail Glove 2 provide us with the least amount of warmth in the whole group. Since the outsole in these two shoes is so thin, light, and flexible, they give us barely any insulation from a cold running surface. Though, we don't' feel you should worry too much about this unless you're planning to use these shoes in extreme winter conditions for extended periods of time.
Finding the perfect balance between providing enough foot protection yet still allowing ample ground sensitivity and not straying from a true minimalist running shoe design is a tough nut to crack for shoe companies. Essentially, the more minimal the shoe, the less foot protection it will have. We were looking for a shoe that can protect the feet on rugged trails but still allow for a light ground feeling. Another factor we take into account when giving a minimalist shoe a high rating in foot protection is the ankle roll rate. For example, a model with a narrow fit and high stack height increases the likelihood of rolling an ankle.
After throwing the most unforgiving terrain at each minimalist shoe in the group, we give the highest foot protection rating to the Inov8 Trailroc 245. What the Inov8 Trailroc 245 lacks in ground feeling, it makes up for in foot protection. The outsole contains a Meta-shank rock plate protection, which really puts the Trailroc 245 on a whole different level than the rest of the minimalist running shoes we tested. We searched out the most rugged trails in the Eastern Sierra and the Trailroc 245's outsole wasn't even phased.
Pushing hard on the Meta-shank rock plate on the Innov8 Trailroc. This shoe has the most protective outsole of the minimalist shoes in our test, hands-down.
Even our Editors' Choice Award winner the, New Balance Minimus, is no match when compared to the Trailroc 245's foot protection. The outsole of the Minimus has exposed foam between the Vibram treads. We occasionally encounter sharp rocks sneaking in those soft spots when landing, which can potentially cause you a bruised foot.
In recent years the plights of hipsters, hikers, and athletes alike have resulted in a market trend towards a minimalist movement in all aspects of life. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that footwear companies have jumped at the chance to fill this niche market in the form of barefoot-style shoes. However, as with most gear, there are other ways to meet the criteria of zero drop (heel to toe), low stack height, and light weight footwear. We've thrown together a mix of substitutes which cater to individual preferences such as style and budget.
- Foot gloves are exactly what they sound like: an anatomically shaped glove for the foot which provides a barrier between your skin and the ground, (but not much else). These shoes, or "gloves", were created to enable the "freedom that was previously the reserve of barefoot purists." Inov-8 makes a futuristic looking foot glove, the EvoSkin 5 Toed Silicone Shoe. They're about the thinnest type of protection you can find when it comes to minimal kicks. Each pair weighs in at a mere 5.6 oz, and offers 2.4 mm of medical grade silicon between your foot and the ground. This creates heightened sensitivity compared to most other footwear in this category. While these gloves may provide protection from foot abrasions, you're not protected from pebbles sticks and other potentially painful terrain.
- The fabled Tarahumara ultrarunners prove that you don't need fancy footwear to run bare style. These expert athletes cover distances of up to 200 miles over the span of several days in the Copper Canyon mountains of Mexico. They accomplish these incredible feats wearing Huaraches, primitive sandals made with recycled tires or rubber soles and leather straps. Barefoot Ted, a successful barefooted runner and coach, created a sandal modeled after the Tarahumara's kicks, called Luna Sandals. These minimalist running sandals will cost you at least 60 bucks a pair.
- Several websites offer a cost effective solution, providing instructions to make your own sandals. The materials needed and the expense required are minimal (about $10); you'll need some sort of rubber material, parachute cord, and a pair of scissors. Beyond the friendly price point, this craft project would be an excellent way to spend a rainy day. Check out instructions Here.
- Aqua socks are an excellent economical alternative which meet the zero drop minimalist quota for a good price. They're usually constructed of synthetic rubber soles, and mesh/neoprene uppers. These funky footwear are approximately 4.5 mm thick and weigh in at about 4.5 oz each. If you want an inexpensive way to see what all the hype is about, this may be a great option for you! Walmart sells a pair for eight bucks a pop, but with a quick internet search, you can find that they're offered by numerous companies. The fit is loose within the foot box, unlike the Vibram FiveFingers Classic for example, so they make a great match for claustrophobic piggy toes.
- There's nothing quite like feeling sand between your toes on the beach or the bouncy earth under your feet on a nicely cut lawn. We don't recommend going au natural on a rocky trail, but there are ways to run naked, ahem, run unshod, in a safe manner. Many runners have adopted this as a cross training strategy. In fact, "Stanford University's cross country teams run a few miles barefoot every week, to improve flexibility". Experts often suggest running on a clean smooth paved surface where you can clearly see any pebbles glass. If this interests you, be sure to ease into it and over time your foot should build up a tolerance. Also, get ready to potentially develop some gnarly callouses and earn some version of "Sasquatch feet" as your nickname.
- Sounds counter-intuitive, right? Actually, maximalist footgear have assimilated many modern minimalist footwear designs into their construction using materials that are as lightweight as possible and incorporating low heel to toe drop. These kicks, loosely reminiscent of moonshoes, could fit the bill if you're looking to meet several, but not all, of the minimalist shoe characteristics. Recently, the HOKA One One maximalist shoes have gained a cult following in the trail running community, especially amongst North American ultra-runners. With an abnormally tall stack height (about 32mm), they certainly don't have the ground contact feel that other versions offer, but this may just be the ticket if you need a little (or a lot) more cushioning.
Pictured in front is the maximalist HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR. The most comfortable, stable, and best fitting in its category. Notice the extra cushioned heel and its sleek design.