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Best barefoot shoes 2021: The best barefoot shoes for any activity

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Experience the freedom of natural movement with the best barefoot shoes for any occasion, from mountain hikes to Saturday nights

There’s a lot of confusion about what “barefoot shoes” actually means. Contrary to one common misconception, they’re not just shoes you wear without socks. No, barefoot shoes are more like minimalist versions of conventional shoes. They still have a sole, side and upper materials, and use various fastening methods, but they’re much thinner and lighter.

So why should you use them? Barefoot shoes are designed to promote freedom of movement while also strengthening your feet, which grow weak over time due to the excessive cushioning and cramped toe boxes found in most normal shoes. Humans didn’t always wear shoes – for most of evolutionary history we’ve gone barefoot.

If you’re reading this article, the chances are you’re already interested in barefoot shoes and are wondering which ones to buy. Below, you’ll find a guide that explains the benefits and potential pitfalls of barefoot shoes, and, after that, you’ll find our pick of the best models you can buy right now.

READ NEXT: The best trainers for men and women

Best barefoot shoes: At a glance


How to choose the best barefoot shoes for you

There are a few things you may want to consider before jumping into your first pair of barefoot shoes. If you don't have time to read the full guide below, our short barefoot shoes video will get you primed and ready to make an informed buying decision.

What’s different about barefoot shoes?

The main purpose of barefoot shoes is functionality. That’s not to say that style is irrelevant, but first and foremost they’re designed to let your feet move as naturally as possible. This means their build usually varies from conventional shoes in several key ways:

  • No elevated heel: Standard shoes have a raised heel section, or “heel drop”, which forces us to adjust our balance while wearing them. The body has to lean back to compensate for the elevated angle, which disrupts posture and gait.
  • Minimal padding: When wearing shoes with padded heels and soles, people tend to develop a habit of exaggerated heel-striking when they walk and run. This is not how humans evolved to walk, and if done barefoot would quickly result in heel injury.
  • Ultra-thin sole: Barefoot shoes have extremely slim soles, which allows for greater sensory feedback. The feet are just as biomechanically complex as the hands, but a thick sole prevents our feet from accurately sensing the surfaces beneath us.
  • Flexible material: Conventional shoes – especially hard dress shoes and high heels – do not allow our feet to bend with each step as they normally would, preventing natural walking and running movement.
  • Wide toe box: Toe boxes on regular shoes cram the toes into a tight space that does not match the actual shape of our feet. As we get older, our naturally splayed toes become cramped and curled by the mechanical forces being applied to them (by shoes). Over time, barefoot shoes may be able to restore your toe splay.
  • Minimal arch support: A healthy foot does not need a thick protective pad between the arch and the ground. The natural function of the longitudinal arches is to act as a spring that loads and unloads with each step.

What are the benefits of wearing barefoot shoes?

Do you breathe a sigh of relief when you kick off your clogs at the end of the day? If so, it might be time to make a change. Of course, if you’ve never had any foot pain or injuries, you may not see as much benefit from barefoot shoes as someone who has.

So what are those benefits? Regaining a natural gait is the main one, but this can also correct posture and spine alignment when you move. Improved proprioception – that’s the awareness of our body’s positioning and movement – is another big one, and is easily dulled by wearing thick-soled shoes.

From a personal perspective, I’ve found comfort to be another major plus. Prior to switching to barefoot shoes, I always wanted to take off my shoes at work and stroll around in my socks. That’s no longer a problem – I’m as comfortable in barefoot shoes as I am wearing no shoes at all.

Is it safe to wear barefoot shoes?

For the vast majority of people, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be safe to wear barefoot shoes, but it’s important to make the transition one step at a time. If you’ve been wearing regular heeled shoes for your entire life, you won’t be able to pop on a pair of minimalist shoes and do a marathon straight away – the risk for injury is highest at the beginning, and barefoot shoe manufacturers advise that you learn to walk before you run.

Once your body and brain adjust to barefoot movement, you can start stepping things up a bit. And there’s no need to worry about getting a bit of glass in your foot, as barefoot shoe companies ensure that the minimalist soles are puncture-resistant.

Naturally, if you have a medically diagnosed foot condition, such as flat-foot or a fallen arch, or have had any kind of foot surgery, you should consult a medical professional before proceeding with the transition to wearing barefoot shoes.

How long does it take to transition to barefoot shoes?

The duration of the transitional period depends on a number of factors, including your activity level, weight, gait and the terrain you walk and run on. Some individuals naturally walk with good form, landing on the midfoot (as opposed to heel striking) even with conventional shoes, and it will take them less time to adjust to the movement. For the majority, walking outdoors with barefoot shoes can feel a bit like learning to walk all over again – it certainly did for me.

Running is a different story entirely. While walking on concrete with barefoot shoes can feel normal within a few weeks (provided you walk enough), running will take a lot longer. The standard advice is to start running on soft ground for a while before you transition to pounding the pavement of your local town or city. Landing on the midfoot, as opposed to heel-first, is the key to running barefoot without injury.

And remember to keep the runs short at first, then build them up slowly, so that the nerves, muscles, tendons and bones of your feet have enough time to adjust to the new and unfamiliar forces that will be passing through them.

Are barefoot shoes just for fitness enthusiasts?

Certainly not. And not all barefoot shoes look like foot-gloves either, although that style of shoe features on this list. Anyone can benefit from wearing barefoot shoes, and there are many styles geared towards city living as well as outdoor fitness pursuits.

How does the sizing work for barefoot shoes?

As with any sort of shoes, sizing varies by manufacturer, but obviously barefoot shoes don’t have the same snug feel as standard shoes due to the minimal materials and wide toe box. Unlike regular footwear, barefoot shoemakers want the toes to be free to splay as they would if you weren’t wearing shoes at all.

Each manufacturer’s website has a section specifically dedicated to sizing that can help you decide which size to choose. You may also find that, over months and years, your foot size increases as your toes return to their natural splayed state and the arch grows firmer and stronger.

Most of the shoes listed below are available in both male and female sizes.

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The best barefoot shoes to wear

1. Vivobarefoot Primus Lite III: Eco-friendly, minimalist vegan trainers

Price: £115 | Buy in women's from Vivobarefoot | Buy in men's from Vivobarefoot

The Primus Lite III is the perfect ultra-minimalist shoe: lightweight, comfortable, breathable, and highly flexible. No matter how full your rucksack or gym bag might be you'll still be able to fit a pair of these inside. They’re a great, ultra-light option for daily casual wear but where they really excel is for fitness, especially in gyms or on pavements and tracks. The toe box has plenty of springiness, making them well-suited for runners. For tackling unmaintained, off-road surfaces, however, you’d probably want something a little more substantial.

Currently, four colours are available: black, blue, grey and white, as well as both men’s and women’s fits. The Primus Lite III shoes are also available with a 100-day at home trial, with a no-hassle return and refund should they not prove right for you. When the vegan-friendly materials have finally reached the end of their lifespan, you can send the shoes back to Vivobarefoot's Revivo service, where they will be recycled.

Buy in women's from Vivobarefoot

Buy in men's from Vivobarefoot


2. Freet Chukka: Comfiest casual barefoot shoes

Price: £50 | Buy now from Amazon

The Freet Chukka are extremely versatile unisex shoes, as at home on a city pavement as a long country trek. Above all, though, they’re just incredibly comfortable. Walking around London on a wet winter’s day, I felt as though I was wearing slippers, not shoes.

Despite that warm, cosy feeling, the Chukka has some proper outdoor credentials, including a stretchy water-resistant microfiber upper and Freet’s durable MultiGrip2 outsole, which provides traction on wet and muddy surfaces. Apart from the toe rand (part of the sole which extends over the toebox), the Chukkas also look like relatively normal shoes so they won’t draw too much notice from the non-barefoot crowd. At only £50, they’re a barefoot bargain.


3. Vibram FiveFingers KSO Evo: Ultra-minimal running shoes

Price: From £53 | Buy in women's from Amazon | Buy in men's from Amazon

Vibram’s best-selling shoes, the KSO Evo, are the ultimate in minimalist running. They’re one step away from being completely barefoot – feet get the maximum amount of sensory feedback from the ground while remaining protected from debris thanks to the flexible yet durable sole. The 3mm Vibram XS Trek outsole is zig-zag patterned for enhanced traction and performs brilliantly in both wet and dry conditions.

Due to the extremely minimalist design of the KSO Evo, they’re not recommended for beginners and are best suited for mid-distance running and gym training. If you’re new to barefoot running, I’d strongly suggest opting for a shoe that offers more protection for running.


4. Vivobarefoot Primus Trail II FG: A true barefoot all-rounder

Price: £120 | Buy in women's from Vivobarefoot | Buy in men's from Vivobarefoot

If you had to pick just one pair of barefoot shoes to start off with, Vivobarefoot’s Primus Trail II FG would be a perfect choice. The originals were the first barefoot shoes I ever owned and a brilliant way to re-introduce my feet to barefoot walking - and this refresh only builds on their success. The “Firm Ground” sole is more rugged and thick than other shoes on this list because it’s intended for serious trail use and needs that extra bit of padding.

Despite the added protection, they maintain a minimalist construction throughout the uppers, with breathable mesh fabric. For someone who wants a go-anywhere adventuring trainer but doesn’t want to compromise their barefoot experience, these shoes are a perfect choice. They’re also environmentally friendly, constructed from vegan-friendly recycled materials and Bloom Performance algae insoles. As an added eco-bonus, they are recyclable again after use through the Revivo programme.

Buy in women's from Vivobarefoot

Buy in men's from Vivobarefoot


5. Merrell Vapor Glove 4: Flexible barefoot trail-running shoes

Price: £90 | Buy in women's from Sports Shoes | Buy in men's from Sports Shoes

Merrell has a few barefoot shoes in its range now, and this edition of the Vapor Glove is one of its most minimalist models. They use a Vibram TC5+ Outsole and has a 'Barefoot 2' construction with zero heel drop to bring about more natural movement patterns. The shape is somewhat conventional compared to the options from Vivobarefoot and Vibram on this list, especially in the toe box area. There's not as much room for toe splay, so they can feel snug compared to a typical pare of barefoot shoes.

The Vapor Glove 4 are still ultra-lightweight and flexible, however, so they will still give you a similar sense of barefoot freedom when running on the trail. All materials, from the Cordura and TPU upper to the breathable mesh lining, are fully vegan-friendly, and Merrell has included M Select FRESH antimicrobial agents that can help keep shoe odour at bay for longer.

Buy in women's from Sports Shoes Buy in men's from Sports Shoes


6. Vibram Fivefingers V-Run: Classic barefoot running shoes

Price: From £120 | Buy in women's from Amazon | Buy in men's from Amazon

You’ve probably seen the Vibram V-Run before. They’re the most well-known and well-loved barefoot running shoes around. Their five-pronged glove-like design allows your toes to slot right in for the snuggest possible fit, while allowing each toe to keep its normal range of movement. Getting the correct size is critical with Vibram FiveFingers, much more so than with other barefoot shoes, and some people complain that the toe slots are either too short or too long.

When running with the Vibram V-Run, it feels as though your feet have just grown an extra layer of super-tough skin. Lightweight as they are, they have a thicker sole than other Vibram options. This is because they’re aimed at long-distance running, but that extra protection also means they’re ideally suited for transitioning to barefoot running.

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