What makes a barefoot shoe?

As there is no legal definition for a ‘barefoot shoe’, anyone can label their shoes ‘barefoot’.  Also with more and more styles of barefoot shoe becoming available, it’s actually hard to decide if they really are ‘barefoot’.

Barefoot Shoes

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What makes a barefoot shoe

Can you spot the difference?

Below are 12 shoes, half of them barefoot and half not.

See if you can guess if each shoe below is barefoot or not.  Then roll your mouse over to reveal if they are Green for Barefoot or Red for Non-barefoot.

See if you can guess if each shoe below is barefoot or not.  Then roll your mouse over to reveal if they are Green for Barefoot or Red for Non-barefoot.

The barefoot difference

So it’s actually hard to tell what shoe is a barefoot shoe.  Although all barefoot shoes will be a compromise, some being more of a compromise than others.  However there are some features that we can all agree on.

Less is best – the less shoe there is, the better. The idea is to simulate being barefoot, so the more there is to the shoe the further from barefoot it will be. These are the key features to look out for:

Drop – the sole thickness should be the same under the heel as it is under the rest of the foot. The ideal is zero-drop – a sole of uniform thickness.

Sole – the thinner the better.

Box – the toe box should be wider than your toes, allowing them to splay under load.

Spring – toe spring helps your shoes not your feet. As shoes extend beyond your toes, a raised toe spring is to stop the shoes toe catching on the ground, but this also raises your toes. No toe spring is best, but in practice all shoes must have some. Should be kept to a minimum.

Orthotic – the insole should be completely flat – no contouring, insole well or arch support. The insole is substituting for the ground and so should allow your foot to do its job.

Control – shoes with flared soles attempt to alter your gait, by stopping your foot rolling. A natural gait includes foot roll – pronation (the contact and weight shifting from outside to inside the foot as the foot comes down and then lifts again). Soles wider than your foot stop your foot rolling; this is better for the shoe, not your foot.

Flex – You should be able to fold a good shoe completely back on itself at any point, or better still, roll the whole thing up.

Weight – The lighter the better – your feet are designed for use barefoot, so the less weight you add to them the better.

Puncture – how much protection does the sole offer against thorns, needles, glass shards, etc?

Feel – can you feel the ground through the soles? Can you differentiate texture/hardness. The sole and insole material will determine this.

Toes shoes like Vibram Five Fingers don’t fit quite as easily into the feature list above. But the same principles gererally apply. The major difference is that whilst they contour the feet, they still allow the foot to behave as it wants to.

Types of barefoot shoe

There are a variety of shoes available now that claim to be barefoot shoes.  They come in a few different types.  The aim with all these shoes is to offer some protection whilst not hindering the natural action of the foot.  They usually offer a thin sole for some protection.  However, nothing can be added to the foot without hampering it in someway.   So even barefoot shoe will interfere with how the foot operates.  The questions are: How much?  Is the benefit worth the loss?  Is it a good compromise? Style wise, it comes down to three types.  Glove, Mitten and Sandal. Some are pure function over fashion, whist others have features designed to make them look similar to conventional footware.


Vibram Five Fingers and clones.

These were originally designed for wearing on boats, in place of deckshoes; to get that barefoot feeling on deck.  A sailing boat has many sharp metal objects; clips, cleats, rigging, etc. that makes going barefoot hazardous.  Vibrams in their original role prevented you from cutting your feet on these hazards. Now they are sold as barefoot running shoes.


This is the most common type, with Vivo Barefoot and Merrell the market leaders.  Nike’s Free range hardly qualifies; the soles being thick and the heel elevated.  But Nike claims they are barefoot, so I thought I’d mention them here.

These are the closest to conventional footwear.  With all the toes in one space.  Everyone has jumped on the bandwagon creating their own mitten version of a “barefoot shoe”.


The original shoe, reimagined as ultra minimal footwear.  Also called Huaraches (Spanish for sandals).