You were born barefoot, and a growing body of evidence suggests you should have stayed that way. The technology and padding of the modern shoe protect your feet, but protection isn’t always what you want. Feet were made to stretch, flex, roll, and bend, and letting them do what they evolved to do can reduce impact injuries and provide a host of other benefits.
That said, please do not buy a pair of these barely-there shoes and start walking or running the way you always have. That won’t work, and it can lead to injuries. You need to ease into all things barefoot related, and to some degree, you need to relearn how to walk and run. In this guide, we’ve got advice on making the transition from padded shoes to “barefoot shoes” (also known as minimalist or zero-drop shoes), and we’ve rounded up our favorites. They’re as close as you can get to achieving that barefoot sensation without running afoul of “No shirt, no shoes, no service” signs.
Be sure to check out our other buying guides, including our Best Running Gear and Best Snow Gear roundups.
Updated June 2022: We’ve added the Xero Aqua Cloud water sandals and updated prices and links throughout.
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Photograph: Nick Dolding/Getty Images
Go Barefoot Before You BuyTest the Waters
The best barefoot footwear out there is … your bare feet. There is no need to run out and spend money on any of these shoes. Instead, start by walking around barefoot. This may be easier said than done; if you live in a major US city, don’t stroll the sidewalks barefoot. See if a nearby park has some small stretch of grass you can explore barefoot.
Don’t walk far—10 paces is enough—but as you walk, pay attention to your feet. Focus on how much of your foot is actually in contact with the ground. If you’re like most people, this can be a mind-blowing experience. Now put your shoes on and go home. If you wake up the next day feeling fine, go do it again for a little longer. Keep slowly expanding your distance until you can comfortably walk a mile barefoot. Once you’ve got that down, you’re ready to go all-in on some shoes.
Best SandalsXero Shoes Z-Trail
I love these shoes. They are the only shoes that have ever inspired me to write 1,000 words. They are really that good. Think of these as the barefoot answer to Chacos. Except where Chacos are like putting tractors on your feet, the Z-Trails still flex and bend as you walk, giving your feet the freedom of movement you expect from a barefoot shoe. Despite being sandals, these have 10 millimeters of cushion, which is more padding than most of the shoes you see here. That makes the Z-Trail a good option for newcomers.
If you want an even more minimalist sandal, I also love Xero’s Z-Trek sandals ($60), which have less padding. WIRED readers have also reached out to tell me how much they love Luna sandals, which I plan to test for the next update.
Best for Budding RunnersMerrell Vapor Glove 5
The Vapor Glove 3 was the first barefoot shoe I ever tried. They’re still fairly shoe-like, with a wide toe box and tight heel cup. But they have zero drop (the heel is the same height as the forefoot) and minimal padding, putting them firmly in the barefoot shoe camp. It’s a solid, comfortable shoe that will fit a wide range of feet.
My only problem is that Merrell feels the need to update the Vapor Glove constantly. Those of us wearing them don’t like change. A like-new Vapor Glove 3 sells for more on eBay than a brand-new Vapor Glove 5 straight from Merrell. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the Vapor Glove 5 (I haven’t tried it yet), but it is a warning that if this version is your favorite shoe ever, you might want to buy a few pairs. The Vapor Glove 6 will inevitably be slightly different. You’ll use those pairs if you like them. The one thing I don’t like about these shoes is that they only last me about six months (I run about 3-5 miles a day).