Barefoot shoes are shoes that are designed to mimic being as close to barefoot as possible. Simple right.
The term 'Barefoot Shoes' is slightly controversial. Many prefer to use the term 'Minimalist Shoes' because how can a shoe be barefoot?
But there is an important difference between Barefoot Shoes and Minimalist Shoes.
Barefoot shoes are just one type of minimalist shoes. So not all minimalist shoes are considered 'barefoot shoes'.
To be considered a barefoot shoe, a shoe must have the following 7 features...
tl;dr: Barefoot shoes are flat.
Modern shoes position your heels higher than your toes to create a downwards slope. The distance from the highest point of the slope to the lowest point is called the 'drop'. It's most often measured in millimetres.
Zero Drop means that the shoes have no slope and no difference in height between the heels and toes.
Instead, the entire foot sits level with the ground in the most natural and stable position, just like being barefoot.
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No Toe Spring
tl;dr: Barefoot shoes do not curve upwards at the toes.
Toe Spring is the rigid, slight curve upwards at the end of your conventional shoes. It's designed to provide comfort and support for walking. Long-term a rigid toe spring can cause an imbalance and dysfunction in the feet.
That's why barefoot shoes don't have a rigid toe spring and simply follow the natural shape of your barefoot.
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Low Stack Height
tl;dr: Barefoot shoes have thin soles.
Stack height is the total overall height of the sole. It's often measured in millimetres. Since barefoot shoes aim to replicate being barefoot, this thickness is kept as low as possible.
Wide Toe Box
tl;dr: Barefoot shoes are 'foot shaped'.
If you've been wearing conventional shoes your whole life, take a look at your feet. Your toes are probably all squished together, right?
Most shoes get narrower towards the front causing this squish. This is not the natural shape of the human foot.
This significantly changes our balance and stability and can cause a lot of foot problems and deformities.
Barefoot shoes have a wide toe box that's shaped like the foot is naturally supposed to be. Over time, this space allows your toes to splay and return to their natural spread.
No Extra Support or Stability
tl;dr: Barefoot shoes make your foot muscles do the work.
Ever heard the phrase 'if you don't use it you lose it'?
Well, conventional shoe design often includes extra foot support to make the shoe more comfortable by giving the foot less work to do.
A nice idea, but just like an arm in a cast, this causes many of the muscles in the foot to weaken as they're not being used. These include arch support, insoles, ankle support, extra padding, cushioning, and orthotics.
Barefoot shoes do not have any kind of support. This means that the foot (re)learns to support itself, improving our fine motor control of the smaller muscles in the foot and legs resulting in a stronger, more stable posture.
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Lightweight & Flexible
tl;dr: Feet are flexible and barefoot shoes should be too.
Flexible soles allow your feet to move and contort with the ground you're walking on. This playground of textures builds all the muscles in the foot, even the small ones.
Image Rights: Vivobarefoot
tl;dr: Flip Flops don't count as Barefoot Shoes.
A bad fitting shoe or flip flops force you to change the way you walk to keep the shoe in position.
Overcompensating and using the body in a way that it wasn't designed will eventually cause injuries.
Now you know what makes a shoe barefoot you're ready to choose barefoot shoes that suit your needs and lifestyle.
Check out our ultimate list of barefoot shoes and filter for what you're looking for.