My 5 Top Running Shoes from 2023 – Barefoot and cushioned options

So now it’s time to introduce my top 5 barefoot running shoes for the year. Some are true minimal shoes, and some have a little cushion, but all are still zero drop for now!

In the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at +30 shoe reviews I’ve done this year! Some of the shoes were amazing, and some were…… not so amazing…..

And after seeing all those influencers posting their top X from 2023, I realized – Oh yeah, that’s what content creators do, isn’t it?

So now it’s time to introduce my top 5 barefoot running shoes for the year. Some are true minimal shoes, and some have a little cushion, but all are still zero drop for now! I’ve selected a variety for the road, trails, and even a bonus shoe that became my everyday runabout. 

Here goes! 

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Best Trail Shoe

Xero Shoes Mesa Trail II

Type: Trail

Width: Average

Stack height: 6mm + 3.5mm insole

Weight: 8.2oz / 232g

Best Barefoot Road Shoe

Xero Shoes Speed Force II

Type: Road

Width: Average

Stack height: 4.5mm + 3.5mm insole

Weight: 6.5 oz / 184 g

Best All-Rounder

Merrell Vapor Glove 6

Type: Road/Trail

Width: Narrow/Average

Stack height: 6mm insole

Weight: 4.59 oz / 130 g

Best Tough Terrain Shoe

Altra Superior 6

Type: Trail

Width: Wide

Stack height: 21mm

Weight: 9.5oz / 270g

Best Everyday Wear

Earth Runner Circadian

Type: Road/Trail

Width: Wide

Stack height: 9mm

Weight: 5.9oz / 170g

Xero Shoes Mesa Trail II – Best trail shoe

It’s barefoot and a trail shoe perfectly married into a performance package! 

This is the shoe I ran my 50km race this year, and although I could have gone faster in Altra Superiors, I enjoyed the challenge that I put my feet up to. 

Having an average wide midfoot and a similar depth, the Xero Shoes shape fits me almost perfectly. My heel locks in place amazingly, and I never have hot spots or blister issues. 

Xero shoes Mesa Trail II feel

My only wish is that Xero Shoes push out the big toe area a touch to give a little more room for my fat big toe! But hey, we can’t have it all. 

The outsole on the Mesa Trail was much improved over the previous version, adding a little more protection but maintaining that barefoot feel. And although it’s not made for muddy conditions, it seems to excel in dry conditions. 

As for durability, it could have gone a bit further. After 600km, I almost retired the shoe because the outsole started looking thin. I could reinforce the sole because the upper looks fantastic! But I’m happy to take that result for a race-ready minimal shoe that feels this good. 

Merrell Vapor Glove 6 outline

Xero Shoes Mesa Trail II

Xero Shoes Speed Force II – Best barefoot road shoe

Yes, Another Xero Shoes model! And this time, it’s a recent one for me. 

Why the Speed Force? 

The original Speed Force was looking outdated and outclassed by many other shoes on the market and was much in need of an update, and boy, did Xero Shoes deliver. 

The Speed Force is now my favorite road shoe….. Ever…

xero shoes speed force ii toe boxes

With a stack height of only 4.5mm, the minimal aspect of the shoe is addictive! It’s the pair I want to pick up for every run, but I must remember that’s not wise when upping the mileage. 

After having one of the best heel lockdowns in the market, Xero Shoes has also perfected the quality of the upper to match! It’s thin, has overlays in all the high wear points, and strikes a balance between security and forgiveness that is perfect for that barefoot feel. 

The only drawback? Again, it’s that fit. It’s very much like a traditional Xero Shoe shape, so if you have a wide-toe splay, it may not work for you. 

So, if you’re looking for a running shoe that allows you to train as “barefoot” as possible with a bit of protection, try the Xero Shoes Speed Force II.

Merrell Vapor Glove 6 outline

Xero Shoes Speed Force II

Merrell Vapor Glove 6 – Best all-rounder

This one was a surprise for me. 

I’d avoided Merrell for the longest time, mainly because I’d heard about the dreaded arch support and narrow fit. 

But I never realized that’s not true for all models! 

Yes, the Vapor Glove is a little narrower than some barefoot options, but it’s also amazingly flexible, allowing it to mold to your foot without creating pressure points. And the toe box was “just” wide enough for me.

Merrell Vapor Glove 6 hero

The elephant in the room is that the Vapor Glove is marketed as a trail runner, and to me I just don’t think that’s right. It’s too minimal with very little protection, meaning it’ll only work for sandy buffed-out trails. 

Instead, I’ve taken mine on the road much more! And sometimes used them as road-to-trail options. I do not know how fast the outsole will wear out yet, but I’m putting my trust in the Vibram outsole, and hopefully, they’ll last me +500km.

So, if you’re looking for a super flexible barefoot feel with a bit of squish, AND you have a narrow to average foot, give the Merrell Vapor Glove 6 a try! It’s fun, trust me!

Merrell Vapor Glove 6 outline

Merrell Vapor Glove 6

Altra Superior 6 –  Best tough terrain shoe

This is the only shoe with cushion on the list, but this is a barefoot round-up! That’s how it should be. 

I haven’t used the Superior 6 too much this year, but it’s on the list because there were many times I wished I was traveling with this shoe as a backup.

The moderately cushioned nature makes it a perfect option for challenging rocky trail terrain. With the slight hardening of the midsole in this version, I’m confident enough to say this is a “barefoot style” protective option.

Altra superior 6 hero

As with many other Altras, the fit is shallow. But I quickly solved that by switching out the chunky Altra outsole for a thinner option. 

The toe is still wide, and the midfoot is flexible enough to accommodate most foot widths. 

For the price, the Altra Superior is still one of the best trail shoes Altra offers. My only wish would be that they find a way to make it more durable and better in wet conditions!

Earth Runners Circadian – Everyday wear

So what do I wear when I’m not in runners or trainers? 

Sandals, of course! Let those feet breathe! 

This was a toss-up between my favorite options: the Xero Shoes Aqua Clouds and the Earth Runners Circadian. 

Ultimately, the Earth Runners won out because I spent the most time in them! And sometimes the Aqua Cloud was TOO minimal for standing around all day (I know I should work on more barefoot strength :p )

Earth Runners Circadian

The strapping was tricky to get right at first; it took me almost 2 weeks to find the sweet spot, but from that point on, I’ve never looked back. 

From a value-for-money point of view, sandals are the way forward. My Earth Runners cost $80 at purchase, and they only show minor signs of wear after wearing them daily.

And the best part is you can still run in them! 

Again, once you get the fit right, you’ll find them just as comfortable to run in. Making them a fantastic travel item. Small, lightweight, and take up very little room! 

Did I forget to say they’re “grounding sandals”. If you’re into that, it’s the one option I know of that looks good!

Earth Runner Circadian

Conclusion

Many more shoes could be on this list! And it’s worth noting that this is MY list. Your feet may be different and suit different brands and models, so it’s worth reading around my site to understand how they all fit. 

Honorable mentions go to 

Bahe Revive – A super wide new option in the barefoot market with a grounding twist

Xero Shoes Scrambler Low – It got me through an incredible 100km journey

Vivobarefoot Primus Lite III – I would wear these more but I lost them on my travels!

Now, I want to hear your favorite shoes from 2023! 

Head over to Instagram, or comment below with your favs! 

Nick
Nick

Nick is a UESCA-certified ultramarathon coach and avid barefoot runner, having over 5 years of experience in barefoot training and has competed in multiple ultra marathons wearing barefoot shoes. Starting his journey in the running industry over 10 years ago in New Zealand, Nick evolved from a running shoe salesperson to a passionate advocate for the transformative power of barefoot running. He believes in its potential to enhance running experiences for all and combines his unique insights from both personal achievements and professional coaching to guide and inspire the running community."

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One comment

  1. For me Topo athletic Runventure – light, cushion tough sole in winter mud.
    Altra Lone peak 4.5, 5, 6 – for slipper like comfort toe space…not grip (1550 miles in 4.5 version, others ongoing)
    Xero Aqua X Sport – (would choose a half to full size up next time) toe box shape not square enough for pinkies ! Super light and lets water/mud in/out.
    SAGUARO Barefoot Shoes (grip not good in wet but nice and wide cheap workout)
    Hobibear – for casual…great toe space & value
    Freet – I have tried Feldom very comfy, wide but could not get my usual size for running in only jogged in house.(returned)
    Now ordered Freet Calver.. will report back.
    Icebug Horizon/Outrun- Not minimal …7mm heel not ideal but the toe area is wide (half size up) Very protective shoes, used for occasional training ….the sole/upper very tough and the only one I’ve used in decades that grips on cinder paths/small stony trails as opposed to rolling over them!
    Xero prio – A wider version please (not that I have wide feet just like space these days)
    BTW. Appreciate your good reviews insight and experience.
    I wish that some wide minimal/barefoot shoes had more traction/lug depth for muddy uk trails.

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