Most people believe that barefoot running and trails don’t go together. But I, and many of us out there, are here to prove them wrong!
If you’re already here, I will spare you the sales pitch on Barefoot running, but if you are interested, feel free to read my waffle about barefoot here.
Instead, let’s find the best barefoot trail running shoe for you!
In this post, I’m sharing 4 of my favorite trail running shoes, 1 on my wish list, plus I’ll outline who each of the shoes suits best and what conditions they do well in.
Let’s start with my favorite of all time.
Last year I ran most of the Colorado Trail (500 miles) in the original Mesa Trail, and they’re still in my shoe rotation!
I didn’t think any shoe could top the Mesa Trail for ground feel, grip, and fit – but I was wrong.
In the end, Xero Shoes decided to better themselves with version 2.
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The main upgrades focused on durability.
Admittedly, the original Mesa Trail was a soft, super flexible barefoot trail shoe. And that didn’t always work, especially when flying down technical rocky trails.
The outsole on version 2 stiffened slightly, allowing you to step on sharp rocks and not feel a shearing pain. That means some barefoot flexibility has been lost in the Mesa Trail II, but this compromise had to be made. I’m so confident in this new version that I’m taking them on my upcoming technical mountainous 50 km race.
The overlays protecting the side foot are minimal but enough. And the toe box protects against unwanted stone kicks. The shoe’s lifespan is extended in extreme conditions thanks to the semi-flexible plastic that protects against rock scuffs and scrapes.
The outsole is semi-aggressive, with 3.5mm rubber lugs to cut into muddy conditions. I’ve taken this shoe out in the dry, the wet, and the snow! And it works in all conditions. The only time I’d opt for a more aggressive shoe would be in the bogs of the UK, but almost no US-based shoe company has options for those conditions.
Who’s the Xero Shoes Mesa Trail II for?
- Fit: Wider heel and midfoot and an average toe span. It will not work for those with shallow feet.
- Conditions: Dry to moderately wet weather.
- Feel: A true barefoot feel, with enough protection to call it an aggressive trail shoe.
(45-day exchange period)
Next up! Vivobarefoot.
Another top favorite of mine, but they don’t get in my rotation quite as much as I’d like.
As with nearly any athletic Vivobarefoot review, I start by saying.
If you have a more voluminous bridge, or your width starts from the back near the ankle, Vivobarefoot may not be the brand for you.
I make them work by removing the insole to get a little extra room.
The upper is tough and unforgiving, which is great for durability and lockdown, especially in a trail shoe, but if they do not fit right, you’ll have a challenging ride.
But if you find a good fit, you’ll have no heel slipping, no movement forward or backward in the shoe; it’s just a dream.
It’s important not to tighten the shoe excessively, as this can create pressure points. Simply keep the laces taught without pulling on them too hard. It’s also helpful to loosen each eyelet to release any pressure points.
What is unique to Vivo is the ample room for the big toe. You’ll see almost no taper on the big toe side of the shoe, and it’s almost square, which suits those with a wider toe splay.
They’re close to the ground with 2.5mm base rubber and 4mm lugs! And that also means they are superbly flexible.
For a general feel, I’d say these shoes are fun! I feel super secure in the upper, and I’m confident in planting my foot and knowing it won’t slide around.
Again because of this tougher plastic/rubber upper, there is reduced breathability. And with these shoes being designed in England, it’s not such an issue there, but if you’re in the Texas heat, take that in to count.
Who’s the Vivobarefoot Primus Trail II FG for?
- Fit: Those with a fan-like foot shape, narrower at the heel and wide at the toe, will find the shoe great. Just be wary of the lack of depth of the shoe.
- Conditions: Dry to moderately wet weather.
- Feel: A true barefoot feel, with excellent protection all around.
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I have a love-hate relationship with the Terraflex.
It’s the trail shoe that is uber-protective, but in my usage, it broke down too fast. Granted, I was hiking/running 12 hours a day for weeks in a row.
The shoe is relatively deep. So if you have a low-volume foot, again, Xero Shoes trail options are not for you.
Regarding width, the TerraFlex strikes a great balance between being broad without being loose. This applies to the entire shoe, not just the toe area. If you have a wider foot that spans from heel to toe, consider giving the TerraFlex a chance.
The outsole of this shoe is slightly thicker than its counterpart, the Mesa Trail. The rubber outsole has a 1mm difference, and the lug length has a 0.5mm difference, but the 3mm foam remains the same.
And when I switch between the two shoes, I did feel the difference!
When you hit that sharp pointed rock, you don’t wince quite as much in the TerraFlex II (tip: learn to read the trail and dance around sharp stones).
The TerraFlex II is undoubtedly still a minimal shoe, with all the incredible flexibility you’d expect from a barefoot-like shoe. Still, it’s not quite as floppy and forgiving as some sandals or the Xero Shoes Mesa Trail II.
With a full wrap-around toe box (actually, the wrap-around covers the whole shoe –so is it still a toe box at that point?) and 6.5mm of rubber underfoot, any scuff or scrape will leave a mark and nothing else.
But, as I said, the shoe broke down around the 400-mile mark, which is disappointing. The upper material, the insole, and the foam were all on their last legs. So don’t expect too much here.
Who’s the Xero Shoes Terraflex II for?
- Fit: Wider heel and midfoot and a wider toe span. It will not work for those with shallow feet.
- Conditions: Dry to wet weather.
- Feel: A beefy barefoot shoe with more protection than the Mesa Trail.
(45-day exchange period)
I know, I know. Altra’s aren’t really barefoot shoes.
I agree with you! But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a cushioned shoe in your rotation for those aggressive trails or easy runs.
If you still need some convincing, read my philosophy on barefoot running.
The Superior 6 has only just been released, and I’m already impressed with it.
The new upgrade of the outsole rubber has transformed the shoe from good to awesome.
Pair that with a slightly firmer midsole; we will hit higher milages than previous versions.
The forefoot is nice and wide and beautifully squared towards the big toe. Altra’s foot-shaped toebox still exists! It’s wide enough for super toe splayers and even fits my stupid bulbous big toe.
But beware, the shoe isn’t that deep at all. If you have volume in your feet, you will feel a lot of pressure on the top of the foot in Altra’s. For me, the Superior 6 is no different. So my super sneaky trick is to replace the insole with something thinner, like a Xero Shoes insole.
The responsiveness felt “poppy,” like I was bouncing forward with nothing holding me back. The new shoe has denser foam, enhancing bounciness, and works in conjunction with your foot and ankle muscles.
The redesigned toe box is much more stout! If you kick a rock, that means more protection for the shoe and your feet. It also helps keep the shape of the toe box nice and square over the top of the toes, even if we could do with a bit of wiggle space.
And that’s a theme running through the shoe. It does mean it’ll take a little more time to break in, but in the long run, that’s ok.
Who is the Altra Superior 6 for?
- Fit: A shallow foot with a wider toe splay and fitted midfoot.
- Conditions: Dry to moderately wet weather.
- Feel: Some flexibility and ground feel, but not a true barefoot shoe. Great for dipping your toes in the water before going 100% barefoot.
(30-day free returns)
This one’s a wild card because I’ve never used them.
But it has some interesting aspects that shoot it onto this list and my wish list!
It has a crazy wide toebox and midfoot. So if you’ve been craving more space, look at Be Lenka shoes.
The upper is also Leather, which may not sound like the best idea for a trail running shoe. But if you’re looking for an upper that will last, that is natural and uses less man-made materials. It’s an option to consider.
I would consider leather in the winter months or colder climates like my homeland of the UK.
Because the upper is a soft leather, and the outsole is only 4mm of rubber, it’s minimal and super flexible.
I would guess that this is the most flexible option out of the 5.
But that should come with a warning too; depending on the rubber compound, 4mm could wear through fast.
The rubber is also built up around the sides of the shoe. Much like a climbing shoe, further protecting the leather and helping the shoe last longer.
If the outsole lasts long enough, the Trailwalker is an excellent option for those looking to invest in quality and reduce their plastic/artificial material usage.
Who is the Be Lenka Trailwalker 2.0 for?
- Fit: Wide, Wide, Wide feet!
- Conditions: Dry conditions due to the shallow lugs.
- Feel: Maximum flexibility, with all the ground feel you could want!
(14-day exchange period)
The fit is the biggest factor when choosing between these barefoot trail shoe options.
As you have seen, Xero Shoes fits differently to Vivobarefoot, and Altra is unique too.
If you have a deep and wide midfoot, I’d always push you towards Xero Shoes, and that’s not to say that Vivobarefoot couldn’t work if you take the insole out.
Vivobarefoot Primus Trail is the way to go if you have a wider toe splay.
And as long as you don’t have super deep feet, the Altra Superior 6 fit most people out there!
You can read the full reviews for all these trail shoes right here! Dive deep to find the right shoe for you!
Xero Shoes Mesa Trail II Review
Vivobarefoot Primus Trail II FG Review
Xero Shoes Terraflex II Review
Altra Superior 6 Review
Nice review. I miss 5 finger shoes in your top 5. Any reason why? I have the 5 finger v run and the fit very nice. But sometimes too slippery for trails so I’m looking for a trail shoe.
It’s a good point! I’ve got little experience with VFF other than selling one casual model when I worked at a running store.
If you have any models you could suggest any why, it’d be a great help for me, and others reading this too!
For a barefoot trail racing shoe I really like the Merrell MTL skyfire 2. It is a feat of engineering and really just feels like your feet with vibram lugs! I find xero shoes to be heavy and I like altra superiors but on steep hills the zero drop can sometimes cause trouble. But to be fair, as I said its a racing shoe (read expensive) so not a completely fair comparison. I also like the merrell long sky 2 which has a great fit and amazing ground feel.
Interesting! I’ve been looking at the Skyfire’s, but I’ve been put off by the toe box and the drop. I’m 99% certain it’s going to be too narrow for me. What’s your experience with the toe box?
I’m surprised that Xero shoes are too heavy for you? The Mesa Trail II are ~7.8oz (220g) for my size, which is pretty good for a trail shoe.