Best minimalist trail running shoes 2024 | Tested and reviewed

We've put a rage of barefoot and zero-drop minimalist trail running shoes to the ultimate test. Find out which was the best...

minimalist trail running shoes

by Milo Wilson |
Updated on

What makes a great pair of minimalist trail running shoes? With fewer bells and whistles than your average trainer, the criteria is tough and specific. They need to be lightweight, highly flexible, and balance durability and comfort with a lower level of cushioning for that barefoot feel.

Reviewed vibram fivefinger v trail 2023
©LFTO

Of course, generally being light and fast is desirable for all trail running shoes. What sets apart the minimalist crowd is the sacrifices they’re willing to make to get that extra bit lighter and faster. This typically means a thin (or non-existent) midsole, shorter and softer lugs, and a lower drop. You'll also find fewer features on the upper, and a fit that aims to be as close to the foot as possible.

What are the best minimalist trail running shoes of 2024?

Best in test: Arc’teryx Norvan SL3

Best value: Altra Lone Peak 7

Best for barefoot feel: Vibram 5 fingers V-Trail 2.0

Best for versatility: Merrell Vapor Glove 6 LTR

Minimalist trail shoes are often zero drop, in keeping with the barefoot running community’s philosophy of building natural strength in the ankles and Achilles tendon through extra extension. That said, we've also tested some pairs with a bit of extra stack, and some mm of drop for more of a smooth, hybrid road-to-trail approach. Let's get into it...

Best minimalist trail running shoes reviewed:

Best in test

LFTO
Price: £140.00

arcteryx.com

These ultralight, sleek, minimalist trail running shoes are an absolute dream for runners who love to feel agile and nimble in the mountains. The Norvan SL3 is wildly different from its long-distance focused cousin, the LD3. Rather than providing lush cushioning and a roomy fit, the SL3 is precise, and geared towards tackling scree and scrambles.

The brand say they've used feedback from their mountain athletes to refine the shoe's design, and this certainly shows. From the way the shoe narrows around the forefoot to the tiny loops at the heel for clipping into a harness, the Norvan SL3 belongs in the mountains.

That said, we tested this shoe in the UK and still felt the benefits of its design without the alpine background its aiming for. The shoes weigh next-to-nothing, with a size 11 clocking in at just 215g per shoe. This is a massive highlight, as minimalist shoes are all about feeling light and free on the trail.

The stack is unconventional for a minimalist trail running shoe, ranging from 19mm in the heel to just 12mm at the toe. While the midsole is fairly soft, we found the SL3 incredibly responsive and providing a lot of ground feel, which is ideal for scrambling and moving fast over difficult terrain. The Vibram outsole has great traction on rocks, and it survived decently on forrest tracks, though we don't think we'd take this shoe – with its 3.5mm lugs – out on anything wet and muddy.

Still, the fit is excellent but snug, so wide-footed buyers beware. We also like that the tongue is totally integrated into the upper, forming a snug knit collar which wraps around your whole ankle like a sock. This does a great job of keeping out rocks and dust, and helps the shoe feel extra secure.

Find the women's version here

Read our full Arc'teryx Norvan SL3 review

Pros

  • Extremely lightweight
  • Highly durable upper
  • Outsole works great on technical trails

Cons

  • Somewhat narrow toebox

best value

LFTO
Price: £67.47 (RRP 139.99)

en.sportsshoes.com

The Altra Lone Peak 7 is apparently Altra’s best-selling trail running shoe. Designed to handle a wide range of terrain and be at home both on the trail and road, the Lone Peak has a comfortable injection of cushioning and a higher stack than you’d typically see on a zero drop shoe. 

This seventh iteration of the Lone Peak has been updated with a seamless, quick-dry air mesh upper that’s made to allow for efficient drainage during wet runs, though we’d advise against wearing these in slippery conditions as the Maxtrac outsole isn’t made for thick mud. That being said, the 5mm Trailclaw lugs are longer than the previous version and can handle a wide variety of off-road terrain with relative ease, and really come into their down in the dry summer months. 

Other updates include additional lacing to create a more secure forefoot hold. We didn’t have any issues in achieving a good heel lock in these, but if it’s something you struggle with then there’s always the additional top eyelet to extend the lacing. As always, expect to see the roomy toe-box typical in an Altra shoe, which allows the toes to splay and add stability during up and downhill running.   

The EGO midsole sits at a stack height of 25mm, which accounts for the comfort felt running over harder surfaces. There’s also a good chunk of padding in the tongue and around the heel. 

Find the men’s version here

Pros

  • Very comfortable
  • Spacious toe box
  • Enough cushioning to handle road-to-trail

Cons

  • Can't handle thick mud or wet rock

Best for barefoot feel

LFTO
Price: $166.99

We have to pay our respects to the OG. The maddening, striking, individual toe-ing design that heralded the barefoot craze.

Vibram's ethos has always been fairly compelling – we do not run naturally in shoes with cramped toes and cheaty heel stacks, therefore the best and most natural shoe must cast all this aside in favour of a precise foot shape and strong connection to the ground (but with just enough protection to not get cut to ribbons on brambles and rocks).

And after testing, we can confirm that the Vibram 5 fingers V-Trail 2.0 does exactly what it claims to do. We really wouldn't take these running on a pebble beach. But the fact of the matter is that, whether or not you buy into every aspect of the barefoot running philosophy, these shoes are so much darn fun to run in.

They have no cushioning, though there is a membrane membrane called 3D Cocoon Mesh designed to dissipate the impact of objects like rocks against the sole. But again, this is Vibram's whole aim: to provide you with a feel for exactly what you're running on. A good example of this working excellently was when we tackled a wet muddy run. We slipped about as much as you would in most shoes that aren't proper fell running shoes, but the underfoot connection actually made these slips much easier to control.

There are a lot of lugs on the outside – too tiny to bite hard into anything, but their sheer number creates plenty of friction which is what, in turn, provides great traction. We almost felt stuck to the sand on one test run. It's an odd feeling at first (in fact, Vibram recommend gradually transitioning into these shoes rather than diving all the way into marathon distances in week 1), but once you get used to it, there's nothing else that quite hits the same spot.

**Find the women's version here
**

Read our full Vibram 5 Fingers V-Trail 2.0 review

Pros

  • Pure barefoot feel
  • Excellent traction
  • Great control on slippy ground

Cons

  • No cushioning at all

Best for versatility

LFTO

We can't help but use words like elegant and smart to describe the Vapor Glove 6 LTR. While most trail running shoes – even barefoot ones – opt for bright, near-garish colourways, Merrell has gone for monochromatic neutrals and earth tones for their latest iteration in the Vapor Glove series.

Looks aside, the leather upper on this shoe is also superbly comfortable and more durable than any other shoe in this list. We felt the material getting better and better as we tested it, as the leather softens and conforms to the foot, adding a secure and precise feel to our runs.

Merrell's use of leather also makes the Vapor Glove 6 impressively water-resistant, but do keep in mind the shoe's low profile. You'll still get some water ingress if you're below ankle-deep, but the shoe was perfectly fine splashing through the odd puddle.

The outsole is a single piece of Vibram rubber, specifically Vibram Ecostep which uses 30% recycled rubber, adding to the Vapor Glove 6's already impressive sustainability credentials (the laces, lining, and footbed are all 100% recycled). We were initially sceptical of the densely woven 2mm lug pattern, but the shoe ended up performing inversely to our worries, with wet grass and mud being no problem for the Vapor Glove 6, but with with concrete and tarmac feeling quite slippery.

Luckily, as it's geared for the trail, this wasn't much of a problem. The outsole also comes up at the front and back of the shoe to form a reinforced toe box and heel counter, which had us feeling nice and secure on our runs. Overall, it's a very solid shoe, and the leather upper will last forever – but those tiny lugs certainly wont.

Find the women's version here

Read our full Merrell Vapor Glove 6 LTR review

Pros

  • Great grip
  • Can easily turn into a smart-casual shoe
  • Comfortable integrated insole

Cons

  • Durability concerns in the soft outsole

Best for road to trail comfort

LFTO

Despite having 'All Weather' in the name, this shoe isn't billed as a fully waterproof trail running shoe. It is, in fact, a more protective and water resistant evolution of Vivobarefoot's flagship trainer, the Primus Trail FG. It is built with effective non-absorbent materials which, like the Merrell Vapor Glove 6, can handle puddles and shallow streams well enough, but still can't prevent water from sneaking over the top.

We're huge fans of how the Primus Trail III All Weather fits. True to the barefoot spirit, the wide toe box really lets your toes spread out and engages your muscles as you grip and push away from the surface. The general sensation when standing in these shoes is genuinely identical to standing on the floor - the upper is highly breathable, and the quick-lace system works well.

Vivobarefoot also get a lot of extra points for their recycling service. The shoe is already constructed using recycled synthetic materials – diverting them from landfills – and once the Primus Trail III All Weathers reach the end of their lives, you can send them back to Vivobarefoot to be fully recycled, free of charge.

The close-to-ground feel of these shoes is hardly surprising considering the 3mm base and 2.5mm lugs. Despite being so thin, we found that the Primus Trail III All Weather could stand up to some quite rigorous testing, and the impressively good grip lead our tester to use these all through winter, on both road and trail runs. With high levels of comfort, a grippy and versatile outsole, and a weatherproof upper, this shoe is an excellent versatile option for anyone looking to go barefoot.

Find the women's version here

Pros

  • Good weather protection
  • Comfortable over long distances
  • Great sustainability credentials

Cons

  • Not fully waterproof

Best for dirt and gravel

LFTO

The look of the shoe is also quite toned down, but we've found that it's actually a bombastic and aggressive trail fiend. It's still light for a running shoe, though heavier than most picks here, which is largely down the Mesa Trail II's excellent protection and durability.

The Mesa Trail II's outsole features multidirectional chevron-shaped lugs which bite satisfyingly into wet mud and gravel on both up- and downhills. Along with the tough sole comes a durable toe cap and side wall weldings which both reinforce the upper and lock down the overall fit. This is an ideal approach for a shoe that's clearly designed to take on some difficult terrain.

The shoe isn't totally waterproof, but we found that the softer mesh sections of the upper were light and airy enough to dry out decently fast on wet runs, leaving your foot damp, but certainly not soaked. The Mesa Trail II also has some great cushioning under the metatarsals, though our tester's feet did start to feel the burn after spending a bit too long on boring old pavement. If you stick to wild trails, all should be well.

On our first couple of tests we noticed that the tongue, while padded and very comfortable, seemed quite loose. We thought this might be a worry since many trail running shoes prefer an integrated or gusseted tongue to keep debris at bay. However, even with the slightly chunky laces that don't tie quite as tightly as thinner, flat laces, we still found that the Mesa Trail II was highly protective and we had zero (or, xero) problems with debris or dirt.

In all, a strong improvement over the original Xera Mesa Trail. We'd recommend this shoe for runners who love to take on gravel, mud, or even mountain tracks.

Find the women's version here

Pros

  • Strong construction with welded seams
  • Good moisture wicking technology
  • Excellent underfoot traction

Cons

  • Heavier than other options

Best for hard packed trails

Price: £103.49 (RRP £115)

en.sportsshoes.com

The Superior 6 from Altra is an agile, responsive trail shoe which feels expertly fast on well-packed dirt. Its 21mm stack height is one of the lowest Altra offer - coupled with their signature wide toe box and zero drop, it makes for a barely-there shoe, whose minimalism enables the user to respond instantly to underfoot debris and terrain changes. Unlike true barefoot shoes, however, there is enough cushioning to make these more comfortable over longer distances without having to specifically build up your lower leg and ankle strength over time.

That said, this shoe is generally more suited to faster, shorter runs on firm off-road terrain. While it will perform adequately on road or towpath, there comes a point around 3 hours in where your heels are asking for a little more cushioning. On the other end of the spectrum, miles of soft mud and bog are not its ideal home either - not just because the lugs aren't huge, but because they upper is relatively shallow and can let in a fair amount of unwanted debris.

But for middle distance, off-road running on farm tracks, mountain paths and parks, the Altra Superior performs extremely well. It's comfortable, responsive, and allows you to be light on your feet - and it's decent value too. In terms of longevity and sustainability, Altra have improved the Superior 6 in comparison to previous models to be more durable, with a slightly thicker material used on the uppers. However, Altra aren't as hot on sustainability as other brands: although they have pledged to make their materials and processes 100% sustainable and regenerative by 2030, there's currently no recycled materials used in their shoes, and very little about their ethics on their website.

Find the women's version here

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Wide toebox
  • Adaptable from road to trail

Cons

  • Lugs not aggressive enough for deeper mud
  • Lack of cushioning for longer runs on hard surfaces

How we test minimalist trail running shoes

These reviews come to you courtesy of the LFTO gear testing team, who also happen to write these articles as well. Milo Wilson and Kate Milsom tested the lion's share here, along with Pawel Baranowskiwho freelances for us when he's not running ultra marathons.

Kate Milsom and Milo Wilson trail running in Gower at Love Trails
Milo and Kate both destroyed their feet at Love Trails festival last year ©LFTO

Each of the minimalist trail running shoes in our latest group test underwent several months of rigorous runs, during which time only one pair fell apart, and so we didn't include it. We only review a shoe if we would truly recommend it, and these are the winners for this year in our book.

How do I choose minimalist trail running shoes?

Well, you've got step one correct! When you're choosing any piece of outdoor gear, it's always best to go ahead and google something like 'best trail running shoes' and check out some expert reviews like ours. Good job on that.

Beyond that, you'll want to decide what you're looking for in a minimalist shoe. Do you want a versatile shoe with enough padding to get by on the roads, or do you want a tough mudder that can take you anywhere as long as its hilly and covered in rocks? Here's our breakdown on what to consider when buying a pair of minimalist trail running shoes:

Lightweight design

examining a minimalist barefoot trail running shoe from Merrell
©LFTO

Minimalist trail running shoes should feel like an extension of your foot, not a burden weighing you down. Look for shoes with a lightweight design that allows for swift, agile movements on the trail. Whatever weight you can shave off your feet will translate to less fatigue over long distances.

Flexible sole

The sole of a minimalist trail running shoe should provide just enough protection to shield your feet from sharp rocks and debris while still allowing for natural movement. A flexible sole allows your foot to flex and adapt to the contours of the terrain, promoting better proprioception and stability.

Low drop

The drop, or the height difference between the heel and the toe of the shoe, plays a significant role in promoting a natural running gait. Minimalist trail running shoes typically have a low drop, closer to the natural angle of the foot when running barefoot. This encourages a midfoot or forefoot strike, reducing the risk of heel striking and associated injuries.

Breathable upper

Trail running often means encountering varied terrain and weather conditions. A good minimalist trail running shoe should have a breathable upper that allows moisture to escape, keeping your feet dry and comfortable even on hot, sweaty days. Look for materials like mesh or lightweight synthetic fabrics that promote airflow.

Durable construction

running on gravel in minimalist trail running shoes
©LFTO

While minimalist trail running shoes aim to shed unnecessary weight, they should not compromise on durability. Look for shoes with reinforced overlays and sturdy stitching that can withstand the rigors of trail running. A durable shoe will provide reliable protection and support mile after mile, season after season.

Wide toe box

Your toes need room to splay naturally with each stride, especially during long runs on uneven terrain. A wide toe box allows for ample toe splay, promoting better balance and stability while reducing the risk of blisters and hot spots. Your toes will thank you for the extra wiggle room.

Minimalist philosophy

Beyond the physical characteristics, a good minimalist trail running shoe embodies a philosophy of simplicity and connection with nature. It's about stripping away the excess and embracing the joy of running in its purest form. Look for brands that prioritise sustainability and eco-friendly practices, aligning with your values as a trail runner.

Caring for your trail running shoes

Outdoor footwear gets a hard life. If you want to keep yours performing as well as they can for as long as possible, a little TLC is needed. Keep fabrics clean to maintain breathability, and waterproof fabrics need reproofing every so often to maintain water repellency. Here are the products we'd recommend to help extend the life of your running trainers...

Keep your feet protected

This compact Footcare Kit from Sidas contains a bundle of mini-sized items geared towards caring for your feet over long distances, and getting you to the finish line pain-free should any issues flare-up mid-run. This is truly a Hail Mary rolled up in one smart little pouch!

Those who enjoy long days out on the trails will know that they often come hand in hand with sore feet, black toes, and sometimes blisters. The Sidas Footcare Kit is small enough to fit into any running pack and includes heel and toe protection pads to stick over blisters, gel toe sleeves to protect against black toes, or lessen any pain from black toes already forming (make sure your trail running shoes have a little extra room in the toe-box to accommodate these). Along with two 15ml tubes of anti-friction cream and recovery cryo gel.

Keep your shoes clean

This Nikwax bundle is a footwear care kit for leather and fabric materials, complete with a brush and a dry bag. This kit earns high marks for its sustainability credentials, and the included dry bag proves invaluable during extended running trips and adventures.

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