Hiking of all forms, from through-hiking to day hiking, has surged in popularity in the last five to ten years. With outdoor retailers successfully promoting nature as a great weekend escape and countless books and movies touting the healing powers of nature, it’s no mystery why thousands of people are taking to the wilderness whenever they can find the time.
But how do you protect your feet, you most valuable hiking tool, while you’re on the trail? Rising in parallel popularity are minimalist hiking shoes, which provide a lightweight footwear option designed for the backcountry trail.
Of all of the tools at our disposal for escaping to the outdoors, our feet are the most indispensable. Without them, it’d be impossible for us to traverse even a single mile on those beautiful hiking trails. That’s why when it comes to hiking footwear, you shouldn’t compromise on any of the features that may be necessary.
It doesn’t take an advanced degree to know that feet come in all shapes and sizes, and just because your friend has one pair of hiking shoes doesn’t mean you should buy the same pair.
It can take a lot of research and trial and error to get the right fit. But once you find that perfect shoe, your favourite hard-packed backcountry trail could feel like a billow of clouds underneath your feet.
What makes a hiking shoe minimalist?
There are many kinds of hiking footwear options out there on the market, from old-school high-top hikers to the ultramodern alpine boots that will keep your feet warm and comfortable in even the worst conditions. But for a lightweight hiker that can stand the test of time, look no further than a pair of minimalist hiking boots.
Minimalist hiking boots differ from your average hiking boot in a number of different ways. In general, they are lighter and have less material on all sides of the shoe.
The upper will have less material and will, in turn, protect your foot less from tumbling stones or frigid creek crossings. Similarly, the soles will have less rubber and less of a heel, which allows your foot to sit in a more natural position than it would in your average heavy-duty hiking boot.
In some rare occasions, minimalist hiking footwear have individual pockets for each of your toes, which some argue provides a more customized, streamline fit, allowing the foot to fall more naturally and allowing them to be more agile on the trail.
Why Minimalist Hiking Footwear Are Better For Your Hike
There are many benefits to removing all of these excess materials found on your standard hiking boot. We now have over a decade of clinical research looking into how minimalist shoes influence the way the foot falls compared to the old-fashioned clunky boots.
Many researches say that with minimalist trail shoes, the foot is allowed to move and fall in it’s more natural state, almost as though we were completely barefoot, which is how the human foot was designed to move.
Less material also makes minimalist hiking boots much lighter. After hiking backcountry trails all day, many hikers complain of sore hip flexors from lifting their feet with each and every step. Tired hip flexors comes as a direct consequence of the heavy boots on their feet, adding to the overall weight that you have weighing down your body.
If you have a more lightweight hiking shoe, you’ll be carrying around less weight and may find that your legs are less tired at the end of the day. Less weight on your feet will also make you more agile if you have to cross a stream or step over a rock or stump.
Speaking of stream crossings, many minimalist hikers are designed to dry extremely quickly. If your heavy, leather hiking books happened to get wet from a snow slope or a stream crossing, the boots could take days to dry. Wearing wet boots on a hike causes blisters and even more weight pulling down on your feet. With quick-drying hiking shoes, your feet will be dry within hours of crossing a stream or snow slope.
Finally, with less material and less weight, minimalist hiking footwear are much more packable than those old clunky high-top hiking boots. They can be folded and packed in such a way that you may not even notice them in the event that you need to carry a backup pair of shoes, or even a pair of shoes specifically for using in the water, depending on your trip.
Best Features of Minimalist Hiking Footwear
Although minimalist hiking seems like a small category of footwear, there are actually many factors to consider and many different types in this category. Minimalist hiking boots vary widely in sole thickness, the shape and size of the toe box, and the closure of the shoe itself.
Depending on how experienced or how durable your feet are in the hiking setting, you may find that some minimalist hiking boots do not provide enough impact protection on the soles of the shoes. After miles and miles of hiking over gravel, hard pack, or boulders, some minimalist shoes could leave your feet feeling sore and even bruised.
Some hikers see this as a necessary compromise for shedding the weight of the regular hiking boot. But others could find that thin-soled shoes are not something they can get used to. If you’re looking for more protection for the bottoms of your feet, minimalist hiking boots with a sole at least 4 mm of protection between your foot and the rocks is ideal.
Minimalist hiking footwear vary widely in the shape and size of the toe box. Many minimalist hiking shoes have adopted the style of having individual toe pockets, so that the shoe fits tight to the skin like a glove. In general this is a fairly polarizing design feature. Most hikers know right away weather this is a feature that they want.
Many researchers claim that this feature allows the foot to tread on the ground in a more natural way, as though you were completely barefoot. Although this barefoot feeling can be very desirable, especially compared to having your foot locked up in a heavy duty hiker, some can’t stomach the feeling of heaving their toes separated into individual compartments.
Another feature to consider is how the shoe secures to your foot. Most shoes have standard shoe laces, while others have the quick-cinch lacing system in which you simply pull a tab tight at the top of the tongue until your foot feels locked in. Many different lacing systems offer varying levels of customizable fit.
Some hikers find they need to customize their lacing system to feel that a shoe is truly snug, while others don’t mind the standard lacing systems. Knowing which lacing system you prefer can be a valuable starting point when purchasing your minimalist hiking pair.
Top product reviews
Whether you’re looking for a completely barefoot feel or a minimalist hiking shoe with a little more protection, there’s a minimalist hiking shoe for everyone. Let’s see our favorite picks!
Vibram Men’s Trek Ascent LR Light Hiking Shoe
Dimensions: 13 x 7 x 5 inches
Features: Rubber sole, Packer K100 leather and Hemp blend upper, deep toe flex grove with 4mm PU insole, ICETREK outsole, 0 mm drop
Best Use: Hiking, Canoe Trips, Trail Running
The Vibram Trek Ascent builds on many of the famous features of the Vibram Five Fingers minimalist shoes by adding a more durable leather upper for warmth and protection from a wider variety of terrain. Within the shoe is an Anit-Microbial Dri-Lex Sockliner which allows you to go barefoot without cultivating odor.
The 4 mm PU insole provides sufficient protection for the soles of your feet from sharp rocks in the trail. The zero drop feature of the Trek Ascent give these shoes a truly barefoot feel, allowing your foot to fall in its most natural position, regardless of the terrain.
The Trek Ascent are the perfect footwear option for the adventurer seeking a flexible, minimalist, breathable shoe with a little added protection for inclement weather or difficult terrain.
Columbia Men’s Conspiracy Vapor Trail Shoe
Dimensions: 13.1 x 7.8 x 5.4 inches
Features: Lightweight multi-sport shoe with breathable mesh upper, protective toe cap and heel, Techlite midsole with superior cushion and 3 mm drop, Omni-grip high traction non marking rubber outsole
Best Use: Hiking, Trail Running, Multi-sport
The Conspiracy Vapor is one of the lightest shoes that Columbia has on the market. From upper to sole, the shoe is built to deliver everything your feet could need on a hike in a lightweight package. The upper is composed of a lightweight and breathable mesh material with a rubber screen print grid for added protection against rocks and pebbles.
The sole sits low to the ground with a 3 mm drop and a cushioning Techlite midsole. The rubber outsole provides traction for the constantly changing terrain that you’ll encounter on your adventures. The multi-sport usability of the Conspiracy Vapour is outlined by the non-marking rubber used for the outsole, which can be used both on indoor courts as well as on your weekend hike.
The Conspiracy Vapor is truly the most versatile minimalist hiking boot on the market.
Merrell Women’s Proterra Vim Sport Hiking Shoe
Dimensions: 12 x 8 x 4 inches
Features: Merrell Stratafuse upper provides glove-like fit, Bellows tongue keeps debris out, M Select FRESH naturally prevents odour, M Select GRIP provides durable traction, 4mm drop
Best Use: Day Hiking
The Merrell Proterra Vim Sport are the ideal minimalist trail shoes if you’re looking for a lightweight, breathable hiker with a balance between cushioning and feel. With a 4 mm drop, the soles offer more protection for your feet than most other minimalist hiking footwear while still providing maximum ground feel.
The sticky rubber soles provide traction in all conditions and terrain, from packed gravel to steep single track. Finally, the Merrell Stratafuse fabric upper provides a glove-like fit and offers maximum breathability and quick drying in the event of increased activity levels rise. The Proterra Vim Sport is the best minimalist hiking shoe for women setting off on a day hike of any duration in any terrain.
Feelmax Kuuva 2 Minimalist Hiking Boots
Dimensions: 18 x 14 x 5 inches
Features: 2.5 mm soles provide barefoot feel, great durability, high tops provide ankle support
Best Use: Minimalist Hiking
The Feelmax Kuuva 2 minimalist hiking boots are perfect those looking for that barefoot feel with a little added ankle support and protection from the elements. The Kuuva 2’s are so lightweight that you might even forget you’re wearing boots.
The 2.5 mm soles are made from a highly flexible material specifically designed to protect your foot from sharp objects in the trail without impeding the natural movements and strength of your feet. The thin soles also improve the ground feeling of your feet.
Although you may completely forget that you’re wearing hiking boots, these high-tops provide exceptional ankle support to prevent any risk of injury in steep or uneven terrain. The Kuuva 2 are the authentic barefoot hiking boots best suited for the minimalist hiker looking for ankle support and a truly barefoot feel.
evolv Men’s Cruzer Approach Shoe
Dimensions: 14 x 7 x 5 inches
Features: Canvas, high-friction TRAX rubber sole, barefoot-friendly moisture wicking footbed, folding heel for slipper style, heel-tabs for carabiner clipping
Best Use: Hiking, Climbing Approach
The evolv Cruzer Shoes sit in a happy grey zone between hiking shoes, climbing approach shoes, and rock climbing shoes. The extremely high-friction TRAX rubber provides slip-free traction even in the most slippery conditions. The Cruzers are great for scrambling up low-angle slab pitches, hiking on the approach to the base of the climb, or even just for a casual day hike.
The canvas upper is an extremely lightweight durable material designed to help these minimalist hiking footwear withstand the test of time. The moisture wicking microfibre lined memory foam insole allows you to wear these minimalist hikers without socks on the warmest of days, and the fold-down flap in the back provides a slipper-like functionality.
Finally, the pull tabs on the heel are great for clipping the shoes with a carabiner to your harness or your backpack. The Cruzers are perfect for anyone looking for a minimalist hiker with extremely high-traction rubber that allows them to be used in scrambling situations or even the odd rock climbing pitch.
Vibram Women’s Trek Ascent Insulated Hiking Shoe
Dimensions: 12 x 7 x 5 inches
Features: ICETREK outsole, customized fit, Full length Vibram Megagrip rubber compound for grip and control on all outdoor surfaces, deep toe-flex grove, 4mm PU insole, wool lining, water resistant
Best Use: Hiking, Trail Running
The Trek Ascent Insulated are the best minimalist hiking boot if you’re a barefoot hiker who doesn’t quit when the weather gets frigid. The insulated, water-resistant upper provides warmth and protection for the elements in even the coldest of winter temperatures.
The ICETREK outsole engineering provides excellent traction and balance on snow, ice and slippery surfaces without compromising the feeling of being completely barefoot. The standard lacing system provides a snug, customized fit, while the full length Vibram Magegrip rubber compound provides some of the best traction in the industry for uncompromising traction on outdoor surfaces.
These are the best minimalist hiking shoes for those barefoot hikers who won’t let a little snow and cold weather interrupt their outdoor explorations.
Vivobarefoot Off Road Hiking Boots
Dimensions: 12 x 8 x 4 inches
Features: Leather upper, Dir-Lex water-proof membrane, Hydroguard waterproof sock, multi-direction v-teeth thread, speed-hook lacing
Best Use: Hiking
The Vivobarefoot Off Road Hiking Boot is the best hiking boot for the outdoor adventurer looking for a customized fit with improved ankle support and fully waterproof materials without compromising on the barefoot feel of the minimalist hiking boot.
The multi-directional v-teeth thread provides unparalleled traction on a variety of surfaces, and the Dri-Lex waterproof membrane combined with the Hydroguard waterproof sock block rain, snow and puddle water from ruining your hike. The durable sole is extremely minimalist and provides superb ground feel for that minimalist hiking sensation, but still provides excellent protection from rocks and other sharp objects in the trail.
Finally, the hightop feature provides excellent ankle support for times when the terrain gets steep or uneven. The Off Roads are ideal for those looking for unparalleled foot protection in a minimalist hiking boot.
Whether you’re looking for increased ground feel, a more natural footfall, or just a lighter shoe to leave your legs with more energy at the end of the day, minimalist hiking boots are a great option for hiking of all varieties. We’ve now seen a number of different hiking boots with varying features, from increased ankle support to a super barefoot feel.
Some minimalist hiking footwear are great for trail running, while others are ideal for those who only plan on hiking. What features are you looking for in your minimalist hiking footwear, and how do you plan on putting them to good use? What kinds of adventures will you get into with your next pair of minimalist hiking boots?