Barefoot Shoes vs Minimalist Shoes: What’s the Difference?

The barefoot shoe vs minimalist shoe confusion continues as more and more companies come out with “barefoot” shoes that are indeed minimalist, but do not qualify as being zero-drop barefoot shoes.

But is there really a difference between barefoot shoes and minimalist shoes?

According to the barefoot community, there is a clear difference between barefoot shoes and minimalist shoes.

The clear difference between barefoot shoes and minimalist shoes

Barefoot shoes have minimal padding and completely flat soles with no heel-to-toe drop, which most closely replicates having bare feet. Minimalist shoes, on the other hand, still have some cushion and a slight heel-to-toe drop, but not as much as traditional shoes. Minimalist shoes are often referred to as “transition shoes”, as they have some features from both traditional shoes and barefoot shoes.

To find out why the distinction between barefoot and minimalist is important when purchasing barefoot shoes, keep reading!

The distinction between barefoot and minimalist shoes is important: here’s why

Much of the confusion around barefoot shoes and minimalist shoes comes from the fact that there is no industry-wide definition of what constitutes barefoot and minimalist. However, it is generally accepted that they are not entirely the same thing.

After barefoot shoes hit the market and made their mark in the footwear industry as a viable and healthy alternative to traditional shoes, many of the name-brand shoe companies produced their own line of “minimalist” shoes.

However, this influx of new shoes being labeled as “minimalist” has caused a huge point of confusion for the general public and for every customer who ever considered buying minimalist shoes. At some point, every barefoot shoe owner wondered, “Wait, is there a difference between barefoot and minimalist?”

The end result is a lot of misinformation and mislabeling of products that are not truly barefoot but claim to be “minimalist.” In addition, customers who believe they are purchasing zero-drop barefoot shoes are actually buying minimalist shoes that still have a significant cushion and even a heel-to-toe drop.

For this reason, it is important to establish a clear distinction between barefoot and minimalist shoes.

Aren’t all shoes not truly barefoot?

On top of the barefoot shoe vs minimalist shoe debate is a growing number of people who will argue that they’re both not truly barefoot. But rather, both versions of “barefoot” shoes attempt to transition us from wearing traditional shoes most of our lives to being completely barefoot.

Yes, it’s true that being completely bare is the most natural state of our feet, but barefoot shoes offer a transitional solution that most people can get onboard with.

Since it’s not entirely realistic to expect everyone to let their feet hang out all the time, I tend to take the approach that barefoot shoes are better than the traditional alternative that we’re all used to. In fact, minimalist shoes are even better than traditional options.

Barefoot shoes vs zero-drop shoes?

Now we’ve opened a can of worms!

Barefoot shoes are zero-drop by definition, but not all zero-drop shoes are considered barefoot shoes. “Zero-drop” simply means that there is no height difference between your heel and the ball of your foot. Meaning, your foot is placed flat in the shoe across the entire shoe.

However, the big difference between zero-drop shoes and barefoot shoes is that zero-drop shoes can have a significant amount of padding between your foot and the shoes. Having this padding almost defeats the purpose of being a minimalist shoe.

Some shoes that are created by large shoe manufacturers claim to be “minimalist”, where in fact the only thing natural about them is the heel-to-toe height.

The concept of zero-drop shoes is appealing because it more closely replicates the way we naturally walk with our bare feet: with heels and toes flat on the ground.

Barefoot shoes vs transition shoes?

Barefoot shoes are different from transition shoes in a few key ways. The terms “transition shoes” are used synonymously with “minimalist shoes.” Transition shoes refer to any shoes that still have some cushion and a slight heel-to-toe drop. As the name implies, they serve as transitional footwear to wearing barefoot shoes or becoming completely barefoot.

Why do people use transition shoes?
Some people wonder why should even bother with transition shoes instead of just jump right into wearing some barefoot shoes.

The reason transition shoes can be helpful for some is because many people have spent decades wearing traditional running shoes, high heels, or other footwear that cause an unnatural way of walking and interacting with the ground.

For most people, if you were to suddenly jump right into barefoot shoes full-time, you may experience some discomfort or even pain in your feet after walking long distances.

This is why it’s important to transition slowly into wearing barefoot shoes through the use of transitional minimalist shoes.


I didn’t realize just how hotly debated the minimalist vs barefoot issue is until I started researching for this article!

But for the purposes of most people who are trying to transition slowly into wearing barefoot shoes exclusively or becoming completely barefoot, then the distinction between barefoot and minimalist shoes is necessary.

Simply put, barefoot shoes are the closest-to-bare footwear available with very little padding between your feet and the ground, and minimalist shoes are transitional footwear with a bit of cushion and a slight heel-to-toe drop.

Need help choosing barefoot shoes?

If you need further choosing the best barefoot shoes for your budget, lifestyle, and comfort, my recommended shoes of choice are the popular and stylish Merrell Vapor Glove 3, which offers comfort, style, and a minimalist experience for an affordable price.

Stay Barefoot!