Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
5 May

Barefoot Alternatives

I got the following email from a reader:

Mark,

The Vibram 5 Fingers look great for exercise but not very practical for daily use and I’m wondering if there are any decent shoes available.

The Vivo shoes are the most interesting I’ve been able to spot so far (but haven’t tried them yet).

Many thanks,

Scott

Thanks, Scott. This is actually a pretty common question I get from readers, and it’s typical of the essential problem we Primal Blueprinters face almost every day: that constant battle between doing what is right for our bodies and what is deemed socially acceptable.

Do we politely decline the dessert plate?

How do we turn down the freshly baked, homemade bread without offending our host?

Do we tone down the grunts and heavy breathing during our intense deadlift/squat/weighted-pullup circuit at the gym so as not to frighten the guy on the thigh abductor?

The waiter brought us our steak with no silverware; do we chow down with our hands?

And, finally – must we submit our precious feet to the rigid tyranny of the modern shoe simply to avoid looking weird in our Vibrams or, worse, barefeet?

Absolutely not!

Even I’ll admit that wearing the Vibrams will get you some strange looks, especially if you’re at the grocery store or on a job interview (note: don’t wear them to a job interview, unless you’re interviewing at MDA or Vibram itself). They are essentially foot gloves, and their use can be explained away when you’re at the gym or running a trail, but they aren’t all that (aesthetically) practical in everyday life. Like it or not, we are members of society and, unfortunately, the vast majority of its other members cannot seem to handle the sight of bare feet (or the detailed contours of the foot and toes) in a non-sandy, non-athletic commercial setting. Unless you simply don’t care about social mores and norms (which, I’ll admit, I usually don’t), you’ll want to find a suitable shoe that won’t compromise the health of your feet (even if it compromises your personal ethics… kidding!).

So what are our choices?

Well, when I’m not barefoot or Vibrams-clad, I’m usually wearing a pair of TOD’s tan leather Moccasins. They’re extremely thin, flexible, and comfortable, and they’re about as close to barefoot as you’re going to get while still looking “normal.” TOD’s certainly aren’t as funky as Vibrams, and they’re no good for athletics, but they make a great compromise for the fashion-conscious Groks out there. The sole isn’t hard or rigid, and your feet feel unconstrained. But be warned. They are pricey. Other moccasins may do the job just as well.

Another option is simple sandals. Flip-flops, thongs, whatever you want to call them – as long as they’re thin and pliable, they’ll promote better foot health than the most expensive casual shoes. Rickshaw drivers around the world aren’t outfitted in the latest Nike trainers; they’re either barefoot or in cheap thin sandals. Their feet are their livelihood, so you think if they were causing some problems they’d wear “real” shoes. The other good thing about sandals is that they’re actually socially acceptable – little do they know that we’re secretly wearing them to emulate going barefoot!

According to a close friend of mine, Tom’s Shoes is another good option. I don’t have a pair myself, but he swears by them (he’s also a huge Vibram FiveFingers fan, if you were wondering, so he’s into the barefoot thing). He is quick to mention, however, that if you’re looking for a barefoot approximate you’ll want to get the soft suede versions. Most of the shoes have fairly stiff soles, but the suede ones are fairly pliable, especially once you’ve broken them in. He goes hiking a lot, and once he couldn’t find the Vibrams (which he usually uses), so he went in the Tom’s and was pretty happy with it. Again, these aren’t athletic shoes, but the soft suede shoes are decent replacements for going full on barefoot. Plus, for each pair of Tom’s someone buys, the owner will throw in an extra one to a shoe-less kid in a third-world country (although I’d suggest that maybe they’re doing okay already without shoes!).

Those Vivos you linked to look pretty good, although I’d have to try them on before taking the plunge.

To sum up – Barefoot or Vibrams FiveFingers (with a healthy dose of antipathy toward social protocol) are the best, but there are other options. Try Tod’s Moccasins, soft suede Tom’s, sandals, or Vivos, in no particular order.

Anyone else know some better casual barefoot shoe options that won’t get you thrown out of a 7-11?

M.V. Jantzen Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Toe Socks Met Combat Boots and Had a Baby

Why You Should Nix Shoes

Beach Sprints in FiveFingers

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Hi Mark,

    I’m 50, overweight and I have begin to embrace the Primal way! Made my first Meatza the other day! I have a question about barefoot walking. I love being barefoot, always have. However, I have flat feet, arthritic knees, hips and a herniated disk that flares from time to time. Wow! What a challenge! I wear orthotics in my sneakers, and I’ve been told that barefoot for me, means overpronation and wear and tear on my joints. Can you give me some advice? I do love being barefoot.

    Yvette wrote on June 8th, 2011
  2. I recently bought a pair of Feivue wushu shoes, and they’ve been great. They’re light, minimalist, and only cost about $15.

    Caleb wrote on June 9th, 2011
  3. What about problems with parasites and worms..
    Any opinions on how easy it is to get them in the soles of your feet.
    Tom’s shoes article talked about this Worldwide problem so they are actually trying to get shoes on all kids in the World especially in developing World

    Andy wrote on June 21st, 2011
    • It can be fairly easy to get parasites through your feet in the right part of the world. I lived in the Dominican Republic (shares an island with Haiti) as a child, and I got hookworm once. Hookworm will go right through the soles of your feet, and you won’t even notice it.

      Hookworm and Schistosomiasis are pretty common in subtropical regions. Outside of the tropics you’re pretty safe.

      Don’t go barefoot, and don’t drink water that’s not a) filtered, or b) boiled for 20 minutes, and you should be fine.

      Tim K wrote on June 21st, 2011
  4. I’m surprised that I haven’t seen anybody recommend Invisible Shoes or Huaraches. Probably the closest thing to bare feet while still meeting code… http://www.invisibleshoe.com/go/huarache

    Ty wrote on June 28th, 2011
  5. Good blog.It is very useful and woderful.Thanks for sharing.Thanks for your time post.

    timberland roll top wrote on July 14th, 2011
  6. I live in the Arizona desert, where if you manage to not step on anything with thorns or sharp edges (good luck with that!), the rocks are super heated by the Sun and burn your feet. I could care less about socially acceptable behavior. However I do care about injuring myself. I’m happy there are barefoot alternatives.

    Jen wrote on July 16th, 2011
  7. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this,like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pictures to drive the message home a little bit,but other than that,this is great blog.A great read.I will certainly be back.

    men timberland boots wrote on July 17th, 2011
  8. I love my Vibram’s I wear them as soon as I get home, they are great for boot camp and short runs. And yes I get alot of people looking at my feet and then the questions follow

    Alice Longfield wrote on August 9th, 2011
  9. Mark, I have found these to be far superior to Five Fingers as a barefoot alternative (or, shoe condom, as Mick refers to them)

    http://www.merrell.com/US/en/Barefoot_Collection

    BTW, I have to hide these when I’m around Mick, because he will take them and throw them into the forest, LOL!

    Dr. Kwame M. Brown wrote on September 6th, 2011
  10. Dr. Kwame M. Brown, I’m wearing the Merrell Trail gloves at the moment. Whilst I am a fan, I have noticed they lack ground feel, do seem to have an unnatural toe spring and the arch is certainly present. They do seem to improve with use (100 mile point)as the very rigid (perhaps too rigid) sole softens.

    Dave wrote on September 6th, 2011
  11. For the women out there, I’d recommend ballet flats.

    I have a black pair and a white pair. Most people don’t notice that they’re not real shoes. The leather bottom is flexible and moves. (note, I said the flats, not pointe shoes).

    Melissa wrote on November 16th, 2011
  12. Merrell makes a nice barefoot shoe. Kigo is an eco-brand that I like too. I get the most comments from the Merrells – neither is a 5-finger style, both have regular toe boxes. I bought my Merrells online – search “barefoot shoe” on any shoe site, and voila. I bought mine from Shoebuy.com. I bought my Kigo from a deal on Pure Citizen.com.

    Suzanne wrote on November 17th, 2011
  13. Wore a pair of Vibram KSOs to a job interview. Got the job.

    Life as a CS has its perks.

    Kevin wrote on December 7th, 2011
  14. If anyone is looking for a less expensive alternative to most of the minimalist shoes out there, I recently found that Dr. Scholl’s is making some now. I got a pair for about $50 and they seem to meet all the qualifications for good minimalist footwear. I haven’t seen any reviews about them anywhere yet, and have barely had a chance to wear them myself yet (been stuck at home with a cold) but they feel pretty amazing. I’ve never tried any other minimal shoes to compare them with (I’ve been dying for VFFs but haven’t had the money). However, I can say that compared to wearing regular shoes (my usual have been New Balance whatevers- REGULAR SHOES, AKA strapon boards) they feel sooo much better. I won’t be wearing those NB shoes anymore. I’ve been utterly barefoot in my home for over a year, quite comfortably. I try to exercise the full range of motion of my feet. I’ve been out in the Scholl’s once so far. Found out that walking ‘out there’ where I have unlimited space feels very different. Trying for the light step/midfoot strike. Not sure if I’m accomplishing that or not. My toes seemed slightly tired after this adventure. But overall an interesting experience. A few foot cramps that night, but MUCH less than when I walk around in the NB boards. I seem to have a kind of ‘rolling gait’ when I walk in these. Short circuitous steps. Don’t know if that’s good form or not. Everything about form seems directed at runners, which I’ll never be. Anyway. just wanted to let everyone here know about them. I know some of us are trying to live Primally on a tight budget and thought this might help. Any comments about my gait or re-learning to walk (ha!) are appreciated.

    Nan wrote on January 13th, 2012
    • I tried these shoes on at an Outlet mall and they were selling them for only $36. I usually wear a 7 or 7 1/2 and I found that the 8 felt the best. They did not have the color combo I wanted in an 8 so I did not get to buy them. Amazon sells them too for a decent price so I may just buy some off of there.
      I usually wear sanuk sidewalk surfers or a pair of worn out airwalk tennis shoes from Payless Shoes.
      I do own a pair of the NB minimalist running shoes but those cost me $100 and you have to take some time lacing them up so I wear them more for working out or going for long walks.
      I wanted something that I can easily slip on and off in my working from home also mom of 3 with a pet dog “on the go” lifestyle. Sanuks look a little too much like slippers for some outfits so I thought these were a good upgrade. Sanuks cost close to $50 so the price range is similar.
      Please let me know how it goes as you wear them more often! I would love to hear how they are working out for others.
      FYI before I became primal/paleo I had severe arch pain that my doctor had me wearing custom arch support insoles for. Since I work from home I decided to bite the bullet a few summers ago and just go barefoot even though it hurt like hell. I actually posted about it on this post and got support in the comments from others to do this. It was really bad for the first 3 weeks but it started to get better after that.
      After one summer of bare feet in the house and only cheap plastic jelly slip-ons outside I was cured! No arch pain anymore at all! Well, unless I wear some of my old crappy stiff as a board shoes which I only do on rare getting dressed up occasions.
      Thanks for sharing!

      Jenn wrote on January 13th, 2012
  15. If you’re looking for a pair of decent looking shoes that feel barefoot, please consider Stem Footwear. I’ve been wearing Stems in an Oregon winter for five months, and I’m extremely impressed. They’re even more flexible than my Vivo’s and they have worn much better. New company and limited styles, but I can’t say enough about this shoe. Felt like I’d had them for years, right out of the box. They run a size or two small so size up (I’m a ladies size 7.5 to 8, and I purchased the 9 to 9.5 and they fit perfectly). Great company with a strong eco focus and good quality. There are a ton of reviews kicking around the web right now on various barefoot blogs, and Stem has a useful and informative website. Stemfootwear dot com. Can’t say enough good things.

    Sally Coulter wrote on January 31st, 2012
  16. I recently got a pair of the Cushe Surf Slipper Deluxe.
    They are great. Look pretty standard, I think zero-drop, nice wide toe box and very flexible.
    I get lots of compliments on their style, but they feel like the Merrel trail glove or similar.
    http://www.cushe.com/US/en is their US site.

    Jay wrote on February 21st, 2012
  17. I bought two pairs last February from Soft Star, a minimalist footwear company in Oregan. I’ve seldom worn anything else since and will purchase their Runamoc pairs soon. The shoes look like sandals, and feel like them, too. I often bend the shoe into a small roll of leather to people who are curious about them, and get a good laugh when their eyes bulge. Not only can I feel the different types of ground I step into, but also the sudden and happy babyish instinct to sprint as fast as possible. I often trotter or if I feel like it, tiptoe. No one around me yet has ever opted to buy a pair, alas, but all have shown considerable interest in its lightness and flexibility. Granted, one looks like a toddler in them and perhaps not trendy and elegant to go to a cocktail with. But if that makes one feel free like air, or almost, it’s quite worthwhile, isn’t it?
    Best and thank you for your article.

    LIN wrote on March 29th, 2012
  18. I found a pair of casual dress shoes from Johnston and Murphy’s that work well. They are very high quality leather and have a low heel lift.
    Pictures and a write-up at:
    http://barefootdain.blogspot.com

    (I tried the Vivobarefoot Ra and did not like it…cheap leather and felt like a clown shoe)

    Dain Deutschman wrote on April 5th, 2012
  19. Has anyone tried the vibram imitations that adidas and Fila have put out the last year or so?

    Judson wrote on April 14th, 2012
  20. You’d want to give the InvisibleShoes Huaraches a try as well. I have been wearing them for a year and a half, circling all of South East Asia with it, and I never looked back for another shoe.

    It’s the closest you can get to barefoot. I’ve written a review about them:

    http://freshbeetle.com/invisible-shoes-huaraches/

    Regev wrote on May 16th, 2012
  21. Check out the Patagonia Tawa and Loulu! Good looking, thin soled, and VERY comfortable! I wear them every day…

    Dan Wheeler wrote on May 21st, 2012
  22. It seems to me that any sole besides leather defeats the biggest reason for going barefoot — the earthing/grounding effect of sole in touch with earth.
    Grok didn’t have the disconnect of rubber or plastic in between his sole and earth.
    A quick google found several choices, including this solely leather soled moccasin, http://www.wassookeagmoccasins.com/earthing-footwear/

    mtnwoman wrote on May 29th, 2012
  23. I have a Latex allergy so I can’t wear Fivefingers…any suggestions?

    Andrea wrote on June 4th, 2012
  24. It’s a shame that human beings aren’t more rational.

    Shouldn’t what’s scientific and rational determine what is “socially acceptable,” rather than the other way around?

    For example, many churchgoers would probably consider it socially unacceptable to wear a robe and sandals to their Sunday sermon. But think about it. What did Jesus Christ wear?

    Funny what slavishly conformist fashion victims we supposedly “advanced” people can be. Are we really smarter than Grok? I’m not so sure.

    Bevin wrote on June 11th, 2012
  25. An old post, but I’d like to suggest soft ballet slippers. They are a thin leather sock with a slightly thicker patch on the bottom.

    Mine are a size too small and refuse to stretch, but are sill comfy as long as I use a toe-strike gait.

    Kelekona wrote on June 12th, 2012
  26. I’ve been wearing barefootshoes by Vivobarefoot (terra plana) coming from Dr.Martens/Army Boots and later Converse Allstars and they really feel great, but I just don’t like the way they look and wanted a more sneakerstyle shoe like Vans etc. so I’ve been trying some skateshoes and been comparing them to the Vivo’s, I’ve tried Vans, but they were much to narrow, tried Etnies Jameson 2’s and I must say, I like these, although the sole is a bit too cushy and you can’t remove them and there is some ball to heal drop, but the width is not too bad and they’re very flexable.
    The latest I tried are Dekline Archers and they are great, okay width, removable sole, very flexable and no ball to heal drop (without the sole).
    I would love to hear some suggestions for these kind of sneakers, ones with a nice width, removable sole and great flexability, because I think they make great barefoot alternatives.

    Remco wrote on June 23rd, 2012
    • UPDATE:
      Okay, I found out that with a little force you can remove the innersole of the Etnies, they’re not glued that much, but it’s not a cupped sole like in the Deklines, it’s only a thin piece of foam (3mm EVA Midsole) and doesn’t differ that much from the midsole in the Vivos.
      The drop I mentioned is in the rubber sole itself, but it’s not that much.
      Oh and in the above post I called these barefoot alternatives, but they’re more barefootshoe alternatives.

      Remco wrote on June 25th, 2012
      • CORRECTION:
        The thin piece of foam in the Etnies isn’t the EVA Midsole, it’s called an Ortholite insole, you can’t remove the EVA midsole.

        Remco wrote on June 26th, 2012
  27. There’s some mentioning of traditional footwear like Moccasins and Huaraches, but what about other traditional footwear like the Espadrilles, they don’t look to bad, it’s a sole made out of rope with some canvas or cotton attached to it or there’s the Abarka, it looks a bit like the Huaraches, but covers the foot a bit more and I also saw shoes woven from bast.

    Remco wrote on June 24th, 2012
  28. I became a barefooter after reading this, and doing much research on the topic through various websites. Been barefoot for nearly three years now. Or as barefoot as I can be, anyway. I wear barefoot alternatives.

    I have tried various inexpensive shoes I’ve come across that met my need. I have a pair of Skeletoes, which was how I found out that I don’t like my toes to suck up water (like a STRAW!)and get my feet wet without spending $100+ on Vibram Five Fingers.

    I have a pair of Dr. Scholl’s Freestep Larkins. That has been a fairly good experience, but they are more of a stepping stone to shoes that are “more” barefoot.

    I have a pair of Merrells, though I can’t recall at the moment exactly which ones. They are nice, feminine, with a small swirly stitched detail on the side. They’re somewhat like a Mary Jane in appearance, and I got them specifically to wear as dressy shoes should the need arise. I paid a small fortune for them ($100) and I have to say that while they meet all the basic barefoot requirements, they aren’t necessarily that comfortable. I have feet that swell, and these cut across the top of my foot without any flexibility at all. Sadly, I’m somewhat disappointed in them.

    I recently got a pair of New Balance 730s to wear to the gym. They seem pretty comfy, although they do contain more arch than I would prefer.

    Honestly, the best, cheapest, most effective barefoot shoe (which I just got a second pair of) are my OP beach/pool shoes that I got at Walmart. I think they were $9. Flat, super flexible sole toe-to-heel, roomy insides , comfortable stretchy fit, and just the right amount of ground sensation for me. Not much to look at, but they work. I have an issue with foot swelling that I’ve had since before I went barefoot, and these are the ONLY shoes that I can get into when that happens no matter how big they swell. I can wear a thin sock or a thick sock, or no sock at all. They’re pretty perfect in my opinion. I only got the NBs above, because I’m unsure my new gym will let me wear these OPs.

    Good luck to everyone on the hunt for barefoot alternatives!

    Queenbee wrote on June 25th, 2012
  29. I wear some Minnetonka brand moccasins, the kind with simple leather soles for walking, going on errands, anything outside where I’m not actually exercising or at work (I haven’t made the switch at work yet…) I also wear a pair of Teva Zilch sandals for running or anything else athletic or if I just want sandals on. works great free feet :)

    Lizzie wrote on July 12th, 2012
  30. I’ve been wearing a combination of Teva Zilch sandals and Teva Nilch shoes for my forays into town. Lightweight and comfy and only about a 1/2 cm of sole

    liziethewildgirl wrote on July 23rd, 2012
  31. I’ve had no choice but to barefoot most of my life … I have extremely wide feet. (Woman’s 7 EEE) I rarely find shoes that fit. Most of the year I wear Tevas (kid size), I have a pair of New Balance sneakers and a pair of dress shoes I hate, plus my New England-required snow boots. Other than that, I’m barefoot.

    I’d love to find something better than the sneakers or dress shoes, if anything comes in wide, wide widths. Even “wide” shoes aren’t wide enough.

    Back when I wore Birkenstocks, a shoe salesman told me I’d ruin my feet if I kept wearing them. I guess I “ruined” them the right way!

    Liz wrote on July 28th, 2012
  32. What happened to Luna sandals? you mention them in other articles, but not here.

    john wrote on August 24th, 2012
  33. Does anyone have any information/suggestions for someone who is a nurse working 12 hour shifts? I would like to try something barefoot/minimalist…but I’m not even sure that’s an option for someone who stands for such extended periods of time. Help!!

    Looking at FiveFingers…and the guy at Luke’s Locker tried to talk me into Inov-8 195’s.

    Mandy wrote on August 28th, 2012
    • Have you tried Dansko clogs? They’re not cheap, about $140, but worth the investment. Many healthcare professionals swear by them. They should fit fairly loosely ~ when you push your foot forward you should be able to fit a finger between your heel and the back of the shoe. Be sure to get the size that places the arch support in the correct spot for you. I wear them 9 months out of the year and love them.

      Jill wrote on February 5th, 2013

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