First off, this is more a brain dump than a proper review, but in a sense, a brain dump on barefoot makes more sense than a proper review anyway.
Three On The Go...
We've had three pairs of minimal(ish) shoes on the go for a while now. Some Vibram FiveFingers with their weird hobbit-like toe compartments, a pair of Merrell Trail Gloves and some not quite barefoot, but not very structured, KEEN A68s.
The thinking behind barefoot is that the lack of any sole or mid-sole structure means your foot works more naturally, you tend to change your running and walking action to suit landing more on the forefoot and reducing impact in the process and, as a result, you're less likely to get injured. The theory goes that we can only rearfoot strike because our shoes are overly cushioned, but it's not a natural thing, impact forces are high and we're more likely to break...
Lose The Bulk...
So, that's the theory. What did we find in reality. First, all the shoes are pleasantly light and there's something quite nice about the feel of losing the bulk underfoot. Some of that's probably a mental thing, some is simply that they're lighter, some that because your foot is closer to the ground, you feel more, well, connected.
On softer surfaces - grassy fields and the like - we really liked them for short strolls and runs. You do have to change the way you run - there'e even a Merrell iPhone app to help you - with shorter strides and forefoot landing, but we've been using lighter and lighter trail shoes anyway and it didn't seem too much of a step away from those.
On Your Toes!
The forefoot thing does seem to feel more agile and quick, possibly because you're up on your toes more, but equally, initially at least, you can feel the connective tissues in your feet working harder and you seem to tire quicker than you'd expect. This, apparently, helps reduce injury by limiting your initial mileage build-up. But we can certainly see how a couple of short runs every week on soft surfaces would be a refreshing addition to a training programme and maybe strengthen your feet and spruce up your running style.
We were less convinced on harder surfaces. You really do need to stay up on your toes and it's possible for short distances, but on slightly longer walks and runs, we really did start to feel the hardness of the surface underfoot.
Where it got really interesting was on rocky, off road terrain. On climbs and to an extent on flatter ground, we could stay light footed and agile. In fact it felt really nice. And the thin sole units of the FiveFingers and the Trail Glove were excellent on rock thanks to the flexibility of the sole unit and the amount of rubber in contact with the rock thanks to lightly treaded soles.
All of which was great, though over longer days - again we think you'd have to really commit to using barefoot shoes or get really tired feet - but heading downhill was another matter altogether. On a rocky descent it's harder to forefoot strike, just because it's more natural to lead with the heel, possibly through habit, but on a steep downhill your heel does tend to contact the ground first.
But what made it really hard was the lack of any sort of protective plate in the sole unit, which means that if you stand on a pointy, sharp bit of rock, it jabs straight through into the underside of your foot. Don't ask how we know, but a couple of months later and our left foot is still sore from that rock strike.
If you're really light on your feet, that might be less of an issue, but it's definitely something to be aware of. Which in a way, is where the A68s come in. Unlike the other two shoes which have really mininal sole units with just 4mm or so of EVA to take the edge off impacts, the KEEN shoes, while still lacking any mid-sole structure do have a little more cushioning - interestingly, Merrell has a 'gateway' barefoot shoe due out next spring built along similar lines.
Like the barefoot shoes, the A68s have a comfortable, glove-like fit, but they give a little more underfoot cushioning and protection. You can't heel-strike in the way you can with a road-type, structured shoe, but there is a little more protection and a little less minimalism.
What does it all mean? Well, for starters, I don't see barefoot as an absolute. I suspect it'll work for some - the lightfooted, agile and committed walker and runner on amenable terrain - but not for everyone. Not for me, for example, on rocky, mountainous stuff.
I think possibly what's more likely is that just as GoLite's initial extreme lightweight kit seems to have sparked an overall move towards lighter stuff right across the outdoors, the same could happen with barefoot. In fact, it sort of is already, the KEEN shoe is an example of it, and I think we may end up with a crop of more lighter, simpler, outdoors shoes that aren't completely minimalist, but use some of the features of shoes like the Trail Glove and the FiveFingers range.
As far as injury prevention goes, ironically, wearing barefoot shoes and moving badly actually caused an injury I wouldn't otherwise have had, but that was, to be fair, in the large part due to user error. Do bear in mind though, that you will have to change your running and/or walking action to accommodate them. Some of that will happen naturally as you simply can't heel strike in a barefoot shoe, but you may also have to consciously re-train your body using drills to help you land more naturally on your forefoot.
All that aside, they do make very neat campsite shoes, not least because they're light to carry and, on the right, smeary sort of rock, they'd also scramble very well - a barefoot shoe with Stealth rubber or similar would be interesting, or maybe it would just be a rock boot, but even with the standard rubber compound, they still grip very impressively.
So it may sound like a cop out, but I don't think there's a definitive answer. Like anything else, barefoot shoes have pros and cons and may or may not work for you depending on your personal preferences, the terrain you usually move over and your commitment.