Xero Shoes reached out to me years ago to see if I might be interested in reviewing some barefoot running sandals. This was around the time Born to Run was trending and popular shoe makers like New Balance were experimenting with minimalist shoes. Xero Shoes founder Steven Sashen had recently been on Shark Tank. Since then, maximalist shoes like Hokas and Fresh Foam have flooded the running shoe market, and minimalism has faded with some manufacturers, but not Xero Shoes!

Xero Shoes has continued to grow and innovate barefoot shoes which allow feet and legs to do the work. After years of using Vibram Five Fingers to train barefoot style on trails, I was excited to see Xero released a barefoot running trail shoe which seems to grasp what runners like myself are curious to try. They were kind enough to send me a pair to test.

Enter the Xero Shoes Mesa Trail Shoe…

The Mesa Trail (men’s and women’s) looks somewhat similar to the Lems Primal 2 or a pair of Merrell Vapor Gloves, but with lugs and lateral support. There’s a bit of the goofy pill shape some of these low-cut and wider shoes have, but the style is much better than a shoe with five toes or an overbuilt, energy-swallowing marshmallow shoe — and the lugs have some muscle!

The Mesa Trail is the leaner, speedier version of the Xero Shoes TerraFlex which is burlier and has even been used for serious through hikes and treks.

Mesa Trail overview from Xero Shoes

Mesa Trail Barefoot Shoe Construction

My Vibram V-Alphas leave me wanting when the trail surface is nothing but half dollar sized, arch stabbing limestone debris or a steep descent. Plus, running everyday in VFFs isn’t my preference — I use them as a training tool. The construction of the Xero Shoes Mesa Trail running shoes provide many VFF-like benefits while adding features a technical trail runner needs.

Aggressive but Not Overbuilt Lugs

Xero Shoes Mesa Trail Outsole Traction
The Mesa Trail has aggressive lugs which still work well on smooth surfaces without creating drag.

The lugs are a good balance between aggressive and low-profile. They remind me a bit of Anton Krupicka’s MT110v2 lugs which were of a similar height but worked well across a wide variety of surfaces. The Mesa Trail lugs allow me to run on technical and non-technical terrain without thinking about traction.

Aggressive tread like Saucony Peregrines have is great on steep and slippery terrain, but can feel inefficient on smoother surfaces. The Mesa Trail run fast on everything and benefit from a stack height which is low and flat to the ground. I haven’t experienced any grip failures but suppose these would slip on the extreme end of the spectrum (mud/high incline marbled) — as would most shoes.

Lacing and Uppers

Xero Shoes Mesa Trail Side
An exoskeleton-like frame

A welded plastic exoskeleton is a much-welcomed feature on a trail shoe. My feet feel locked down and I’m not noticing side-to-side shifting in the forefoot. I’ve blown the outside forefoot out on many narrow shoes but also been frustrated by shoes which were too loose/sloppy on lockdown (for me: Altras).

Xero Shoes also adds huarache-inspired lacing adjustment tabs which I didn’t notice initially. This allows the runner to adjust the instep and midfoot straps for comfort and lockdown. I’ve never seen this on a running shoe. Pull on the tabs, tighten the laces, and they should stay snug.

Xero Shoes Mesa Trail Huarache Lacing
Notice the adjustable lacing strap pull at center left, it tucks under the welded plastic overlay system

The shoe laces themselves seem odd to me, but they work. The laces are rounded and sturdy, reminding me of a boot lace or sturdy camping cord. On my size 14 shoe, there is just enough length to double-knot. A single-knot test failed and the shoes untied while running. When double-knotted the shoes have never untied.

My preference is always the undulating wave laces some shoes use but these do work, even if they feel kind of nerdy.

Removable Insole

A streamlined insole is a welcome option on a zero drop and low profile trail shoe. The Mesa Trail shoes work well with or without the provided insoles. When the insoles are out, ground feel increases and the seams have obviously been designed with the barefoot runner in mind. Personally, I’ve been enjoying the insoles because I don’t have to be quite as careful about my foot placement on debris.

Protection

Mesa Trail Toe Protection
Toe protection is more than sufficient for most trails.

A generous wrap over the Mesa Trail toe will protect trail runners from typical rock and root stubs. The sturdy exoskeleton and heel also offer solid protection for typical trail challenges. These shoes are meant for streamlined trailrunning, not the kind of ankle destroying bushwhacking some landscapes provide (think backcountry desert).

For the rougher terrain, the TerraFlex offers a bit more protection for the trail runner and Xero Shoes even offers barefoot hiking shoes with ankle protection like the Xcursion Fusion (Mens and Womens). Sidenote: they even offer a snowboot!

Mesa Trail Shoe Running Experience

These shoes are comfortable out of the box and essentially have no break-in period. I wore mine around the house out of curiosity, but then hit the trail without a hitch. The wide toebox fit my 2w feet perfectly. From the very first run, I forgot about the shoe and was busy chatting with my friend.

On another run, I took my young pup, Ruby, and we ran some gravelly hardpack above the neighborhood. The shade had areas of snow and lightly back ice which were no problem for the shoes. Traction was good. The same was true on slickrock limestone: the shoes didn’t slip.

Is injury more likely in a barefoot trail shoe like the Mesa Trail?

A common assumption about minimalist shoes is greater risk of injury. For the case of rolling an ankle, I find the assumption to be wrong. It is harder to roll an ankle in a shoe which is lower, wider, and flatter to the ground than a shoe which soars off the ground with a high heel and toe (stack height). The Mesa Trail rides low and flat, it feels stable and grounded on each foot strike. Overbuilt, tall shoes can leverage the foot towards an ankle roll. I’d rather misstep in a low-profile minimalist shoe than a tall shoe!

Plus, the barefoot style runner is aware and connected to the running surface thanks to better ground feel and feedback whereas plush shoes allow sloppy, disconnected running. Which leads to an unusual sidebar:

Mesa Trail for the Gym… and Basketball?

As a 6’7″ trail runner, I’ve also played a lot of basketball over the years and have been studying the KneesOverToesGuy who rehabbed his frail and chronically painful knees through unorthodox methods. Many of his videos show him wearing Xero Shoes including the HFS, the Prio, and even the Mesa Trail (Notice the cameo here, including on the dunk)! This is on the basketball court during training sessions. He doesn’t appear to wear the shoes during games.

I mention this because the Mesa Trail has good lateral support, grippy tread, and a low profile. It may be worth testing out at the gym and not just on the trail!

Conclusion: Xero Shoes Barefoot Trail Shoes

Xero Shoes Trail Mesa Shoe

Weak feet and legs from overbuilt shoes are still a problem, regardless of trends towards mega shoes.

Xero Shoes markets “feel the freedom and fun”. This is not why I became interested in barefoot style shoes, but quickly became part of the attraction. Running in minimalist shoes is fun. A runner has to be more thoughtful about terrain, and gets a much more sensory experience of the world.

The Mesa Trail isn’t perfect, but there also isn’t much not to like about it. I’m keeping these in my training toolbox.

Check out the men’s and women’s options over at Xero Shoes.