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How to Choose the Best Hiking Socks

Sometimes our testers would break out from the cadence of hiking to run! Having a sock that performs through a wide range of intensities is important. You never know when spontaneity will hit.
By Amber King ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Friday July 22, 2016

As you dream of trekking to azure alpine lakes or through ragged and gnarly terrain of remote deserts, consider the items required in order to make your trip flawless. Along with a great sleeping pad and backpacking tent, you should really consider a pair (or two) of sturdy hiking socks. Even though you can find regular cotton socks everywhere, finding a good hiking sock may prove to be difficult. The market is saturated with a plethora of brands, colors, and lengths, each with a different purpose. In this buying advice article, we will help you determine exactly what a hiking sock is, whether you need one, and which one suits you best.

What to Consider in a Sock


Are you looking for the best hiking sock to accommodate your feet in your next big mission? In this quest, there are many key sock features to consider including material construction, material weight, and style. Though it may seem there are a million socks on the market (which there are), they are all very similar with specific differences. These differences make the sock better or worse for specific temperatures, activity, and intensity.

Types of Socks


Before you begin your search, you need to ask yourself a very important question. Is a hiking sock what you need, or is there something you'd be better off with? In this section we discuss different types of socks on the market. A sock is typically designed with activity type, intensity level, and environmental conditions in mind. For example, if you plan on high intensity activity like fast packing or running you may want something that is thin, breathable, and quick to wick. Socks designed to keep you warm in cold weather environments are thicker, more comfortable, and insulate better than their thinner counterparts. Take a look at the different types of socks below to determine if you truly require a hiking sock or if another type will do you better service.

Hiking: Designed to prioritize comfort, warmth, and breathability, these are usually high ankle to mid-calf height can be worn with a pair of sturdy hiking boots, like the Vasque St. Elias GTX. Intended for multi-day trips or protection on rocky terrain, the materials provide the feet with additional padding and comfort. These come in a variety of material weights dependent on the environmental temperatures and conditions. For example, the Darn Tough Light Hiker Micro Crew is a great lightweight sock for warmer weather that features thinner materials. The Darn Tough Full Cushion is a little thicker, intended for warm to cold weather.

This Darn Tough Light Hiker is perfect for warm days and compatible with both low cut hiking boots and shoes.
This Darn Tough Light Hiker is perfect for warm days and compatible with both low cut hiking boots and shoes.

Skiing/Mountaineering: Ski socks are typically taller than most socks, coming to a height from the top of the calf to below the knee (depending on your height). They are designed to fit well inside of boots and range in thickness from ultralight to very thick. A great example is the SmartWool PhD Ski Medium. These socks are quite versatile and do well to keep you warm while you ski in the backcountry or resort.

Darn Tough Over-the-Calf Ultralight  the tallest and thinnest socks in our test.
Darn Tough Over-the-Calf Ultralight, the tallest and thinnest socks in our test.

Running: Running socks are a whole different category. They are typically ankle height and designed to provide comfort and breathability to an athlete working at mid to high intensity. These socks are much thinner than hikers or ski socks because they prioritize breathability and comfort in the forefoot. Learn more about running socks by visiting our Best Running Sock Review .

Two great running sock examples. Each are composed of thinner materials and come up just past the ankle.
Two great running sock examples. Each are composed of thinner materials and come up just past the ankle.

Liners: Used in conjunction with a thicker sock, these are perfect to pair with a ski/mountaineering sock to provide additional wicking capabilities. If you are prone to blisters or if your feet get cold easily, these liners may be a saving grace. The thin material slides against the main sock to prevent friction and abrasion to the skin. The liners are also thin enough to transport water from the surface of the skin away. They are typically not used with running or tightly fitted hiking socks.

Materials


When considering a hiking sock look for wool or synthetic fibers. Avoid cotton as it does not insulate when wet.

Whether you're looking for invertebrates in the river or hiking up Mount Everest  its of utmost importance to consider the materials of your hiking sock. Some materials insulate when wet  while others do not. This could mean the difference between a fun trip and a suffer fest.
Whether you're looking for invertebrates in the river or hiking up Mount Everest, its of utmost importance to consider the materials of your hiking sock. Some materials insulate when wet, while others do not. This could mean the difference between a fun trip and a suffer fest.

The material of a sock is the key to its breathability, warmth, and affinity to keep you dry when it's cold and wet outside. In general you want to look for a sock that is primarily made from a wool (i.e. merino wool) or synthetic polymer (i.e. polypropylene, acrylic, polyester) - avoid cotton at all costs. These materials have properties that use water as an insulator to keep your feet warm (even if it's cold outside). For example, if you accidentally dunk your foot in a cold stream on a winter hike, wool and synthetic materials will do two things. First, it will wick the moisture away from the skin (keeping you warmer). Second it will use the water droplets in combination with the fabric to retain the heat. Cotton on the other hand keeps moisture close to the skin and does not insulate when wet. Even though cotton does dry faster than wool on a warm day, cotton does not keep your body warm when it is wet. Getting cotton wet in cold weather can result in hypothermia (in extreme cases) or just a sufferfest. The age old saying "cotton kills" comes with this sock science in mind. This is the same reason you don't want to buy a cotton long underwear. That said, make sure you're buying synthetic or wool materials. In addition, ensure there is a spandex, lycra, or nylon component; these materials are stretchy, which ensures the sock to stay in place while providing more durability and breathability.

Why Wool?


In most of the socks tested, we found some each was manufactured with either 100% wool or wool blend. For example, the Smartwool PhD Outdoor Medium Crew and Darn Tough brand socks feature merino wool, while others are made with synthetic blends. So why do hiking socks use wool as opposed to cotton or other types of material? Surely there are many options, but why is wool so popular?

When considering the science of the fabric, the answer is simple. It provides homeostatic function in its ability to regulate temperature. When it is cold, the fabric is able to retain heat. While in warm conditions, it is able to cool things down. Even though it is not as breathable as other fabrics like cotton, it is most importantly able to keep you warm when wet. For your feet, this is of utmost importance.

Other important properties that you don't typically think about in a fabric is its fire resistance and its durability. If you're into jumping the campfire or if you fall asleep with your feet too close, this could be an advantageous property. When exposed to direct heat, the fabric will catch fire. However when removed from the heat, the fire will fizzle out. The fibers themselves are also elastic and able to maintain its shape even after being deformed over and over again. The American Sheep Industry claims that some wool fibers can be bent 20,000 times before breaking; in comparison, cotton can only be bent 3,000 times before breaking. This is why wool products are typically higher quality than other materials such as cotton.

If you're interested in learning about the science behind wool, check our our Best Hiking Sock Review.

Material Weight


Hiking socks are divided into four different categories based on sock thickness. Here consider the temperature and conditions you will be hiking to determine which material weight to buy. Once you know the weight, you can move onto the next step of making this buying decision.

Ultra-lightweight
Conditions: Hot to warm weather
Best Uses: Fast packing, hot summer weather, hiking
An ultralight weight sock is perfect for hiking in hot to warm weather. It prioritizes breathability and minimal padding so it is much thinner than other sock weights. The Darn Tough Ultralight running sock is a great example of this fabric weight.

Lightweight
Conditions: Warm weather
Best Uses: Hiking, backpacking, quite versatile
This weight is specific to warmer conditions and higher intensity activities. A sock like the Darn Tough Light Hiker is a fantastically durable and lightweight hiker that prioritizes wicking and breathability with a less cushioned sole and forefoot. Use these socks in warm weather while hiking or backpacking without the use of a liner.

This Darn Tough Light Hiker is perfect for warm days on the trail. Its thinner design coupled with many breathable panels on the top of the foot keeps it dry and comfortable.
This Darn Tough Light Hiker is perfect for warm days on the trail. Its thinner design coupled with many breathable panels on the top of the foot keeps it dry and comfortable.

Midweight
Conditions: Warm to cold weather
Best Uses: Hiking and backpacking, versatile for most weather and uses
A sock like the Smartwool PhD Outdoor Medium Crew is intended for longer trips or spring and fall temperatures. These are typically more durable than lightweight socks (more materials) and prioritize comfort, warmth, and breathability.

Midweight socks aren't as light but still provide decent breathability. The Smartwool PhD is a classic example.
Midweight socks aren't as light but still provide decent breathability. The Smartwool PhD is a classic example.

Heavy weight
Conditions: Cold weather
Best Uses: Winter or Cold-weather Sports
A heavy-weight sock has heavy padding in the forefoot and heel to prioritize warmth and comfort. It also uses lots of material throughout the length of the sock. This weight is typically less breathable and doesn't wick as well as lighter socks. Using a dual sock system where you integrate a liner helps to promote better wicking and prevent blisters.

Length


Socks come in all different lengths and sizes. Most hiking socks will come up just past the ankle or half way up the calf. This is intended to protect your skin from the elements (i.e. brush, grasses, etc.) and to prevent chaffing from hiking boots. Even though hiking boots are great, you may opt to wear an aggressive hiking shoe instead. They are typically more breathable, light, and comfortable. Shorter socks in this review proved to better options with shoes as they were less bulky and more breathable. However we like taller options while wearing different types of boots (i.e. mountaineering, skiing, tall hikers, etc.)

Not only should you consider your footwear, but think about where you plan to adventure. If you think you'll be in heavy grasses or overgrown areas, we would recommend taller socks. If you're just hiking in the desert with a pair of running shoes, we would recommend looking into a shorter (and more breathable) length.

Sock length is important when considering the footwear you plan on using. The Smartwool PhD proved to be our shortest sock  while the Darn Tough Full Cushion was our tallest. Some liked the breathability of the short  while others appreciated the protection of a taller one.
Sock length is important when considering the footwear you plan on using. The Smartwool PhD proved to be our shortest sock, while the Darn Tough Full Cushion was our tallest. Some liked the breathability of the short, while others appreciated the protection of a taller one.

Sock Fit


A good fitting sock is the first step to a successful trip. Make sure to use the sizing guides at the top of the packaging to ensure that it isn't too large or too small. Men and women's sizing charts differ so make sure you are looking at the correct gender. A sock that bunches could result in blistering and a sock that is too tight is, well, too tight. Both will result in an uncomfortable and unfavorable experience. That said, take some time to try on different socks in store or online. Most distributors (like amazon.com) are very good about allowing you to try things on and sending back the ones that don't fit.

Comfort


If you are looking for a sock for day-hiking or short backpacking trips in mild weather, the most comfortable choice would be a fitted sock like the Darn Tough Light Hiker Micro Crew or SmartWool PhD Outdoor Medium Crew Sock. Look for cushioning on areas like the heel and toes, and compression panels around the arches. This extra cushioning will provide comfort when your feet get sore on longer hikes.

We loved the comfort provided by the Smartwool PhD hiker. It offers ample cushioning in both the forefoot and heel. Perfect for long days!
We loved the comfort provided by the Smartwool PhD hiker. It offers ample cushioning in both the forefoot and heel. Perfect for long days!

For longer trips, (especially in cold weather), the preferred option would be a medium-weight sock dual sock system. Use a thicker sock like the Wigwam Hiking Outdoor Pro and a pair of thin liner socks to prevent blisters and help keep your feet warm and dry. Look for silk or wool. Both are warm, comfortable, and wick well. Bring several pairs for extended trips and consider keeping a dry pair with your sleeping bag and pairs specific for hiking.

Insulation


If you are looking for a sock that will keep you warm in wet conditions, use wool. Wool might take longer to dry, but it will keep you warmer than synthetic fibers in the long run. For extremely cold and wet conditions, it's often useful to wear a liner with a mid-to-heavyweight wool sock, to help wick moisture away from the skin to keep you warm.

Drying Speed


The thinner the sock, the faster it will dry. It's nearly impossible to get a fast-drying sock without compromising insulation. For warm wet conditions where insulation is not as much an issue, use a synthetic sock like the Wigwam Hiker Pro.

A quick drying sock is a perfect compadre on multi-day adventures. Light weight socks will typically dry faster. Also look for a sock that doesn't absorb moisture immediately on contact. The Injinji sock followed by the Darn Tough Full Cushion performed best in this test.
A quick drying sock is a perfect compadre on multi-day adventures. Light weight socks will typically dry faster. Also look for a sock that doesn't absorb moisture immediately on contact. The Injinji sock followed by the Darn Tough Full Cushion performed best in this test.

Wicking Ability


This is not as big a deal as some of the other criteria. Typically socks that contain a bit of nylon will wick better than all-wool socks, but you risk losing some insulating performance. If your socks are not wicking as well as you would like, wear liners.

Durability and Lifetime Guarantees


In our tests we learned that socks built with merino wool and a high percentage of nylon (+ spandex/lycra) were more durable than the rest. When purchasing a sock, consider the guarantee it comes with. For example, Darn Tough brand hosts a lifetime guarantee of the sock. That means that if you wear a hole through the material at any point in the lifetime of the sock, you can send them back for a brand new pair. This guarantee is worth investing a higher upfront cost as you can (in theory) buy just one pair for life. That said, consider supporting the company that hosts a very durable product and buy another pair (if you have an extra chunk of change).

Getting a durable sock is of utmost importance when you're drilling dirt and grim into its fibers. Look for a sock with a tightly woven fabric and a lifetime guarantee. This criteria makes for a high value sock!
Getting a durable sock is of utmost importance when you're drilling dirt and grim into its fibers. Look for a sock with a tightly woven fabric and a lifetime guarantee. This criteria makes for a high value sock!

Gender Specific


Is there a difference in a hiking sock specific to gender? The quick answer is yes. We all note the immediate differences, which is color. A men's sock typically dons darker colors while women's come with cute patterns and bright colors. While these differences are apparent, less noticeable differences comes in the construction of the sock. Women (on average) have a more narrow foot with a different width of heel to ball of foot ratio. As a result, a women's sock can be found with a more narrow design (and less material bunching) for a better fit. That said, in our testing we found that most hiking socks are unisex and fit both men and women in our testing pool.

Now that you are thoroughly educated in the art of sock selection, take a moment to determine where you will be hiking, what environmental conditions you will face, and which sock is the best for you.

Amber King
About the Author
After finishing up her B.Sc and B.Ed in 2009, Amber moved to the U.S.A from Canada. Drawn in by dreams of climbing perfect cracks and exploring new areas, she found herself in a few new places like Utah, Washington, and Arizona. When getting to the San Juans of Southwest Colorado - she found home. Along her journey she discovered trail running as a new found love. Completing her first half-marathon, full-marathon, and ultra-marathon within one year, she continues her education in becoming an endurance athlete. When taking a rest day, she can be found playing with her pack raft or split boarding in the backcountry. When she is working , you can find her tinkering with experiments as a high school science teacher.

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