Many people think that hiking socks are unimportant. We don’t. We decided to write up this article to show you why hiking socks should be an essential part of every rational hiker’s wardrobe. This article would be of great benefit to everyone who likes to spend their spare time in the great outdoors as well as to those who’d like to know more about socks for hiking. Actually, we believe that this post would be of great benefit to many people. It would also be useful as a quick reference.
There are many questions regarding hiking socks. We answer to eleven of the most frequently asked questions. The main question we address here is what makes particular types/styles of socks suitable for hiking and backpacking and why. The other questions we discuss here are closely related questions regarding hiking socks, the different styles, the materials they are made with as well as different characteristics of socks, and their properties in certain environments and conditions.
Here are some of the most intriguing frequently asked questions regarding hiking socks:
What kind of socks to wear hiking in the summer?
You have a number of options available but we recommend one of these two options: wool/synthetic blend or all-synthetic blend. Here’s a little more about these two kinds of sock blends and why they work well in the summer:
- Wool/synthetic blends come with different wool/synthetics ratios. The main aim of blending wool and one or more man-made fibers is simple: the blend should achieve optimized performance by obtaining the best qualities of each fiber. But that’s not enough because minimizing the weaknesses of each fiber also forms an integral part of engineering blends. Too much wool and you risk too much warmth. Too little wool might not be enough to impart the main properties wool and especially merino wool is being used for (excellent moisture management including when wet, softness, comfort, lightness, antibacterial properties, etc.). Some of the best summer hiking socks have between 50% and 65% super-fine merino wool, 30%-50% nylon (to improve the abrasion resistance of a 100% wool sock), and 2-5% spandex or elastane (for elasticity and to add good recovery properties to the final product). There are also other configurations with wool and three or more different man-made fibers but these combinations are more typical choices for cold conditions. Typically, wool/synthetic blends are more expensive than 100% synthetic blends.
- All-synthetic blends are preferred by many for their summer trips. A good alternative to wool/synthetic blends, 100% synthetic socks have certain advantages over wool/synthetic socks. They are cheaper, lighter, dry faster, and offer less bulk, for instance. Popular all-synthetic blends for summer hiking include polyester/nylon/spandex and polyester/nylon/acrylic/spandex. Polyester and modified polyesters such as COOLMAX, Dri-Wright II, and THOR•WICK COOL dominate such blends as the content of the blend usually includes 40-80% polyester. Unfortunately, all-synthetic blends are known to retain odor. It’s the main drawback of these otherwise excellent products.
Other important factors to consider when choosing summer hiking socks include the length, thickness, fit, cushioning, breathability, wicking abilities, drying speed, durability (the expected useful life of the socks is of prime importance), and price. Additionally, the duration of your trip, the environment, the expected weather conditions, and your own preferences need special consideration.
Are merino wool socks good for summer?
Contrary to what many people think, merino wool can be an excellent material for summer socks, especially when combined with more durable and abrasion-resistant materials. 100% merino wool socks are soft and comfortable, should not itch, do not retain odors, and have excellent moisture management properties. However, they aren’t very durable or abrasion-resistant, which can dramatically reduce the length of the useful life of the 100% merino wool socks. Moreover, they can be too hot in the summer. For this reason, super-fine merino is often combined with synthetic fibers such as nylon and polyester.
What are the best socks for summer hiking?
The best socks for hiking in summer and hot weather are the Darn Tough COOLMAX Micro Crew Cushion (see our article about the best summer hiking socks for more on this topic). These socks have many positive characteristics and features that make them an excellent option for summer and hot weather activities such as hiking and backpacking.
Darn Tough COOLMAX Micro Crew Cushion can be worn in various environments but work best for technical trails and tough terrain in warm weather due to the COOLMAX polyester and tough nylon. The COOLMAX breaths well and transports moisture away from the body for cool and dry experience/feet, while the high abrasion resistance of the nylon reinforces the construction. Resilient, durable, moisture-wicking, and quick-drying acrylic that doesn’t absorb much water and stretchable spandex are putting the finishing touches to these socks. They are built for high performance and come with a seamless toe and medium cushioning for reduced friction and long-lasting comfort on the trail. The shortcomings of these socks: the limited color options and the tendency to retain odor (compared with merino wool socks).
If looking for a more generic answer, check out our answer to the question regarding the kind of socks to wear hiking in the summer.
What kind of socks to wear hiking in the winter?
Winter hiking can be a very happy and fulfilling experience but it can be ruined by the choice of the wrong socks. Our recommendation is to look for a durable winter hiking sock with padding that would be comfortable and would insulate your feet well from the cold. The main factors to consider:
- Materials – look for suitable wool/synthetic blend; something like a blend of 70-80% merino and 20-30% synthetics (nylon, polyester, acrylic, spandex, etc. man-made materials) is a good option.
- Cushioning – heavy padding provides all-day comfort but also insulation and warmth – extremely important for having a positive winter hiking experience.
- Thickness and warmth – both are quite important for winter. Usually (but not always), heavyweight socks provide more warmth than lightweight constructions.
- Sock height (style) – there are several options – from crew length (lower-calf) to boot length (mid-calf), and over-the-calf+ designs. Our preference is for boot socks and over-the-calf designs. Generally, they work better than crew socks in cold weather. Moreover, they could be combined with both boots and shoes.
- Price – typically top-quality winter hiking socks cost somewhere in the ballpark of $25 but you can also find good models for as little as $10-$12 (Danish Endurance Unisex Premium Merino Wool come at $23 for 2 pairs, for instance).
- Durability – merino is often blended with nylon and/or polyester for increased durability and abrasion resistance. It’s one of the reasons we recommend not 100% merino socks but merino wool/synthetic blends.
- Comfort – look for socks that would suit your individual needs. There’s every chance that these socks will make your feet comfortable and happy.
- Warranty – manufacturers have established different policies regarding the socks they sell. Before you buy, make sure that you know the useful lifetime of the sock and the length of the guarantee. Our advice is to look for an Unconditional lifetime guarantee. It’s the best option in the world of hiking socks. Darn Tough is one of the brands that offer such a warranty for their socks. Most other popular brands offer Satisfaction guarantee (like the 2-year satisfaction guarantee of Smartwool) and even more limited policies (standard 30 or 60-day guarantee).
Are wool socks good for winter?
Wool is a great option for winter socks, especially merino wool. It’s also one of the best materials for warm socks because of its softness, warmth, insulating and antimicrobial properties, moisture-wicking and relatively quick-drying abilities, etc. Wool has another excellent property – it feels warm even when wet and, unlike cotton, it doesn’t lose its insulating properties. Merino wool is even finer, softer, more comfortable, and less likely to irritate the skin fiber than traditional sheep’s wool. Alpaca wool is another great kind of wool suitable for winter (note that it’s much rare to find socks with alpaca wool than socks with merino wool). It’s a soft and silky natural fiber that similarly to the sheep’s wool retains heat without weight and has great insulating properties. The difference is that high-quality alpaca wool is even lighter and warmer.
Wool socks have some characteristics and properties that make them an excellent choice for winter
What are the best socks for winter hiking?
The best socks for hiking in winter and cold weather are the Darn Tough Hiker Boot Full Cushion (see our article about the best winter socks for more about the different types of winter socks, their characteristics, features, pros, and cons, etc.). These mid-calf socks are hard-wearing and functional winter hiking socks designed for comfort and performance. They come with top-quality merino wool and great padding for added comfort, insulation, and warmth. What’s best about these socks is that they are so comfortable, breathable, versatile, and functional that they can be worn year-round for pretty much anything. The mid-calf length is easily combined with boots or shoes, which is a good option, especially in the transitional seasons. There are also men’s and women’s options for a better fit. Anything else? Oh, yes, Darn Tough offers a lifetime guarantee. The downside of these socks: top-quality products cost a lot and these socks aren’t an exception. However, we think that the premier quality is worth it.
You may also wish to check out our answer to the question regarding the kind of socks to wear hiking in the winter. Considering all the factors there, you should be able to find the best/right socks for your next winter adventure.
What kind of socks to wear for hiking?
Socks aren’t just one of the hiking accessories. In fact, they should be an important part of the clothing wardrobe of every hiker. But what kind of socks are best for hiking and do you need special socks?
The best socks for hiking should be durable, abrasion-resistant, breathable, with great moisture-wicking and quick-drying abilities for rapid moisture transportation from the foot outward. They should be the right length for the season and environment. For example, ankle socks or lower-calf length for summer; mid-calf or over-the-calf length for winter; lower-calf or mid-calf length for spring and autumn. The sock should be breathable enough to keep the feet dry and comfortable no matter the conditions. Tightly woven socks with heavy padding provide more and better insulation, warmth, and comfort in winter. Socks with light/medium cushioning are perfect for summer. Merino/synthetic blends and all-synthetic hiking socks work best for hiking and backpacking.
Should hiking socks be thick or thin?
It depends on the environments and conditions you will be hiking in. Obviously, those who backpack in winter and cold weather would need thick socks offering insulation to keep their feet warm and dry. Thin socks will be of great benefit to those with an affinity for summer and hot weather hiking. For longer trips and thru-hiking, we recommend socks that keep a balance between breathability and cushioning. Hence, for extended trips, midweight cushioning typically works best.
Example of thin vs heavy sock: Smartwool Hiking Light Crew (left) vs Smartwool Trekking Heavy Crew (right)
Another key factor is your footwear. If you prefer sandals or minimalist shoes, a pair of thin hiking socks will be more than enough. However, thin socks don’t work that well with solid boots.
Should you wear two pairs of socks when hiking?
Layering your socks is a classic way of achieving the optimal performance of hiking socks. Proper layering can do a lot of positive things as it:
- Provides extra cushioning
- Reduces abrasion from your boots
- Removes excess moisture
- Insulates from cold and keeps your feet warmer
When done properly, wearing two pairs of socks can lead to better comfort and protection of the foot reducing the chances of blister formation. Just remember that the inner layer (the sock next to your skin) should be thin, moisture-wicking and quick-drying in order to be able to rapidly wick sweat away from the foot. It should be made of hydrophobic material. The outer layer (the sock between the inner layer and the boot) should provide insulation, cushioning, and abrasion resistance. It should be made of synthetics, wool or a wool/synthetic blend in order to be able to pass the moisture from your foot outward.
Why are cotton socks bad for hiking?
It’s true that cotton can be bad for you on the trail. Cotton socks aren’t good choice for hiking and other high-intensity activities because of some inherent characteristics and properties of cotton. For example, it absorbs a lot of moisture, sticks to the feet, loses its insulating properties and wrinkles easily when wet. All these combined with the slow drying speed of cotton make it unreliable for making hiking socks. Wearing wet socks that easily wrinkle can cause blisters (damp socks soften the skin) or even trench foot if done for long periods.
Bonus: Why are crew socks so popular?
Crew or lower-calf height is probably the most used sock style. The crew is also the most popular hiking (and not only hiking) sock style. But why is that? It is because crew is an extremely versatile sock length. The upper of the sock ends just below the calf, which makes it suitable for wearing in summer, winter as well as in the transitional seasons. Note that though it is suitable for year-round trips, crew length is best for three-season outdoor activities.
Example of sock designs: Crew or lower-calf sock (left), Mini-crew or ankle sock (right)
What kind of socks to wear for hiking? It’s a simple question requiring a not-so-simple answer. In this post, we tried to answer not only this but ten more closely related questions about hiking socks too.
Look for sock made from the materials (avoid cotton), with the right cushioning, and with the proper length for your particular needs. And don’t forget to take the environment and the expected weather conditions into consideration when making your choice.
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