The Best Hiking Socks Review
Which is the best hiking sock? Over the last three months we've tested five of the leading competitors, in all types of adverse conditions. We put them through the paces - worn continuously for weeks, dragged through snow and over ice, and used in the demanding conditions a mid-weight hiking sock should handle. We took them backpacking, day hiking, running, and city walking in multiple countries. Once testing was complete, we ranked each based on their comfort, insulation, drying speed, wicking ability, and durability. This review coupled with our award winners will help you decide which product belongs on your adventures - and which belong on the shelf.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
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Analysis and Test Results
A good hiking sock is key to ensuring your day on trail will be a good one. A sock that fits right will enable your feet to stay dry and will prevent blisters that might otherwise slow you down. Having the proper thickness and correct materials will ensure your feet won't freeze if temperatures plummet. Finally, a durable sock is of utmost importance when it comes to your wallet and long days. With so many sock options out there, it's no wonder that selection can be difficult. Which weight, length, and style will you need? Which do you prefer? In this review we primarily focus on mid-weight hiking socks intended for single to multi-day hiking trips. We also discuss the importance of hiking socks and how each comparatively performed.
When considering sock purchase think about a few key items like material, length, padding, and fit, while asking yourself a worthwhile question: is a hiking sock what you need or is there something that might better fit your needs?
Toe Socks vs. Regular Socks
In this review we introduced a new sock developed by Injinji. This is a toe sock - where the sock itself looks like a foot instead of the traditional sock design. Through our testing period, we enjoyed how our toes got to wiggle and feel the ground a little better than in a traditional sock. That said, if you're looking for a new sock that may provide you with some of these benefits, a toe sock like the Injinji Outdoor Midweight Crew NuWool may be worth trying out.
Injinji claims that this design has a few benefits that include the following:
Sock material is important when considering the best hiking sock for your needs because it dictates how the sock will respond in the face of temperate and extreme conditions. We looked at a plethora of socks with different types of wool and synthetic blends. For example, the Smartwool PhD and Injinji varieties are made of 100% merino wool, while the Wigwam Hiking Outdoor Pro is the only sock primarily made of polypropylene. Each material is a little different, with their own set of pros and cons. These pros and cons contribute to the overall performance of the sock; some fabrics keep feet warm in a wide range of temperatures, while others might be quick to dry and wick. Here we discuss the different materials used in most socks specifically created with hikers in mind.
Merino Wool is the most comfortable, breathable, and durable of all the wools tested. What separates merino wool from the rest is comfort and weight. It is a lot lighter than traditional wool, breathes better, and doesn't scratch the skin. It is fairly durable, but doesn't dry out as quickly as synthetics. It also has a wider temperature regulation range, meaning it can keep you warmer when the mercury drops below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Socks with the a high concentration of Merino wool proved to be our top performers. This included our Editors' Choice - the Darn Tough Hiker Full Cushion and Top Pick for Versatility - the Smartwool PhD Outdoor Medium Crew Sock. NuWool is another type of merino wool used by the Injinji Outdoor Midweight Crew NuWool sock. Based on our testing we learned it was just as durable and breathable as other merino wool options. It also dried faster than other materials - which we really loved.
Merino wool comes from merino sheep that bode primarily from New Zealand and Australia. Regular wool can feel heavy and itchy on the skin. Merino, on the other hand, is comfortable, light, and soft.
Polyester is a synthetic fiber manufactured to provide many benefits. The fibers are a little more durable than organic fibers, which ensures the garment won't lose its shape. Polyester and synthetic fibers typically dry faster than organic fibers (like wool). If you find a sock with a polyester, it will most likely be durable, quick to dry, and won't loose its shape. That said, blends are not as warm as 100% merino wool and tends to lose both insulation and wicking capabilities at very low temperatures.
Polypropylene is similar to polyester in that it is a polymer fiber. It has the same benefits as polyester including great durability. The main difference between the two is that polypropylene is a more 'hydrophobic' (water hating) fiber that typically absorbs less water. Moisture spreads throughout the garment and hypothetically evaporates faster than what you'd find with a polyester fiber. As a result, polypropylene tends to dry faster than polyester and has a lower melting point. Make sure you hang it to dry to maintain the integrity of the fibers. In a nutshell, if you find a sock with a polypropylene blend (like the Wigwam Hiking Outdoor Pro), you can expect a sock that doesn't absorb as much water as pure wool blends, providing great wicking and breathability.
How Does Wool Work?
As we mentioned above, the physical properties of wool are fantastic and allow for great temperature regulation. The fibers are fairly porous; this means there are many air pockets between the fibers that can capture both air and moisture. When molecules are captured, they can be used as an insulator to maintain a warmer or cooler body temperature. What causes these 'pores' is the makeup of the fibers themselves. As opposed to being straight, the fibers have a kink. These helps to ensure that the fibers don't line up right next to each other (as they do in cotton), creating little room to capture air and water. Think about straight hair vs curly hair. Those with curly hair typically have more volume, and there is a lot more room between each strand. Those with straight hair tend to have hair that lies flat which doesn't accumulate more volume. This is very similar to how wool works - wool is like the curly hair, while cotton is like the straight hair. The curly hair has more air pockets, which allows for more insulation - in both warm and cold situations.
Though the pores play a huge role in thermoregulation, the fiber itself is important in heat production. Cortical cells make up the fiber and these are encompassed by a cuticle layer. The cuticle layer is covered by another layer called the epicuticle (outer cuticle). This layer hosts many tiny pores that draws in additional moisture during humid conditions; the moisture is pushed into the center of the fiber, where an interesting chemical reaction occurs. Moisture (aka H20) is made up of two hydrogen and one oxygen atoms which are linked by three bonds. When H20 is in the middle of the cuticle, there is a chemical reaction that breaks the hydrogen bonds. Since bonds store energy (in the form of heat), heat is expelled. This is the main reason why wool stays warm when it is wet! Not only that, but the fibers porous nature keeps moisture close to the skin. When hit with a cool breeze, the moisture molecules can cool down and keep you cool when it's warm outside. Neat, huh?
A combination of the wool fibers' crimp and its internal chemical composition makes this one of the most versatile fibers in the world. This explains why all the socks tested in this review use wool as its main textile. It is durable and sports some serious science to keep you warm when it's wet, and cool when it's hot outside.
Sock Care and Maintenance
Even though socks like the Darn Tough socks came with a lifetime guarantee, it's important to check the maintenance instructions for your socks. Fabrics like merino wool and polypropylene require specific care that may be more complicated than just machine wash. So before you throw your socks into the washer or dryer, check the care instructions to ensure the performance and vitality of your hiking sock.
Most of the socks tested in this review require a warm machine wash with a low tumble dry setting. Make sure to turn the sock inside out to really get the nitty gritty out.
Criteria for Evaluation
During our testing we looked at five core metrics to rate each sock. After speaking with numerous hikers, backpackers, fishermen, and other outdoor enthusiasts, we learned that comfort, warmth, drying speed, breathability, wicking, and durability seemed to be equally important when considered a hiking sock for purchase. As a result we determined that each metric category was worth 20% of the overall rating criteria. Read on to learn how each sock compared in each metric.
When testing this metric we considered many variables that contribute to the comfort of the sock. We considered the fit, cushioned panels, level of cushion, thickness, and areas of compression. In addition, we looked at how the sock felt on the foot during low and high intensity exercise - specifically hiking and running. After a hard day of exercise we compared each sock to see which was the most comfortable to just relax with. Socks that fit well with mid-weight cushioning and a merino wool composition were the most comfortable, while those that did not mold to the foot or were made of thin materials did not score as high.
Fitted designs are becoming increasingly common these days, and no fitted model performed better than the SmartWool PhD Outdoor Medium Crew Socks. With aggressive paneling and cushioning on the toes and heel, this sock was perfect while fast packing 28 miles through aggressive terrain on the Santa Cruz trail in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. Composed of 66% merino wool, 31% nylon, and 2% elastane, this sock is very fitted and hugs closely to the foot. The extra padding helps to protect the foot from rocks and other trail hazards.
Coming in a close second was the Darn Tough Hiker Full Cushion, our Editors' Choice. The Darn Tough hosted a similar fiber composition (66% merino wool, 32% nylon, 2% elastane) but wasn't as tightly woven as the SmartWool PhD. Some of our testers thought the longer sock was a little more comfortable while hiking in boots while most of our testers liked the shorter sock better for hiking in shoes.
The least fitted sock was the Wigwam Hiking Outdoor Pro. Given that it is composed of polypropylene and acrylic, it is quite durable but not nearly as comfortable as Merino wool contenders. The materials used weren't nearly as plush and it lacked compression panels that we loved with all other socks tested. We also didn't like that it would slid down our leg while hiking. As a result, it earned a lower score for comfort.
The Darn Tough Light Hiker was quite fitted and stayed entirely motionless on the foot - a real advantage when traversing hillsides or hopping on talus. However, because of its lightweight design, the level of cushioning wasn't as ample in the places we needed it. Therefore, this contender did not score very high. However, every one of our testers LOVED the feel of the fabric on the skin and claimed it was one of the softest.
The Injinji Outdoor Midweight Crew NuWool was our least comfortable sock tested. It felt good on the foot - and we loved that our toes could wiggle and move around. However, the NuWool material was not as soft as other contenders. It was also one of the least cushioned socks tested with the least amount of compression paneling.
Overall, if you're looking for a comfortable midweight option, check out the Smartwool PhD. If you want something a little lighter that is super soft and nice to the touch - look at the Darn Tough Light Hiker.
If you're planning on hiking in all conditions conceivable, warmth is incredibly important. You want to ensure that if caught in a rainstorm, your sock will keep you warm. In addition, if the temperature unexpectedly plummets, a sock in dry cold is imperative. As a result of this criteria, we tested each sock for warmth when wet and dry. To test warmth when wet, we dunked the socks in water, intrepidly bit down on our lower lip, and suffered just a little bit to see which were the warmest. To test warmth when dry, we flew ourselves to the Ruth Gorge glacier (in Alaska) in early Spring where temperatures varied from 10F to 35F daily. There we tested each while split boarding, sleeping, and walking around camp in thin down booties around camp. The sock that kept our foot the warmest scored highest in this category. In the end, we combined scores from both wet and dry tests to see which ones performed the best. We found that hikers with 100% merino wool had the widest temperature regulation range, while socks composed of polymer blends fabrics were quite limited. We also found that a toe socks were much colder than traditional styles.
In a competition for pure insulating ability, nothing beats a thick, no frills attached, 100% wool option. The two socks filling this criteria were the Smartwool PhD and Darn Tough Hiker Full Cushion. Both did a fantastic job of insulating, even when it got really cold outside. While hiking through rain storms and slushy snow, our feet were kept warm and toes did not go numb even when the wind picked up and our hands lost feeling. On the other end of the spectrum, the Injinji Midweight sock was the coldest of all tested. We learned that the material itself keeps the feet warm when wet as long as you are in motion. However, as soon as movement stops, the sock itself cooled down pretty quickly, leaving us shaking in our boots. In all, the best sock for wet conditions is the Darn Tough Full Hiker and Smartwool PhD.
All models performed pretty well when dry, but the warmest was the Smartwool PhD. The Darn Tough sock was a close second but didn't keep our feet warm for as long. Both of these socks worked for temperatures between the mid 10s and 20s. The sock to provide the least insulation was the Injinji toe sock. This isn't attributed to the fabrics used in its construction, but the toe-based design; since the toes are separated, the sock (and feet) lost a lot of warmth. We found that while wearing this sock in the mid-20 temperatures, we experienced toe numbness in under five minutes. Second to that was the Darn Tough Light Hiker. The thin materials were not able to retain a lot of heat, but it did MUCH better than the Injinji. These two lightweight hiking socks are much better suited for warm to hot temperatures and should be left at home for any winter expedition.
A sock that dries quickly is a huge advantage on multi-day backpacking trips. Imagine yourself hiking through the North Pacific in rainy conditions. Your socks are drenched and you have about three more hours of sunlight. A sock that dries quickly will prevent you from wearing your cold clammy socks the next morning. So to test drying speed for each sock, we washed them all, filled up a sink, dunked the socks for five minutes, DID NOT wring them out, then hung them to dry in full sun. The socks that dried the fastest during this test scored the highest for drying speed. In our tests we learned that it's not always the socks with a polymer fiber that dry the fastest. We were actually pleasantly surprised to learn a 100% merino sock was the fastest to dry.
This year we had a gauntlet of new contenders that demonstrated impressive drying capabilities. The Injinji Outdoor Midweight Crew was our fastest drying sock with total water evaporation in just two and half hours. Following this was the Darn Tough Full Cushion Sock (about three hours). Neither of these contenders absorbed a whole lot of water after the five minute water dunk. The Wigwam and Smarwool PhD (~ four hours), followed while the Darn Tough Mid Weight sock, held moisture the longest (~ five hours). Overall, all socks typically went from soaking to damp in two hours. After the damp phase, the drying time varied from two and half to five hours.
Wicking and Breathability
When considering wicking and breathability we put each sock through a wide range of conditions to see if the sock was able to keep our foot dry. In the field, we took each pair of socks running and hiking. Our running days were typically 5-28 miles in a wide range of conditions. Rainy and cold to hot and dry. In the end, socks hosting thinner materials and breathable panels with a lycra or spandex component did very well in this category. Fitted socks were able to wick more efficiently. We also noticed that those with tightly knit patterns were not as breathable as those with a more loosely knit configuration. In the end, none of the socks tested were amazing at breathability and wicking, though some performed better than others.
Of all the socks tested, the thinnest socks were the most breathable, while the thicker socks were less breathable. The Injinini and Darn Tough Light Hiker felt the most airy on hot days and proved to be the best options for warm weather. However, some of our testers mentioned that breathability deteriorated between the toes of the Injinji in comparison to traditional options due to the extra material not found in traditional hikers. As a result, the Injinji did not score as high in this category. The Darn Tough Full Cushion did well in this category and proved to be more breathable than thicker socks like the Smartwool PhD. The Smartwool still breathed well, but because of the tightly packed wool layering, it wasn't as airy as others like the Wigwam Hiker Pro.
If a thicker hiking sock is unable to wick well, use a wicking liner for a dual-sock system. This ensures moisture is transported away from the foot, keeping your feet drier longer.
Both the Injinji and Darn Tough Light Hiker did a great job at keeping our feet dry as result of a tight fit and thinner material. For our thicker socks, the Smartwool PhD and Darn Tough Full Cushion hiker proved to wick the best. As a result of the Smartwool PhD 's tight fit, it was able to wick better than the Darn Tough Full Cushion through a wide range of conditions. We wished we could use these hikers with a liner, but they were unfortunately incompatible; the only sock compatible with a liner was the Wigwam Hiking Outdoor Pro due to its less fitted design.
Buying a durable sock is of utmost importance when considering an expensive purchase. It's also important to consider the warranty information for a sock as some come with a lifetime warranty while others just host a 60 day warranty.
Testing durability in a short period of time can be pretty tough, but we managed to see a difference after three months of continuous high intensity use. In this metric we looked at overall wear and tear of the sock after putting approximately 60 miles of use into each. They were tested in all sorts of weather conditions and temperatures with varying terrain. We noted when wear and tear became apparent for each sock, and the level of wear and tear after approximately 60 miles.
If you're looking for the burliest sock out there, the Wigwam Hiking Outdoor Pro (Our Best Buy winner) is it! After 60 miles of use it still looks brand new with very little noted wear and tear. In comparison, the Darn Tough Full Cushion Hiker showed a little more wear and tear, but not by much. The Darn Tough Light Hiker showed a tiny bit of wear, with just minor pilling, while the Injinji showed close to none! The Smartwool sock scored the lowest in this category. The Smartwool showed lots of pilling on the surface and ample cushion compaction. In general, all the socks in this review were pretty darn tough - some were just able to hold up little better than others.
In our months of testing through any array of conditions, we have picked our hiking sock award winners. If you're looking for an all around bomber hiker with a great warranty, choose the Darn Tough Full Cushion sock. This has a lifetime guarantee that balances the best in performance. If you're looking for the most bang for your buck, check out the ultra durable Wigwam Hiker Pro. If you're looking for a sock that will keep you comfortable, check out our cozy Top Pick for Versatility, the Smartwool PhD. Our Buying Advice article can further help you to determine which sock suits your needs. Choose your hikers wisely and enjoy all your adventures to come!
— Amber King
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