What to Consider in a Hiking 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 particular temperatures, activity, and intensity.
Types of Socks
Before you begin your search, you need to ask yourself an essential question. Do you need a hiking sock? In this section, we discuss different types of socks on the market. Most socks are designed with the specific type of activity, intensity, and environmental conditions in mind. For example, if you plan going fast packing or running (high-intensity activity) you may want a sock that is thin and breathable so your feet don't get hot and clammy. Socks designed to keep you warm in cold weather environments have thicker materials and insulate better than thinner options. Below are different types of socks that will help you determine if you need a hiking sock, or if another option is best for you.
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 because of its thicker construct.
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, that will keep you warm on the slopes.
Running: Running socks are a whole different category. They are usually ankle height and are designed to provide comfort and breathability. They are much typically 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 .
Liners: Used in conjunction with a thicker sock, a liner is to pair with a ski/mountaineering sock to provide additional wicking capabilities. If you are prone to blisters or if your feet get cold quickly, 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 for running or tightly fitted hiking socks.
Toe Socks vs. Regular Socks
In this review, we discuss toe socks developed by Injinji. A toe sock looks like a foot instead of the traditional sock design. They provide your toes with more freedom to wiggle and are said to improve stability on the trail. We also like that they help prevent blisters. So, 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:
- Proper toe alignment
- Better moisture control
- Better posture and balance
- Blister and hotspot prevention
- Tactile feel
When considering a hiking sock look for wool or synthetic fibers. Avoid cotton as it does not insulate when wet.
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. You want to look for a sock made of a wool (i.e., merino wool) or synthetic polymer (i.e., polypropylene, acrylic, polyester). 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.
In your search, avoid cotton or cotton blends if you intend on hiking for long periods of time, or in any kind of cold condition. Cotton keeps moisture close to the skin and does not insulate when wet. Even though cotton does dry faster than wool on a warm day, it does not stay insulated when it is wet. This could lead to potentially life-threatening situations in cold conditions. That said, make sure you're buying synthetic or wool materials. Also, ensure there is a spandex, lycra, or nylon component; these elements are stretchy, which ensures the sock to stay in place while providing better fit and durability.
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 options with different types of wool and synthetic blends. For example, most socks in this review including the Smartwool PhD and Injinji varieties are made of merino wool blends, while the Wigwam Hiking Outdoor Pro is the only sock primarily made of polypropylene (a synthetic). Each material is a little different, with their own set of pros and cons. These differences provide a different level of performance and different functions when outdoors. For example; some fabrics keep feet warm in a wide range of temperatures while others may be quick to dry. Below we discuss different materials and their pros and cons.
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 much lighter than traditional wool, breathes better, and it's not itchy (yay!). It is relatively durable with a wide range of temperature regulation. This means that wool will keep you warmer in cold temperatures (the heavier the weight, the warmer the sock will be). Socks with a high concentration of Merino wool proved to be our top performers.
Socks in this review that include high concentrations of wool include the following:
- Editors' Choice winners - the Darn Tough Hiker Full Cushion (for men) and the Smartwool Hike Medium Crew (for women)
- Top Picks for Warm Weather - the Darn Tough Light Hiker Crew (for men) and the Darn Tough Light Hiker Micro Crew (for women)
- Best on a Shoe-string Budget - People's Merino Wool Hiking Sock (unisex) and Danish Unisex Merino Wool Sock
- Notable Mention for Five-Finger Construction- Injinji Outdoor Midweight Crew NuWool
- Notable Mention for Comfort & Versatility - Smartwool PhD Midweight Crew NuWool
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 polyester, it will most likely be durable, quick to dry, and won't lose its shape. That said, blends are not as warm as 100% merino wool and tend 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 better durability. The main difference between the two is that polypropylene is more 'hydrophobic' (water-hating) fiber that will absorb 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, you can expect that it won't absorb as much water as pure wool blends, providing better wicking capabilities and breathability. We found this to be true in our testing as the Wigwam Hiking Outdoor Pro is the fastest to dry and most durable sock tested.
Hiking socks are divided into four different categories based on sock thickness. Here we discuss 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.
- Conditions: Hot to warm weather
- Best Uses: Fastpacking, hot summer weather, hiking, running
- Description: An ultra lightweight 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 running sock is a great example of an ultra-lightweight sock.
- Conditions: Warm weather
- Best Uses: Hiking, backpacking, running, biking, general outdoor recreational uses
- Description: This weight is specific to warmer conditions and higher intensity activities. A sock such as 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.
- Conditions: Warm to cold weather
- Best Uses: Hiking and backpacking, versatile for most weather and uses
- Description: 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. All the socks tested in this review fall into this category.
- Conditions: Cold weather
- Best Uses: Winter or Cold-weather Sports
- Description: 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 (we did not test any of these socks in this review).
Socks come in all different lengths and sizes. Most hiking socks will come up just past the ankle or halfway up the calf. This is intended to protect your skin from the elements (i.e., brush, grasses, etc.) and to prevent chafing 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 suggest looking into a shorter (and more breathable) length.
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 excellent about allowing you to try things on and sending back the ones that don't fit.
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. 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.
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.
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 frigid 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.
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, the fastest drying sock in this review.
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 model. 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).
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 the 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.
Sock Care and Maintenance Tips
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.
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.