You can’t overvalue a great pair of hiking socks: they keep your feet comfortable and dry while helping to prevent blisters and hotspots. We tested the full array of hiking socks in conditions that varied from the heat of Utah’s Canyonlands to the snow of Washington’s North Cascades, and below are our picks for the best hiking socks of 2016. All are at least 50% merino wool, which has become the standard-bearer in socks and performance outdoor apparel in general. It’s true that a quality pair of hiking socks is pricey—they generally run in the ballpark of $20 per pair—but all of the options below are tough enough for trail duty and made to last. For more on hiking footwear, we’ve tested and written about hiking boots and lightweight hiking shoes.
Materials: 67% merino wool, 29% nylon, 4% spandex.
Cushioning: Light/medium weight
What we like: Comfortable and last forever.
What we don’t: Tough construction means they aren’t quite as plush as some other socks on this list.
Women's: Darn Tough Micro Crew Cushioned
SmartWool used to be synonymous with hiking socks, but over the past few years Darn Tough has taken the lead. With cozy seamless construction, high quality merino wool, and an amazing lifetime warranty to back it up, Darn Tough socks simply are the best. Our favorite model for hiking and backpacking is the Micro Crew Cushioned. High-density knitting creates excellent padding and breathability for virtually any three-season outdoor activity. The fit is super comfortable, not overly elasticized around the arch or forefoot, and doesn’t bunch or create pressure points. As we've found, no sock is totally perfect. Our nitpicks with the Micro Crew are that the cushioning underfoot can make the sock a little warmer than other lightweight models on hot days, like the SmartWool PhD's below, and the tough construction means losing a tiny bit of plushness. But this is telling: in all the miles we've racked up with these socks (some are 5+ years old), we've never put a hole in one sock.
See the Darn Tough Micro Crew
Materials: 56% merino wool, 41% nylon, 3% elastane.
What we like: Performance fit and improved durability.
What we don’t: Can't match Darn Tough's lifetime guarantee.
Women's: SmartWool PhD Outdoor Light Crew
We used to favor SmartWool’s traditional Hike Light Crew below, but the PhD line—named for SmartWool’s performance socks and clothing—offers the same comfortable feel with a more dialed-in fit. The snug PhD’s hold your arch and instep really well, and an “x” design of stretchy nylon across the top of the foot keeps everything in place while hiking. There are three thickness available (ultralight, light, and medium cushioning), but our favorite is the lightweight model, which has sufficient padding under the heel and forefoot for trail running, hiking, and lightweight backpacking, but is thin everywhere else. The mix of different fabric thicknesses makes them excellent breathers, even underfoot—a place of weakness for classic hiking socks.
We’ve had durability issues with the previous PhD line—particularly at the heel—but SmartWool introduced Indestructawool technology for 2016, which is a denser and tougher wool blend. The PhD has Indestructawool in the heel and toe, and we must say it feels more durable without a noticeable change in comfort. Time will tell if they can match the Darn Tough’s in long-lasting wear (they still can’t match them in their lifetime guarantee), but so far we think SmartWool has taken an important step in the right direction.
See the SmartWool PhD Outdoor Light Crew
Materials: 52% merino wool, 47% nylon, 1% spandex.
What we like: Incredibly soft, great fit.
What we don’t: Not the best breathers.
Patagonia has a strong reputation and attractive designs, but the company isn’t known for socks. Upon testing Patagonia’s Lightweight Merino, we came away extremely impressed. More than any other socks on this list, we were struck with how plush they feel whenever we slip them on. A little Spandex and a healthy amount of stretchy nylon make for an excellent fit around the instep and arch. And sufficient padding under the heel and forefoot cushioned well when carrying a heavy load. These aren’t the best breathers on the list, and it’s true that they come in at a typically high Patagonia price point against big hitters like Darn Tough. But if you’re looking for the softest hiking sock around that also wears well in the city, give the Patagonia Lightweight Merino a serious look.
See the Patagonia Lightweight Merino
Materials: 63% merino wool, 34% nylon, 3% elastane.
Cushioning: Light/medium weight
What we like: Cool and light.
What we don’t: The lower cut means less protection.
Women's: Darn Tough Quarter Cushion
For those who like to move fast and light, we love the Darn Tough Quarter Cushion. With these hiking socks you get all of the comfort, moisture wicking ability, and odor protection of crew-height socks but without as much material holding you back. It's true, they aren't tall enough for all boots, but they're a great pairing with ankle-height hiking shoes or trail runners. These also aren’t true ultralight socks like the SmartWool Phd Ultra Light Mini socks, which also made our list, meaning your feet can get warm in the heat of summer and they don't dry out as quickly. But we love the less bulky feel and heartily recommend these socks to anyone who doesn’t care for the higher cut but still wants the cushion. There's a reason these socks are popular with high mileage thru-hikers and ultralight hikers and backpackers.
See the Darn Tough Quarter Cushion
Materials: 78% merino wool, 20% nylon, 2% spandex.
What we like: A good value, soft feel.
What we don’t: Spandex loosens over time, not as durable.
Women's: REI Lightweight Merino
If the benefits of merino have you sold but you would rather stick closer to $10 than $20, the REI Lightweight Merino Wool hiking socks are just the ticket. For a reasonable $15, you get the comfort and temperature regulation one expects from merino with few compromises. With good cushioning, especially at the heel, the socks perform similarly to the more expensive SmartWool Light Hikers below. The primary sacrifice here is that the spandex around the arch can get a bit loose after extended wear and doesn’t last as long as more expensive models on this list. Over time, we have seen some pilling if you put them in a dryer (they line dry just fine). But at a significant savings, it’s a price many find worth paying.
See the REI Lightweight Merino
Materials: 50% merino wool, 49% nylon, 1% elastane
Cushioning: Ultralight weight
What we like: Great for summer hiking.
What we don’t: Thin for extended trips.
For warm weather hiking, trail running, and casual use under your sneakers, this is our favorite ultralight hiking sock. For under $20 you get a great fit, superb breathability, and a very comfortable feel. And for 2016, they've added Indestructawool for a boost in durability. What are the downsides of choosing an ultralight hiking sock like this one? The materials are considerably thinner than the lightweight options above, even in critical areas like the heel and toebox. But if you have tough feet and can avoid blisters, these socks will help keep your feet cool even during the hot summer months. If you need some extra cushion, SmartWool does made a padded quarter height model, however, we prefer the Darn Tough cushioned version above.
See the Smartwool PhD Ultra Light
Materials: 73% merino wool, 22% nylon, 5% elastic.
Cushioning: Light/medium weight
What we like: Comfortable on and off the trail.
What we don’t: Don’t last quite as long as they once did.
Women's: SmartWool Hike Light Crew
The SmartWool Hike Light Crew led the market for years, especially before Darn Tough expanded its reach. These socks are more traditional in terms of fit than the options above but are hard to knock: they perform well, are comfortable, and keep their shape after numerous wears and washings. The light hiker name is an accurate designation—the thinner construction and knitting style make them relatively good breathers. The fit is a bit looser than more modern options like the PhDs and Darn Toughs, and the padding covers the entire bottom of the foot as opposed to more streamlined designs that better balance thickness and bulk. But most importantly, they’re no longer the durability champ: we’ve put holes in the heels of ours, albeit after a few years of use. The SmartWool Hike Light are a bit cheaper than other high-end merino socks, so the math may still work out in their favor.
See the SmartWool Hike Light Crew
Materials: 80% merino, 19% nylon, 1% elastane
What we like: Durable and cozy.
What we don’t: The fit isn’t quite as tailored as Darn Tough’s Mountaineering socks.
Chances are that if you like SmartWool’s lightweight hiking socks, the Trekking Heavy Crew will make you happy as well. These burly socks are made from 80% merino wool and have the same traditional look and feel as the Hike Light Crew above. You do get a noticeable boost in warmth and thickness around the foot, which works well for winter outdoor activities and summer backpacking for those who want maximum cushion. As with the Darn Tough Mountaineering socks below, make sure to take your boot size into account: these socks won’t necessarily bump you up a size but they do add noticeably more bulk than lightweight hiking socks. For a budget option that is very similar to the SmartWool, the REI Merino Wool Expedition is cheaper ($16.50 compared with $21), and the only real sacrifice is the REI sock has a looser, less elasticized fit. If you're looking for a performance sock, the SmartWool wins out, but for easy-going activities, we give the edge to the budget REI.
See the SmartWool Trekking Heavy Crew
Materials: 77% merino, 19% nylon, 4% Lycra
What we like: Top-notch cushioning and warmth.
What we don’t: Overkill for many conditions.
Women's: Darn Tough Extra Cushion Mountaineering
You don’t actually have to be a mountaineer to appreciate this sock. The Darn Tough Extra Cushion Mountaineering can be worn as a cold weather hiking sock, for snowshoeing, and it makes a pretty nice partner for lounging around a chilly mountain hut. Some people even use this sock for regular non-winter backpacking as the thick cushioning is superb (for sizing your boots, make sure to account for the extra thickness of these socks). Keep in mind that the Darn Tough Mountaineering Sock runs up to just below the knees—the elastic does keep things nice and tight so slippage is rare. Most people will find them way too hot for summer (they can be nice for blister prevention on long hauls) but they are an interesting option for those who desire the extra thickness or warmth.
See the Darn Tough Extra Cushion Mountaineering
Years ago you might see a smattering of cotton and polyester hiking socks on the trails, but merino wool is now the leader far and away. Merino is extremely comfortable, wicks moisture well, and does a nice job of breathing and regulating temperature. It also takes much longer to build up stink, allowing for extra days of wear on a hiking or backpacking trip (how many days is up to you). Cotton, on the other hand, is heavier, absorbs moisture, and doesn't dry when wet. And while polyester may keep you cool, we are yet to find an option that doesn't start stinking rather quickly.
What exactly is merino wool and what makes it so great? Merino is a highly prized type of sheep that lives predominantly in harsh mountain environments, including New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Having to adapt to their tough environment is what gives merino wool its excellent performance characteristics, and the merino variety isn't itchy like wool socks of old. There are a number of merino breeds and the wool strands vary in thickness from ultrafine (17.5 microns and below) to strong (24 microns). For more information on the material, check out our article: Merino Wool: Is It Worth It?
Even merino wool hiking socks aren’t 100% merino: you’ll notice in our picks above that the percentage of merino is between 50 and 80%, with the rest being a blend of nylon and spandex. The density varies by sock as well—just because the REI Lightweight Merino Hiking Socks are 78% merino doesn’t mean they are the highest quality option. Darn Tough's Micro Crew Cushioned socks, for example, are around 67% merino but the weave is denser and they tend to hold their shape better and last longer.
Sock manufactures offer a variety of sock thicknesses designed for everything from summer hiking to mountaineering. For the purposes of this section, we are evaluating overall sock thickness (ultralight, lightweight, midweight, etc.) and not the strands themselves as described above. For three-season hiking, backpacking, and casual wear, we recommend the lightweight versions, which provide solid levels of padding and insulation for temperatures from approximately 40 degrees to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. They also wear well around the house and under your favorite pair of shoes, provided there’s enough room.
If you’re hiking in hot places like Utah or Arizona in lightweight hiking shoes, you may want to consider an ultralight hiking sock. The downside is that ultralight socks are thin on the foot and offer significantly less padding and blister protection than lightweight and midweight socks. Another option for summer hikers is a lightweight hiking sock in a 1/4 height, which has less leg coverage and a more airy feeling but the same cushion on the foot. For winter hiking and mountaineering, the major brands make midweight and heavyweight options that provide much more warmth than the lightweight versions. Keep in mind that these burly socks are overkill for three-season hiking and casual use. In normal temperatures your feet will sweat, and despite merino’s impressive ability to wick moisture, you will get unwanted dampness.
Crew is the most common hiking sock height, which extends 6 to 8 inches above the heel and at a least a couple of inches above just about any pair of hiking boots. We feel that this is the optimal height for hiking: crew socks don’t make you excessively hot and offer some added lower leg protection from brush and rocks. Hiking pants can be quite thin, so the extra cushion is helpful, and particularly if you’re wearing shorts on all but the easiest of trails, crew is the way to go.
Quarter (1/4) height hiking socks cover the heel and ankle but don’t extend up the leg as far as crew socks. Minimalist hikers and those out in the heat of summer may prefer 1/4 socks, which work well so long as you aren’t wearing boots with high ankles (you may end up feeling some friction) and don’t need protection from abrasions. Many mountaineering and ski socks are knee high, which provide the added bonus of warming the lower portion of your leg.
Merino wool is very comfortable in general and hiking socks are no exception. You can’t go wrong with any sock on this list, but our observations on hiking sock comfort are as follows: Patagonia surprised us by being the softest socks we tested, likely due to the slightly casual style. If you plan on using these socks for the occasional hike and more frequently for daily wear, Patagonia is a great way to go. Darn Tough makes the best overall hiking socks taking into account comfort and performance, but they have a slightly thicker and denser feel than Patagonia or SmartWool. This isn’t a bad thing—Darn Tough last forever and can really take a beating (hence the name). SmartWool hiking socks have great loft and an excellent fit (particularly the performance PhD line), but they also have some issues with durability and holes. All are great socks and the margins are thin in the comparisons above, but the distinctions between brands are worth noting.
Merino wool can be fragile, particularly in products like t-shirts, but fortunately hiking socks should last you quite a long time. It’s incredible how many times we’ve put our Darn Tough and SmartWool hiking socks through the washer and dryer and had them come out feeling and fitting like new. Durability is brand specific and we’ve seen changes throughout the years even among the same manufacturers. SmartWool, for example, has soft and comfortable socks but we’ve noticed holes developing more quickly than they used to (we suspect a change in manufacturing or materials). Darn Tough socks aren’t as soft as SmartWool but we have had no issues to date with holes, which is frankly pretty amazing. Virtually all wool socks have issues with pilling over time, which can be lessened by line drying.
No matter the brand, you will be pleasantly surprised with how long a $20 pair of hiking socks can last. If you have a few pairs in the rotation, you can expect most hiking socks to last at least a couple of seasons if not more. We have multiple pairs in our sock drawer that are used both for outdoor adventures and around town, and we rarely have to replace them.
For most merino wool products, we recommend washing in cold water and line drying. The directions vary by manufacturer and some claim merino can be machine dried, but we find that this significantly shortens the lifespan. However, merino wool hiking socks are one of the few items that we often throw in the dyer with our regular clothes. They just don’t tend to have the same durability issues as other merino products and the warm dryer has a nice way of getting the socks back to their original shape. We think you can go either way here in terms of line or machine drying, but keep in mind that you may get slightly more pilling and shrinkage in the dryer.