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 quarter-height and crew styles in varied conditions 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 2020. Most of our favorites are made with merino wool, which has become the standard-bearer in socks and performance outdoor apparel in general. It’s true that quality hiking socks are 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 information, see our hiking sock comparison table and buying advice. And for more on hiking footwear, we’ve tested and written about hiking boots and lightweight hiking shoes.
Materials: 61% merino wool, 36% nylon, 3% spandex
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.
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 a lifetime warranty to back it up, Darn Tough socks simply are the best. Our favorite model for hiking and backpacking is the Micro Crew Cushion. High-density knitting creates excellent padding and breathability for virtually any 3-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 on hot days than true lightweight models like the Smartwool PhD 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 our Micro Crews (some are 7+ years old and counting), we haven’t put a hole in one sock. Additionally, Darn Tough recently released an update to their Light Hiker Micro Crew Light Cushion, which is a thinner and more breathable alternative with a performance fit similar to the Smartwool below.
See the Men's Darn Tough Micro Crew See the Women's Darn Tough Micro Crew
Best Budget Merino Hiking Sock
Materials: 79% merino wool, 20% nylon, 1% spandex
What we like: Good value, soft feel, and now certified to the Responsible Wool Standard.
What we don’t: Spandex loosens over time.
If you’re sold on the benefits of merino but are looking to save, the REI Merino Wool Lightweight hiking socks are just the ticket. For a reasonable $17, you get the comfort and temperature regulation one expects from merino (and a lot of it at 79%) with few compromises. With good cushioning, especially at the heel, the socks perform similarly to the more expensive Darn Tough Micro Crew Cushion above. And this year, REI tacked on an RWS (Responsible Wool Standard) certification, which ensures that sheep were treated humanely during production.
The primary sacrifice with the REI Merino Wool Lightweight 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. And over time, we have seen some pilling if you put them in a dryer (they line dry just fine). But at a significant cost savings, many people think they are worth it, and particularly for crossover hiking, mountain biking, and everyday use.
See the REI Co-op Merino Lightweight Hiking Crew
Best Ultralight Sock for Summer Hiking
Materials: 48% merino wool, 48% nylon, 4% elastane
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. Well priced at $17, you get a great fit, superb breathability, and a very comfortable feel. And as with the PhD Outdoor Light Crew below, Smartwool added Indestructawool to these socks for a boost in durability. They still won’t last forever, but the Ultra Light Mini is a nice option for summer when you don’t need serious cushioning.
What are the downsides of choosing an ultralight hiking sock like the Smartwool? 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, but in that category we prefer the Darn Tough cushioned version below.
See the Men's Smartwool PhD Ultra Light See the Women's Smartwool PhD Ultra Light
Best Hiking Sock for Cold Weather
Materials: 73% merino wool, 25% nylon, 2% spandex
What we like: Top-notch cushioning and warmth.
What we don’t: Overkill for many conditions.
You don’t actually have to be a mountaineer to appreciate this sock. The Darn Tough 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).
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, but they can be nice for blister prevention on long hauls. In the end, they have fairly limited year-round appeal but are an interesting option for those who desire the extra thickness or warmth.
See the Men's Darn Tough Mountaineering See the Women's Darn Tough Mountaineering
Best of the Rest
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.
We used to favor Smartwool’s traditional Hike Light Crew, 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 now uses Indestructawool technology, which is a denser and tougher wool blend. The PhD has Indestructawool in the heel and toe, and we must say it has proven to be durable over the past few years without a noticeable change in comfort. Smartwool still can’t match Darn Tough's lifetime guarantee (although two years is pretty good), but we think they've taken an important step in returning to their long-lasting roots.
See the Men's Smartwool PhD Outdoor See the Women's Smartwool PhD Outdoor
Materials: 51% merino wool, 46% nylon, 3% Lycra
What we like: High-quality design that is sourced and made in the U.S.
What we don’t: Less merino and pricier than the Smartwool PhD Outdoor Light Crew above.
Designed with thru-hikers in mind, Farm to Feet’s Damascus Lightweight Technical Crew offers a nice blend of breathability and cushioning for long days on the trail. With a seamless toe area for minimizing bulk and preventing blisters, strategic padding in high-wear areas, and a snug performance fit, the Damascus is purpose-built to handle trail life. Further, all Farm to Feet socks are backed by the company’s generous lifetime guarantee that rivals Darn Tough’s well-known warranty. But what sets Farm to Feet apart is that their products are 100% sourced and made in the United States, including American-raised sheep providing the merino wool.
The Damascus’ closest competitor on this list is the Smartwool PhD Outdoor Light Crew above, which boasts slightly more merino (56%) at $1 less per pair. However, the Farm to Feet is no slouch. Specifically, we like the sock’s more vibrant color accents and superior warranty (Smartwool’s is only two years), which could be a deciding factor for those who put in a lot of miles. The Damascus lineup also includes no-show, quarter-height, and medium-cushioned crew socks that share similar overall designs and features.
See the Men's Farm to Feet Damascus See the Women's Farm to Feet Damascus
Materials: 61% merino wool, 37% nylon, 2% spandex
What we like: Cool and light.
What we don’t: The lower cut means less protection.
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 hiking boots, but they're a great pairing with ankle-height hiking shoes or trail runners.
Keep in mind that the Darn Tough Quarter Cushion aren’t true ultralight socks like the Smartwool Phd Ultra Light Mini above, meaning that your feet can get warm in the heat of summer and won’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 serious backpackers: they get the job done.
See the Men's Darn Tough Quarter Cushion See the Women's Darn Tough Quarter Cushion
Materials: 59% merino wool, 38% nylon, 3% spandex
What we like: Well-fitting and anatomical toe box.
What we don’t: Cuff has a tendency to slide down and bunch up.
Icebreaker is a merino specialist based in New Zealand, sourcing wool straight from sheep in their home Southern Alps. We’d be remiss not to include their Hike+ sock in our mostly-merino lineup—wool just doesn’t get much better than Icebreaker. Sized anatomically, these socks have a “left” and “right” label and the best-fitting toe box of any we tested, which is particularly nice if you have narrow feet or your socks tend to bunch up around the toes. The fit reminds us of the PhD socks from Smartwool above but a bit less extreme.
Keep in mind that Icebreaker’s "Lite" is on the thinner end of the cushioning spectrum, and it’s closer to an ultralight sock than other lightweight models. They ventilate well and are great for warmer weather, but for backpacking with a load, we’d opt for the medium weight. And the crew style fits a little longer (in other words, taller) than the Smartwool PhD and Darn Tough Micro Crew, and the cuff can eventually stretch with use, giving these socks a tendency to droop slightly (particularly for those with skinny calves). Overall, we like the Hike+ Light, but it’s tough to compete with the Darn Tough warranty (and the Icebreakers cost the same).
See the Men's Icebreaker Hike+ Lite See the Women's Icebreaker Hike+ Lite
Materials: 70% merino wool, 29% 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 designs, the Trekking Heavy Crew will make you happy as well. These burly socks are made from 70% merino wool and have the same traditional look and feel as the Hike Light Crew below. 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 (at the sacrifice of breathability). As with the Darn Tough Mountaineering socks above, 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 slightly cheaper option that is similar to the Smartwool, check out the popular $21 REI Co-op Merino Wool Expedition. Comparing the two, the Smartwool is thicker, more durable, and has a better overall fit (the REI is a little too loose for our tastes). As such, we think the Smartwool is worth the extra money in most cases. But for easy-going activities, the REI is a fine choice.
See the Smartwool Trekking Heavy Crew
Materials: 46% nylon, 25% merino wool, 25% Tencel, 4% spandex
What we like: The most low-profile socks on our list.
What we don’t: No-show design and ultralight cushioning fall short for high-mileage days or backpacking.
The quarter-height Smartwool and Darn Tough socks above cover the heel and ankle, but no-show designs like the Feetures Merino 10 Ultra Light No Show ride even lower. Paired with a low-profile hiking shoe or trail runner (there isn’t enough clearance for ankle-height shoes or high-cut boots), the Feetures is a great choice for fast-and-light summer missions. The short, ultralight design will keep your feet cool during warm outings, but the moderate dose of merino (25%) will still wick moisture and resist odor better than synthetic. All told, it’s a competitive combination for those who want to minimize bulk underfoot.
Like the Smartwool PhD Outdoor Ultra Light Mini above, the Feetures’ ultralight cushioning is notably thin and falls short for backpacking trips or even long-mileage day hikes (long-term durability is also a concern). Further, it’s important to match the sock with low-riding footwear—if the collar of your shoe rises too high, it could cause uncomfortable rubbing. And finally, a no-show model is more prone to letting dirt and grime sneak in through the top. But for those who don’t mind the obvious sacrifices in protection and padding, the Feetures Merino 10 is nevertheless a capable lightweight companion (and did we mention no sock tans?). If you want a boost in padding for more ambitious outings, check out Feetures’ popular Elite Max Cushion No Show.
See the Feetures Merino 10 Ultra Light
Materials: 33% merino wool, 33% polyester, 31% nylon, 3% elastane
What we like: Super comfortable and fun patterns.
What we don’t: Lower percentage of merino wool and higher price than the more established brands.
A couple of things are clear in 2020: hiking socks have become hipper, and there are even more alternatives outside of the Darn Tough and Smartwool realm. We first tried Stance socks for running and came away extremely impressed: they have a premium feel and build quality, come in attractive designs, and are as comfortable as anything on the market. In fact, we liked Stance so much that we re-ordered multiple pairs to overhaul our workout and daily-wear sock collection. And while we’ve used the lower-cut training version for day trips with lightweight shoes, the dedicated Stance Garhwal comes in a crew height that can be worn with hiking boots.
Here’s what you get with the Stance Hike collection: a functional blend of materials that is 33% merino wool (this is notably less merino than leading models from Darn Tough and Smartwool), a tight feel around the foot, and attractive patterns that are a far cry from the hiking socks of old. Many of the designs (including the Garhwal here) are downright fashionable. Keep in mind, however, that the high percentage of polyester (also 33%) means it doesn’t do as well with stink prevention or water resistance, and you’re paying a premium for the fun looks. But for done-in-a-day adventures, Stance is a great option.
See the Men's Stance Garhwal See the Women's Stance Ruby Valley
Materials: Inner layer: 70% polyester, 26% nylon, 4% Lycra; Outer layer: 71% polyester, 24% nylon, 5% Lycra
What we like: Great protection from blisters.
What we don’t: Not very cushioned.
For those with tender feet that are prone to blistering, Wrightsock has come up with an interesting solution. Made with a unique double-layer construction, the sock design works to absorb friction from your shoe or boot, leaving your foot relatively unscathed. Additionally, the moisture-wicking inner layer keeps your feet dry, providing yet another barrier against blisters. In fact, Wrightsock believes in their design so much that they offer a “blister-free guarantee” (a refund won’t matter much if you’ve been suffering on the trail, but we do appreciate the confidence).
The Escape Crew is an alternative to most of the merino styles here, made with a polyester/nylon/lyrca blend. If you’re looking for a warm or highly durable sock, this isn’t it. But if you want a light hiker for the summer months that will keep your feet cool and ward off hot spots and blisters, we recommend checking out Wrightsock. And at $18, they’re a pretty decent value too.
See the Wrightsock Escape Crew
Materials: 54% merino wool, 38% nylon, 6% polyester, 2% spandex
What we like: All of the ingredients for comfortable all-day wear on the trail.
What we don’t: It’s hard to match the reputation of Smartwool and Darn Tough.
Popular among the thru-hiking crowd for its light-but-tough build, Fox River’s Altitude Lightweight Crew is another capable merino option to consider. With light cushioning, a reinforced heel and toe for added durability, targeted compression zones, and a cushioned sole, the Altitude checks all the boxes for a functional companion over long distances. Further, the Altitude is offered in a nice assortment of classic colorways, and like the Wigwam Hiker and Farm to Feet Damascus above, all of Fox River’s socks are made in the U.S.
What pushes the Fox River Altitude toward the bottom of our list? Simply put, it’s hard to stand out in such a crowded and competitive field, especially among the likes of Smartwool and Darn Tough ($5 more per pair is a small price to pay for the bump in quality). Further, the REI above features more merino (79%) for $1 less per pair, although we’ve found those socks fall short for long-term performance use. All in all, for a functional and supportive merino option at a decent price, the Fox River Altitude is worth a look.
See the Fox River Altitude Lightweight Crew
Materials: 37% nylon, 34% Coolmax, 26% acrylic, 2% Lycra, 1% other
What we like: A high-performance synthetic sock.
What we don’t: We still prefer merino over Coolmax.
On particularly hot summer days, you just might not want to put wool on your feet, which is understandable. For these occasions, Darn Tough makes a synthetic sock with Coolmax polyester, a highly porous fabric that is made specifically to keep your feet cool. These socks are a nice option for hot-weather hikers, and like our favorite merino models, they are snug-fitting, well-cushioned, and do not stretch with use. All that, and the bump in breathability is noticeable.
Compared to REI’s Coolmax sock below, Darn Tough’s version is better made and offers a much closer fit. In fact, it’s one of the only non-merino socks that you’ll find us recommending for serious performance use. Unfortunately, Coolmax socks undeniably hold stink far more than merino models, which is a big downside for multi-day backpacking trips. Unless you’re specifically looking for an alternative from wool or hiking in the warmest of temperatures, we still deem merino to be superior in almost every way.
See the Men's Darn Tough Coolmax See the Women's Darn Tough Coolmax
Materials: 64% NuWool, 33% nylon, 3% Lycra
What we like: Five-toe design can help with hotspots.
What we don’t: Takes longer to put on than other socks and can spread out the toes.
We’ll start this write-up by saying that new gear technology isn’t always better, and we hesitate to jump on the bandwagon until the results come in. These unique Injinji toe socks beckon a certain toe shoe controversy from a few of years back, but after strong reviews we had to give them a shot. Essentially, instead of a traditional sock, Injinji uses a five-toe design that claims to reduce the possibility of blisters and hotspots. This “Midweight” model offers additional cushioning over the thin “Original Weight” sock.
What’s the verdict after hiking and backpacking in Utah’s Canyon Country with the Injinji Outdoor Midweight? One editor liked the toe sock design and found it quite comfortable. The other felt that it separated his toes more than usual thereby causing some discomfort. Both found that the socks took longer than normal to put on and offered little discernible upside compared to our top picks. If blisters and hotspots are a major issue for you, it may be worth giving the Injinji a shot. If not, traditional hiking socks perform great and require less effort.
See the Injinji Outdoor Midweight NuWool
Materials: 70% merino wool, 23% nylon, 4% polyester, 3% spandex
What we like: A good dose of merino wool at a competitive price.
What we don’t: Less proven long-term durability.
Like Farm to Feet and Stance above, FITS is another sock brand on the rise that’s trying to break up the two-horse race between Darn Tough and Smartwool. They make their case by undercutting those brands slightly in price (typically $1 across the board), while offering a healthy dose of merino wool, a precise fit, and plush cushioning. Their Light Hiker Quarter model included here is well-matched for 3-season hiking and backpacking with 70% merino wool in its construction (9% more than you get from Darn Tough) and strategically placed padding at the heel and under the toes and arch.
Where FITS has some catching up to do is long-term durability. Simply put, Darn Tough and Smartwool have been in the business for years and have the trail miles to prove their worth. In addition, you only get a two-year warranty from FITS, which is decent but can’t match the lifetime guarantee you get from Darn Tough, Stance, or Farm to Feet. While FITS puts out a nice product and we like that they put a strong emphasis on material quality, it’s missing a true standout feature to move the Light Hiker up our rankings.
See the FITS Light Hiker Quarter
Materials: 62% merino wool, 34% nylon, 2% polyester, 2% spandex
What we like: A good value for merino wool socks.
What we don’t: Fit is less tailored than the models above.
You don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for merino wool hiking socks, which is evidenced by Wisconsin-based Wigwam. These socks undercut the competition above by quite a bit—you can pick up a three-pack for just over $12 a pair, the total cost of which won’t even get you two premium socks from Darn Tough or Smartwool. The ratio of merino (62%) is right on par with the competition, and Wigwam’s are manufactured in the U.S.A., a nice bonus.
All in all, we like the Wigwams best for casual use and light hiking. They are relatively thick all around the foot and have a less tailored fit than some of the performance-oriented models above. But for cold weather, hanging out at the cabin, and shorter hikes where bunching won’t be an issue, Wigwam is a great way to save on merino hiking socks without compromising much on quality.
See the Wigwam Comfort Hiker Midweight Crew
Materials: 77% Coolmax EcoMade, 22% nylon, 1% spandex
What we like: Environmentally friendly polyester socks.
What we don’t: Not the highest-quality sock on our list.
Merino wool socks can be a bit itchy for some with highly sensitive skin, and if that’s you, REI’s Coolmax EcoMade are a good option. Made with fabric constructed from recycled plastic bottles, these socks provide a soft next-to-skin experience without the usual environmental burden of polyester. They wick moisture very well too, making them a great choice for hot-weather adventures when you still want the cushioning and support of a midweight sock.
At $17, the REI Coolmax socks won’t break the bank, but they cost the same as REI’s merino model and will hold stink a great deal more. And compared to Darn Tough’s Coolmax sock above, they generally fit less snugly (especially over time). As with the Wigwam above, they excel for casual hiking and everyday use—especially in warm weather. But if you're anticipating a long-term investment for serious hiking, we recommend going with a merino sock or Darn Tough’s Coolmax model.
See the REI Coolmax EcoMade Lightweight Tech
|Darn Tough Micro Crew Cushion||$23||61% merino, 36% nylon, 3% spandex||Light/medium||Crew|
|REI Co-op Merino Wool Lightweight||$17||79% merino, 20% nylon, 1% spandex||Light/medium||Crew|
|Smartwool PhD Outdoor Ultra Light||$17||48% merino, 48% nylon, 4% elastane||Ultralight||Quarter|
|Darn Tough Mountaineering||$30||73% merino, 25% nylon, 2% spandex||Heavy||Calf|
|Smartwool PhD Outdoor Light Crew||$23||56% merino, 41% nylon, 3% elastane||Light||Crew|
|Farm to Feet Damascus||$24||51% merino, 46% nylon, 3% Lycra||Light||Crew|
|Darn Tough Quarter Cushion||$18||61% merino, 37% nylon, 2% spandex||Light/medium||Quarter|
|Icebreaker Hike+ Lite Crew||$22||59% merino, 38% nylon, 3% spandex||Light||Crew|
|Smartwool Trekking Heavy Crew||$22||70% merino, 29% nylon, 1% elastane||Heavy||Crew|
|Feetures Merino 10 Ultra Light||$17||46% nylon, 25% merino, 25% Tencel, 4% spandex||Ultralight||No-show|
|Stance Garhwal Hike Socks||$25||33% merino wool, 33% polyester, 31% nylon, 3% elastane||Medium||Crew|
|Wrightsock Escape Crew||$18||
70% polyester, 26% nylon, 4% Lycra; Outer layer: 68% polyester, 24% nylon, 8% Lycra
|Fox River Altitude Lightweight Crew||$18||54% merino, 38% nylon, 6% polyester, 2% spandex||Light||Crew|
|Darn Tough Coolmax Micro Crew||$21||37% nylon, 34% Coolmax, 26% acrylic, 2% Lycra, 1% other||Light/medium||Crew|
|Injinji Outdoor Midweight NuWool||$20||64% NuWool, 33% nylon, 3% Lycra||Medium||Crew|
|FITS Light Hiker Quarter||$19||70% merino wool, 23% nylon, 4% polyester, 3% spandex||Light||Quarter|
|Wigwam Hiker Midweight Crew||$16||62% merino wool, 34% nylon, 2% polyester, 2% spandex||Medium||Crew|
|REI Co-op Coolmax EcoMade||$17||77% Coolmax EcoMade, 22% nylon, 1% spandex||Light||Crew|
- Hiking Sock Materials
- Thickness and Warmth
- Sock Height
- Women’s-Specific Socks
- What About Liner Socks?
- Hiking Sock Warranties
- Hiking Sock Care
Years ago, you might have seen 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 79% merino doesn’t mean they are the highest quality option. Darn Tough's Micro Crew Cushion socks, for example, are around 61% merino but the weave is denser and they tend to hold their shape better and last longer.
In general, we strongly prefer merino wool over polyester. Merino is known for its natural antimicrobial properties, whereas polyester socks hold stink in a serious way (this alone has us firmly in the merino camp). Moreover, merino wool is a naturally sourced material, whereas polyester is made from plastic fibers.
That said, polyester does have a couple of redeeming qualities. For one, it is highly durable, lasting longer than pure merino. In addition, it does not soak up water to the extent that merino does, allowing it to dry faster. And some of the Coolmax models like the Darn Tough Coolmax Micro Crew provide excellent breathability for adventuring in hot conditions. Finally, for those looking for synthetic material that is kind to the environment, check out Coolmax EcoMade, a polyester made from recycled plastic bottles.
Sock manufactures offer a variety of 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 like the Smartwool PhD Outdoor Ultra Light Mini, 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. This style also crosses over well to wear with running shoes.
Even lower than quarter-length are no-show socks. If you’re wearing low-riding hiking or trail-running shoes, a no-show sock should rise just above the collar and still offer padding and protection between your ankle and the shoe. However, keep in mind that no-show socks have a greater chance of letting in trail debris like gravel or dirt, and a poor fit could lead to rubbing along your heel and ankles. We prefer 1/4 socks for most of our outdoor endeavors simply for the added coverage, but shorter socks, like Smartwool’s PhD Outdoor Ultra Light Micro and Feetures’ Merino 10 Ultra Light No Show, are undoubtedly lower-profile and have appeal for those looking to minimize bulk.
As their name implies, over-the-calf socks rise higher than crew socks to just below the knee. By covering more of your leg, they can be a great option for hiking off-trail through high grass or brush, or in cases where you need extra warmth. On our list above, the Darn Tough Mountaineering Socks fall just below the knee and perform well for cold-weather activities such as snowshoeing. However, in most other scenarios, crew socks should provide ample coverage and protection.
You can’t go wrong with any sock on this list, but our observations on hiking sock comfort are as follows. Darn Tough makes the best overall hiking socks taking into account comfort and performance, but they have a slightly thicker and denser feel than 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 breathability and an excellent fit (particularly the performance PhD line), but they also have more issues with durability and holes. And brands like REI and Wigwam aim for the value-oriented buyer and their comfort levels diminish the fastest in our experience. All are great socks and the margins are thin in the comparisons above, but the distinctions between brands are worth noting.
It’s incredible how many times we’ve put our 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 (the recent change to Indestructawool has helped). Our REI socks have held up fairly well, but they seem to loosen over time. Darn Tough socks aren’t the softest but we have had no issues to date with holes with either their Micro Crew or Quarter Cushion, which is frankly pretty amazing. Virtually all wool socks have issues with pilling, 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.
Many companies sell both men’s- and women’s-specific socks, but in most cases, there are no major performance differences between the two. Women’s socks often differ in color and are offered in smaller sizes in general, but otherwise sport the same overall design and fit as their men’s or unisex counterparts. Overall, it’s best to simply make your decision based on sizing rather than nailing down if the sock is unisex or women’s-specific.
We’ll start off by saying that we think liner socks should be a last resort for those who suffer from blisters or uncomfortable rubbing. Before going this route, it’s better to pick up a quality pair of moisture-wicking wool or synthetic socks (rather than cotton) and nail down a well-fitting shoe or boot. Why? First and foremost, liner socks can give a somewhat sloppy feel—it’s another layer between your foot and your shoe and there can be some unwanted movement as a result. Liner socks are also notably thin, which translates to a shorter lifespan than your regular socks and more care required. In the end, with the quality of hiking socks improving so significantly, liner socks are becoming less and less common for hiking and backpacking.
All that said, if you’ve exhausted all other options and want to give them a try, a liner sock could be a viable way to boost padding and protection between your foot and shoe. Worn under your hiking socks, liner socks bear many similarities to the models above but are thinner and generally cost around half the price. If you want to try them out, make sure to pair your liner and sock accordingly: you should use a merino liner with a merino sock or a synthetic liner with a synthetic sock. Alternatively, socks like the Wrightsock Escape Crew above have two-part designs that essentially blend the two components together, and Wigwam’s Arbor NXT Crew takes a similar approach by knitting an inner lining into the design. And as a final solution, blister dressings like Moleskin or tape can be an effective way to treat or prevent hotspots.
Hiking socks have gotten fairly expensive in recent years, which has made their warranties a noteworthy part of the buying process. The long-time leader in this department is Darn Tough: their lifetime, unconditional guarantee means you can get a replacement pair sent for reasons ranging from complaints about comfort to a hole developing in the heel. Stance, Feetures, and Farm to Feet also have strong lifetime guarantees, with the latter two brands also offering full refunds (with proof of purchase). The next tier down are warranties with a set timeframe, including Smartwool and FITS (both two years) and REI Co-op (one year). Finally, you’ll often find shorter or more limited policies from budget-oriented brands. Wigwam, for example, will replace your socks if they’re shown to have a defect. In the end, while we wouldn’t base our final decision solely on the guarantee, but it’s something to have in mind.
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—along with their polyester counterparts—are one of the few items that we often throw in the dryer 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.
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