I put it to you that there is no more neglected item of clothing than socks.
We browse for hours looking for t-shirts, jeans and jackets in our style. We try them on, ask the opinion of our nearest and dearest – ignore that opinion and pick the ones we like.
Even underwear, perhaps the sock’s only rival as an underappreciated garment, enjoys a bit of glamour in commercials with high-production values and models with bodies that would make loincloths look stylish.
Have you ever seen an advert for them? Have you ever walked into a store and asked to try them on?
Socks do the dirty work and get none of the glory. Feet are arguably the most abused part of our body, absorbing the impact of our frames as we walk, and are abused by hikers more than anyone.
We’ve all been on the trail and come to know the misery of blisters, chafing and continually sweat-soaked socks. What would you have given, in those moments, to find relief? Can you even imagine the bliss of hiking without sore feet?
Taking time to research the best ones will give you a far better chance of reaching the promised land than reaching into your sock drawer and plucking out whatever pair come to hand. Let’s take a journey in search of the best hiking socks available
|Darn Tough Micro Crew Cushion Hiking Socks||Amazon / Darn Tough||A|
|Smartwool Hiking Socks||REI||A+|
|Merino Wool Socks by DANISH ENDURANCE||Amazon||B|
|Darn Tough Vermont Men's 1/4 Merino Wool Socks||Amazon / Darn Tough||A|
|YUEDGE Men's Hiking Cushion Socks||Amazon||B|
Features to Look Out For
They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Perhaps the easiest way to break them down into categories is to look at their height – a vital characteristic since it determines how effective they will be at stopping your boots chafing against your skin and causing discomfort.
Trainer Socks are all but invisible since they don’t even reach ankle height and are obscured by your footwear. It’s crucial, however, that the height of the footwear doesn’t exceed the height of the socks or chafing will occur. Unless you’re a lightweight trekker wearing trail-running shoes it’s unlikely that trainers will work for you and even then you’d probably be better going for…
Ankle-High. These do what they say on the tin, providing coverage over your ankles for anything up to a mid-cut boot.
Crew Cut. A crew cut is arguably the optimum height for hiking. With coverage stretching a few inches above the ankle they should eliminate abrasion on even high-cut hiking boots.
Knee-High. A common choice in the early days of mountaineering, knee-highs are still used by climbers, particularly in cold conditions, but many would consider them overkill for standard hiking trips – particularly since the additional warmth can cause overheating.
Finding the correct balance between high enough to limit skin abrasion without encouraging sweating can make a huge difference to your comfort on a hiking trip. Size may not be everything, but it’s certainly an important factor when selecting a sock for hiking.
Speaking of sweating… Let’s face it, socks get sweaty. When I take off my boots after a day’s hiking mine are so radioactive I feel like they should be placed in a special container and buried underground until half-life takes hold!
Smell, however, is actually the least of your worries on the trail. As outdoor blogger Andrew Surka points out, sweaty socks can also lead to “maceration, or pruning, which results from the outer layer of skin absorbing moisture. The skin becomes sore, itchy, and soft, which makes it prone to blistering.”
The ideal sock material will work to minimise odors and the accumulation of moisture which means that cotton is out! “Cotton kills,” as the saying goes, because “when cotton gets wet, it stays wet” (1) – exactly what we don’t want to happen to our feet.
Merino wool is the best natural alternative to cotton. It dries faster, has natural antimicrobial properties (that’s a fancy term for anti-smell properties) and actively works to reduce moisture by wicking it away from the skin. An added bonus for hikers is that merino wool is soft and will add cushioning.
A variety of synthetic materials such as nylon and polyester (sometimes blended together) can mimic the positive effects of merino wool. Synthetics usually dry slightly faster but aren’t as naturally soft or odor resistant.
The amount of cushioning determines two things: how much shock it will absorb and how warm it is. Generally speaking, the thicker a sock is the more it will help cushion your feet from the sharp rocks and slaps against the ground that are a natural part of trail-running or hiking.
“Great!” you might say, “I’ll have my socks an inch thick then!”
Unfortunately, things are rarely that simple. Thick ones are obviously warmer than thin ones and, while this might be advantageous in winter, hiking in warm conditions in ones that are stifling is a recipe for discomfort.
Picking some with just the right blend of cushioning and heat retention is another key balance that needs to be struck.
An indication of the casualness with which they are regarded is the fact that, while shoes have specific sizes, they are usually said to be suitable for a range of sizes. The attitude seems to be: “well, they’re stretchy, stick them on and they’ll do.”
Sizes are so neglected we had to visit a knitting website to find an accurate in-depth guide to measuring your foot for them! Check out the link for instructions on measuring your feet and to learn why the one you choose should actually be 10% smaller than your foot (hint: it’s because stretching helps socks stay in place).
Like any item of clothing they are only going to be comfortable and achieve optimum performance if they fit you. Ill-fitting ones are an unsurpassed recipe for blisters so check out the guide to maximise your chances of finding that perfect fit.
So now we know what we’re looking for. We want them high enough and thick enough to limit skin on boot abrasion, but not so high and thick they’re going to turn our feet into sweating furnaces. Since feet can sweat in the best of conditions we’ll want them to wick moisture away from our skin and allow them to breathe a little. If they can dry out quickly and work to minimise odors even better!
Highlighting exactly what we need from hiking socks emphasises what a specialised purchase they are. Can any socks on the market meet our high expectations?
Darn Tough Micro Crew Cushion Hiking Socks
These crew cuts are made from a blend of natural and synthetic materials – 61% Merino Wool, 36% Nylon and 3% Lycra/Spandex. Harnessing merino wool’s naturally antimicrobial properties, they resist bacteria and odor and are also quick drying thanks to the addition of synthetic materials.
The area along the bottom of the foot is cushioned to provide additional comfort and they are available in sizes with a more precise range than the bulk of socks on the market, with the makers promising a “smooth, performance fit (that) assures there’s no slipping, no bunching, and no blisters.” Darn Tough are so confident they are indeed darn tough that they issue them with a lifetime guarantee!
- Meet every outlined requirement for hiking – cushioned, breathable, crew cut, antimicrobial and quick-drying!
- Promise of exceptional durability an added bonus
- High price
Smartwool Hiking Socks
Smartwool Hiking Socks are also made from a blend of merino wool and synthetics – in this case 70% merino wool, 29% nylon and 1% elastic. In this case the nylon and elastic help them find a stable fit while merino wool provides its standard breathability and antimicrobial protection.
They have a crew cut – ideal for hiking – and are built to retain shape and performance through countless washes and miles upon miles on the trail. Where were these when I was limping from blisters after one day of a three day trek (with only cheap cotton ones in my pack)? Knowledge is power, they say. Arm yourself with some proper socks!
- Again matches all of the key criteria we’re looking for
- Users confirm their durability, with some stating that they’ve used pairs of Smartwool for over a decade
- Mid-to-high price
Merino Wool Hiking & Trekking Socks by DANISH ENDURANCE
These Danish Endurance socks come tested and recommended by ex-Navy SEAL Erik B. Jørgensen. That’s a proper endorsement! Indulged and cosseted celebrities declaring in favour of a product you doubt they’ve ever used is wearing a bit thin, but if a Navy Seal thinks these are up to scratch I’m prepared to believe that they won’t wear a bit thin after a while.
These once again blend merino wool with synthetics, though the merino wool content is noticeably down – 33% against 33% Acrylic, 33% Polyamide and 1% Elastane. They are padded from heel to toe to provide cushioning for the soles of the feet and are also advertised as breathable and sweat-wicking.
- Another pair that are breathable, cushioned and crew cut
- Low price
- Lower percentage of merino wool content indicates that the antimicrobial protection on these won’t be as strong as ones with a higher proportion of merino wool
Darn Tough Vermont Men’s 1/4 Merino Wool Cushion Hiking Socks
Another Darn Tough offering with similar performance properties to product 1, the Darn Tough Micro Crew Cushion Socks, but with a ¼ or ankle cut. The lower height could cause problems when combined with mid or high-cut hiking boots, but could make them an excellent choice for lightweight trekkers heading for the wild in trail-running shoes.
Not only does the ankle-height provide a more pleasing aesthetic when combined with trail running shoes than mid-cut, the lower height means less heat retention – a bonus for lightweight trekkers who usually move at a faster pace and generate their own heat.
- Match the performance criteria of their crew cut counterparts the Darn Tough Micro Crew Cushion – cushioned, breathable, antimicrobial and quick-drying.
- Optimum height for trail-running shoes
- Could result in chafing when combined with a mid or high-cut boot
YUEDGE Men’s Hiking Cushion Socks
These Yuedge socks come with an unlikely blend of properties. Advertised as antimicrobial, moisture-wicking and ideal for outdoor sports and hiking they are, nonetheless, 80% cotton. The addition of synthetics – 17% Chinlon and 3% Spandex – elevates the performance to the point where the makers note “drying speed is 8 times of cotton” but the mountaineering motto “cotton kills!” will make many wary of purchase.
Nonetheless, those who approach them without preconceptions may find that they perform well. A number of users found them comfortable and good at countering blisters and seemed satisfied with their purchase.
- Have a number of positive qualities – comfort, breathability and moisture-wicking
- Cotton content will be a concern for many. Most experts suggest that you avoid wearing cotton on the trail
Cue drum roll. The best of the five surveyed is…the Smartwool Hiking Sock.
It was a close run thing. Smartwool has very similar characteristics to the runner-up, the Darn Tough Micro Crew. Both meet all the key criteria for hiking outlined earlier in this article – a crew cut, moisture-wicking, breathability, cushioning and odor-resistance – meaning that the Smartwool edges the competition on price alone: it’s marginally cheaper.
Those for whom value is a major consideration may even be tempted to try out the Merino Wool Hiking & Trekking Socks by DANISH ENDURANCE. These have a notably lower price than both the winner and runner-up but a lower merino wool content, raising concerns about the level of odor protection.
The Darn Tough Vermont Men’s 1/4 Merino Wool Cushion Socks have an ankle cut and may appeal to lightweight hikers using trail-running shoes, but the cotton content of the YUEDGE ones makes them tough to endorse.
It turns out, if you’re willing to put the research in, there’s some high performing socks on the market. Is it finally time to kiss goodbye to blisters, radioactive feet and sodden socks that need to peeled off at night?