How to Choose the Best Hiking Socks for Your Travels
This guide will explain everything you need to know about hiking socks including main materials and their characteristics, sock design and construction as well as functions and benefits of trekking socks. The main aim of this blog post is simple: giving you the most valuable information there is to help you choose the best hiking socks for your next travel adventure.
Outdoor socks are often under-appreciated because they seem like a generic item, but they are not - their materials, thickness, and construction greatly affect their performance. Designed to provide significant functional and protective benefits for the active person, hiking socks are an essential component of footwear for every backpacker - from the absolute beginner to the very experienced outdoorsman.
Choosing the best hiking socks - what to consider
Most trekking socks are made from synthetics (mainly polyester), merino wool or blends of wool and various synthetics such as nylon for improved durability or spandex for optimum elastic fit.
Wool is a natural, sustainable, and biodegradable fiber used for producing socks and other garments that can adapt to different climates and situations. In addition, wool has some other positive characteristics of benefit for trekking socks.
Generally, wool socks cushion your feet, keep them warm in winter and cool in summer, wick away sweat, and retain warmth when wet. Wool fiber is hygroscopic. Interestingly, its core is hydrophilic, whereas the surface of the fiver is hydrophobic. The wool fiber contains natural grease called lanolin that protects sheep from wind, cold, and water. Sometimes it is removed but when the lanolin isn’t removed, the woolen garment is water-repellent and offers excellent protection from the elements. Wool is a good insulator and also keeps its shape when damp, which reduces the danger of your wool socks causing blisters. One of the typical characteristics of wool is that it feels warm when wet - wool can absorb up to 35 percent of its own weight in moisture and still feel dry and warm. In footwear without lining, wool socks can keep your skin dry and comfortable because of their highly effective moisture wicking abilities. Wool has a natural ability to breathe, which makes it suitable for high-intensity pursuits such as hiking and backpacking. It is also antimicrobial and odor resistant, with the added bonus of eliminating the need for constant laundering. All you need to do is air your wool hiking socks to remove much of the build-up of odor. Wool is relatively durable, reliable, and quality material and typically has a long life as it can last for hundreds of years without losing its appearance. However, the material isn’t very abrasion-resistant so nylon is often added as reinforcement at the heel and toe.
Wool is classified according to its thickness, which varies between 24.5 microns for fine wool to more than 35.5 microns for coarse crossbred. Coarse wool feels scratchy, while fine wool is actually soft and very comfortable next to the skin.
Specialized wool yarns known as merino wool have been developed that have many of the characteristics of synthetic fibers. Compared with traditional wool, merino wool has longer, softer, and finer fibers, making it more comfortable, giving a softer feel and more airspace for moisture movement. Additionally, merino wool is light and ensures no-itch feel, while regular wool socks and apparel have tendencies for skin itch. It has superior water vapor permeability, dries fast, insulates very well, and can also retain its shape longer than other wool. Just like other types of wool, merino wool can absorb up to 30% of its dry weight in moisture but because of the fiber construction, you may not even feel wet (hydrophilic interior that attracts and absorbs moisture from the body and hydrophobic exterior). Moreover, this type of wool provides excellent insulation even when wet, has natural antimicrobial properties and doesn’t retain odors. Because of all these qualities, merino wool is widely used for base layers, underwear, and socks designed for activewear and sportswear. Merino wool is often blended with other fibers (mainly synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, spandex, polypropylene, and acrylic) for increased durability, elasticity, and better thermoregulation.
In addition to all its advantages, merino wool has also some downsides. The biggest of them all is that merino wool is expensive. Considered by many the ultimate in wool luxury, it’s often blended with other expensive fibers such as silk, cashmere, and alpaca.
Care for wool
Proper care for wool garments is not hard. Generally, the best way to wash wool socks is at low temperature and short-duration washing. Note that wool properties can often change due to improper care and maintenance practices so always read clothing labels and follow the care instructions recommended by the manufacturer. Don’t wash woolen items with other clothing to avoid leaching of dyes, cross staining, and pilling of woolen items. Use mild detergent and avoid bleaches since they damage the wool fiber.
Don’t dry wool socks (and wool garments in general) under direct sunlight or in the dryer to help them retain the shade and to avoid shrinkage. Also, avoid hanging wool clothing after washing as it can lose its size and shape easily. Moreover, if you want your woolen items to retain their original shape after washing and drying, allow about 24 hours before wearing again. After cleaning, store all your wool clothes in dry and clean storage space.
Synthetic fibers have been engineered to have some important physical properties for athletic performance: water resistance, wicking, hydrophobicity, thermal insulation, wind resistance, anti-microbial resistance, durability, maintenance of shape when wet, quick-drying, reduced weight, cushion and resiliency, and reduced coefficient of friction.
Polyester and acrylic
The most popular synthetic fibers used for sports socks are acrylic and polyester. Synthetic socks, made from acrylic, polyester, polypropylene, and nylon are supposed to wick moisture faster than wool and dry more quickly. Acrylic and polyester have several advantages over cotton fibers: they're hydrophobic, have superior wicking properties, and dry faster. In contrast to wool, synthetics feel damp when only a small amount of moisture is present. While both acrylic and polyester remain soft with multiple machine washings, resist wrinkles and stains, and retain their shape with moisture exposure, COOLMAX and other polyester fibers have a 15% faster drying time compared to acrylic fibers. For summer hiking and/or in hot weather, polyester socks (COOLMAX) are a better option than acrylic socks because, generally, acrylic provides poor insulation and, on hot surfaces, acrylic fiber socks can conduct heat. COOLMAX, Hollofil, Dacron, Capilene, Thermolite, etc. are often used for manufacturing hiking socks. Many people become confused because they think that the aforementioned materials are different fibers. However, these are not different fibers but rather fancy-sounding brand names of modified polyester fiber. Polyester and its blends are preferred for sportswear and performance clothing mainly because of their strength, hydrophobicity, low absorbency (means also resistance to staining), and the ability to retain size and shape. Acrylic is a common substitute for wool. It is resilient, durable, wicks moisture, absorbs little water, dries quickly, and is a low-maintenance fiber. Acrylic can often be found in blends with wool and other natural fibers.
Polyamide also known as nylon is one of the most widely used fibers for performance outerwear and technical fabrics. Nylon is widely acknowledged as the first commercially successful synthetic polymer. In Germany, a type of nylon (Nylon 6 or Perlon) was decreed a military material and as such it was used as reinforcement for German military socks. Nylon fibers are light and fine, but also durable and abrasion-resistant. They are also easy to wash, quick-drying, and have good shape retention. All these characteristics of nylon explain why the fiber is used for manufacturing socks and especially for reinforcing hiking and outdoor socks.
Drawbacks to synthetics
The main drawback to synthetic fabrics is that they tend to stink quickly and retain odor after several wearings. Additionally, due to their low absorbency, most synthetic materials don’t wash as well as wool or cotton in cold water. Moreover, cleaning synthetics socks and garments is more difficult and because of their inherent resistance to chemicals.
Care for synthetics
Excessive cleaning and washing too often can wear out clothing sooner so consider reusing a garment again before washing if it looks clean and there is no bad odor. The care for synthetics is relatively easy. Generally, any commercial laundry detergent can be used for most synthetic fibers. However, for best results, delicate items should be washed with the use of warm water and gentle detergent. As with wool, always follow the care instructions recommended by the manufacturer.
Cotton is a truly trans-seasonal natural fiber used for producing a variety of textiles. It is comfortable to wear when dry but absorbs a lot of moisture, loses its insulating qualities when wet, and is slow to dry. This makes cotton and cotton clothing unreliable for cool-to-cold and windy conditions. However, cotton is breathable, provides sun protection, and in hot weather, it cools well, which makes it suitable for hot days.
Avoid cotton in sports socks; it soaks up the sweat, sticks to the feet, feels cold and clammy, and takes a long time to dry. When wet cotton loses its shape and easily wrinkles, which is uncomfortable and can cause blisters. What’s more, wet socks soften the skin, which leads to hot spots and blisters. Additionally, wearing wet socks for long periods can lead to the development of a dangerous condition called immersion foot (trench foot). See our post about heat and cold-related illnesses and injuries for more information on this condition, its main symptoms, prevention, and proper treatment.
Whatever the material, sweat-soaked socks should be changed for dry ones or your feet will be more likely to blister. Especially in hot weather, you need to change your hiking socks once or twice a day.
Care for cotton
Cotton clothes can generally be easily machine washed and dried. Check the care instructions and follow them for best results. Separate light and dark cotton clothes to avoid leaching of dyes. Lighter colors can be washed in warmer water with regular detergent while dark colors can be washed in cool water. Excessive drying should be shunned to avoid wrinkles along with shrinkage. Hanging cotton shirts and pants after washing is recommended in order to prevent wrinkling.
Hiking sock design and construction
A crew length sock is a standard hiking sock used all-year-round by many backpackers. The upper of the crew sock ends just below the calf muscle. The mini-crew design ends just above the malleoli of the ankle and is a popular choice primarily for summer hiking.
Example of sock designs: Crew sock (left), Mini-crew sock (right)
Densely knitted socks cushion better and feel more comfortable against the skin. Because of this and for maximum protection for the foot, many models of expensive socks use more fabric and tightly woven knit patterns.
Ribbed legs with alternating thin and thick sections and elastic fibers in the leg or at the top of the sock keep the legs from sagging and slipping down. Good hiking socks are shaped at the heel (have a standard heel gore) for a good fit with no loose fabric as Y-Gore provides the best fit and conformity for the heel. Tube socks do not provide adequate fit since they have loose material around the heel that can slip and bunch up under your foot.
Some outdoor socks have different densities of material at different points for more cushioning or warmth. For instance, the foot of the sock can have a cushioned sole portion and cushioned instep portion. Some outdoor socks have elasticized sections for support and to help with the fit.
The toe area of the sock has a seam that should be flat and smooth; it may be almost imperceptible in finer quality hosiery. There are also seamless socks designed for reducing pressure over the toes.
For cold weather, terry loops on the inside, especially underfoot, are warmer and more comfortable than flat knits. For warm weather, a flat knit over the foot and rib knit on the legs is cooler.
It's important that the hiking socks you choose fit well. Keep in mind that sock sizes often cover three or four shoe sizes and that most socks tend to stretch over time, so if you hesitate between two variants, the smaller size is usually the better choice.
When putting on trekking socks, make sure that they fit properly. How do you know if a pair of socks fit properly? As a rule, the heel pocket should be in the right place and there should be no loose fabric anywhere. For best results, your socks need to fit your footwear too. Thus, it is recommended to wear your hiking socks when you fit your footwear.
Functions and benefits of outdoor socks
One of the primary differentiating features of hiking socks, compared to casual socks, is the utilization of high-tech fibers and yarns designed to provide better comfort and protection for the feet.
In general, cotton fibers and most wool fibers are considered hydrophilic, while synthetic fibers are hydrophobic. Moisture can accumulate in the shoe from three different sources: the foot itself, the legs and trunk of the hiker, and the outside environment.
The production of moisture from the sweat glands of the feet during vigorous physical activity is estimated to be in the range of 2-2.5 liters per twenty-four hours. The production of moisture from the remainder of the body during exercise can exceed one liter per hour. Therefore, in order to keep moisture content at a minimal level on the surface of the foot during exercise, a sock must wick moisture (meaning transport moisture away to the shoe upper for evaporation).
Cotton fibers are hydrophilic and can absorb three times as much moisture as synthetic fibers. Moreover, cotton socks retain moisture and their drying time is much longer compared to synthetic socks. In a sedentary activity, cotton socks may be preferable to synthetic socks, given the low moisture output of the feet, and the better absorptive capacity of these hydrophilic fibers. However, during hiking or another physical activity, the absorptive capacity of any sock will be exceeded, and then you need moisture-wicking socks. They allow movement of moisture from the foot surface to the shoe for evaporation to the outside environment. When wet, acrylic fibers swell 5%, wool fibers swell 35%, cotton fibers swell 45%. Generally, swelling of fibers limits moisture transport and is related to a loss of shape and conformability to the foot.
Wet feet should not be a problem when wearing hiking footwear for short periods. Generally, lightweight hiking shoes and boots without waterproof breathable linings dry quickly when the air is dry. However, in prolonged wet weather, your footwear can stay wet for days. As a result, the skin of your feet gets softer, which can lead to blisters and sore spots. Waterproof hiking shoes and boots are suitable for cold conditions; however, in warm weather, these can be very hot and sweaty.
Some backpackers prefer wearing waterproof breathable socks. Typical 3-layer constructions consist of knit exterior, waterproof breathable membrane, and moisture-wicking inner with antibacterial abilities. Waterproof breathable socks are much better than waterproof boots when crossing streams and puddles because they give more protection than boots. The reason is that waterproof hiking socks are much higher, some reaching just below the knee. In cold and wet conditions waterproof socks can work well, especially when the socks are close-fitting. This promotes blood circulation and keeps your feet warm. Note that the comfort range when wearing too tight socks is too limited because they actually restrict circulation. Seamless constructions reduce friction and the chances of developing hot spots and blisters. Among the biggest downsides of wearing waterproof socks is that when wet, they are slow-drying. In addition, most models of waterproof socks aren’t very durable.
Waterproof breathable socks do well in wet environments and conditions. Generally, they are suitable for multi-day hiking trips, mountaineering expeditions, running and cycling in the rain along with kayaking and other outdoor activities and sports.
Clinical benefits of outdoor socks
Being the closest layer of protection against the foot, socks have the potential to protect the skin and the deeper tissues from injury.
In walking and running, the primary stresses on the feet are impact, plantar pressure, friction, and shear. Impact forces result from gravity and inertia as the body propels forward. Plantar pressures are the result of impact, bone deformity, and biomechanical issues. Friction and shear occur when the foot strikes the ground tangential to the supportive surface and when the foot pushes off in propulsion. When external movement exceeds the frictional force at the skin interface, shear occurs where layers of skin begin to move upon each other. Initially, shear forces cause exfoliation of the stratum corneum on the skin surface but continued shearing forces can cause a cleft to develop, resulting in a blister.
Modern specialized outdoor socks can significantly reduce impact shock and plantar pressures on the foot. In addition, modern socks might reduce the development of friction blisters. Friction blisters are among the most common skin injuries. They can also result in infection and disability, which has made blister prevention particularly important to powerful institutions and organizations such as the U.S. Armed Forces.
Studies show that double-layer synthetic sock systems are more effective in the prevention of blisters as the use of a polyester (COOLMAX) liner combined with a heavily padded wool-polypropylene outer sock works out best for reducing the formation of blisters. Additionally, the fiber composition of the sock (it seems that synthetic fibers work best) may reduce the friction force on the skin surface. Various studies show that wearing proper outdoor socks reduces moisture content on the feet during activity, which can minimize the chance of friction blisters formation as well as other skin injuries such as calluses, corns, and toenail trauma.
Wearing two or more pairs of socks can provide cushioning, reduce abrasion from your boots, remove excess moisture, and insulate from cold when hiking socks are properly chosen and worn correctly. On the other side, improper wear and/or poor choice of socks and materials can ruin your trip because of negative consequences such as discomfort, hot spots, and blisters.
The conventional three-season backpacking sock system consists of two pairs. Here are some basic rules that will help you with proper layering.
- The inner layer (a thin liner sock is worn next to the skin) should be made of hydrophobic material. The aim is to manage moisture - it wicks moisture away from your foot and transports it to the outer sock. Lightweight synthetic inner sock with wicking properties will do the job well.
- The outer layer (between the liner sock and the shoe) should be made of hydrophobic fabric (synthetics), wool or a wool-nylon-spandex blend. The purpose of this layer is to provide insulation, cushioning, and abrasion resistance whereas passing the moisture from your foot outward.
- A third layer for additional insulation can be added in extremely cold conditions. You can also add a vapor barrier sock. You have two options - to add it between the inner and the outer sock or over both layers. In cold and severe wet conditions adding a waterproof sock over the first two layers to reduce the amount of water that would saturate the foot can be beneficial.
No matter how many layers of hiking socks you wear, it is important to change socks after heavy sweating and to always carry extra socks on multi-day trips. Have at least two sets of inner and outer socks (one set to wear and one to dry after washing it). In good weather conditions, wearing only a liner sock has some advantages too: they dry faster; absorb less moisture, and are cooler in three-season conditions.
Best winter hiking socks
In cold weather, it is important that the whole foot-sock-footwear system works together. Thus choosing proper footwear is a must (see our article on hiking boots to learn more about different types of hiking footwear and their features). Your socks are another important component of this system. Use thick socks or several pairs of socks for added warmth and comfort. Layering outdoor socks in cold environments can be highly beneficial because adding several layers of material adds more layers of air between the sock layers (two pairs provide a higher layer of insulation).
The best hiking socks for winter should have the following features and properties:
- Provide good insulation for better thermal comfort.
- Offer excellent moisture management to keep the feet and footwear dry and comfortable.
- Made of wool or wool-nylon blend for more durability and additional abrasion resistance. Thermolite and Hollofil have been developed specially for cold conditions. Designed to trap air, in a way similar to the way wool does it, they provide better insulation for your feet.
Additionally, proper foot and shoe care is critical for you to maintain healthy feet during prolonged cold exposure.
Looking for versatile socks suitable for both your winter travel adventures as well as for casual strolls in the city? A good option (and cheapest, for sure) is to get multipack socks.
VVQI Warm Winter Socks 4-Pack are made from a merino wool and synthetics blend. Merino wool is a specialized wool yarn with antibacterial and no-itch properties famous for its water vapor permeability and excellent insulative abilities even when wet. The synthetic fibers are used for added durability and elasticity for a better fit to help you move with grace and speed. A perfect combination of functionality and comfort, these socks are designed for managing the cold and to keep you warm and comfortable everywhere you go.
If you are a girl or you just like beautiful colors, you can also check here.
Best summer hiking socks
We’ll start by answering an interesting question: Are wool socks suitable for hot weather? The short answer is: it depends. The thickness of the wool is the most important consideration. Thick wool socks will keep your feet warm but thin wool socks will actually keep them cool.
The best hiking socks for summer should have the following features and properties:
- Moisture-wicking, quick-drying, and breathable constructions to keep your feet cool and dry.
- Thin and soft for more comfort but also durable and abrasion-resistant.
- Made of synthetics such as polyester (COOLMAX), nylon, and other synthetic materials made to perform in hot conditions or blend. Thin and lightweight merino wool socks and also wool-nylon blends can be even a better choice.
- Antimicrobial to prevent the growth of fungus and odor-causing bacteria. Wool has natural antibacterial abilities while synthetic socks should have odor-resistant treatment.
The best way to prevent blisters is to wear properly fitted socks that won't wrinkle or absorb a ton of moisture. It is especially important when hiking in hot summer weather.
Designed for a great outdoor experience, Naturehike Outdoor Trekker Socks make sure that your foot stays cool, dry, and comfortable during long days on the trail. Made of high-performance materials and highly breathable merino wool with natural odor-fighting and temperature regulating properties for sensational feel and comfort on the trail. They have the right amount of compression for a nice snug fit and no-slip elastic that ensures the sock doesn't slip down the leg when on the trail or anywhere else you go.
These socks are also available in purple. You can check them out here.
When choosing socks for backpacking, remember that specialized hiking socks may change the fitting requirements of the shoe. Heavily padded socks may require the addition of full shoe size to allow proper room for the foot. The feet should be measured when you’re wearing the outdoor socks intended to be worn during your hiking trip.
Good fit is difficult when socks are offered in sizes covering a broad range (greater than three shoe sizes) and that’s why premium sports socks are usually offered in narrow size ranges. Remember that sock sizes are not the same as shoe sizes.
In the case of chronic blisters, a double-layer or padded sock system is recommended. If there is no significant concern about skin injury, the selection of fiber may be more important than the construction style.
The socks marketplace is filled with products with consumer benefit claims such as blister protection, anti-microbial protection, and insulation which have not been scientifically substantiated. However, based on the best available scientific evidence, remember that:
- Cotton fibers are not recommended for construction and use in outdoor socks because of poor performance when exposed to moisture. However, some wool-synthetic-cotton and synthetic-cotton blends can work pretty well on the trail.
- Synthetic fibers have several advantages over cotton: they’re better at wicking moisture and also dry faster; they’re more durable and can maintain their shape when wet.
- Wool fiber socks, particularly Merino socks, have many positive characteristics of synthetic fibers. Wool hiking socks are superior to cotton socks in cold environments and have adequate wicking capacity to keep the feet drying.
- Padded socks are preferred to thin, un-padded socks because padding can protect the skin surface from friction and shear and can also significantly reduce plantar pressures and impact shock thus reducing the risk of feet injury.
- The use of a synthetic fiber liner sock, establishing a double-layer sock system, better reduce the incidence of blisters compared to single-layer sock systems.
Finally, when looking for trekking socks, keep in mind that good hiking socks cushion feet, reduce abrasion from your footwear, wick away moisture, and keep feet at the right temperature.
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