The Best Hiking Socks: How to Choose Your Perfect Pair
Part of your success as a hiker depends on your gear. You can’t just stumble onto a serious trail and expect to be successful. Having the right gear can be the difference between a successful hike and death. Ok, not choosing the right sock might not mean death, but it can be the difference between you feeling accomplished and you shouting obscenities at the trees in the middle of nowhere.
Everyday socks aren’t going to cut it. You wouldn’t expect to put ordinary street tires on a race car and be the fastest one out there, right? Little details matter. Tires aren’t just tires, and socks aren’t just socks. Your feet can take a beating when hiking because of moisture exposure, rough terrain, fluctuations in temperature, and a host of other factors.
You could invest in the little details and make sure that all your equipment down to your socks is an asset to your hiking environment. You could also wear cotton street socks from your dirty clothes hamper.
Don’t be that person. Be mindful of the small details so that you can get out, go farther, and go more often. There are a few things to consider when making decisions about your first pair of hiking socks. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Top 10 Best Socks for Hiking in 2018
Last update on 2019-01-23 PST - Details
The Purpose of Hiking Socks
There are specific purposes that your hiking socks fulfill. They all fall under the general category of “not experiencing pain doing the thing you like.”
Hiking socks are supposed to offer insulation for your feet. If you hike in cold weather, you need your feet to stay warm during the hike. If you hike during hot months, good socks will prevent heat from reaching your foot and allow your foot to sweat away any heat.
Speaking of sweat, the second function is wicking away moisture. Hiking in the rain or across water causes water to enter your boot. A wet foot is prone to blisters and bacteria. A best socks for hiking wicks this moisture away from the foot.
Comfort is the third factor. A well-fitting sock is crucial to preventing blisters, so you need the right thickness, height, and weight. It also cushions the bottom of your foot on rough terrain so that you feel the impact less.
Choosing a Material
You want something that will insulate, wick away moisture, and yet still be breathable. This means cotton, right?
Actually, no. While cotton may be a comfortable fabric for every day, if you head out on the trail in cotton socks you’re going to be pretty miserable. Cotton keeps moisture close to the skin, and although it dries pretty fast in warm conditions, it provides no insulation from moisture, making it a terrible decision at best and a dangerous choice at worst.
Better materials are wool and synthetic polymer. Wool might have been the last material you imagined for athletic activity, but wool provides insulation against cold better than other materials. If you get the sock wet, it wicks the moisture away, and properties in the material help keep your feet warm despite the damp.
Merino wool is an excellent choice because it’s the most breathable of all wool types. It is lighter than traditional wool so you won’t feel like you’re carrying around blocks on your feet. It’s softer and relatively non-itchy. It’s breathable so you can hike on warmer days and feel less of the heat.
Polyester is another good choice because it’s durable. Synthetic fabrics retain their shape longer over time while providing the same benefits as natural wool. Many socks feature a blend of wool and polyester to create insulation and moisture wicking but maintain the shape longer and better than an all wool blend.
Choosing a weight
Hiking socks come in four different categories based on thickness. Take a minute to think about the type of weather you’ll do the majority of your hiking in and look for socks that match your specifications.
Ultra lightweight socks are the thinnest offering and are best for hot days and middle of the day hikes. It prioritizes breathability at the expense of padding, so it’s best for short-term hikes or ones that don’t feature heading over rough terrain.
Lightweight Socks are made for warm weather and feature a little more padding than the ultralight without sacrificing breathability. They are a good beginning sock for good weather and hikes that don’t feature difficult terrain. It’s best to use them without a liner for maximum breathability.
Midweight socks are more durable than the light or ultralight and feature more padding and thickness. They are suitable for lightly warm to cold weather and can provide more insulation from the cold. If you are hiking in the fall, in deeply wooded areas, or in the early mornings and evenings, these are particularly good transitional socks as they can go from light warmth to cold.
Heavyweight socks are for cold weather and cold sports. They are the heaviest and feature the most cushion but at the expense of breathability. They’ll be uncomfortable if the weather warms up, and over long distances, it’s recommended to use a liner to wick sweat away from the foot and prevent blistering. This weight prioritizes comfort and warmth.
Hiking socks also come in a variety of lengths. Look at the type of activities you’ll be doing on the trail and the type of shoe suited to those activities to find the right sock length. Ankle length socks are only suited to trail running shoes and ultra-low hiking shoes. Anything taller and your skin will come in contact with the shoe and cause discomfort and blisters.
Ankle socks come up just over the ankle and offer a bit more protection than no-shows. These are best for low hiking boots and trail shoes. Make sure that your shoe doesn’t come in contact with your skin.
Crew socks are the classic cut for hiking shoes and boots. They come up to a few inches above your ankle to offer more protection. These are best for traditional boots. There is no reason you can’t wear them with lower cut boots and trail shoes, but they may be hot if the weather is warmer or if you’re hiking in the middle of the day.
Knee-highs are the tallest sock and will be uncomfortable for anything other than cold weather hiking with heavy boots. That said, if you are hiking in the snow or mountaineering, these will provide plenty of protection through the shin and calf from thick boots and snow boots. They will also keep your legs warmer if you plan to hike through cold nights.
Getting the Right Fit
Socks are sized differently than shoes. When buying socks, make sure that you know the actual size of your foot rather than your shoe size. Sometimes shoes are sized up for comfort, but socks should fit exactly right.
If you don’t know your actual foot size, it helps to have it officially measured at a store. Getting advice on sock fit from a local outdoor retailer can help too.
The heel of the sock should line up exactly with your heel. If it bunches, the sock will cause abrasions and eventually blisters inside the shoe. If it is too snug, that can cause discomfort in the toe area through pressure points and encourage the sock to slip down below the lip of the shoe. Socks should fit snugly but not too tight.
Try on socks before you buy if you can and take your hiking boots with you so you’ll get an idea of how the entire set-up will feel.
Other Factors to Consider
Once you decide the right fit, weight, and height, you can consider other factors when choosing materials. Hiking socks have different pros and cons in different areas, so really consider the terrain of your central hiking area so that you’re prepared.
Does it rain a lot where you hike? Are there bodies of water or wet, low-lying areas that you cross? Although it might be cold outside, you’ll want to consider the drying speed of a sock that you purchase.
The thinner the sock, the faster it will dry. Every move you make for drying speed compromises insulation and vice versa. To get a good balance, you might choose a synthetic material rather than wool. Although you’ll never have the perfectly insulated but quick drying sock you dream about, you can find a good balance between the two.
If it’s warmer where you live, this might not matter at all, and if it’s freezing where you hike, it might not matter because you’ll be all zipped up. For those of you hiking in the in-between, consider the balance of dry time versus insulation so you don’t end up with a wet, cold foot.
Although many hiking socks are unisex, there are socks out there made for men and women. The differences are more evident in the look. Men’s socks tend to be darker or less patterned while women’s are brighter and more colorful on average.
A less noticeable difference is in the construction. Women’s feet tend to be narrower with a different measurement ration between the ball and heel. Women’s socks will consider that difference, so if you have trouble with socks bunching with moisture or longer usage, you might consider looking for socks with those considerations.
Cheap socks fall apart more easily. This is true about most things. If you want to be successful in your hiking efforts, it pays to invest a little more and get socks that will withstand the wear and tear of hiking.
In many tests, socks that are a blend of merino wool and nylon tended to last the longest. The trade-off is insulation, but depending on your climate might be well worth not buying socks as frequently.
Another option is to find a company that guarantees their socks for life. Some companies replace socks damage caused by wear making them an excellent investment.
Making your final decisions
You had no idea that socks could be so complicated, did you? Don’t get overwhelmed. Work through each section and carefully consider the environment of your major hiking area. Don’t just skip over this consideration.
Choosing the wrong height or fit can mean blisters and discomfort on the heel and toe of your foot. You have the potential of causing serious abrasions if you plan to walk through tall brush without the right length of sock.
If you don’t consider the breathability of the sock, then running trails on a hot day can be an unbearable experience. Alternately, choosing a sock that is too breathable won’t protect your feet in the cold and wet which can cause discomfort at best, and life-threatening hypothermia at worst.
Different materials can make or break your experience. Wool and synthetic fibers might be counterintuitive for strenuous activities, but these give you a better fit, more protection, and more durability over time. Finding the right balance of breathability, drying speed, and insulation requires a careful balance of these materials since you cannot have all three factors. Moving the bar in one direction requires sacrifices in the other.
Going slowly through the guide can help you make the right decisions the first time about what socks to invest in for a variety of conditions. The guide will give you a starting point, but be sure to check out a variety of weights and styles, and here’s the most significant factor, try them with your hiking boots.