A 5-mile hike requires around 10,000 steps on average. That’s 5,000 movements for each foot, and if you add sweat, dew, dirt, and sand to the mix, it’s a lot of potential for friction burns, blisters, and very sore feet.
A good pair of hiking socks can protect against some of this damage and ensure that your feet remain comfortable for every single one of those steps.
But what are the best hiking socks, what should you be looking for, and how do hiking socks differ from the socks you wear every day?
How Are Hiking Socks Different from Other Socks?
There are a few ways that hiking socks differ from regular socks, including:
Regular socks can be made from a variety of materials, but hiking socks are a little more specific.
For instance, while cotton is common in dress socks and casual socks, it’s never used in hiking socks. Cotton is comfortable, but it also clings to moisture and smells—that’s the last thing you want when you’re hiking long distances with sweaty feet.
Hiking socks focus more on moisture-wicking and odor-free materials. But they also need to be comfortable and durable, so cheap wool and synthetic fibers just won’t suffice. As a result, the best hiking socks contain merino wool, a type of wool that is both comfortable and practical.
Thick socks will keep you warmer and provide more protection against friction burns. Generally speaking, casual socks are usually very thin and simply won’t provide the warmth and protection you need during a cold-weather hike.
Hiking socks are usually thicker in areas that need extra padding and support, including the heel. Your hiking boots or shoes may rub against your feet and leave you with grazes, abrasions, and blisters. Hiking socks won’t prevent these entirely, but they will reduce the chance of them appearing and keep you comfortable throughout your hike.
Most clothing will last for years if you keep it in good condition, but that doesn’t always apply to socks. You likely wear and wash a pair of socks more often than an expensive suit, dress, or jacket. They are also subjected to a lot of wear and tear. More often than not, they are riddled with holes after just a few weeks or months.
Hiking socks are designed to last a little longer and won’t fall apart after a few miles or a single turn in the washing machine. After all, you subject them to a lot of friction, fluid, and dirt on your hike and they need to hold up against all of that.
What Are The Different Types of Hiking Socks?
There are several different types of hiking socks on the market, with the “type” mostly determined by the material used to make them:
Merino Wool Socks
Merino wool is a very common material used in premium hiking socks, as well as general winter socks, thermals, and other cold-weather gear.
Merino wool is simply the fleece shorn from merino sheep. It’s much softer than other types of wool but offer the same moisture-wicking properties, keeping your feet warm, dry, and odor-free.
When buying merino wool socks, check the actual merino wool content. Some brands use this label to refer to socks that are mostly synthetic fibers, with only a small amount of this premium wool. Such practices are very common on Amazon, where you’ll see “Merino Wool Socks” in the title, only to discover that the socks are 10% merino wool and 90% synthetic fabrics.
High-quality merino wool socks don’t always contain 100% or even 80% merino wool, and many are closer to 65% to 70%, but that’s sufficient to benefit from this material’s moisture-wicking and odor-absorbing features while still creating a stretchable, breathable, and comfortable sock.
IsoCool Hiking Socks
IsoCool is a breathable fabric that will keep your feet cool and dry. It’s the perfect material for use in summer hiking socks but as with merino wool, it’s not cheap.
Blended Hiking Socks
Blended hiking socks are simply socks that use a blend of materials. Most socks do this to an extent, such as using merino wool for the bulk of the hiking sock and nylon for the rest, but truly blended socks rarely use more than 50% of a single material.
You can expect to find a mixture of natural and synthetic materials in these hiking socks, including polyester, nylon, wool, and even cotton. You will also see small amounts of materials like spandex included, as these are used to create the elastic at the top of the socks.
Ankle Socks and Crew Socks
Crew socks are the most common type of hiking socks. They reach the middle of the calf and often have a ribbed design at the top, ensuring they stay put. These are the best hiking socks for cold weather hikes as they will keep more of your leg covered.
Ankle socks are often thin socks that are designed to be worn with shoes. They expose your ankles and calves and can be a good choice for warm weather hiking. In the winter, however, these socks are too cold.
What are Liner Socks for Hiking?
Liner socks are thin socks worn underneath other socks. They are breathable and moisture-wicking and they are a good option if you’re wearing other socks that don’t quite provide the benefits you seek.
They are not as common as they once were, however, as most hiking socks get the job done on their own. If you invest in a good hiking sock, one made of premium materials like merino wool, you shouldn’t need a liner sock.
You can still wear them if you feel more comfortable doing so and they have worked for you in the past, but if you’re new to liner socks, you’re better off investing that extra cash in a better hiking sock.
How Do I Choose Hiking Socks?
Now that you know the materials and styles that define hiking socks, how do you find the right ones for you?
Warm socks are a godsend during cold-weather hikes, but they will get very uncomfortable if you’re hiking in the summer or late spring.
Choose merino wool socks when it’s cold and cooling socks when it’s warm.
A lightweight sock is a good option if you have thick boots and don’t feel comfortable with very thick socks.
The socks should also provide support on the heel and sole, limiting the risk of blisters and allowing you to hike for miles without feeling the pinch.
Loose hiking socks are more likely to move around, generating fiction that could lead to blisters. If they fit too tightly, they will cut off your circulation and make for an uncomfortable hike.
If there is padding, check that it sits right on your feet and doesn’t make it difficult to get your feet inside your shoes.
You can usually pick up a few pairs of socks for less than $10 and even $5 at your local Walmart. But if you want a good pair of hiking socks, prepare to spend upwards of $20 per pair.
Quality hiking socks are made from quality materials, and they don’t come cheap!
Do the socks have any specific cooling technologies? What about a design that will keep your feet dry in the summer or warm in the winter? You’d be surprised at how advanced these socks can get, and those high-performance blends can lead to some eye-watering prices.
Summary: the Different Types of Hiking Socks
Whether you’re wearing a suit, dressing for a casual dinner, or getting ready for the gym, socks are usually optional. Sure, some people feel very strongly about not wearing socks with shoes/trousers, but other than being a minor faux pas for certain generations, no one really cares.
When it comes to hiking, however, socks are definitely not optional. A good pair of hiking socks can make all the difference.
They might be small, but where hiking (and winter hiking in particular) is concerned, socks are incredibly important.
Make the right choice here and you could save yourself the indignity of blisters, sweaty feet, and cold feet. Good socks will also last for years, assuming the sock fairies don’t get them first.