Hiking Sock Buyer’s Guide
If you’ve ever looked into buying hiking socks, you may have quickly become overwhelmed. To be honest, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed when you’re staring at a wall of socks of different brands and terms that may not be familiar to you. What is a mid-weight micro-crew hiker anyway?
When it comes to socks, there are 4 primary methods for evaluating the sock. Those are:
- Design - what is the pattern, print etc?
- Material - what is the sock made of
- Cushioning - also known as weight. how thick is the sock material
- Length - how tall/long are the socks
- Fit - How tight does the sock fit through the toe, midsole, heel, etc?
With each of these components there is a personal preference aspect and a functional aspect. It might not bother you to go hiking in a low show ultralight sock with a hiking boot rubbing your ankle. For others, hiking in that sock and shoe combination might sound like torture. In any case, understanding your options helps you make a more informed decision.
Quick note: Hiking socks are typically sold as a single pair of socks (instead of 6+ packs) and start around $20 per pair. This is because the materials are higher quality than a typical cotton sock AND hiking sock materials are commonly manufactured in the United States. While they’re more expensive, the quality and durability features of a good hiking sock will be well worth it in the long run.
Hiking socks are no longer just hiking socks. If you were shopping for hiking socks 10 years ago, you likely would have seen products that were focused on function with little attention to design. The socks would have been a single monotone color. To put it nicely, the socks were boring.
This is not the case today. Today’s hiking socks are fun AND functional. Hiking sock designs are just as fun to show off to your friends at a gathering as they are for hiking a trail. So take advantage and buy hiking socks you’ll be able to wear on or off the hiking trail.
Hiking socks are typically made of a blend of materials chosen for their warmth, moisture wicking and comfort. We’ve listed the most popular hiking sock materials below. If we can stress only one thing in this post it would be to avoid cotton blend socks. Cotton is a poor insulator, poor elasticity and flat out bad at wicking moisture. Use cotton socks at your own peril.
Merino wool hiking socks
Notice we’re mentioning Merino wool and not simply wool. Merino wool is very soft and not itchy like the ragg wool of old. Merino wool is easily the most popular hiking sock material on the market. The natural qualities of wool make it a great component as a blended sock fabric. Wool is naturally moisture wicking, antimicrobial and a great at temperature regulation. It’s moisture wicking qualities means your socks will dry out quickly if you step in water, sweat in hot temperatures or need to wash your socks on a hiking camping trip. The antimicrobial factor means your socks will resist the odor better than other materials. Merino’s temperature regulation helps keep your feet warm without overheating in any season. Merino is a quality material but slightly less durable than synthetics which is why most Merino wool hiking socks are blended with one or more of the following.
Polyester hiking socks
Polyester is a synthetic material typically used for a variety of clothing items. Polyester is a great material for socks because it does not absorb moisture, can be produced in a way to be moisture wicking, has high elasticity, good shape retention and durability. Polyester is not used as an exclusive sock fabric because it attracts static electricity which means it attracts dirt and dust.
Nylon is a synthetic fiber that is sometimes used as a primary sock material. Nylon fibers are stronger than polyester and more elastic. Nylon is a great sock material because it’s light weight, soft and highly resistant to stretching.
Spandex is another material commonly found in hiking socks. Typically a small percentage component, Spandex is actually a polyurethane product. As a polyurethane product, spandex has some rubber-like qualities including being resistant to mildew or shrinking. Spandex will help your socks keep their ship and is a great material for the sock cuff.
Hiking sock cushioning
Hiking sock cushioning, also sometimes referred to as sock weight, is how thick the sock material is. Applying different levels of cushioning and materials to different areas of the sock is common for hiking and outdoor sock brands. There are benefits in terms of
Best use: run, vertical, bike
Ultralight hiking socks are light in terms of physical weight and generally the thinnest socks on the market. They will provide virtually no cushion but are built to be a tight fit and excellent at moisture wicking.
Light cushion hiking socks
Best use: hiking, lifestyle, athletic
Season: late spring, summer, early fall
Light cushioning hiking socks will provide slight cushioning, but will still be thin. Light hiking socks are best for warm temperatures and will generally prioritize moisture wicking and ventilation over insulation and warmth. Light cushion hiking socks should not be expected to keep your feet warm in cool/cold temperatures.
Medium cushion hiking socks
Best use: hiking, hunting, work
Season: winter, early spring & late fall
Medium weight hiking socks are the base hiking sock. Depending on the brand, medium cushion hiking socks may evenly distribute the cushion through the whole sock or focus more cushion to the heel and toe. If you see a medium weight “hiking” sock, that likely means the cushion may be focused in the heel and toe leaving more ventilation in the arch and top of the foot. If the cushion is evenly distributed, you might see the sock called an “outdoor” sock.
Best use: hiking, hunting, winter camping
Heavy weighted hiking socks are really a specialty sock intended for the coldest temperatures. Heavy hiking socks are likely too warm for anything but longer outdoor exposure in the backcountry or winter conditions.
Hiking socks come in a variety of lengths with the most popular being low show, ankle and crew length. Sock length is likely a personal preference, though, the taller the shoe the longer the sock is a general guideline.
No show (aka footie)
No show socks sit well below your ankle. No show socks are best for running, walking or casual wear. No show socks shouldn’t be expected to protect the ankle from rubbing against your footwear.
Low show hiking socks sit at the ankle. Ankle socks will usually be seen if you’re wearing a low top shoe and provide some protection from ankle rub on lower rising shoes. Ankle socks would not be recommended for hiking boots because they could lead to blisters.
Micro crew socks end between a classic crew and an ankle sock. Micro crew socks are great for high top shoes to prevent ankle blisters. Micro crew hiking socks are also more likely to be found in a light weight which is a great choice for hotter days when a standard crew length might be too warm.
Crew socks rise to the middle of the calf, end well above the ankle but do not rise above the calf. Crew socks are the standard for hiking socks. Crew socks will protect your feet and ankles from rubbing against hiking boots.
Over the calf
Over the calf socks are also sometimes referred to as knee socks. As the name implies, over the falk socks cover the entire calf and end just below the knee. Over the calf hiking socks are commonly, though not always, a heavy cushion for warmth.
Hiking sock fit
Different sock makers have different formulas for how to produce socks that meet the needs of the trail. If you’ve ever purchased a cheap pair of socks that slide off your heel or a pair of crew length socks that slide down because the cuff material loses its grip, you can appreciate a well constructed sock that stays on your foot.
Having the right combination of width and cushioning in the toe of your sock will have a big impact on comfort. This isn’t typically a concern with light or ultralight cushioning. For medium and heavy weighted socks, you’ll want to test your sock and shoe combination to make sure you have enough room for your toes to fit comfortably.
Have ever seen a sock where the midsole is slightly smaller than the toe or the heel? This could mean a tighter fit, more ventilation or less cushioning. More ventilation in a light weight sock could be a great at helping cool your foot in summer months though will be less effective at keeping your foot warm in winter months.
Most people have had an ankle or no show sock slip of their heel. The last thing you want on a trail is to have your sock slide down into your shoe or boot. Different brands will cup the bottom of your heel and compress the back of the heel is a nice level of comfort whether you’re wearing a no show ultralight sock and hiking shoe or a midweight crew sock.
The cuff is the part of the sock that keeps your sock up. Ever been annoyed with a crew length sock that repeatedly falls to your ankle? This is an all too common experience for socks off the shelf from big box retailers. Having a well constructed sock with quality materials (not cotton) helps alleviate this issue in a big way.