Anyone who has ever had to treat a blister in the middle of a 20-mile day hike will tell you that socks are one piece of gear you can't afford to scrimp on. That said, in an era where we're all trying to do more with less, do you really need to spend $12 on a single pair of socks? Depending on what you plan to do in those socks, how long you intend to wear them, and how intense your activity level is - you just might. Knowing how to choose the right pair of socks for any activity can save the day, both in overall comfort and protecting your feet.
When choosing socks, first look at the fabric content. You will find that most socks are made of a blend of different fabrics. Understanding the pros and cons of each will help you make a more informed decision.
When people think of wool, they usually think winter and cold weather, but Merino wool is so breathable that the fabric can be worn year round. Made from the wool of merino sheep that live predominantly in New Zealand, this yarn is extremely soft, cushiony, itch-free, highly durable, resists odors and shrinking. Extremely popular with hikers and backpackers, Merino wool is coveted by performance athletes because of its ability to wick and quickly evaporate moisture.
Made popular by companies such as SmartWool, Merino wool is more expensive that cotton, acrylic, or nylon, but it’s hard to beat its performance.
Less expensive than Merino wool, acrylic is an all-around versatile fabric. It is comfortable, provides good cushioning and dries reasonably fast.
Feet perspire - a lot. And if you combine wet skin with friction, you have the makings of a pretty good blister. Unfortunately, cotton socks are so good at trapping moisture that after a few miles of running or aggressive hiking, you basically have a wet washcloth wrapped around your feet. So for high-aerobic use, select socks with either low cotton content or no cotton at all. On the other hand, cotton is the most affordable fabric and is perfectly fine for casual wear or around town.
Nylon is blended in with other fabrics, often comprising 20% to 50% of the sock’s fabric. Nylon adds durability and strength, and dries quickly.
Elastane, Spandex, or Lycra.
This material adds a little bit of stretch and allows the sock to fit properly. Usually only a small percentage (2% to 5%) of the sock’s fabric content is made up of these materials.
Ankle socks (the shortest) and quarter socks (slightly taller) are great for running, biking, and any use with low-top shoes. Crew socks are best for hiking and backpacking, especially when wearing taller boots. Over-the-calf socks are great for skiing.
The thicker the sock, the greater the cushioning, especially when it has a high wool content. However, thicker socks are also warmer. In winter the choice is easy; go midweight or heavyweight unless you are running.
If you are hiking in summer you may want to experiment. Try out different thicknesses to see how they work. In warm weather you’ll want to go as light as long as you don’t get blisters. If you are racking up a lot of hiking miles, you will probably need to wear at least medium weight socks regardless of how hot it is.
For longer hikes it’s never a bad idea to carry spare socks of a different weight than what you are wearing. If you are on a multiday backpacking trip, bring multiple socks, starting each morning with a clean pair.
Socks can also be used as a fitting tool to fine tune the fit of footwear. If the shoe is too roomy, try a slightly thicker sock. If the shoe is too snug try wearing socks that are thinner.
Socks should fit snugly without cramping your toes or allowing extra material to fold, wrinkle, and cause friction. Your sock's heel should fit snugly around your heel. The arch area should fit snugly around your arch. Seams should be flat (especially on the toes) and should not rub or pinch any part of your foot.
Interior Sock Construction
Turn your sock inside out. If it doesn't have cushioning loops, it may not be providing the cushioning you need to help absorb moisture and protect your feet from the materials inside your footwear, especially more rigid hiking boots. Also, check the toe seams; if they're not flat, irritation and rubbing can occur, creating blisters.
Return to Top