Cotton vs Merino Wool for Hiking Socks

Cotton vs Merino Wool for Hiking Socks

For any hiking adventure, you want to outfit yourself with the best gear possible so you can stay safe and comfortable. When it comes to your feet, this includes properly breaking in your hiking boots, as well wearing the right kinds of hiking socks and sock liners. This combination is key for blister prevention, and can be the biggest difference when it come to a fun hike or a duct tape or moleskin covered foot.

But which is better: cotton vs Merino wool for hiking socks? This question is an age old discussion, but the tables have turned heavily since the introduction of Merino wool. Merino wool is our top choice for hiking socks and any base layers, and there’s several reasons why. Read on to learn more!

What is Merino wool?

Merino is a breed of sheep that’s farmed for its soft wool. Because of Merino wool’s thin diameter, it isn’t itchy like more traditional wools. It’s become widely used in technical fabrics for outdoor enthusiasts, especially in socks and base layers.

What is cotton?

Cotton is a natural fiber that comes from cotton plants. It’s a plant that needs a lot of sun, very little frost, and significant water. The cotton comes from a fluffy fiber that grow in the boll of the plant – which is then spun into yarn that can create soft fabrics.

cotton vs merino wool hiking socks

Why You Should Have Merino Wool Socks

Perhaps one of the most magical properties of wool is its ability to wick moisture. Wool only absorbs about 30% of its weight in water, while cotton can absorb up to 2,700%. While this seems backwards, it’s better that wool doesn’t absorb as much moisture because then it doesn’t hold water and make your skin more prone to blisters. Instead, it distributes the moisture so it’s not trapped next to your skin, and lets it dissipate gradually and evaporate through the outer layers. This helps your feet stay more dry and comfortable.

In addition to its moisture wicking capabilities, wool is also great for temperature regulation. It’s proved itself to be better than synthetic or cotton fabrics, no matter the time of year. It’s comfortable in most temperature conditions. In cold weather, it’s shown to be warmer than synthetic fibers of the same weight, and in warm weather it wicks moisture more effectively.

Wool is also naturally antimicrobial and odor resistant, making it the perfect material for multi-day treks and adventures. You can go longer between washes without sacrificing smell or durability.

Pros & Cons of Merino Wool


  • Wicks moisture,
  • Cushions your foot,
  • Comfortable in most temperature conditions,
  • Odor resistant,
  • Naturally antimicrobial,
  • Lasts longer,
  • Warmer than synthetic fibers of the same weight


  • Dries slower after soaking,
  • More expensive.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to Merino wool gear is the cost, which is significantly higher than cotton or synthetics. While it is more expensive to buy, it can even out in the long run because wool lasts so much longer and can be worn for longer periods at a time.

Also, wool can be used in combination with synthetic materials such as Nylon and Lycra. This helps them retain their shape, dry faster, wick moisture, and stay more durable.

“Cotton is Rotten”

You may have heard this saying before, or even something along the lines of “cotton kills.” While these are extreme examples of why you shouldn’t be wearing cotton, the basic theory behind it rings true: wet base layers work against you, especially in cold weather.

If you’re hiking in the cold, even if you feel cold initially, the hard work will warm you up and make you sweat. With about 250,000 sweat glands in each foot, the first body part to get wet is going to be your feet. At some point, you’re going to stop physical activity, and if you are wearing cotton socks that get wet and hold moisture, you’re going to get cold faster. Not only will the atmosphere draw warmth from your body, but the wet socks will help this process (perhaps a little too much) and draw away even more heat. In extreme circumstances, you could risk hypothermia and severe cold related illness. Instead, stay warm during cold weather hiking by wearing Merino wool socks and base layers.

When You Should Wear Cotton

Cotton is not recommended for active uses but is still suitable for casual use. One of the biggest pros of having cotton material products is affordability. If you’re not planning on getting sweaty, you can save yourself the money and wear cotton clothing and socks. Some might argue that you can wear Merino wool all day, every day, but that may not be affordable or sustainable for the average person.

How to Pick the Best Hiking Socks

When picking out the best hiking socks, you should consider sock height (no-show, ankle, crew, or knee-high), cushioning (no cushioning, light, medium, and heavy cushioning), fabric, and fit. We recommend crew for most situations when it comes to hiking, since it’s a great length for blister prevention and most shoe types. Cushioning is personal preference, but we like light or medium cushion for our outdoor adventures. We’ve taken the time to assemble the list of the best hiking socks so you can find the right one for you!


Are cotton or wool socks better for hiking?

Wool is 100% better when it comes to choosing the best socks for hiking. While it’s more expensive, the material is better in all aspects: durability, moisture-wicking, odor control, cushioning, warmth, and it’s naturally antimicrobial.

Are Merino wool socks good for hiking?

Merino wool socks (or wool/synthetic blends) are the top choice for hiking socks. They offer the best durability, moisture-wicking, warmth, and quality.

Are cotton socks good for hiking?

No! As the saying goes, “cotton is rotten.” The material will hold on to moisture, making you more prone to blisters. We recommend Merino wool hiking socks for your next outdoor adventure!

What socks are best for hiking?

Merino wool or wool/synthetic blend socks are the best option for hiking. Never hike in cotton socks. Wool is much better when it comes to durability, warmth, moisture-wicking, and so much more!

About the Author

Ashley Vitiello

Ashley is an adventurous soul who loves all things nature, especially warm sunshine, hiking, wildflowers, and mushrooms. If she isn’t writing content for Know Nothing Nomads, she’s probably in a forest looking at big mountain views and tiny pieces of moss on the side of the trail.

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