How to Choose Hiking Socks: Picking the Perfect Pair

By: Ashley Vitiello | Last Updated on May 2, 2024

Master the art of hiking comfort with our detailed guide on how to choose hiking socks. Navigate cushioning, materials, and heights for optimal fit. The perfect sock is out there waiting for you!

Whether you’re trekking through the mountains, hiking in the forest, or exploring your local trails, you’ll need a few essentials to make your adventure fun-filled and safe. For every mile you walk, you’re taking a couple thousand steps, and you should take care of your feet so they can take you from point A to point B.

That means having the right footwear, which includes hiking socks that will help keep your feet dry and blister free. But what makes a good hiking sock? We’re here to answer all your questions about how to choose hiking socks. We’ll cover all the features and important things to consider so you can choose the right socks no matter which hiking shoe you like to wear.

In order to choose hiking socks for you and your journey, you’ll need to consider the following:

  • Sock height or how tall a sock sits on your leg.
  • Cushioning or how padded a sock it.
  • Fabric type and how this affect moisture wicking and temperature regulation.
  • Features like a lifetime guarantee and seamless toes.
  • Hiking sock fit and size like how it fits your specific foot.

Types of Socks

Before we go into the features of hiking socks and what to look for, why do you even need hiking socks? The simplest answer is that hiking socks are made for hiking, and few can replace the optimized fabric choices, cushioning, and height that make for a great hiking sock. Let’s look at the main types of socks and why they aren’t ideal for hiking.

Running Socks

Best for: road running

Running socks are usually lightweight cushioned or even ultralight and are either no-show or ankle height. They can be made from similar fabrics as hiking socks (but not always) and while they can double as hiking socks, that’s not their ideal application.

A lightweight sock does not have the cushioning we need for our hiking boots or shoes, and we dislike how the lower height is prone to letting dirt and small pebbles get into our socks and shoes. In addition, they’re less likely to contain Merino wool, which is one of the best materials you could have in a hiking sock.

Skiing & Snowboarding

Best for: snow sports and winter adventures

Winter socks intended for skiing and snowboarding (and other snow sports) will be knee high and have heavy cushioning to help keep your toes warm. They will usually contain Merino wool since it’s great for maintaining warmth, but we find that the tall height and heavy cushioning is too much for the average hiker. If you are winter hiking or mountaineering with tall and heavy boots, you may be able to use ski socks but overall they are best left for the powder chasers.

Hiking Socks

Best for: hiking, backpacking, thru-hiking, trail running

A good pair of hiking socks will make an adventure that much more fun and enjoyable and they’re well worth investing in a few good pairs. They come in a variety of heights, and are built for heavy use on hiking and backpacking trips.

As for cushioning, they range from light to heavy depending on your intended use and season. They work well with most shoes that you would wear outdoors and are made of materials that focus on wicking sweat while keeping your feet clean, dry, and not smelly.

Our personal favorite is any crew height sock (or micro crew or 3/4 crew) with medium cushioning. We find that this is the perfect balance of warmth, sweat-wicking, and cushioning to stay comfortable all day long.

Liner Socks

Best for: hiking, backpacking, thru-hiking, trail running

Hiking sock liners are a thinner sock that goes under your hiking socks. They are ideal for blister prevention and we highly recommend trying them out, especially if you struggle with blisters while hiking.

They work by taking the friction that would normally happen between your foot and sock, and redirect it between the two pairs of socks. Plus, they help wick even more moisture, and having dry feet is one of the biggest secrets to remaining blister-free. We haven’t struggled with blisters since we started wearing liner socks!

Every Day Socks

Best for: casual, every-day wear

So why invest in hiking socks when you already have plenty of every day socks in your sock drawer? Well, daily wear socks tend to be made mostly of cotton, which is the worst material you could wear while hiking. While cotton socks are extremely affordable and great for casual wear, they hold on to moisture and will give you blisters in a heart beat. Plus, they usually don’t have any cushioning.

We have lots of every day socks in our drawer, but we also have lots of hiking socks that are better for getting outdoors and hiking.

Compression Socks

Best for: hiking, running, travel, casual

Compression socks for hiking are less common, but there are some great options out there. They are made from similar fabrics as hiking socks but usually have a light cushioning, are knee high, and contain less Merino wool. Compression socks maximize circulation using graduated compression, which can help reduce discomfort and swelling, especially if you have circulation issues.

Waterproof Socks

Waterproof hiking socks are ideal for those who hike in really wet conditions for extended periods of time, especially when the weather is cold or if the water is chilly. They may look like regular socks from the outside, but they have a waterproof mid-layer that keeps out water, even if you’re standing directly in it.

Neoprene Socks

Neoprene hiking socks can either keep your feet dry or wet depending on the specific sock, but either way they provide insulation in wet conditions that wouldn’t normally get with regular hiking socks.

Hiking Sock Height

There’s a wide variety of different sock heights, each with their own intended purpose. In our experience, we love anything that’s crew height or something similar like 3/4 crew or micro crew. We feel like it’s the ideal length for hiking boots or trail runners and offers enough ankle protection without covering too much of your leg.

Overall, sock height is personal preference, so let’s talk about each kind.

No-Show

No show socks are like your classic running shoe socks. They sit just below your ankle bone and are hardly visible when wearing sneakers or trail running shoes. These are great options for hikers who prioritize breathability and a minimalist socks that won’t show.

On the downside, their low height makes them prone to sliding down, leaving your heel susceptible to blisters. In addition, they don’t protect your ankles from brush on the side of the trail and they can let dirt and pebbles into your socks and shoes.

These are my every-day wear no-show socks.

Ankle

Ankle socks or quarter socks hit just above the ankle bone. These resist sliding down more than no-show socks without adding much more fabric. This makes them great for some hiking footwear and people who want a little more coverage than no-show. On the downside, they can still be prone to letting in dirt and pebbles, and may not be tall enough for hiking boots.

Crew

As stated above, crew socks and similar heights like 3/4 crew and micro crew are our favorite. Most hiking socks and liner socks will be crew height, which we believe to be the perfect balance of protection and comfort.

They are the perfect height for hiking boots and offer lower leg protection from brush on the side of the trail. Because they sit just a few inches above your ankle, they also help prevent dirt and small pebbles from getting into the top of your socks.

how to choose hiking socks
Darn Tough are our go-to hiking socks. These are called Micro Crew, which is very similar to crew height socks.

Mid-Calf

Just like the name says, mid-calf hiking socks go halfway up your shin. These are great for really tall hiking and mountaineering boots or for people who want the extra coverage. Otherwise, these socks will probably be too tall and warm for the average hiker.

These Stance socks are one of my favorite patterns and they are mid-calf.

Knee High

If you want the highest level of protection from brush then knee high is the way to go. You won’t find this height in all brands since it has a more specific purpose for mountaineering. Not only does it keep your lower legs warmer during cold weather, but the high socks help prevent abrasion on your calves and shins from tall, heavy mountaineering boots.

These knee-high Smartwool socks are my go-to snowboarding and winter weather socks.

Hiking Sock Cushioning

There are four different categories of sock weights or thicknesses: no cushioning, light cushioning (or lightweight), medium cushioning (or midweight), and heavy cushioning (or heavyweight).

No Cushioning

Best for: hot and warm weather or as sock liners

These ultralight socks are meant for use during warm and hot weather hiking because they are very breathable. They will help keep your feet cool and can help wick moisture away from sweaty feet. However, they have barely any padding and only a handful of hiking socks are made this way. You’ll find more liner socks in this category, as well as running and biking socks. The only socks we have with no cushioning are our liner socks.

Light Cushioning

Best for: Warm weather and day hikes

Light cushioned socks are still great for hiking in warm weather but add breathable panels and a little cushioning in key places like the ball of the foot and heel. They’re still thin, so the lower amounts of cushioning helps prioritize moisture wicking properties to keep your feet dry. These are our favorite for most hiking situations – check out best summer hiking socks.

Midweight Socks with Medium Cushioning

Best for: Warm, mild, or cool weather for most distances

Medium cushioning is when you start getting into socks that are best for warm and mild weather or even cooler conditions like what you may see in a shoulder season. We love that they are a great all-around sock that’s versatile enough to be appropriate for most conditions for the average hiker. They still are great at wicking moisture, but start to give equal priority to warmth and thicker cushioning throughout the bottom of the foot.

These are light, medium, and heavy cushioning (bottom to top) socks.

Heavyweight Socks with Heavy Cushioning

Best for: colder weather and long distance trips

Full cushion socks or those with extra cushioning are best for cold weather since they’re thicker socks that focus on keeping your feet warm. The extra cushioning is great for longer trips on tough terrain like backpacking and even mountaineering. They will still be made of materials that are intended to wick moisture but the focus moves to warmth instead of sweat management. We believe that unless you’re hiking in winter conditions, you should have lighter cushioning than this.

Hiking Sock Fabric Type

Hiking socks are normally made of a blend of several materials, both synthetic and natural. This combination allows companies to combine the best features of different materials to create a product that’s really good at its job.

Wool adds moisture wicking and odor resistance while nylon adds durability and elastane/spandex adds stretch. Silk also has some uses and COOLMAX is a type of polyester commonly seen in modern designs.

Merino Wool

Merino wool is our preferred material when it comes to hiking socks and it has many natural properties that make it ideal for this application. Merino sheep are a breed of sheep that are known for their soft fleece, which is much softer than traditional scratchy wool.

The fibers are naturally odor-resistant and anti-microbial so they retain less sweat and odor. This makes Merino wool socks ideal for multi-day hiking trips where you don’t get to regularly wash your socks. It also quite durable and regulates temperature by keeping your feet warm in the cold weather and cool in hot weather.

Polyester & COOLMAX

COOLMAX socks are made from a type of polyester, which is a synthetic material that dries quickly, wicks moisture, and is pretty durable. Sometimes COOLMAX or polyester will take the place of wool as the majority ingredient in hiking socks, which is a great alternative for any vegan hikers. Other times, you’ll see polyester in addition to Merino wool and other materials for an optimized blend.

Nylon

Nylon is another synthetic material that can be anywhere from a small percentage of a sock’s material to a significant portion. Its main function is to add durability, but it can also help improve drying times.

Elastane/Spandex

Most hiking socks will have a small percentage of spandex (less than 5%), which add stretchiness. This helps socks retain their shape and prevent bunching.

Silk

Silk is seen in super lightweight socks and sock liners, but because it’s not as durable, it’s not as common. It’s good at moisture wicking and is natural insulator that’s super soft to the touch.

Hiking Sock Features

Hiking sock height, cushioning, and materials are the main factors to look for in socks, but there are a few other things to take into consideration as well.

Lifetime Guarantee & Warranty

Expect to pay upwards of $15-$25 per pair of hiking socks. This can seem like it’s expensive at first, but know that it’s well worth it. Not only are hiking socks made of some of the best materials available, but they’re built to last.

To help balance out the price, look for brands that offer a lifetime guarantee. One of the reasons why we wear so many Darn Tough socks is because of their amazing unconditional guarantee. You can return your socks for a new pair at any point in their life and they will replace them for free. This is simply the best warranty in the industry, but other major brands (like Smartwool, Farm to Feet, Fox River, and more) do have some kind of warranty in place.

Company Sustainability

If you love to support businesses with big sustainability goals like we do, then know that a lot of the socks brands we recommend are from great companies. Socks by Darn Tough, REI, and WRIGHTSOCK are all made in the USA. Farm to Feet takes it a step further by using materials, factories, and employees that are only USA based.

RWS Merino Wool

Part of sustainability is using RWS-certified Merino wool. RWS stands for Responsible Wool Standard and refers to a practice that helps farming Merino sheep stay responsible. This includes animal welfare protection, land health preservation, and the social welfare of workers. Look for RWS-certified Merino wool as much as possible.

Seamless Toe

Not all socks are created equal, so look for ones that have a seamless toe. No matter which sock it is, it will still have something in that area, but the smaller the better. If you can try them on with your hiking shoes, you’ll know pretty quickly if the seam will be bothersome or not.

No sock will have zero seam, but you can see how this Darn Tough seam hardly sticks out at all.

Compression Paneling

The small percentage of elastane or spandex in hiking socks is what gives them the stretchy feeling. This helps the socks return to the original shape after wearing, but it also gives companies the opportunity to put compression paneling in the sock. This keeps the sock tight in the arch of the foot to keep the sock in place.

Ventilation

Some hiking socks will have ventilation panels on the top of your foot. This is mainly in ultralight and lightweight cushioned socks and will help provide some ventilation in an area where you don’t really need the extra cushioning anyway.

Hiking Sock Fit & Size

Getting the right fit is essential in picking out your new hiking socks, so make sure they fit properly before wearing them on any adventures. Use your shoe size and the manufacturer provided size chart to see what size you should order. Socks are normally (but not always) gender-specific and come in small, medium, and large sizes.

When you put the sock on your foot, it should be snug but not constricting or overly tight. The heel cup should line up with your foot and you should avoid any excess material that can bunch up and make the wearer uncomfortable.

Toe Socks vs Regular Socks

It’s worth mentioning toe socks versus regular socks. Toe socks are shaped exactly like your foot and have thin sleeves that go over each toe. It take some getting used to at first, but once you’re settled in they can really help with blisters and moisture management. It could be worth a try if you struggle with those things, but overall we personally wear regular socks more often.

FAQ

What kind of socks should I wear when hiking?

When you’re hiking you should wear socks made of Merino wool that are crew height, or just a few inches above your ankle bone. Choose a cushioning level that is ideal for the weather you usually hike in, and make sure the fabric is sweat-wicking so it can help prevent blisters when possible.

Should hiking socks be thin or thick?

Socks for hiking can be thick or thin depending on what kind of temperatures you normally hike in. Thicker socks with heavy cushioning are best for cold weather adventures, thinner socks with light cushioning are best for hot or warm weather, and medium cushioning is best for mild and warm conditions. Pick based on what you normally hike in.

What is the 2 sock method for hiking?

The 2 sock method is using a pair of socks in combination with sock liners. This helps prevent blisters by letting friction happen between the two pairs of socks instead of between your skin and socks. This method can also help with moisture management when both socks are made of materials that help with that.

What percentage wool should hiking sock be?

We usually aim for about 40-60% Merino wool for our socks. Anything more and you’re starting to sacrifice durability, and anything less you aren’t going to benefit enough from the natural properties of the wool. The other portion of the socks should be nylon and/or polyester with a tough of spandex or elastane.

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About The Author

Ashley is an adventurous soul who loves all things nature, especially warm sunshine, wildflowers, scenic snacking, and mushrooms. She is an avid outdoor enthusiast who has spent years enjoying time outside doing things like hiking, camping, and rock climbing.
Her goal with Know Nothing Nomads is to make these hobbies easily accessible through knowledgeable content and how-to's based on all the stuff she's learned on her journey. If she isn't writing an article, 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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We are Derek and Ashley of Know Nothing Nomads. Whether it is hiking, camping, or just generally being outside, we love it. We are so happy that you have found our little blog and hope that you stick around a while. Feel free to contact us with any questions or get in touch with us on social media!

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