How To Choose the Best Socks

Prevent blisters with the right socks for the activity and conditions.

Common mistake: spending a lot of time choosing outdoor shoes, and not enough time choosing socks to match. The right socks will keep your feet dry, comfortable in both hot and cold weather, cushioned, and (somewhat) fresh, while the wrong ones can make your feet a sweaty, blistery mess.

Technical socks for hiking, running, cycling, and winter activities are designed to wick sweat, dry quickly, provide insulation, breathe, and lend your feet support and padding—above and beyond your everyday socks. Not only should they prevent blisters, they should also keep your feet feeling ready to take on the next challenge. Here are the major qualities to think about.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • The pros and cons of different sock materials
  • The differences between various sock weights
  • How to choose the best sock height
  • Which socks are best for which activities
  • How to get the right fit

Materials

Most outdoor socks use a blend of materials to provide a good balance of moisture management, thermoregulation, and durability. The most common ones are:

Merino Wool

Soft and itch-free, merino wool is popular in socks because it’s very breathable, wicks moisture away from the skin, feels comfortable in both hot and cold weather, provides cushion, and has naturally antimicrobial properties that battle stink. It’s not as durable as synthetic fibers, though, and takes longer to dry, which is why it’s blended with other materials; you won’t find a technical pair of 100-percent wool socks.

Polyester & Nylon

These synthetic materials wick sweat well and dry quickly, and they last longer than wool (particularly nylon). Coolmax is a type of polyester you’ll see often in socks because it excels at wicking and drying.

Spandex/Lycra

Performance socks often include a small percentage of these stretchy fibers to add arch support and help the socks hold their shape.

Other Materials

Thin liner socks are sometimes made of silk, a light, wicking material. You might also see acrylic or polypropylene, both synthetics, added to sock blends, or natural rayon (derived from plants).

Weight and Cushion

Sock weights range from ultrathin no-shows to thick, cushy knee-highs. Generally, the thicker the sock, the warmer it will be; the thinner, the more breathable and wicking.

Lightweight

Thin and light, these socks are great for warmer weather. Running and cycling socks often fit into this category because they prioritize breathability. But some lightweight socks do feature extra cushion under the heel and ball of the foot to help absorb the shock of each step. Many hikers and backpackers prefer this weight, especially when paired with lightweight footwear in warm weather.

Midweight

A good all-around sock type, midweights have more cushion while still wicking sweat and keeping feet comfortable in a wide variety of conditions and all seasons. Many hiking socks fall into this category, and the extra padding makes them especially good for backpacking.

Heavyweight

The thickest, warmest, springiest socks of the lot, heavyweights are best for mountaineering and chilly camping nights. Some heavyweight socks are so thick that they change the fit of your shoe, so check before buying.

Height

How low—or high—to go? That depends on the intended use, conditions, and your shoes.

Low/No-show 

These low-profile socks pair nicely with light, low-cut shoes and are popular in running and cycling designs. Low socks are also comfortable in hot weather. Caveat: They can let grit and dirt sneak in, irritating your foot.

Ankle/Quarter

Cut to cover the ankle, these lowish socks still work well with low-cut shoes but provide more protection from grit.

Crew

These socks reach to the middle of the calf, making them good matches for mid- or high-cut hiking boots. They’re also warmer than their shorter counterparts.

Knee-high

The highest cut socks are made for skiing, snowboarding, and mountaineering, as well as compression socks designed for recovery. These socks provide cushion when you’re wearing rigid, heavy-duty boots.

Speciality Socks

Many socks are designed especially for certain outdoor pursuits, while others tout specialized features for specific uses.

Cycling

Socks made for pushing the pedals tend to be shorter and lighter to maximize breathability; some even have mesh panels. They’re often light on cushioning, and might include reflective elements.

Trail Running

Like cycling socks, trail runners are typically lower-cut and lightweight, sometimes with mesh panels. Some have little cushioning, but others include more padding underfoot.

Skiing

Knee-high ski socks have extra padding on the shin and parts of the underfoot area to make your feet feel better in rigid ski boots.

Mountaineering

Made for long days in very cold environments, knee-high mountaineering socks are cushy (great for wearing with heavy boots), thick, and warm.

Liner Socks

These superthin silk or synthetic socks are made to be worn under another pair of socks. The wicking they provide, combined with the double layer (which reduces friction), help prevent blisters.

Compression

These knee-high socks have a very snug fit to increase blood flow to your leg muscles and reduce swelling; some have graduated compression, fitting tightest at the ankle and tapering off up the leg. They’re made to be worn during activities or afterward to speed recovery. 

A Note About Fit

Even the best socks in the world won’t do you any favors if they’re bunchy, sloppy, or too tight. Make sure to check how the socks fit your feet—the heel and arch of the sock should line up with your foot’s, and there shouldn’t be any rubbing or irritation along the seams. Also check how they fit with your shoes. Midweight socks might make your running shoes feel a bit tight, for example. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.