Best Wool Socks of 2023
Here are our top picks after testing merino socks along the Oregon Coast Trail
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For plenty of outdoors people wool socks are the top choice, specifically merino wool socks. No matter how hard synthetic fibers try, they just can’t match the temperature regulation, wicking potential, and odor control of wool. To find the best wool socks, we took seven different pairs from the likes of Darn Tough, Smartwool, and Farm to Feet out on a section of the 362-mile Oregon Coast Trail to see which could go the distance.
We tested wool socks as part of the inaugural Outdoor Life backpacking gear testing trip. Our team of experienced backpackers (ranging from a lifetime total of 500 miles to 11,000 miles) took wool socks from seven of the most popular manufactures on a section hike of the Oregon Coast Trail to see which impressed and which we’d leave at home. We wore these socks primarily with trail runners and hiking sandals, and switched them out daily—sometimes using different socks on each foot to better understand how one stacked up against another.
The Oregon Coast offered up a range of tough conditions for the socks we looked at, including long stretches of sand, deep mud, and high humidity. We assessed socks for comfort, fit, and how prone they were to causing blisters. At the end of the testing trip, our testers took socks back to their usual stomping grounds to continue testing: Alaska, Utah, and the Cascade Range. Knowing how tough outdoors enthusiasts can be on their socks, we also considered warranty policies.
Our testers all agree: The Darn Tough Light Hiker is exactly what a wool sock should be. The tightness of the weave is comfortable in beach grit and forest mud alike. It hugs your foot just enough to stay perfectly in place, but not so much to restrict movement or blood flow. It’s got plenty of ventilation out the top and a nice cushioned underfoot. And when they eventually give out (no sock is truly built for life for a thru-hiker), Darn Tough will replace them (multiple of us had tested that part out, too). That takes the price tag of these socks from being on the steep side to a total steal. And plenty of day hikers may never need to replace them at all: A single pair can easily go for 800 miles or more.
Most of us on the Oregon Coast Trail had used Darn Tough Light Hikers before, and this trip reconfirmed our commitment to this sock. It’s one of the biggest no-brainer choices when I’m packing for a trip. They are such high-performers that they typically pull double-duty for me as everyday socks, too, and they are even what I wore on my first deer hunt. The only time they stay in my closet is when temperatures plunge below freezing—then I upgrade to Darn Tough’s heavyweight hunting sock.
Farm to Feet
While nearly all of the best sock brands are based out of the U.S., Farm to Feet takes this to the next level by sourcing the raw materials (merino wool, nylon, and spandex) from U.S. suppliers as well. That supports American workers and businesses, and cuts the overall carbon emissions by shrinking the distance raw materials travel to Farm to Feet’s North and South Carolina manufacturing facilities.
Farm to Feet’s Damascus sock is well padded on both the top and bottom, and made from a high-performing blend of merino wool and nylon. For our testing crew, the elastic along the upper was a hair tight on our calves (serious backpackers rarely have skinny legs), and the extra bulk from the upper padding took up a noticeable amount of space in our shoes. While this sock doesn’t quite have the versatility of the Darn Tough Light Hiker, it’s an excellent mid to late season option. When the temperatures run even colder than that, check out Farm to Feet’s Kodiak.
It’s tough to convince our testers that there might be a sock that they like more than Darn Tough, but the Tough Cutie Merino Wool Hiker came close. The Tough Cutie Hiker has a great fit, wrapping around the arch with just a touch of spandex to stay in place. It’s cushioned across the heel and the entire ball of the foot. There is great venting and flex across the top of the ankle, maximizing range of motion.
The only drawback is that there are no wide width or men’s options currently available, which may be limiting for women who typically purchase men’s socks and shoes to accommodate a wider width foot.
Merino wool remains the most popular fiber for socks because of its inherent qualities: temperature regulation, moisture management, odor control. And the more merino wool your sock contains, the better job it will do at all of those things. But maximizing the amount of merino wool in your sock can have trade offs: with comfort and with durability—even high-grade merino wool isn’t as soft and durable as nylon and polyester. Most so-called wool socks really top at about 60 percent merino wool, with several of our top picks not even clearing 50 percent.
The Icebreaker Crew sock had the highest percentage of merino wool of any of the socks we tested. In addition to merino’s natural wicking ability, it also had a very thin upper, maximizing its performance in hot temperatures. Where it suffered most was in comfort: The texture of this sock was just rougher, thanks to all that scaly merino wool. For colder weather, try Icebreaker’s Merino Mountaineer Mid Calf Sock.
While very few of the socks in our test actively caused blisters on our testers’ feet, the Montbell Merino Toe Sock was the only one that actively prevented them. Typically, blisters show up in between toes when they rub against one another when you hike (particularly if you are sweating), creating a pocket of fluid that eventually bursts. By encasing each toe in its own separate pocket, the Montbell Merino Wool Travel 5 Toe Socks allowed our toes to glide smoothly without rubbing together. It did take our testers a bit of time to get used to the feeling of fabric between their toes, but most were able to forget about it after only a few miles of hiking.
While these socks were some of the most affordable in our test, they did lack the underfoot cushioning and venting on the upper that are typically associated with best-in-class hiking socks. Testers also noted that the fabric felt more like a synthetic than a typical wool sock, but that this didn’t detract from its performance or comfort.
Read Next: Should You Pop a Blister While Hiking?
Our Oregon Coast Trail testing trip took us from chilly 40-degree mornings to 80-degree full-sun afternoons. We oscillated between puffer jackets (and puffer pants) and shorts with the best hiking shirts. But our socks had to pull double-duty, keeping our feet warm at the start of the day without overheating when the mercury jumped. Of all the socks we looked at, the Smartwool Hike had the best ventilation on top, which accentuates the wicking power of its 56 percent merino content. It was also one of the softer socks we tested, earning praise from our testers.
The biggest downside to the Smartwool Hike is its warranty—only two years. If you’re looking for a true lifetime sock, one of the other picks on this list will serve you better.
While Smartwool also makes our favorite sock for skiing, for everyday cold-weather temps their Mountaineer Classic Edition Maximum Cushion Crew Socks is a best-in-class choice.
Our testers struggled with the Point6 Essential Light Crew. While other wool socks in this test hugged our feet, staying put on days where we hiked upwards of 15 miles, the Point6 sock tended to slide around. On the first day of hiking, when assistant gear editor Ashley Thess knocked out 19 miles between the start of the Oregon Coast Trail and the town of Gearhart, she ended up with blisters on her feet. She was the only tester with blisters on the first day.
However, if you wear some of the best hiking shoes for wide feet, the Point6 Essential Light Crew would be an excellent choice. The less constructive feel of these socks will easily accommodate a wider volume foot without needing to go up a sock size (where the heel placement may be incorrect for your length of foot). And while our testers felt this sock was less comfortable to the touch than others we looked at, its overall construction (particularly the high merino content) makes this a solid choice for both day hikes and overnights. For colder temps, check out the Point6 Trekking Heavy Cushion Crew.
Smartwool’s body-mapped ventilation excels in a ski sock when you’re working your calves and your feet are stuck in thick, tight ski boots. I prefer this location-specific breathability opposed to an all-over thinner sock because Smartwool’s targeted cushion protects my shin and feet from hot spots. The women’s specific fit means the sock doesn’t slip or bunch even in high-intensity uphills when backcountry touring.
The cushion is perfectly placed giving me noticeable comfort and temperature control for long days on the slopes. They repel odor so well that as long as I properly air dry them after use, I can re-wear them for up to two weeks, skiing two to three times a week. While Darn Tough has my heart while hiking, these are my go-to ski socks. —Ashley Thess
Trail runners need socks that can put up with abuse after abuse and still perform. The Smartwool Athlete Edition Run Mountains start with a big chunk of merino wool (excellent for moisture management and temperature control) and then add in almost as much nylon for durability. To tackle one of the biggest failure points for running socks (the toes), these also have an extra chunk of cushioning—also useful if you bang your toes on an errant root during a run. I’ve found during testing that these socks stay in place better than anything I’ve tried. I never think about them when I’m running, which also means they’re always the pair I reach for before heading out.
Wool is an excellent fiber for hiking socks because it is semi-hollow. In cold temperatures, warm air is trapped inside of the fibers, helping to keep your feet warm. In warm temperatures, the semi-hollow structure can hold more liquid than a solid fiber would, absorbing some of the sweat from your feet while leaving the fabric itself dry to the touch.
Wool is also naturally antimicrobial, due to the lanolin content, reducing odor better than existing chemical treatments. The wool used in the best wool socks is almost always merino wool, because it is a naturally smoother fiber, making it less scratchy.
To accrue noticeable benefits from the wool in your socks, they must make up a significant percentage of the overall fiber content. Be wary of so-called wool socks that contain less than 30 percent wool, as these will tend to perform more like typical synthetic socks than wool socks. The corollary to that is that wool is not durable enough to be the only fiber in a wool sock, so it is typically augmented with nylon, and sometimes polyester. Elastic is also typically added to give the socks enough stretch to conform to your feet.
Wool socks should be soft and comfortable, not scratchy. They get this way by using merino wool fibers, which are naturally smoother than other types of wool. Before committing to a particular brand or style of sock, it’s best to spend some time hiking around in a single pair, putting it through the laundry periodically, to ensure that it feels good on your feet for the long haul.
While many people associate cozy thick wool socks with wintertime adventuring, thin wool socks are an excellent choice for hot-weather activities due to merino’s wicking ability and odor control.
All hiking socks give out eventually, but some last considerably longer than others. The most durable socks are typically less soft and more expensive, so consider how important each of these factors are to you when making your selection. Several wool sock brands also provide exceptionally good warranties, so keep that in mind if you’re hard on your gear.
While an individual pair of hiking socks is (usually) affordable, small differences in price can add up when you need multiple pairs. That being said, I recommend aiming for a sock in the $20 to $25 range for everyday hiking, as the lifespan of these higher quality hiking socks usually justifies the higher price tag.
Read Next: The Best Hiking Underwear for Women of 2023
The best hiking socks will have between 40 and 70 percent wool.
Socks that are made from 100 percent wool will tend to be less durable than those that are blended with more durable nylon fibers.
High-quality wool is typically merino wool and will be reasonably soft to the touch and not scratchy. While high-quality merino wool is less likely to pill than lower quality wool, thinner wool, especially superfine wool, is very prone to pilling, making this a less useful metric for assessing quality.
Modern wool socks are meant to be worn directly against the skin and should not be itchy. The exception to that is individuals with wool allergies, who will likely still experience wool socks as itchy.
Since 1898, OL has been a leading authority in testing and reviewing hunting gear, fishing tackle, guns and shooting equipment, and much more. We have more than a century-long history of evaluating products, and we’re now bringing that expertise to online reviews. Our editors are experienced outdoorsmen and women, and most importantly, we’re trained journalists. We prioritize field testing and objective data when reviewing products. We conduct interviews with gear manufacturers and engineers as well as outdoor experts so that our readers have an understanding of how and why a product works—or doesn’t.
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At the end of the day, the best wool socks are the ones that you never think about: the socks you wear for five days straight without smelling, that dry out quickly after wading through a knee-high stream, that can survive endless laundering cycles, and when they do finally give out, have a great warranty policy. After testing the seven leading socks with five experienced backpackers and thru-hikers, we’re confident that any of the below options will keep your feet comfortable and dry on your next outdoor adventure.
Lancaster is Outdoor Life's gear staff writer where she focuses on in-depth testing of backpacking and camping gear, with a particular interest in lightweight and ultralight gear. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and daughter. Contact the author here.
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