Much like your footwear, the socks you wear on the hiking trail can also have a significant effect on your comfort. Here's how to choose.

Step 1: Consider Your Hiking Conditions

The best socks for you depend on the kinds of trips you have planned and the weather conditions you expect. Basic sock categories:

  • Lightweight hiking/backpacking socks: Best for warm conditions and easy trails, these stress moisture wicking and comfort over warmth. They are relatively thin, yet are warmer and provide more cushioning than liners alone. They can be worn with or without liner socks.
  • Midweight hiking/backpacking socks: These provide cushioning and insulation in moderate to cold conditions. Many models have extra padding built into high-impact areas like the heel and the ball of the foot. These socks should be worn with liners.
  • Mountaineering socks: Mountaineering socks are the thickest, warmest and most cushioned socks available. They are designed for long trips, tough terrain and cold temperatures. Usually, mountaineering socks are too thick and warm for basic backpacking journeys in warm conditions.
  • Liners: Sock liners are thin, lightweight wicking socks designed to be worn right next to your skin. These liners wick sweat away from the surface of your foot to keep you dry and more comfortable. Liners also limit the amount of abrasion between your outer sock and your skin. They are designed to be worn under other socks.

Step 2: Consider Your Material Options

  • Wool: Wool is the most popular natural sock material. It is warm, cushioning and retains warmth when wet. While older ragg wools could be scratchy next to your skin, newer merino wools are itch-free. Most wool socks use blends of wool and synthetic materials for better durability and faster drying.
  • Synthetic insulating materials: Some man-made materials are designed to insulate like wool and wick moisture. These materials (Hollofil®, Thermax®, Thermastat®) trap warmth like wool, but dry more quickly and are more abrasion resistant.
  • Silk: A natural insulator, silk is comfortable and lightweight, but not as durable as other options. It's occasionally used in sock liners for reliable moisture wicking.
  • Synthetics wicking materials: Synthetic wicking materials (like polypropylene and CoolMax®) used in wicking sock liners are often woven into thicker backpacking socks as well, to enhance moisture-wicking performance.
  • Cotton: 100% cotton is not recommended as a sock material for hiking. Cotton absorbs sweat, dries slowly, provides no insulation when wet and it can lead to blisters out on the trail. However, cotton is quite comfortable and, when combined with wool or other wicking and insulating fibers, can be a good choice for light hiking in summer.

Cushioning materials: Many hiking socks provide extra cushioning around the heel, the ball of the foot and the toe area to increase comfort. The padding is created either by increasing the density of the weave or, in some cases, by weaving long-wearing materials like acrylic into those areas. This extra padding can be a real foot-saver on rough terrain.

Support materials: Many of today's hiking socks include a small percentage of either stretch nylon or spandex. These elastic materials help socks hold their shape and keep bunching and wrinkling to a minimum.

Step 3: Take a Test Drive

If possible, take a quick walk in the sock styles you are considering to get a feel for how much cushioning they have. And be sure to buy the right size—your socks should fit snugly. Bunched up sock material can make any backpacking trip an uncomfortable one.

Contributor: Pete Smith, REI Seattle footwear specialist.