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Whether you’re dayhiking, trail running, or backpacking, your feet are what carry you; you should take care of them accordingly. Outings can turn bad in a moment if you sprain an ankle or get a major blister.
As with all wilderness risks the best answer is mitigation, and one way to help protect your feet is by wearing the right sock for the job. Some are more breathable and better for wet weather, some are more durable for long trips, and some are specifically designed to reduce blisters. Finding the right pair will help make your hike or run more fun, safe, and enjoyable.
You may think that hiking socks are all the same. However, look a bit closer and you’ll see that material, technology, and design variations all change the way that different pairs perform on the trail.
Most Durable: Darn Tough
Darn Tough prides itself on durability. The company was the first manufacturer to offer a lifetime warranty on its socks, and we’ve been lauding its products’ resiliency for years, which is how long their socks last. The path to staying power starts with a high, 17-micron merino yarn, which allows for a tight, strong weave while still remaining soft. Designers also add in nylon for durability and lycra for stretch. Every sock that Darn Tough makes uses these three ingredients, but the ratios vary somewhat. Another factor that sets this company apart: The designers and engineers sit feet away from the prototyping and production machines, allowing them to iterate quickly and sometimes creating multiple prototypes in less than a day. As an example, designers changed the Light Hiker Micro Crew—an airy sock that nonetheless can stand up to years of hard hiking—73 times before its final design. Finally, every Darn Tough sock is hand-inspected for quality four times before being shipped out.
Most Comfortable: Icebreaker
Like other sock makers, Icebreaker knits its socks with differing patterns of thickness and weave to provide Achilles and instep support, reinforce weak points, and increase breathability. What stands out about Icebreaker’s socks, though, is a “true” anatomical design, meaning the socks are constructed according to the differences in your right and left foot. (Due to added costs and design challenges, no other brands on this list are designing socks this way.) This approach means a better fit, thanks to foot-specific padding—that is, added thickness—for your heel, arch, and toe box. The design helps reduce blisters, allowing you to go further on the trail without foot issues. You can see the anatomical design in Icebreaker’s Hike+ Lite sock, a majority merino wool model, which is a great option for any long outing on a trail due to its snug, foot-wrapping fit that wards off hot spots.
Most Breathable: Swiftwick
Swiftwick stands out from the crowd by using olefin in its socks. The material, a fast-wicking and lightweight polypropylene, isn’t quite as durable as other synthetic yarn, but it’s as soft as wool. With the goal of creating a better running sock, designers decided on olefin over merino because it breathes better, reduces sweat buildup, and mitigates blisters. Using a fine needle, the brand knits its socks with a fit designed specifically for high-output activities like trail running, adding padding under the foot and ultrabreathable sides and tops. A standout from Swiftwick’s line is the Aspire Zero, which has a channeled upper, mesh footbed, beefy arch support, and a Y-shape heel to keep the sock as snug as possible. The Aspire is a top pick for hot days, long runs, and moving fast.
Most Eco-Friendly: Smartwool
Recently, Smartwool started using recycled nylon in its Hike Classic sock line. The material comprises up to 40 percent of the sock, and the Hike Classic is among the small number of models to use recycled yarn. (Other sock makers have featured recycled polyester.) And although the fabric is a retread, performance doesn’t dip: Designers pair the nylon with merino to create foot-mapped mesh zones, seamless toes, targeted cushioning, and a snug fit. The Hike Classic will keep your feet comfy on anything from local hikes to week-long backpacking trips.