Gear Guide: Adventure Socks

A diverse arrangement of socks

A diverse arrangement of socks

With cold weather approaching, many of us may be literally getting cold feet. Unfortunately, this could cause figurative cold feet on all the fun things we could be doing outside. What is the solution to this adventure-stopping problem? How bout warm, comfy socks?

Now when you hear “socks”, the first you thought you likely have is “adventure!”. No? Well, you should! It may feel silly to put so much thought into socks, but unless we’re going swimming they’re necessary. So in honor of all our socks do for us, I decided to put together a guide on how to find the perfect pair for us high-activity folks. The great news is that socks really aren’t that complicated, so in five minutes you can go from amateur to master on the subject!

SOCK MATERIALS

The defining characteristic of your socks are the materials they are made out of, and it’s also the part the is the most complex. Other factors such as length and thickness are secondary, and easier to see how they impact performance. Therefore, let’s start with figuring out what material will best suit our needs. I’d wager most of us grew up with 100% cotton socks bought in a bulk bag of at least eight pairs. There’s a lot more options these days, but we can simplify material choices down to three.

  • Cotton / Synthetic Blend: These socks are mostly cotton, with a blend of other synthetic fibers to give them a bit of moisture-wicking ability and stretch. Cotton has a strong negative reputation in the hiking / backpacking world due to its shortcomings, which are primarily it’s inability to breathe well or get rid of moisture effectively when you’re working up a sweat. This means that if your feet get sweaty, they stay damp for a long time. In hot weather this is uncomfortable, in the cold it can be dangerous. It can also be painful, the damp material rubbing on your feet can lead to blisters.

    Why even bother with cotton then? You guessed it, it’s the cheapest option. Despite the negative press that cotton gets, these socks will do just fine for lounging around the house or light activities. If your spendable money is tight you can get by with these, but know what risks you face especially if you’re doing a longer-term adventure (backpacking, travel, marathon, etc.)

  • All-Synthetic Blend: The primary material in these socks will often be nylon or polyester, combined with a blend of other synthetics. As you could guess, eliminating cotton from the equation takes out the related pitfalls. These socks will shed moisture well and dry more quickly if they get wet. Another benefit is they typically fit skin tight (similar to biking pants), which prevents them from rubbing and slipping. This is ideal for activities such as running or cycling that require rapid foot movement.

    All-synthetic socks do have disadvantages. Synthetic fibers hold onto odors, and if your feet are anything like mine this is a huge deal. Some may also find the fit uncomfortable, especially in hotter conditions. The cost is also greater, high quality synthetics will be needed in such a high sweat area as our feet.

  • Merino Wool / Synthetic Blend: For any activity on your two feet, merino wool socks will nearly always be the most comfortable choice. They wick away perspiration very well, regulate the temperature of your feet, and have natural odor control. An added bonus is that wool keeps you warm when it gets wet, which is vital if you get stuck out in the cold with wet feet (like I did recently on the Superior Hiking Trail).

    If wool makes you think “itchy” and “scratchy”*, fear not! Nearly all quality wool garments that directly touch your skin will be made with merino wool, which has very fine fibers that sit comfortably on the skin. This is very different from the scratchy wool socks of yesterday.

    Predictably, the downfall of merino wool is the price, which is typically over $15 a pair. For this price you get impressive durability and comfort, but it simply may not be feasible for some folks to spend this. That’s ok, for most things you don’t absolutely need the “best” socks. Stick with your cheaper ones and go have fun!

WHAT STYLE OF SOCK DO I NEED?

Biking/running/climbing

  • Best material: All-synthetic, Merino wool blend

  • Length: ankle or no show

  • Heft: lightweight, minimal padding

For these activities you want socks that won't get in your way. Go for a thin, tight-fitting sock that won’t rub during movement. Avoid cotton to prevent clammy feet and blisters.


Snow

  • Best material: Merino wool

  • Length: Over the calf or knee

  • Heft: thick, extra padding at and just above ankle

A thick wool sock will do the best job at keeping your feet warm and dry in the snow. Thick padding at and above the ankle is ideal to avoid pinching and discomfort from high, rigid boots. Look for long socks for added warmth and protection.


Hiking / backpacking / day to day use

  • Best material: Merino wool

  • Length: Micro crew or crew

  • Heft: mid-weight, padding on bottom and ankle

It may be a surprise, but getting mid-weight socks will be the most comfortable for these activities, even in hot weather. The thicker wool will evaporate more moisture, and the padding at the foot and ankle will provide support while walking. Merino wool is essential for backpacking: keep your feet dry and blister-free. Note that sock liners are no longer necessary if your socks are made from merino wool.

SOCK PRICE POINTS

Keep in mind that the price of the socks will depending on their thickness and length in addition to quality. The price points below are for light to mid-weight socks.

  • $2.00 or less per pair (cheap, replaceable): These will be the cotton socks in bulk packs that your parents bought for you growing up. These will do just fine in everyday use, but you may face discomfort and blisters in activities like backpacking. They also wear out quickly, which leads to buying socks more often.

  • $2.00 - 10.00 per pair (white collar luxury): At this price point will usually be nice “dress” socks. For functional outdoor use, these will be the same (or possibly worse) than the cheap bulk socks above. Unless you need dedicated dress socks, you’re best off spending a bit more for all-synthetic or merino wool.

  • $10.00 - 18.00 per pair (the sweet spot): Most synthetic socks fall in this range, and some merino wool too. Be warned that not all brands are created equal; especially with merino wool which has become a very trendy item lately. Cheaper made merino socks tend to be scratchy or ill fitting, and wear out faster.

  • $18.00+ per pair (investment socks): Objectively, spending this much on socks may seem ridiculous, especially to readers of a “frugal” blog. While socks at this price are unmatched in durability and comfort, it can be difficult to justify the price. I pose this price point as an option only due to the brand Darn Tough, as their socks have a lifetime warranty. This means that no matter the defect you may return them for store credit at any time. For some of you this may be worth the expense. Just don’t lose one!

My own two cents is this: while it may be strange to view socks as an investment, nicely made ones can last for years. I recall as a kid that I’d burn through a bag of cheap cotton socks each year. Buying less socks over time may not break even price-wise, but consuming less clothing is overall better for the environment. Not being wasteful is admiral, and a strong aspect of being frugal. If you are going to invest in quality socks for your adventures, be sure to get ones that will keep you comfortable and happy. Unsurprisingly, I hate spending a ton on a pair of socks so they’ve been a regular birthday gift list item for years**.

Remember when I said this guide would be quick? I have no clue how everything above turned into 1300 words, but I at least hope it demystified socks for you all. If I missed anything, please let me know in the comments!

Keep your feet warm, see you next time!


*No, not “The Simpsons” cat and mouse foes.

**You know you are a lame grown-up when you open a present get excited that it's socks.