As you’ve probably heard, cotton is one of the worst fabrics that you can use for hiking gear. But why exactly is cotton so bad? Is this statement possibly a bit overexaggerated? I would say that it is a bit overemphasized, but there definitely is a lot of truth in it.
I’ve had plenty of experience hiking with cotton, synthetic, and merino wool socks. And unfortunately, from my own experience, cotton socks indeed shouldn’t be used for hiking. Other cotton clothing, like pants, shirts, and hats, isn’t actually too bad, but for socks specifically, cotton should be avoided. And here’s why:
- Cotton socks result in more blisters. Before hiking with merino wool socks, I used to hike with typical cotton sports/outdoors socks that you’d find in most supermarkets. And I was constantly dealing with blisters. When I switched to merino wool socks, blister formation reduced by, I’d say, even 80-90%. Cotton soaks up a lot of moisture from your body’s sweat, even in normal, cool hiking conditions. And once it does, the fabric improves its friction, which means that it’s rubbing against your skin and forming blisters.
- When cotton socks get wet, they lose their insulation properties. In summer, this isn’t really that important. But if hiking in mountains with lower temperatures or between autumn-spring, then even marginally moist cotton socks will feel cold, which results in an unpleasant hiking experience.
- Cotton socks dry very slowly. Once cotton socks get wet (from sweat, rain, or wet grass), they dry much slower compared to synthetic and wool socks. And walking with wet socks for longer periods usually results in blisters.
- Wet cotton socks weigh more, so you’ll put more strain on your legs. Each additional pound on your feet is like adding 10 pounds to your backpack because you have to move this additional weight with every step you take. That’s why having lightweight socks and footwear is really important.
- Cotton socks absorb nasty odors. Cotton, unlike wool, doesn’t have good antimicrobial properties, and it also soaks up oils much better. This means that they start to smell bad much quicker compared to synthetic and wool socks.
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Is It Okay To Hike Short Distances In Cotton Socks?
Of course, it’s completely fine to walk short distances with cotton socks. I’ll admit, I do this often myself, just because I’m too lazy to switch to my merino wool socks for shorter hikes. You probably won’t develop any blisters from a 5-10 km (3-6 mile) hike.
However, if you’re wearing a heavy pack, if you’ll be walking longer distances, or if you don’t own a pair of good hiking shoes/boots, then hiking anything longer than 5-10 km (3-6 miles) with cotton socks is a bad idea. You’ll most likely be dealing with blisters, and you’ll have to bring out the good-old Leukotape to prevent or treat blisters.
Instead, you should hike with synthetic socks (nylon, spandex, or polyester) or even better – merino wool socks. The sock manufacturer and quality also play a big role in how good they’ll perform – the ones that I consider worth it usually cost between 20-35$, and are made by Silverlight, Darn Tough, Smartwool, and a few other hiking sock brands.
Which Sock Materials Are Good For Hiking
1. Merino Wool (Or Regular Wool)
Wool and Merino Wool specifically are the best materials for hiking socks. Merino Wool is slightly better because it’s made from thinner fibers, which are much softer on the skin compared to regular wool.
Merino Wool has many properties that make it the best material for hiking socks – it’s moisture-wicking, odor-resistant, antimicrobial, breathable, drys quickly, and keeps you warm and cool at the same time. In simple words, merino wool socks keep your feet blister-free, dry, comfortable, warm in the winter, and cool in the summer.
The only downside to Merino Wool is that it isn’t too durable and elastic, which is why it’s usually mixed together with nylon, polyester, and spandex.
Polyester is another synthetic that’s used in hiking sock fabrics to improve their moisture resistance, durability, and abrasion resistance.
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4. Spandex, Lycra, and Elastane
Spandex, lycra, and elastane are other types of synthetics, that are added to hiking sock fabrics to improve their elasticity so that the sock isn’t sliding up and down your feet.
Silk is a natural fabric that’s usually only used for sock liners because it isn’t too durable. It’s a great option for liner socks because silk is odor-resistant, breathable, stays dry, and feels very soft on the skin. Liner socks usually aren’t put under so much abuse because they’re worn together with another layer of wool socks, so the downgrade in durability isn’t really that important.
The Best Fabric Blend For Hiking Socks
Usually, good hiking socks aren’t made from a single fabric material. Rather, they’re made from a blend of several different materials, to achieve the best balance of durability, moisture control, odor resistance, and other factors.
Most commonly, good hiking socks are made from 40-70% merino wool, 30-60% nylon or polyester, and 1-3 % spandex, lycra, or elastane.
The best brands that make good quality hiking socks include Silverlight, Darn Tough, Smartwool, Danish Endurance, Farm to Feet, Icebreaker, and others. They usually cost between 20-40$ per pair, but they’re well worth the investment.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the best cotton hiking socks?
100% cotton socks should be avoided for hiking, as they have poor blister-prevention, antibacterial, and moisture-wicking properties.
Cotton socks that contain 20-30% nylon or polyester and 2-5% spandex, can perform much better, because the added nylon/polyester will give it moisture-resistance, odor-resistance, and added durability, and the Spandex will give it some needed elasticity for better fit. These socks generally cost much lower than merino wool socks, and they can be used for more intense hiking than regular cotton socks. They won’t do good for thru-hiking, but they’ll perform almost as well as merino wool socks on shorter hikes.
The most popular choice of cotton hiking socks is the Columbia Moisture Crew socks, which are pretty affordable and contain only 17% cotton. Another good option is the Tanstc winter running socks, which contain 80% cotton.
Which sock material is better for summer hiking – cotton or wool?
Merino wool is different than typical wool. It actually keeps your feet cool when it’s hot outside by transferring the sweat from your feet to the outer layers as vapor. It also keeps your feet dry, fresh, and comfortable. This means that merino wool is a perfect option for high-intensity activities during the summer, like hiking and running.
Cotton is worse because although it’s breathable, it will absorb a lot of the sweat from your feet. And although this won’t make your feet hot, it will result in more blisters and a more uncomfortable hike.
Which socks are better for winter hiking – cotton or wool?
For winter hiking, wool (including merino wool) is a much better material for socks compared to cotton. That’s because wool has excellent insulation and moisture-wicking properties, and it keeps its ability to insulate when wet. Cotton, on the other hand, offers less insulation, and it loses whatever insulation it has when the socks become wet, so your feet are much colder compared to wool socks.
Read Next: Can You Use Ski Socks For Hiking?
Which socks are better for hiking with sweaty feet – cotton or wool?
If your feet sweat a lot when hiking, then you need to get socks that dry quickly, have good moisture-wicking properties, and keep their insulation properties when wet. Wool performs much better in all of these categories compared to cotton. So if you have sweaty feet, definitely go with merino wool socks, and preferably get ones that have a higher percentage of merino wool inside them (aim for 60-80% merino wool).
Which socks are better for hiking – cotton or polyester?
Each of these materials has its own benefits. Cotton is more breathable and comfortable, while polyester dries quicker, is more durable, and has better odor resistance. If you’d have to choose between 100% cotton and 100% polyester socks, polyester would be a slightly better choice.
However, most modern socks aren’t made from 100% cotton or 100% polyester. They’re usually made from a blend of cotton, polyester, and elastane, which offers the best of both worlds, and is a much better choice compared to any of these fabrics in pure form.
For best hiking performance though, your hiking socks should also have 40-70% wool in them, because this will result in fewer blisters, better comfort, better odor resistance, and better thermoregulation.
Can I wear two pairs of cotton socks for hiking?
Wearing two pairs of cotton hiking socks will just make it worse. Your feet will sweat quicker and get more blisters.
Ideally, when wearing two pairs of hiking socks, you should wear a thin sock liner made from synthetic or silk fabrics, and a thicker merino wool outer sock. This is actually better than hiking with just merino wool socks, especially when hiking in cold weather.
However, if you don’t have merino wool socks, you can also wear thin synthetic socks in combination with thicker cotton socks on the outside. This will improve the thermoregulation of your feet, keep them dryer, and ultimately result in fewer blisters. This option is better than wearing a single pair of cotton socks, but definitely not as good as wearing a single pair of merino wool socks or two layers of non-cotton socks.