I used to have cold feet whenever I was hiking in winter. But ever since I started layering my socks and invested in a pair of insulated hiking boots, my feet stay comfortable during the whole hike, even in -18 C / 0 F temperatures.
In this article, I’ll share everything you need to know about keeping your feet warm in winter hiking – how to layer your socks, what socks to choose for each layer, how to choose good footwear, and more. I’ll also share what techniques worked for me and what didn’t.
Hiking With Two Pairs Of Socks Will Make Your Feet Warmer
Some people say that layering your socks in winter doesn’t work, and it only makes your feet colder. But from my own experience, it does. It’s really important to not only choose the correct socks and boots but also to have them sized perfectly for your feet so that they aren’t too tight.
If something feels too tight or cramped, you’ll restrict the blood flow of your feet, which in turn will restrict the transfer of heat from the rest of your body to your feet, and they’ll feel cold. That’s the main reason why this technique doesn’t work for some people. But the good news is that if you choose everything correctly, it will work for you.
What Liner Socks To Use For Hiking In Cold Weather (Base Layer)
Sock liners are usually made from synthetics (nylon, polyester, and elastane), silk, or wool. For winter specifically, I recommend getting merino wool sock liners (30-70% merino wool mixed with synthetics). That’s because merino wool is the warmest fabric to wear in winter, and it’s also thermoregulating, which means that your feet will stay dry for longer periods when your feet are sweating excessively.
That said, synthetic and silk liners also have their benefits. Synthetics are much more durable than wool and silk, and they also absorb less water and dry more quickly. And silk liners are the softest of them all, but also the least durable. In the end, the added warmth mostly comes from the exterior layer of the sock, not the sock liner, so you can also choose synthetic and silk liners if you prefer durability or comfort.
The fit of the liner should be somewhat tight, but it shouldn’t feel like it’s compressing your feet. That’s because socks liners are meant to stay next to your skin without moving, so that any friction and movement happens between the two layers of socks, instead of between your skin and your sock. This will also greatly reduce blister formation.
In height, your sock liner should be just above your other sock. This will keep it from slipping down.
And finally, the sock liner has to be very thin, breathable, and it shouldn’t have any padding. If you choose a sock liner that’s too thick, your feet will sweat too much.
Here are some good options for winter liner socks:
- Danish Endurance merino wool liner socks
- Smartwool Zero Cushion Classic merino wool liner socks
- FoxRiver Ultra-Lightweight synthetic liner socks
Read Next: Are Polypropylene Socks Good For Hiking?
What Second Layer Of Socks To Use In Winter (Exterior Layer)
As opposed to liner socks, exterior layer socks usually aren’t specifically labeled. So as the second layer of socks, you can use any good hiking sock, as long as it’s warm enough.
Hiking socks are marked as lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight, which describes the thickness of the yarns, padding, and overall warmth. The outer sock should definitely be much thicker than the liner sock. For winter hiking, you should generally use midweight hiking socks, but for extra-freezing temperatures (below -18 C / 0 F), you can also use heavyweight hiking socks. These will have plenty of padding on the heel, toe, ball, and upper sections of your feet, and the fabric itself will be pretty thick, which will keep your feet warm.
In terms of fabric, I recommend going with a merino wool composite with at least 50-80% merino wool that’s mixed with synthetics (polyester, nylon, elastane, spandex, or Lycra). Merino wool has all the good benefits for winter hiking, like insulation, breathability, thermoregulation, and odor resistance, but it isn’t too durable and it dries slowly. That’s why it has to be mixed with a bit of synthetics.
When wearing the two layers of socks together, your feet shouldn’t feel too compressed, otherwise, your feet will become cold over time. It isn’t so vital for summer hiking socks, but for cold weather specifically, your hiking socks shouldn’t have too much compression.
In height, your outer layer of socks should be just above your hiking boot, which will keep them from slipping down inside your boot.
Whatever you do, don’t wear cotton socks in any of your layers. It gets wet very quickly, and when it does, it loses all of its insulation properties, which isn’t great for winter hiking.
Here are some good options for winter hiking socks (exterior layer):
- Silverlight merino wool hiking socks
- Darn Tough Full Cushion merino wool hiking socks
- Danish Endurance merino wool hiking socks
Other Things To Consider For Keeping Your Feet Warm When Hiking In Winter
1. Get Slightly Oversized, Insulated Hiking Boots
Getting good winter hiking boots is just as important as wearing two layers of correct, good-quality hiking socks. If you’ll go out hiking in typical 3-season mid-height hiking boots during the winter, your feet will still feel cold.
Your winter hiking boots should be waterproof (or really water-resistant) and they should have 200-800g insulation, ideally over 400g. When I switched to insulated hiking boots, it was like night and day. I personally use the Columbia Bugaboot insulated snow boots for most of my hikes. Even though they have only 200g of insulation, when combined with two pairs of socks, my feet are warm even in 18C / 0F temperatures.
Another important thing is that your boots should be half or even a full size larger than your regular size. For example, my winter hiking boots are size 45, and all of my other shoes are size 44. This leaves enough room for more layers of socks without restricting blood circulation.
Read Next: Can You Go Hiking in Cowboy Boots?
2. Change To A Fresh Pair Of Socks Often
To keep your socks from getting too damp or even wet, you have to change your socks whenever they feel damp. When pausing during your hike, take off your boots and switch to a fresh pair of socks at least once per day. If you’ll be hiking short distances though, this isn’t necessary, as you won’t sweat as much.
By changing your socks you’ll reduce the chances of your feet forming blisters and improve the hiking sock insulation properties.
3. Sleep With Fresh Socks And Dry Your Damp Ones Overnight
I usually carry 5 pairs of socks when hiking in cold temperatures – two liner socks, two exterior layer socks, and one pair of camping socks. This allows me to change to a dry pair of socks during the day and sleep with completely dry socks during the night.
To dry your damp socks overnight, lay them out in your sleeping bag. The heat from your body will heat up the fabric and evaporate all moisture from it during the night. If they’re completely wet, you can also put them underneath your baselayer next to your skin, which will speed up the drying time.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I wear a single layer of socks for hiking in winter?
In warmer temperatures (above -5 C / 23 F), hiking with a single layer of good, midweight merino wool hiking socks and insulated hiking boots will keep your feet warm. But in temperatures lower than that, you should look into getting hiking boots with more insulation or start layering your socks if there’s enough room inside your hiking boots.
Can I use skiing socks for hiking in winter?
Skiing socks can be used for hiking, but they aren’t ideal. Most ski socks are a bit thinner than regular hiking socks, and they often have padding in areas where it isn’t needed for hiking (for example, the shin area). They’re thinner because hiking and snowboarding boots have much more insulation and padding than typical hiking boots, so hiking with skiing socks isn’t ideal. That said, they’re made from similar materials – usually, merino wool and synthetics, which makes them a much better choice than regular socks.
Does wearing plastic bags on your feet keep them warm in winter?
When it’s extra cold or if I’ll be hiking in wet snow, I sometimes use plastic bags between my socks and hiking boots. This creates a waterproof and windproof barrier, which keeps my feet much warmer in the long run. Obviously, my socks will eventually get damp because it completely eliminates all breathability, but at least they’ll stay warm. When using this technique, it’s important to have spare dry socks to change into when setting up camp, because hiking with wet feet for long periods can cause problems for your feet.
A lot of people use this technique for hiking in winter and rain. To keep the plastic bags from slipping into your shoe, use thin plastic bags and tuck the ends inside your sock. Most people recommend using regular bread plastic bags, as they’re in a perfect size and they’re readily available.
Are silk socks good for cold-weather hiking?
Silk sock liners are often used for winter hiking, skiing, and snowboarding. That’s because silk is a really soft, warm, and breathable fabric, which makes it an ideal choice for a sock liner. However, silk isn’t too durable, so I’d advise getting a silk sock liner that’s mixed with a bit of synthetics (nylon, acrylic, or polyester) to increase its durability.
Are wool or cotton socks better for winter hiking?
Wool socks are much better than cotton socks for winter hiking, both for sock liners and the exterior layer of socks. Although cotton is breathable, it soaks up a lot of water, and when it does, it loses all of its insulation properties, which is really bad for winter hiking. Wool, on the other hand, keeps its insulation properties when wet. It’s also odor-resistant and thermoregulating, which means that it naturally soaks up the vapor from your sweat and releases it through the outer layers of your sock, which allows it to stay dry.
Read Next: Regular Wool Vs Merino Wool In Hiking Gear