Some popular hiking socks, like the ones made by Sealskinz, CEP, Feetures, Bridgedale, and even Darn Tough, don’t contain any merino wool. Instead, they’re made from mostly nylon mixed with other synthetics, like polyester, Coolmax, and polyamide. But are they any good? Shouldn’t pretty much any hiking sock contain at least a bit of merino wool?
You might also be wondering whether it’s okay to hike with regular nylon sports socks, which aren’t specifically made to be used for hiking. In this article, I’ll answer all of these questions to understand whether nylon is a good choice for hiking socks, when you should use nylon socks, and when not.
Why Nylon Is Used In Hiking Socks
Nylon is a synthetic fabric made from petroleum that’s very commonly used in apparel, especially sports apparel. It’s also very commonly used in hiking socks, with the vast majority of all popular hiking socks containing some percentage of nylon.
It’s more commonly used than other synthetics, like polyester, polypropylene, and acryl, because it has slightly better properties for hiking socks. Having said that, usually, nylon is only used as an additive, not the main ingredient, because 100% nylon has many drawbacks.
Benefits Of Nylon In Hiking Socks
- Excellent durability. Nylon is one of the most durable synthetics out there, being more durable than polyester, acrylic, and polypropylene. It’s resistant to abrasions and tears, which means that nylon socks will stay in a good condition for longer.
- Quick drying time. Nylon absorbs only about 3% of its dry weight in water, which means that it also dries very quickly.
- Doesn’t absorb oils. As opposed to polyester, nylon doesn’t absorb natural oils from your sweat, which means that nylon fabric develops bad odors more slowly.
- Soft to the touch. Nylon is a bit softer than merino wool.
- Good compression and fit. It’s a very rigid fabric, with very little elasticity and sagging over time, which is why nylon is very commonly used in compression socks. A tight fit is needed in hiking socks for avoiding blisters because a sagging fabric will rub against your skin over time.
- Cheaper than merino wool. Although nylon is more expensive than most other synthetics, it’s still much cheaper than merino wool.
Drawbacks Of Nylon In Hiking Socks
- Not very breathable. Nylon is one of the least breathable fabrics, which is why nylon socks are usually offered only in ultra-lightweight and lightweight fabric thicknesses. Thick nylon socks wouldn’t be good for hiking because your feet would sweat too much (unless nylon is mixed with merino wool).
- Not a good insulator. Nylon also doesn’t provide too much warmth, which is why nylon socks are usually only used for hiking in the summer.
- Not very stretchy. Nylon needs to be mixed with elastane, spandex, or Lycra, otherwise, it’s too hard to put on your feet.
What Hiking Applications Nylon Socks Are Good For
Over 90% nylon socks (mixed with a bit of elastane or spandex) aren’t ideal for most hiking situations. They’re really only good for hiking somewhat short distances in very wet conditions (in rain, with a lot of river crossings, or canyon hiking). That’s because they lack proper breathability and insulation to be used long-term.
Nylon socks (40-90%) mixed with other synthetics (Coolmax, polyester, polypropylene, rayon, or acrylic) and elastane or spandex are good for summer hiking. When these fabrics are weaved very thinly, they actually provide good enough breathability with a good fit, quick drying time, and great durability.
There also are a few thicker nylon hiking socks, mixed with acrylic or bamboo fabric (rayon) to improve their insulation and breathability properties. They are fairly good options for hiking in colder weather, but they aren’t as good as hiking socks that contain merino wool.
Ideally, Your Nylon Socks Should Also Contain Some Merino Wool
In my opinion, the best fabric for hiking socks is 40-70% merino wool, 30-60% nylon, and 1-5% elastane or spandex. Most good hiking socks that you’ll find follow this same ratio of materials. Adding a bit less merino wool is better for hot weather hiking, and a bit more adds more insulation for cold weather hiking.
Adding merino wool gives hiking socks many advantageous properties, like excellent thermoregulation. It allows your feet to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter because wool soaks up all the vapor from your sweat and slowly releases it through the exterior. Wool is also antibacterial, which keeps the sock from developing bad odors very quickly. And lastly, adding wool to the fabric increases its breathability, and its ability to keep its insulating properties when wet.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are nylon socks breathable?
100% nylon socks aren’t very breathable. However, when nylon is mixed with other synthetics, for example, Coolmax, it provides much better breathability. That’s why you’ll find a lot of (mainly) nylon synthetic hiking socks meant for trail running.
However, even when nylon is mixed with other synthetics, it doesn’t provide nearly as good breathability as merino wool. That’s why 100% synthetic hiking socks are usually offered in very thin models (ultra-lightweight or lightweight), only usable for hiking in the summer.
What are the differences between nylon and polyester hiking socks?
Nylon socks are slightly more durable than polyester ones, and they also start to smell bad slower due to nylon’s ability to repel natural oils from sweat. However, nylon socks also cost more than polyester ones, and they dry a bit slower (3% water absorption vs less than 1%).
Can nylon socks be used for thru-hiking?
I wouldn’t hike very long distances with 100% synthetic nylon socks. For long-distance hiking, the following sock properties are very important – breathability, thermoregulation, and insulation. And they can only be achieved with wool.
However, when nylon is mixed with acrylic, rayon, Coolmax, or bamboo fabric, it has much better breathability, insulation, and thermoregulation properties. Not as good as merino wool, but much better than purely nylon hiking socks. These socks could be used for thru-hiking but you would still be dealing with a few blisters every now and then. The Darn Tough Coolmax Micro Crew hiking socks are a really good example of this.
Can I hike with regular nylon (non-hiking) socks?
100% or over 90% nylon sports socks are only good for short hikes. They’re much better than cotton socks, but they lack the proper breathability, fit, and cushioning, that you would find on most good hiking socks. This means that over time, you’ll be dealing with blisters.