Most hiking experts swear by wool hiking socks. But why exactly is that? Does wool really have so many benefits that make it a far superior choice to other fabrics, or is wool overhyped?
In this article, I’ll explain the benefits and disadvantages of wool to understand why it’s so often used in hiking socks and tell you how much wool should be in your hiking socks.
Understanding The Differences Between Wool And Merino Wool
Most hiking socks are made from merino wool instead of regular wool. It’s still wool, but it’s different because it’s harvested from a single breed of sheep called Merino, which is mostly grown only in New Zealand and Australia.
Because merino sheep grow in a hotter climate, their wool fibers are thinner and softer to be able to deal with higher temperatures. Merino wool fibers are spun into much thinner yarns, which can be weaved into a tighter, more resilient fabric.
Although most hiking socks are made from merino wool, some manufacturers still use regular wool because it’s cheaper. Socks made from regular wool are good, but merino wool socks are better because they’re softer and have better physical properties. So always check that the socks contain merino wool instead of regular wool.
Benefits of merino wool in hiking socks
- Wool socks keep your feet cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Merino wool is thermoregulating. It essentially means that it’s really good at keeping the skin of your feet at a constant temperature, regardless of the outside temperature. It does this by absorbing the vapor of your sweat and then slowly releasing it to the outside over time. This means that not only will your feet feel cool in the summer and warm in the winter, but also stay dry for longer.
- Wool is breathable. You can try blowing your breath through a wool fabric and then through synthetics or cotton. You’ll feel much less resistance from wool. This is really beneficial when doing high-intensity activities in the summer or when hiking with insulated boots in the winter – your feet won’t get sweaty and wet as quickly.
- It absorbs bacteria, which keeps your socks smelling fresh for longer. Because merino wool socks are usually much drier when hiking compared to synthetics and cotton, bacteria don’t grow as quickly within the fabric. Bacteria is what’s responsible for the smell of socks, and by limiting their growth, the sock will smell fresh for longer. From my own experience, merino wool socks usually start to smell bad only after 2-4 days of intense hiking.
- Merino wool feels soft on the skin even when wet. Cotton and synthetics get a bit more abrasive when wet because the fabric kind of wants to stick to your skin. Merino wool doesn’t do that and stays soft even when it’s damp, which is beneficial if you’ll be hiking in the rain.
- It’s excellent for avoiding blisters. Because of merino wool’s ability to stay dry and cool when doing physical activities, its antibacterial properties, its breathability, and its ability to stay soft when damp, it has really amazing blister resistance properties. I personally stopped having blisters altogether when I switched to good merino wool hiking socks.
Disadvantages Of Merino Wool In Hiking Socks
- Wool isn’t durable. Unfortunately, wool fibers break down much quicker than synthetics. That’s why you’ll get holes in 100% wool socks pretty quickly. Furthermore, merino wool is even less durable than regular wool, so you have to be even more careful with merino wool socks.
- Merino wool hiking socks are expensive. Because merino wool is harvested from a single breed of sheep that are only grown in New Zealand and Australia, it’s very expensive. And the better-quality merino wool, the more expensive it is. That’s why good merino wool socks usually cost 20-40$ per pair.
- It dries much slower than synthetics. Wool can absorb roughly 1/3 of its weight in water. Synthetics, on the other hand, usually absorb only 1-3%. That’s why synthetic socks will dry much quicker than merino wool socks.
Understanding How Much Merino Wool Should Be In Your Hiking Socks
I wouldn’t recommend getting 100% merino wool socks because they won’t be durable enough, they’ll dry very slowly, and they won’t provide a good, snug fit. Instead, you should get socks with 30-70% merino wool, 30-70% nylon or polyester, and 1-5% elastane, spandex, or Lycra. Adding polyester or nylon gives the socks a better fit, durability, and a quicker drying time, and adding elastane will make the sock more elastic, which keeps it from moving around your foot and causing blisters. A lower percentage of merino wool is better suited for high-intensity summer activities, like trail running and intense hiking, and a higher percentage is better for cold weather.
Furthermore, the quality of the merino wool is also something worth considering. Cheap merino wool hiking socks will usually be made from worse-quality merino wool, which is harvested from sheep with thicker wool threads, and will more resemble wool socks in terms of its properties. Higher-priced socks will usually be made from finer-thread merino wool, so they’ll be softer and better at keeping your feet cool and dry. I’ve found that good quality merino wool socks usually start at 15$ and up per pair.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are wool hiking socks itchy?
Regular wool socks are indeed itchy to the skin, but merino wool socks aren’t. That’s because they’re made from finer threads, which don’t push against your skin and irritate the nerve cells. More expensive merino wool socks will usually feel even softer because they’re made from higher-quality, finer merino wool. That said, compared to cotton and polyester, merino wool socks do feel a bit rougher on the skin.
Can I wear wool hiking socks in the summer?
I wouldn’t recommend wearing thick wool socks or 100% merino wool socks in the summer. But thin merino wool socks that contain roughly 30-50% merino wool mixed with synthetics are perfect for summer hiking. Merino wool gives the sock the ability to absorb sweat and keep your feet dry and cool, and the synthetics give it more durability and quicker drying times.
Is it okay to hike with non-wool socks?
Synthetic socks are fine to use for hiking, but merino wool is slightly better. Synthetic hiking socks really excel only in the summer or when hiking in wet conditions, because if woven very thinly, synthetics can also be breathable, while costing much less and being more durable than merino wool. However, I’ve noticed that merino wool socks are better at resisting blisters, even during the summer. So unless you have allergies to wool or you don’t want to purchase it because you’re a vegan, I would recommend sticking with merino wool socks.
Cotton socks shouldn’t be used for hiking. That’s because cotton absorbs a lot of water, dries very slowly, and causes blisters when wet. They’re okay to use for short hikes, but for anything longer, definitely go with merino wool.
Can I hike with regular wool socks?
Yes, you can hike with regular wool socks but it’s not ideal. In fact, people used to hike with regular, thick wool socks just a few decades ago, before merino wool and synthetic blends became popular. Wool has excellent breathability, thermoregulation, insulation, and odor resistance properties. Merino wool is just a bit better at all of these properties, it’s softer, and it can be weaved into a much thinner fabric.
What are the best wool hiking socks?
The best merino wool hiking socks that I’ve used personally are the Silverlight merino wool hiking socks. They are perfect for summer, spring, and autumn, but can also be used in the winter by adding another sock liner underneath. I finished a 500-mile thru-hike with them and I didn’t get a single blister. They’re made from 53% merino wool, 40% nylon, 5% silver yarns, and 2% spandex. They’re so great because they’re made from a 2-layer construction, which allows for excellent breathability and comfort. Plus, they also fit my feet really well because they also come with a bit of built-in compression.