Why You Should Wear Wool Socks for Hiking

There are many different types of hiking socks available out there, but wool socks are by far the best in our opinion. And in this article, we're breaking down exactly why.

It’s perfectly natural for hikers, especially novice hikers, to think of wool as something to keep you warm and something that you would only wear on your feet in the dead of winter. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Why wear wool socks for hiking? 

Because wool socks are the best and most popular socks in hiking circles. Wool socks keep your feet warm in the winter and, however counterintuitive it may sound, they keep your feet cool in the summer. 

Not to mention the fact that wool socks are also naturally antimicrobial, which is a must when it comes to hot feet in a moist boot, an all too common occurrence if you spend a lot of time on the hiking trail. They’re also quite good at preventing blisters, but we’ll get into more of that down below.

Why are wool socks better for hiking?

woman wearing tall gray socks in hiking boots
Image credits: Clay Banks

As we touched on above, they are naturally antimicrobial while also regulating the temperature in your boots very well. They’re also an excellent choice with a new pair of boots, especially when you are trying to break them in or are looking for the perfect, most comfortable fit. 

Wool is great for a variety of reasons, and it’s been around for a long time. England used the wool trade to sustain their economy through much of the middle ages. They knew about how good wool was back then, and nothing much has changed today, except for the improved technology used to manufacture them.

Here’s why wool socks are superb for hiking:

  • They’re well ventilated
  • They come in a variety of thicknesses with light to heavy cushioning properties
  • They are naturally moisture wicking
  • They are antimicrobial
  • They keep your feet warm in the winter and cool in the summer
  • They help to control odor
  • One of the better materials for protecting against blisters
  • For an ancient clothing material, they have remarkable durability

Wool provides excellent insulation

Insulation is a two-way street, though it’s often thought of as something to hold heat in. When something is properly insulated, however, it keeps you warm in the winter and cool in the summer, which is exactly what wool socks do.

Wool is a highly breathable material

If you have some leather boots that are prone to holding all of your heat in, wool socks might not do so well for you. But, if you have breathable hiking boots, you’d be surprised at how well the two combine to provide excellent breathability.

Wool is about as comfortable a hiking sock as you can get

Wool doesn’t just come in a one size fits all bubble. There are thin wool socks and thick wool socks, depending on your preferences and the time of year. For extremely hot summer days, thinner wool socks are preferable but any time of the year is good for wool socks in general. 

Cushioning is very important, especially on extremely long or overly arduous hikes and wool delivers in that arena. When paired with thick insoles and a heavy hiking boot, your feet may never know that the outside world is otherwise experiencing a deep winter. 

Wool socks are well priced, on average

Now, if you are going for a good, thick pair of wool socks to get you through the winter, you will pay a little bit more. You can get three pairs of Alvado Merino Wool socks for around $18, which is twice what you’ll pay for a sackful of cotton socks. 

Why do hikers prefer merino wool socks?

There are a lot of reasons behind this but first, let’s explain exactly what we mean by “merino” wool socks. Merino wool isn’t a special type of fabric by any means. In fact, merino wool is quite simply the closest you can come to all-wool.

Other wool socks out there are either synthetic wool or they are a mash-up of wool along with some other types of material, such as nylon or polyester. Mixing wool with these other fabrics or synthetically manufacturing wool makes for a cheaper product and one that can be sold quickly, for a large profit at the end of the day. 

As we mentioned above, wool socks can be expensive, especially if you buy them in the winter (winter clothes are always on discount during the spring and summer time). So it makes sense that there would be plenty of knock-offs and genuine alternatives out there. 

Hikers prefer merino wool socks over synthetic and mixed materials because of wool’s positive properties. For instance, merino wool has the highest level of microbial resistance, so it’s an easy choice for those who know they are going to have hot feet and wet boots.

Merino wool, as natural wool, is much more soft and cushiony than its synthetic and mix-matched counterparts. If you’ve ever done a lot of hiking, the importance of that extra cushion and softness cannot be overstated. 

Merino socks, like all of the other “wool-type” socks, are made with both thicker and thinner materials to cater to hikers of all seasons, so it’s easily a no-brainer why hikers prefer them so much. 

Premium wool socks have extraordinary longevity

Of course, merino wool socks are not meant to be worn every day, especially for around-the-house things, going to the store, or just kicking back on your couch to watch the football game. They are wonderful to wear in the wintertime, however, especially in front of a fireplace but that’s neither here nor there. 

The true longevity of wool socks, especially merino wool socks, is how well they hold up for hiking activities. Most of your true wool socks are highly durable and will last a very long time, especially if you take care of them. 

For the most part, you can get a minimum of two solid hiking seasons out of a premium pair of wool socks. One of the most popular wool socks is the Darn Tough Merino Wool Sock. These wool socks are so good that they frequently fly at the top of “best clothing warranty” lists. 

Darn Tough Merino socks are guaranteed for life, with no conditions. So, what’s the worst that can happen? You wear them out in three years and you get the m replaced for free. That’s tough to argue with and these socks are the real deal when it comes to wool. 

What makes wool socks better than other materials?

sheep wool up close
Image credits: Vince Veras

Cotton socks are probably the most common socks out there for everyday use and your novice hiker may just assume that cotton socks are durable and for the best. Another point in favor of cotton socks is their cheapness. 

You can roll in white socks or make a bed mattress out of them for cheaper than several pairs of premium wool socks. It’s no wonder that cotton is a popular option but, is it the right option?

Cotton socks, even those that are manufactured with extra cushioning in specific spots that are prone to wear and tear, will have holes in them before you wrap up your second or third hiking trip. 

They are also not very absorbent and since your feet are going to sweat inside of a heavy boot on a hiking trail, that moisture is going to sit on your feet, creating heat and friction. Given enough time and walking, blisters will start to form.

Wool socks versus polyester

Polyester stands a much better chance against premium wool socks. It shares some of the antimicrobial features as well as the ability to wick your sweat away, keeping your feet plenty dry. The drawback to polyester is that even the thicker varieties of polyester socks are nowhere near as cushioned and comfortable as wool. 

Also, if you are breaking in a new pair of hiking boots, polyester simply won’t be up for the task. It’s not as flimsy as cotton and won’t give you blisters (unless you sweat a lot), but breaking in a shoe with socks that are primarily polyester won’t be the most comfortable thing in the world.

If you’re a heavy sweater, polyester is good at wicking but it’s not the best in the world. In other words, avoid polyester during the hottest months.

Wool versus nylon

Nylon is an entirely synthetic material and it simply doesn’t stand a chance against premium wool socks. Occasionally, some hikers like to use ultra thin nylon inside of a wool sock, mostly for breaking in their boots. 

As an alternative to wool, nylon shouldn’t be on a hiker’s list. It doesn’t absorb and wick away moisture very well, so blisters are a matter of time. It also lacks breathability, which doubles the misery of sweaty feet that your socks aren’t absorbing. 

Final thoughts

Wool socks, especially premium wool socks that are purely natural, are bar none, the best socks that a hiker could place in their arsenal of hiking tools. If you love your feet – what hiker doesn’t? – you owe it to yourself to grab a brand new pair and give them a try. You won’t regret it.

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Thomas Godwin

Thomas Godwin is a writer and Marine Corps veteran with a degree in Creative Writing from the Full Sail University. He has been writing content for HeadlessNomad since 2021. Being a veteran, Thomas knows pretty much everything there is to know about the use of paracord, how boots should fit, and nature in general.