Outdoor Gear: Breaking down the best socks your feet can get into
Just the right amount of merino wool combined with a special selection of extra bells and whistles make up SI’s EDGE’s best hiking socks list for the New Year. Most high-end socks for hitting the trail will include some sort of mixture of the celebrated wool, known not only for its natural wicking properties, but also for its extraordinary softness. Consider also that this sheep’s wool has one of the best warmth-to-weight ratios, and merino wool will make up the base fabric of most of what you see on the trails. But it's what sock manufacturers add to merino that makes this lineup of hiking socks worth checking out.
Merino Airlite Pro Ultralight
Wigwam’s patented moisture movement system combines fabrics that suck in moisture with ones that deflect it to move sweat up and out of the sock. Call it a push-pull system. And this isn’t just for fun. No moisture means no blisters. Seamless toes, breathable mesh panels and a mix of 34 percent merino wool, 32 percent stretch nylon, 27 percent tencel (a mostly polyester blend), 6 percent Lycra spandex and 1 percent stretch polyester and you have a super lightweight, breathable hiker in the Merino Airlite Pro Ultralight. And wildly soft, to boot. For a bit more cushion, but still lightweight, try the Trail Trax Pro. Wigwam also has a Rebel Fusion Quarter II in a similar feel to the Trail Trax Pro that adds in Wigwam’s “fusion” technology that has the sock and liner as one—truly, hardly noticeable as there really is no slippage between the two.
Whether you want Smartwool’s comfortable PhD Outdoor in ultra light, light, medium or heavy, or in a micro, mini or over-the-calf length, you’ve got options to pick up a heavily merino-wooled sock. At 68 percent merino, 29 percent nylon and 3 percent Elastane, the PhD stays surprisingly lightweight for the amount of wool. The ultra light feels just a touch thicker than a running sock, while the light feels like what you’d expect: a lightweight hiker. The medium and heavy certainly up the thickness and offer options for cooler or longer hikes. With a comfortable fit and feel, Smartwool uses its 4Degree Elite Fit System to offers two elastics for greater stretch and recovery to keep the sock in perfect fit throughout four key areas in the sock. A patented wool-spinning technology maintains the structure of the merino wool for more durability and a flat-knit toe seam reduces rubbing but retains strength.
Merino Ultralight or Merino Wool Expedition
If you have a strenuous mountain hike on your agenda, the REI Merino Wool Expedition gives you some added thickness that will come in handy. But for a light hike or a day hike, you don’t want too much weight burdening you, especially in the spring or summer. The REI Merino Ultralight Hiker (in a quarter cut or crew cut) proves thinner than a typical hiking feel, but still thicker than a running sock. With 52 percent merino wool, 45 percent nylon and 3 percent Lycra spandex, the makeup helps regulate temperature and resist odor. The sock is reinforced at the heel and an added arch-support band helps with the fit. A solid choice for a day hike, but the 79 percent merino wool Expedition may be your choice for something heftier.
Keen says that its Olympus hiking sock, with features a "Dura-Zone" construction that uses high-tenacity nylon fibers, is 15 times stronger than steel in a weight-for-weight comparison. The wool/nylon blend, mixed with polyester, Dyneema polyethylene and Lycra spandex, focuses on strength, but mixes in a seamless toe to avoid bunching. Ventilated mesh panels and a heel cup construction add to the aim of a long-lasting sock.
The Gumjuwac or Moab
Merrell boasts MerinoMax Technology in its Moab line, which combines almost equal parts merino wool, nylon and recycled polyesters with a bit of hydrophobic and anti-friction fibers in its NanoGlide technology to produce a durable sock with plenty of heat and moisture management. Arch band supports, mesh zones for breathability and a cushioned foot bed give the Moab the feel of a medium-weight hiker. If you want even more warmth, for a cool spring hike, the Gumjuwac offers up the same technology, but with more wool to warm you up. The Gumjuwac doesn’t skimp on comfort or breathability.
Icebreaker’s merino wool goes right against the skin for a drier, softer feel in the Hike Light. The seamless toe construction prevents rub and blisters and Achilles support aims to keep the sock in place. Reinforced at the heel and toe, with instep support, breathable zones on the top and “Y” construction on the heel to prevent slips, the Icebreaker Hike Lite has the feel of a medium-weight hiking sock full of support.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.