The best socks for hiking and running

For a long time, I lived life completely unaware of the glorious world of sock options. I thought that white cotton ankle socks were as good as it got.

But during my first-ever trip to REI, I was informed in no uncertain terms that cotton socks were not going to cut it. Cotton doesn’t wick moisture or dry quickly, which leaves you with swamp feet in the summer and numb toes in the winter. Both set you up for a one-way ticket to Blister Town.

What do I want instead of cotton?

Either synthetic (polyester, rayon, etc) or merino wool. Synthetic is less expensive, but merino wool is SO soft and nice. Plus they stink less (nice for multi-day camping!).

I started at Target for an affordable synthetic option. In the last few years, they have majorly upped their sock game. Before, I relegated Target socks to household chores or working out. But now (2020), these stretchy black ankle socks rarely leave my feet. They hit right at my ankle, are synthetic fabric, and dry out quickly. I love them for hiking in sneakers, road running, and trail running. Plus, $11 for a six-pack is a pretty good deal!

Wait, but you also recommend wool?

Yes, wool. My husband insisted merino wool would “change my life” and to be honest he was right. But buying something that was wool seemed totally counter intuitive at first. Wouldn’t they be itchy? Scratchy? Stiff?


Merino wool is stretchy, soft, and also retains its warming ability even when it’s wet. Case in point: I ran through ankle deep snow and even though my socks were totally soaked and it was in the 20s, my feet stayed warm the whole time.

Ok, so I want to splurge a little on merino socks.

REI now makes a merino wool option, which will be your best bet for less expensive merino socks. I haven’t personally tried them, but I’ve had great success with several other REI Co-op brand purchases, so they’re worth a shot. (They’re 25% off for Labor Day 2020, too!)

Smartwool is a very popular merino wool brand. They’re also well-known for their super thin, light socks. I do think their socks are exceptionally comfortable. However, all of mine have worn out very quickly (less than a year), so I don’t think they’re worth the price. It’s a Colorado company, so I want to love them, but I just can’t.

Instead, my heart lies with Darn Tough. They are also 25% off for Labor Day, but I love them even at full-price thanks to their lifetime guarantee. If I’m paying double digits for ONE pair of socks, they better last forever. I got my first pair in 2014 and have used and abused them regularly since then, but only the dye has rubbed off in a few spots. I also love Darn Tough for their slightly shorter crew sock height, and of course, the merino wool. Darn Toughs aren’t quite as thin as Smartwool, but I haven’t been bothered by that.

Should I get crew socks or ankle socks?

Your socks should come up a little higher than whatever shoes you’re wearing. This keeps your sweaty skin from rubbing against your shoes and getting blistered. For running, ankle socks do the trick. For hiking, you may want to consider crew height socks.

Yes, I know most people think they are super dorky (although I think the youths wear them now as a fashion thing?). But if you’re hiking in boots, you’ll want socks that hit above the top of your boots.

Darn Tough’s are slightly shorter, which I think looks a little better (at least on me). If you want the classic crew sock hike or to spend less money, REI’s Ultralight Hiking Crew socks are an affordable option when Darn Toughs aren’t on sale. Darn Tough also makes ankle socks, which are my husband’s favorite running socks. I didn’t personally love them, but I can’t really pinpoint why.

Another reason to consider crew socks is trail running. You keep up a lot of rocks and dirt while you run, which can end up in your shoes and socks.

The thought of wearing crew height socks with shorts and sneakers horrified me (because I’m SO fashion forward). But trail runners that I thought were cool wore them…and I was getting a lot of rocks in my shoes.

If you find yourself getting uncomfortable because you’ve got rocks in your socks (is that a Dr. Seuss book?), try a crew height sock. Save Our Soles makes excellent options in merino wool that’s a little lighter than Darn Tough, making them better suited for running.

What weight socks should I get?

If your hiking boots are waterproof, they’re also going to be quite warm (even in winter). I recommend looking for socks that are labelled ultralight or microlight to keep your feeties cool.

If your feet run cold, you can always try lightweight or midweight socks to see if those are a better fit, particularly if you’re doing a lot of winter hiking or running.

Save Our Soles are merino wool socks that are a happy medium between ultrathin and the slightly thicker Darn Toughs (even the “micro” weight). These are my go-to for winter trail running if its snowy enough that my feet will get wet.

What are other running sock options?

I do love my Target socks, but it can also be nice to treat yoself and get some nicer, running-specific socks. I like a bit of padding, so my first try was Thorlo. They had plenty of padding on the heels and toes, but the arch of the sock was really thin and the contrast felt weird. It could’ve been coincidence, but my feet started cramping a lot when I ran in them. So it was on to the next.

Maybe I just needed something uniformly thin. I tried Feetures and immediately hated them. They didn’t fit right on my feet and the fabric felt scratchy and uncomfortable after just a few washes.

On a whim, I bought some socks from a brand I’d never heard of called Stance. Mostly, I just liked that they had a topographic design on them. But I ended up falling totally in love with them, particularly for the higher back.

Stance’s Uncommon Lite socks have the perfect amount of rear tab (that’s a technical term). They shrink pretty badly in the dryer, so my first pair is a little too snug. I sized up for pair two and they fit like a dream. They also have glitter on them, which is pretty fantastic. (Stance also makes hiking socks. I haven’t tried them, but you can find them on sale at REI right now)

I was arrogant enough to think just because *I* had never heard of this brand, they clearly were new and unknown. Since I loved the socks so much, I went to their website to see if they had brand ambassador opportunities. They did…for Rihanna. Safe to say they were doing just fine without me.

As you may guess from a brand with enough money to pay Rihanna, they aren’t cheap! So I tried out Balegas because Boulder Running Company carried a bunch of them, they were on sale, and I had a gift card.

These are like wearing soft, silky bunnies hugging your your fit (without, you know, any bunnies being harmed in the process). Plus, some of the pairs have cute messages on them like “Be The Light.” I have narrow feet, and they’re nice and snug on them and have just enough padding. I also liked that they had a just-over-the-ankle height in addition to no-show ankles and crew socks.

What’s the bottom line?

In general, you’ll want something lightweight for summer and maybe one heavier pair if you’re planning on really getting after it in the cold weather. Merino wool is the best, but there are lots of synthetic blends that will work too.

The ideal height for socks will vary based on your personal preference and footwear. When it’s a million degrees out in July, I run in ankle socks, but taller ones have honestly been really nice for keeping the rocks out of my shoes when I trail run.

If you’re hiking in boots, you’ll want something above the ankle or you’ll be pretty uncomfortable. Darn Tough’s crew size is a bit shorter than other brands and is perfect for hiking boots. If you’re on a budget, Target works for running and REI is great affordable bet for hiking.

Happy sock hunting!

Published by Laura Cardon

Laura Cardon moved to Colorado as an adult and quickly realized how difficult it was to get started exploring the outdoors in a state full of experts. She founded Outdoor Beginner in 2014 to fill the gap in beginner-friendly content for camping, hiking, skiing, and other outdoor activities. In addition to Outdoor Beginner, she coaches beginner trail runners and works at Runners Roost in Golden, Colorado, where she lives with her spouse and toddler.