The best socks to wear 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.

Target has pretty average synthetic blend socks, but at this point I’ve gotten pretty uppity with socks. I’ve relegated the Target ones to house chores or working out and never use them for hiking or running because they’re just not as comfortable as pricer options I’ve slowly acquired over the years.

REI also makes their own brand of synthetic blend socks that are reasonably priced and great for hiking. The mid-weight socks have plenty of cushion, but if your feet run hot like mine do, you’ll want to get the lighter weight for summer time. These socks are a great starter pair, but eventually I wanted to up my game a little bit.

Enter Smartwool. This brand was my first foray into merino wool socks. 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?

This ain’t your grandmama’s wool.

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 the other day and even though my socks were totally soaked and it was in the 20s, my feet stayed warm the whole time.

Like any good beginner, I asked for more gear for Christmas and got added a few pairs of Smartwool to my sock collection. They were definitely a step up, and I loved how lightweight they were. I got a crew height pair for hiking and the ultra-thin PhD running socks. They sound scholarly, they’re lightweight, they’re super soft. What’s not to love?

Well, they started getting holes in them pretty quickly. And if I’m going to be paying double digits for ONE pair of socks, they better last FOR….EV….ER.

I started looking at other merino wool sock brands. And then I found Darn Tough. I bought my first pair in 2014 and they still look like new, except for where the dye has rubbed off in one place.

These socks are made in the great state of Vermont, and are the best hiking socks I have ever worn. I wanted something that was still merino wool, but thicker than running socks and thinner than my original REI socks. Darn Tough fit the bill perfectly. Plus, they have a lifetime guarantee.

The only drawback is that they shrink a bit in the wash, so you may want to size up. Not putting them in the dryer will also help with this, which is something I probably should have realized about something made out of wool.

Once I started running multiple times a week, I realized I needed more lightweight ankle socks. My bougie hiking socks made me curious about upping my ankle sock game, particularly after my Smartwool ones turned out to be a bust.

For reasons I can’t fully explain, I just didn’t like Darn Tough’s running socks (to be fair, they are my husband’s favorites for running). I couldn’t go back to the crappy cotton ones I started with now that I’ve gotten a taste of fancy socks, so I started looking elsewhere.

I expanded my research to any synthetic blend sock, not just merino wool. I like a bit of padding, so my next try was Thorlo. They had plenty of padding, 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. I like ankle socks, but I hate when they slip under the heel of my running shoes.

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.

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.

Sock height brings me to the last stop in my sock journey. 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.

Serendipitously, my previous job decided to make custom cycling socks…and cycling socks are taller (or at least the “cool” ones are). We got merino wool (see, we’ve come full circle).

Those Save Our Soles socks have become my number one favorite crew sock for running (and hiking for that matter). My warped sense of trail running fashion sense is fully transformed, and I regularly run with crew height socks and shorts. I think I look cool, and I guess that’s all that really matters when the socks are as comfortable as they are.

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 I like too.

The ideal height for socks will vary based on your personally preference. 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!

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