Disclaimer: Since I am only one man, I unfortunately have neither the time nor the resources to acquire and laboriously compare many different pieces of gear. As such, the reviews on this blog are only my honest assessment of certain pieces of gear and clothing that I’ve purchased and used over the years. If you are looking for exhaustive comparisons backed up by hours and hours of testing and data, I’d highly recommend checking out reviews from sites like The Wirecutter (or its sister site, The Sweethome) and OutdoorGearLab, both of which I refer to in these reviews and when I’m shopping for myself. I am not affiliated with any of these sites, but I rely on their research like any other consumer, and have found their work to be helpful, transparent, and extremely thorough. All of this said, thank you for reading, and I hope you find that the following recommendations positively inform your outdoor gear research and purchasing.
West Virginia. Wintertime. The first and last time I went cold-weather camping. I woke up to sub-zero temperatures, 2 feet of fresh-fallen snow, and no feeling at all in my feet. Even though I had slept in wool socks, wrapped in a warm sleeping bag and sheltered in a tent, my toes felt like icy metal to the touch. It was not until I left them dangerously close to the morning campfire for a frighteningly long time that feeling began to creep back into my poor numb digits. I wish this sort of experience on no one. But fortunately for poor sods like me, advances in sock technology can make both cold winter months and long summer hikes infinitely more enjoyable.
So let's talk socks.
I think we can agree right now that for most outdoor purposes cotton socks are the worst. They don't insulate well, they stay wet forever, and their life expectancy is tragically short. I have now entirely purged cotton socks from my sock drawer, in favor of heartier and more functional alternatives.
If you'd like a concise article that explains the benefits of wool socks, check out Do You Really Need $25 Merino Hiking Socks? from Outside Online.
My current everyday choice is Darn Tough's 1/4 Cushion Socks. They are made of mostly merino wool, meaning they have the same attractive properties as the Icebreaker shirts I talk about in this review. And more importantly than with shirts, merino's natural anti-microbial properties ensure that when you remove your shoes, your friends won't go running to the hills to escape the stench of feet. As an added bonus, Darn Tough makes their socks domestically in Vermont, and guarantees them for life. That's right. A lifetime warranty on socks. I've put a single pair of Darn Toughs through Himalayan treks, turtle tagging in the Carribbean, and a Tough Mudder race, and but for the color, they might as well still be brand new. Despite my almost daily use of my 1/4 Cushions, I've yet to actually take advantage of their unconditional guarantee. But if the day ever comes when I manage to wear out a pair, I'll be glad to have that warranty.
One thing to consider is that, when compared to department store cotton socks, Darn Tough's seem exorbitantly expensive. Don't let this be off-putting though because, unlike their cotton cousins, these things are built to last, even with daily use. Personally, I'd rather pay more up front for the security of not having to continually replace my cheap sock collection.
My camping and hiking socks for years have been Smartwool Hike Medium Crew Socks. They were my first introduction to the wonderful world of wool. However, they are not without fault. Though I've been using Smartwools since the days of my Boy Scout hikes, they haven't lasted me more than a couple of years each before developing thin spots that rapidly turn to gaping holes. They can be mended and cared for, but they just don't have the longevity of Darn Toughs. While I still own several pairs, they are as expensive as Darn Toughs, but much less durable and without the warranty to back them up. I'm slowly letting these expire from my sock collection.
The one pair of Smartwools that I am keeping around are the Mountaineering Extra Heavy Crew Socks. These are the beefier, gnarlier older brother to the Hike Medium Crews. These were a gift a couple of years ago and, to date, they are the closest my feet have felt to complete cold immunity. Though they are designed for mountaineering, I'm currently employing them for their outrageous cushioning and warmth. I haven't run into any structural failings with these yet, and I think that will determine if I buy any more in the future.
In my continuing quest to explore other sock options, I'd love to investigate alpaca wool socks like the Maximus Socks from Maximus & Penelope. They claim the same benefits as traditional wool socks, but with five times the warmth of sheep's wool and the softness of cashmere. If that isn't tempting, I don't know what is.