Why merino wool socks make the best travel socks

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As much as I would love to imagine myself as a stalwart and courageous swashbuckling voyager, sailing the seven seas with magnanimous adventures of legendary renown, I am in fact a scrawny, spindly creature of skeletal countenance and atrocious constitution. Without the technological marvels of high-quality travel gear, I would have devolved into a rapidly decaying husk of a man amongst the snowbanks of an obscurely bucolic countryside long ago.

Merino wool socks
Merino wool: Saving toes from amputation since 12,000 BC. Or so.

Luckily for you, my frozen toes and irreversibly chilled bones instilled within me the steely resolve to persevere, and thus did I begin my long and arduous journey to discover nothing but the world’s finest garments, wrought from the hands of humanity’s most skilled craftsmen, never to be caught in a meteorological maelstrom of biblical proportions with inadequate gear ever again.

And it is this wisdom which I choose to bestow upon you today. I have suffered for you, my children. But I ask of you no gifts in return. Your worship and adoration are thanks enough.

Today’s lecture: A treatise on the fabulousness of merino wool socks, and why they are far and away the best travel socks you can reasonably find. There’s no better way to pamper yourself more adorably than swaddling your toes in the exquisite comfort of fluffy merino. Allow me to elaborate.

What makes merino wool socks so great?

People talk about merino wool like it’s a miracle fabric, because it basically is. Merino has a number of properties that make it especially comfortable, particularly when compared to more familiar fabrics like cotton.

Smartwool Heathered Rib Sock
The Smartwool Heathered Rib Sock: Professional on the outside, cozy on the inside. Get it here.

Properties of merino wool include:

  • It’s an excellent insulator, and will help keep you warm in winter, and cool in the summer.
  • It can absorb a significant amount of moisture, but since it’s the interior of the fiber where the moisture resides, the fabric feels dry, even when wet. It will eventually get over-saturated, but it’ll take a lot longer than either cotton or synthetic fabrics, which quite often feel like you’re wearing a wet garbage bag.
  • It stays warm even when wet, which is something cotton simply can’t accomplish, preventing the chill of wet fabric that is typical of other fibers.
  • It dries quickly. Depending on fabric weight and other factors, it can even  match the quick-drying performance of certain synthetic fabrics, or come close.
  • It’s naturally anti-bacterial. The structure and chemical properties of merino wool create a horrible environment for microorganisms, which also means…
  • It’s naturally odor-resistant. Because most body odor is actually caused by bacterial waste products, the naturally anti-bacterial products prevent this odor from building in the first place.
  • It’s ridiculously soft. This will depend on the specific fibers used (you’ll read about microns sooner or later; anything under 20 will be luxurious), but it’ll be as soft as the softest brand-new cotton you’ve ever felt.
Darn Tough Micro Crew Light Cushion
The Darn Tough Micro Crew Cushion has become my sock of choice lately. Darn Tough socks have a great reputation for durability, and a lifetime warranty. Get these here.

These properties are useful for all sorts of clothing, but especially helpful for socks: They’ll keep your toes warm, but with less likelihood of overheating. They’ll absorb moisture, meaning your feet won’t feel nearly as soaked under bulky shoes. They’ll air-dry rather quickly if you take your shoes off for a break, and, perhaps best of all, they won’t offend the nasal passages of passersby when you do.

Oh, and I forgot about blisters. Literally. Merino wool socks work spectacularly well at preventing them, and I’ve been using merino wool socks for so long that I can’t even remember them.

What makes them the best travel socks?

Travel brings with it certain limitations. Namely, a frequent lack of adequate laundry facilities. This is where merino wool shines.

Because of its natural anti-bacterial properties, washing merino wool on a daily basis isn’t absolutely necessary; after letting it air dry overnight while you sleep, it’ll seem brand new.

Smartwool Margarita Women's Socks
Add some color. Lots and lots of color. Get these here.

Certain mountaineers have pushed merino wool’s legendary limits by wearing a single outfit for months at a time while hiking through the wilderness, never changing or washing their clothing at all. And although I wouldn’t go that far, it means you won’t have to worry too much about skipping laundry for an extra day or two.

And if you get stuck doing a sink wash, it’ll dry faster than cotton. Maybe not quite overnight, depending on the thickness of the fabric (and you’ll want it to be thoroughly dry to prevent that weird wet wool smell), but it’ll happen quickly enough to make hand washing a realistic option. It also means you don’t need that many of them, which offsets the cost of buying a few, and reduces pack size, enabling minimalist travel.

Temperature regulation and absorption also place merino wool in a class of its own. Weather and climate fluctuations happen all the time, and without a warm and cozy house to go back to, you’ll be stuck with whatever gear you brought along with you. Backpackers need versatile, reliable gear that’ll work in whatever situation they might encounter, and merino wool’s temperature regulation and moisture control mean it’ll handle chilly evenings and hot weather hikes equally well, and far better than alternatives.

These might sound like obscure, technical characteristics, but they add up to merino wool socks being vastly more comfortable when compared to just about anything else. The first day I tried a pair of merino wool socks, I threw out all the others and never went back.

My travel sock setup

Though merino wool offers exquisite temperature regulation, long term travel inevitably brings such a broad range of temperatures that a platonic coronation of the ideal World’s Best Travel Socks will simply be impossible.

Thus, I prefer two:

  • A lightweight, ankle-height sock with little-to-no cushioning for hot weather travel, for those days when sandals just won’t cut it. I like the Smartwool Hiking Ultra Light Mini Sock. It has just a little cushioning, though you might want to go even lighter if you plan on wearing socks on hot days.
  • A warmer, regular-height sock with loftier cushioning for cold climates. I like Smartwool Light Hiker. Despite being called “light,” I think these work just fine in any temperature above freezing (and even below, if you’re active).

Fun pictures!

Smartwool Sock Setup
Smartwool generally does a better job managing a subdued appearance than most of their competitors.

Minor update: I have mostly switched over to Darn Tough socks, as they have a stellar reputation for lasting forever, and Smartwools have a reputation for wearing out within a few years. It’s still too early for me to say whether the new ones are going to be the winner, but they’re looking good so far. I got the Micro Crew Cushion (also called Light Hiker) as sort of an all-around, cool-to-cold weather sock. They’ve been great so far.

During a long-term trip in which temperatures include both sweltering highs and morale-destroying lows, I’ll bring two pairs of each type, and alternate as necessary. On really hot days, I’ll wear sandals, and on really cold days, maybe one of each, though the inner sock would have to be really thin to allow this, though it’ll make lightweight winter travel gear a possibility. An inner sock with zero cushioning is probably the best option anyway, but for some reason, ankle socks tend to be cushioned at least a little, so you might have to get taller socks if you go for this route.

Plenty of companies use the same material, so I won’t get too fussy about specific products, but I generally prefer socks that appear utterly normal, which is exceedingly rare when it comes to athletic gear of all sorts. Since merino socks have been so thoroughly embraced by the outdoor athletic industry, they’re usually built with all sorts of fancy colors and flashy design features, which I’ve always thought were kind of annoying. Once it’s in the shoe it won’t matter, so it’s not really a big deal, but I think it’s a little weird that if I want to be comfortable, I must also look as though I’m heading to the track.

Kirkland Signature Outdoor Trail Socks
Costco’s in-house brand merino socks are the best deal you’re likely to find on merino socks, at 1/3 or even 1/4 of the price of certain competitors. Get these here.

And by the way, nobody makes any socks built purely of merino wool; they’re blended with nylon for durability, elastic for stretch, a little polyester for even faster drying time, and so on. Don’t worry too much about these other ingredients; they’re there to help. Just get something with at least 50% merino content, and it’ll be great.

Potential alternatives to merino wool socks

Currently, I know of absolutely nothing that can remotely match the performance of merino wool, in any category, from moisture control, to temperature regulation, to odor resistance. For the most part, there’s no reason to use anything else.

But I can think of a few potential alternatives: Tencel, modal, bamboo, and other types of cellulose fibers promise great absorbency and anti-microbial properties, and might work nicely for a pair of socks. They might be worth a try.

Other types of wool could potentially work as well; alpaca and yak wool have become increasingly popular in all sorts of areas, and I expect they’d be great in a pair of socks as well. Lots of little companies have sprung up that offer alpaca socks, so it’s not hard tracking them down. I’ve even seen bison wool socks, which would probably work too.

Personally, I try to stay away from socks made primarily from synthetic fabrics. Polyester socks promise amazing drying times, which is fine if moisture has somewhere to go (they can escape more easily from meshy athletic shoes, for example), but if it’s stuck inside a leather shoe, particularly on a hot day, that moisture has nowhere to go, and will accumulate into a foot-sized steam bath. Merino wool can at least offer some absorbency, reducing that icky wet-sock sensation, and keep pungent bacterial growth in check. Blends with both are good though.

Well, that should just about do it. Get something for warm weather, and something for cold weather, in whatever color you like, and they’ll be your new favorite socks, and keep you cozy on adventures far and wide. Enjoy your newfound toe-cozying freedom, and venture forth.

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