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Almost always out of sight and often shunned as smelly little biofactories, socks were once the forgotten stepchildren of the performance-wear market. Cheap cotton socks by the plastic bagful sulked on store walls beside their thick, itchy wool brethren, as customers thoughtfully considered how highly engineered fabrics would protect them from the ankles up.
Perhaps sometime after the rise of the Beastie Boys, but before the release of Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik, sock-making hit a golden age. Minds, materials, and machines clicked, and people realized the comfort of their feet was important and worth more than a few bucks.
The result is a pallet of options we have before us today that keep our feet dry and comfortable as never before. As winter grips North America, you may be looking for some ways to keep your feet warm as outdoor pursuits take on a frosty pale.
A good cold-weather sock performs a few jobs beyond simply insulating a foot from the cold; it should reduce friction, manage moisture, and provide cushioning. Friction between foot and boot leads to blisters. Moisture trapped against the foot softens skin, increases friction, and hastens the formation of blisters. Cushioning absorbs the impact of footfalls and helps with the fit.
It’s easy to look at a thick, heavy sock and assume it’ll provide the warmth you’re looking for. But, insulation is only part of the performance story when it comes to keeping feet happy in cold weather — the ratio of insulation to moisture management is key.
High-exertion pursuits with lots of leg pumping will provide plenty of heat. In fact, the primary job for a sock worn in a cold-weather, high-intensity activity should be moisture management. Over time, pooled sweat in a sock will chill, possibly freeze, and render any insulating material ineffective.
Sedentary pursuits, such as waiting out game in a hunting stand, shifts the balance of performance more toward insulation than moisture management. But, getting to a tree stand is going to require some movement that’ll heat feet up, so transporting sweat away is still a concern.
Look at your shoe and sock as a layered system as you would the rest of your clothing. A sock is basically a base layer for your foot with some key differences. Unlike a T-shirt, a sock has to deal with relatively massive amounts of friction and pressure. And, you’re not donning and doffing socks to match the weather and your output as you would mid-layers and shells.
Shoe and sock fit is an important component of the warmth equation. Crushing a foot into a boot with a too-thick sock will produce pressure points. These can push on blood vessels and reduce the circulation of warmth-providing blood.
Aside from the fit, also consider the insulation provided by your shoe. If it’s already insulated, a heavily insulated sock may be overkill and produce counterproductive foot-sweats.
The activity combined with the appropriate footwear should be the primary factor in deciding the type of sock to wear. For alpine skiers and mountaineers, the fit between the ski boot and the foot is a critical interface, providing control and security — but duck hunters and driveway shovelers don’t need the same connected feel and can afford the slop of a thicker, more heavily insulted sock.
Generally, a sock has three components: a structural yarn, a body yarn, and an elastane. Structural yarns form the sock’s structure (duh) and are often nylon, or nylon blends, body yarns make up the cushioned areas and dictate the character of the sock, and elastane fiber provides fit and recovery and is commonly called Lycra or Spandex.
Above: Wool is nature’s performance material. It’s antimicrobial, it retains warmth when it’s wet, and wicks moisture and moisture vapor from warm areas to cool.
For cold-weather socks, we look primarily at natural or synthetic insulators to make up the body yarn. Expect a dose of nylon to hold things together and protect the insulation yarn from abrasion, and add some elastane to keep the sock from bunching.
Wool is nature’s performance material. It’s antimicrobial, it retains warmth when it’s wet, and wicks moisture and moisture vapor from warm areas to cool. Most cold-weather and performance-oriented socks on the market today use fine, merino wool fibers as their primary yarn ingredient, but bolster its strength with some nylon.
Common wool is cheap, and it works, but it’s coarse and itchy. Finer-staple wool makes a tighter yarn with fewer and thinner loose wool fibers to irritate your skin.
Merino wool is a generic term for high-quality, fine-gauge, non-itchy wool that comes from the merino breed of sheep. Merino sheep are found in a few places around the world, but thanks to the climate in the Land Down Under, Aussie and Kiwi merino sheep run the show. A family of merino sheep raised in the USA, called Rambouillet merino, produces a similar grade of wool that’s called U.S. merino, though.
Synthetic body yarns, commonly called acrylics, are made from plastic that is drawn into a slick, fuzzy yarn. Synthetics come close to mimicking the wicking, antimicrobial, and insulating properties of wool while adding durability and reducing friction and cost.
Cotton socks. Just don’t. Cotton holds moisture, and that moisture will freeze your feet. If you insist on wearing cotton socks in the cold, don’t bother reading the rest of this article. You might as well just massage your feet with a lawnmower deck right now.
A traditional sock made from 100-percent body yarn would look like a scarf wrapped around your feet. Sock-makers use structural yarns and elastane to give a sock structure. As an analogy, nylon forms the skeleton of the sock, while wool is the insulating fat and elastic threads form the muscle and connective tissue keeping the sock in place.
Almost all the socks in this buyer’s guide are made using a terry loop interior construction. The loops form a lofted layer of body yarn that’s both an insulator and a cushion.
Above: The solid gray areas at the toe and heel are high wear areas reinforced with nylon, cross-hatch denote areas of the foot that expand and flex and, therefore, have more stretch.
Pictured above is a sock Farm To Feet made for us without any body yarn to show the complex skeleton of a performance sock. The solid gray areas at the toe and heel are high wear areas reinforced with nylon, cross-hatch denote areas of the foot that expand and flex and, therefore, have more stretch. You can also see the how the mid-foot and arch area is snugged up. Atop the foot are horizontal cushions that pad shoelaces and offer spaces for ventilation. Where the rest of the skeleton sock is a thin nylon/elastane shell, in a real sock, this would be blended with interior terry loops of merino wool body yarn for warmth and comfort.
Waterproof socks are a special breed. They’re more like little three-layer softshell jackets for your feet than knitted socks. The Hanz and DexShell socks below use an elastic/nylon outer, a breathable, waterproof membrane and a bonded inner layer of wool or synthetic insulation.
All of the premier sock-makers use some euphemism to describe their toe seam construction; toe connection, virtually seamless, seam-free — there’s a seam there no matter what the marketing lingo tries to tell you. But, on all the roundup socks, there’s a flatlock seam on top of the toe that you’ll likely never notice. Some socks also have a thin closing stitch that extends partway from the toe edges. Unless we call it out in a product’s notes, consider the toe seam a non-issue.
Genes, age, and childhood trips to the emergency room make each of our bodies different. Sock-makers account for various foot shapes by averaging a range of feet in a given size into a single model called a last. Since each sock-maker has its own set of lasts, it behooves you to try socks from a few companies to find a last that fits your foot, regardless of size. Baggy toes and heels, an annoyance at first, will eventually lead to blisters.
Knitting socks into lasted shapes is crucial for comfort and performance; and it adds to the cost of a sock. That’s why tube socks are cheap … and called tube socks. Instead of a last, tube socks are knitted around a featureless tube. This leads to things like bunching at the ankle joint and wearing through at the heel.
Treat your cold-weather boots and socks as a footwear system, and try socks on with the shoes you intend to wear with them.
Turning a sock inside out is the best way to learn its secrets. Look for obvious fit, cushion, and reinforcing zones like we see in the Farm To Feet skeleton sock.
Full-cushion socks have terry loops covering the entire inner length and circumference of the sock. Partial-cushion socks have built-up terry loops only in high-impact areas, which reduces bulk, weight, and cost.
Look at the loops. Loose, long loops will provide lots of cushion and warmth, but a lot of loft means an imprecise fit. Shorter loops provide a little less cushion and insulation, but they might offer a better fit and last longer.
Inspect the interior for loose ends. Logos and fancy designs often mean stray threads that catch on toenails and can lead to the unraveling of a sock from the inside out.
Look at the toe and feel for a flat toe seam with no bulging knots of thread at the ends. The heel cup should be padded and have a smooth transition to the ankle shaft.
Ribs in the ankle shaft add a little more structure and hold the sock up in concert with a sewn over welt at the top of a crew height sock. Over-the-ankle socks hang on the calf, so a thinner elastic welt is usually all it takes to hold the sock up.
A fairly recent development in the performance sock world is the spread of compression socks. These are tight-fitting socks that compress muscles and blood vessels uniformly (without causing pressure points). Compression is thought to increase blood flow, thereby speeding the removal of lactic acids from muscles and reducing recovery time. Not long ago, compression socks were considered an expensive medical device. But, now, we can take advantage of their benefits, as compression is built into high-performance socks, such as the Smartwool PhD Outdoor Mountaineer Sock seen in this guide.
At $15 to $25 a pair, a good pair of winter socks isn’t cheap. But, we’re glad to see sock manufacturers understand we all can’t afford to fill a sock drawer with $250 worth of socks. Materials and processes continue to progress, allowing sock-makers to produce socks that are warmer and last longer than previous generations of socks. And, in the event a sock doesn’t meet your expectations, plenty of companies now offer satisfaction guarantees.
On the following pages, we assembled a selection of cold-weather socks that represent the breadth of market, hopefully giving you an idea where to begin your search for your next set of piggy warmers.
77% Merino Wool, 19% Nylon, 4% Lycra Spandex
Warm, dense sock that places tight cushion loops against the skin and leaves a tightly woven outer face in contact with the boot for durability. Ergo, Darn Tough. High needle count gives lots of control over fit while adding to durability. Tall sock provides full cushion coverage of the longest ankles. The thin cuff hangs well on calf and stays in place during intense activity. Densely knit heel and toe increases durability and reduces friction in those key areas. Trade off of thinner cushion means slightly less loft and warmth, but better fit and durability. Made in Vermont, guaranteed for life.
Shell: 96% Nylon, 3% Elastane, 1% Cuff Elastics
Inner: 38% Merino wool, 38% Acrylic, 24% Nylon
The Hytherm Pro is a three-layer treat for your feet. It uses a Porelle waterproof and breathable membrane that works quite well according to our submersion testing. No leaks; the walk dry test proved the benefit of a merino wool lining versus the synthetic fleece in the Hanz offering. The wool lining felt wet and wasn’t as warm as the Hanz at first. We thought the sock leaked, but we think that sensation was a result of the thinner membrane allowing the cushioning to collapse under the hydraulic pressure. Turns out our feet came out a little cooler than they did from the Hanz but drier. More sock-like fit and the centerline seam is not noticeable at all. Imported.
69% Merino Wool, 30% Nylon, 1% Spandex
Made in America with American-made and American-gown merino wool. Full cushion sock with nylon plaiting construction that puts the strong stuff in contact with the boot, soft stuff next to skin. Seams placed on low stress areas to reduce wear. Includes circumferential cushioning around the elastic mid-foot band for continuous coverage and warmth. Super tall, extra-thick top provides coverage all the way to the knee. Warm, but not so thick that you’ll need to size up your boots. Slick inside the boot, we didn’t get any blisters after a day on the trail that started out with a soaked-through boot that we walked dry in a few hours. Looking for something ankle length and even warmer? Check out the Farm to Feet Kodiak.
Top Pick Award & Best Value Award Winner
74% Merino Wool, 14% Nylon, 8% Acrylic, 3% Polyester, 2% Lycra
Black, Coal, Light Brown, Navy
Full cushion sock; largest terry loops in our roundup. Excellent loft, cushioning, and warmth. No breaks anywhere in the cushioning means no gaps for heat loss. Extended testing didn’t reveal any bunching or hotspots as a result of increased padding against the ankle or the tarsal/metatarsal ridge (the ridge on top of the foot). Despite a lack of whiz-bang colored zones and techy-looking contrasting seams, this sock had the highest warmth-to-fit ratio in this buyer’s guide. Never bunched or fell; kept us warm in a pair of Altra Lone Peak NeoShell trail runners used as lightweight hunting boots in a 40-degree F bog. Thick, though, they stole a half-size in our shoes. Nylon exterior plaiting for durability. Guaranteed only for fit, FITS socks hold up well in our experience, though. Made in the USA.
Polartec Power Stretch, Nylon, Lycra spandex
Hanz Chillblockers look like a neoprene sock at first, but they are not. They’re a three-layer jacket for your feet. The next-to-skin layer is thick Polartex Power Stretch fleece yarn for comfort and moisture management; the exterior is a combination of durable nylon and stretchy Spandex. Between the textile layers is a flexible waterproof, breathable membrane. Tested waterproof and warm. Submerged in a stream and walked them dry. Our feet stayed dry of stream water, but got sweaty. An obnoxious seam runs heel to toe. It’s small, but your foot feels it. All. Damned. Day. Perfect for off-your-feet activities: snowmobiling or cold-water watersports, such as fishing or canoeing. Made in the USA.
66% Polyester, 20% Acrylic, 7% wool, 1% Spandex, 1% Nylon
$20 per two-pack
Most traditional construction in the roundup. Good fit. Much warmer than a cotton sock, but these are hiking socks with a little merino wool thrown in for moisture management. Great value for a performance sock, but lots of loose stitching and a fairly baggy fit when compared to nearly all the other socks here. Knee-high and full-cushion construction offer good protection, and majority polyester/acrylic build means it’s a decent cool-weather sock for the budget-minded prepper. Full satisfaction guarantee.
82% Merino Wool, 10% Polyester, 5% Nylon, 3% Spandex
High wool content ratio explains excellent warmth, but hints at possible durability issues over the sock’s lifetime. Dense loop structure gives good padding; great for hiking. Construction is solid, but fit is more generic than others in this buyer’s guide. Heel and Achilles are baggy. Ankles slipped during long hikes and bunched at the boot top. Extremely warm; more suited to shoveling driveways than long hikes to your tree stand. Imported.
77% Wool, 2% Spandex, 21% Nylon
So soft. Nylon plaited construction with coarse loop has lots of cushion. Thick enough to crowd a well-fitting boot. Uses compact spun wool that makes a tighter, less hairy yarn that’s stronger and more comfortable than traditional ring spun yarn. Long mesh areas next to the boot tongue vent help regulate warmth. Deep heel and good grip around arch contributed to excellent fit. Five days straight (three on the trail in 40 degrees F) without a blister. Moisture management worked; sweat never pooled, and feet didn’t rot. No dunk test, though. Washed them and they looked new again. Made in the USA, with lifetime guarantee.
73% merino wool, 26% nylon, 1% elastane
Huge terry loops and full-cushion, merino wool construction means this sock is built for warmth. It’s bulky and may require an upsized shoe for proper fit and performance. Broad cushioning loops provide lots of loft and impact absorption; not a dense-feeling sock. Itch and stink factors are both low. Flat toe seam, flex zones on top of foot, and strategically placed cushion gaps contribute to excellent fit. Higher nylon count for added strength. We wore these socks on a three-day hunt and found them warm and comfy, though the wide cuff did need to get pulled up a couple times a day during long movements. Made in the USA and guaranteed for life.
Best Technical Performer Award Winner
50% Merino Wool, 49% Nylon, 1% Elastane
The most advanced sock on the planet. Carefully combines the features of a cold-weather sock, athletic sock, and compression sock. Designed to work with low-volume footwear, where fit is paramount. Highlights use of Smartwool’s 4 Degree Elite Fit System with cushioning bands and vent zones, increasing comfort and breathability. The sock uses the company’s latest wool yarn that’s spun more tightly, and Smartwool claims it’s 33-percent more durable than its prior generation of yarn. Another new tech, “Indestructiwool” allows placement of nylon reinforced yarns in high-wear areas for focused durability. Built-in graduated compression helps in post-activity recovery. Best for high output, technical pursuits.