You have a big day planned - a trail run, a splitboard skin at sunrise, a scouting mission for the best tree stand site, or even a hot date in the big city. You open your sock drawer and pause. Which pair are you going to wear? Which socks will get the job done?
While this sounds a bit melodramatic, even those of us who have been in the sock business for years know this moment all too well...
How Do You Choose the Right Socks?
My name is Owen (VanGrizzle on the trail) and I work in Product Design and Development at Darn Tough. Even before I was hired, Darn Tough socks were the only socks I would wear. I wore them thru hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2017, and on Vermont’s Long Trail (hiked twice).
Even with my sock expertise though, what I described above, albeit theatrically, happens to me all the time! I’m an active person – hiking, running, farming, building – and try to always dress for the task at hand.
So how do you choose socks? What are the best socks to wear? Whether you are a new Darn Toughian or have been wearing our socks for years, choosing the right socks is not always easy. The good news? With close to 250 unique styles (and an average of 2-3 colors per style), we have your feet covered for whatever life throws your way.
In this post, we will dive into the knitty gritty (pun intended) of how to find the best socks to fit your needs. We will consider your footwear, as well as the many heights, weights, cushioning levels, and technical combinations Darn Tough offers for socks to perform in your intended activity.
Features to Choose Every Time
Before getting into the specifics, let's cover what we at Darn Tough consider to be basic features of premium socks. When choosing socks, these are features you want included, no matter your activity.
- Performance Fibers: Most Darn Tough socks are knit with Merino Wool, which is naturally soft, durable, thermoregulating, moisture wicking, fire retardant, and odor resistant.
- Performance Fit: We knit socks to closely hug the foot, which reduces bunching and sliding. In turn, the sock moves with your foot inside your shoe, reducing blisters. A good fit also means the socks will hold up over time as well.
- Fine Gauge Knitting: A dense knit means higher durability and a better fit. The fine yarns and many small needles (168 needles, to be exact) we use knit a LOT into each square inch of sock.
- Durability: Our socks are reinforced underfoot, in the toe, and up the heel for long miles and years of activity. Some socks have additional reinforcement for their intended activity, and all Darn Tough socks have a lifetime warranty, our promise to you. More on that below.
- Arch Support: All our socks have elastic through the arch of the foot to reduce foot fatigue, while also helping keep the socks right where you want them all day, no bunching.
- True Seamless™ Toe: Most Darn Tough socks have a non-seamed toe, joined instead by a looping mechanism during knitting. The result is a flat, invisible, smooth feel.
Consider Your Footwear
We often choose footwear based on what activities we have planned for the day. Shoes, boots, or sandals are usually designed for a specific purpose, weather, and time of year, be it hiking in rock scrambles, skiing in powder, a ruck march in winter, or just looking fresh around town.
Something I tell folks a lot is that you could have the best, most technical footwear in the world, but your feet are not going to be happy if you have on the wrong pair of socks. Something else I like to share is that the best socks are the ones your feet do not notice. In other words, once they are on, your socks are staying where you want them, wicking moisture, and acting as a single system from foot to sock, sock to shoe, shoe to ground. Socks and footwear work together.
What sock you pair with a shoe will make a difference. I want the right height and weight for the proper fit and temperature regulation. Some of this naturally comes down to preference; the sock that works for you may not be the same model that your friend likes to wear.
I wouldn’t wear a Mountaineering cold-weather sock in leather Oxford dress shoes, because those would be too hot for me in that situation. That said, I have coworkers who wear heavyweight socks year-round and for everything. Again, personal preference is a large part of choosing the best socks.
Having considered footwear, when choosing socks you should also consider your intended activity - are you hiking? farming? walking around downtown? Socks come in different weights and cushioning levels, heights, and with different tech features. All of these combine in different ways to make socks purpose-built for your intended activity.
Choose Socks for Your Activity
Our socks are designed to perform for a specific activity and purpose, just like shoes are. For example, we design our hiking socks around the needs and footwear of the many types of hikers and trekkers. Our run socks are designed with features for both road and trail runners.
Within each activity-specific sock category, we strive to offer every combination of height, weight, and cushioning that the end-users of that activity (that’s you!) may need.
Here’s a brief overview of what to think about when you're choosing socks for each of these activities:
Whether you’re out for hours or months, most hikers want similar features from their hiking socks: comfort over hard miles, no blisters, a good fit on the foot and within the hiking shoe or boot, and the most comfortable and least sweaty feet possible.
All our Hiking socks offer a performance fit with arch-support to reduce blisters and foot fatigue, cushioning for impact protection mile after mile, and all the benefits of moisture-wicking, thermoregulating Merino Wool (or Coolmax). Oh, and they’re tough too. One might even say Darn Tough…
I wrote an entire post about how to choose hiking socks, with hiker-specific tips and features.
Runners need good fitting footwear with zero play between foot, sock, and shoe. Running socks should wick moisture, protect from chafing and blisters, and stay right where you want them.
All our Run socks provide a performance fit and breathable mesh to keep your feet cool wherever your run may take you. These socks will protect your foot, heel, and ankle from friction mile after mile.
Runner Josh Ferenc shared his tips on choosing socks for running.
Whatever the sport, athletes need a sock that isn’t going to give up. It should stay put and keep your feet cool and comfortable. Darn Tough Athletic socks are great for the all-round athlete - sports, lifting, training, cycling, golfing, cross-training, and general working out.
All our Athletic socks are knit for year-round versatility and are packed with technical features, including mesh, contoured cushioning, and the features of Merino Wool.
These are socks for all-around use and come in many styles and colors, whether you're looking for dress socks or casual socks. Also, since they’re guaranteed to be Darn Tough, you can throw a pair of sneakers over them too for a light workout after work.
Our lifestyle socks are designed to be versatile, with a variety of heights so you have the right pick for any footwear or fashion needs, whether at home, on the town, or in the office.
Ski & Snowboard Socks
Whether it’s race day or you’re hitting trails for fun, you need a well-fitting sock that will keep your warm (but NOT sweaty) without excess material or bulk in your boot.
Darn Tough snow socks are knit with a LOT of technical features. All our ski socks feature performance mesh on the foot for a close fit and breathability, and extended durability zones under foot and up the heel for long-term use again and again, winter after winter.
Hunters need socks that will perform and aid foot comfort in any condition, whether it’s sitting in a tree stand or mucking through wetlands. Merino Wool both insulates and wicks moisture, helping ensure your feet will be happy.
All our hunting socks feature performance ribbing in the arch of the foot so they stay right where you need them to, even when you go off trail.
Regardless of the type of work you do though, look for socks with cushioning underfoot to promote comfort and protect from impact, and performance fibers to regulate foot temperature, moisture, and odor.
Named after greats like Fred Tuttle and Mary Fields, our work socks are made for those who work hard and need their socks to hold up day after day and year after year. If you’re wearing steel or carbon toe boots, check out our Steely collection with an extended, full cushioned toe box.
You can learn more about choosing the right socks for work here.
Those looking for Tactical socks may have more specific requirements to consider when choosing socks. Darn Tough tactical socks are certified Berry Amendment Compliant with all yarns sourced in America, and the colors are compliant with most uniform requirements.
These socks styles are designed to be a durable, comfortable, well-fitting line worn by those on duty.
Select Your Cushioning and Weight Combo
For a given activity, there's a range of different needs and preferences. For example, some runners prefer no cushioning for the closest possible fit in their shoes, while others like some padding for comfort and impact protection on those longer or more rugged runs. Some hikers live in desert climates and want ultralight socks, while others need midweight socks equally suited for warm summers and cold winters.
The combination of yarn weight and cushioning determines the overall feel and performance of the sock. At Darn Tough, we have 4 weights and 3 basic cushioning levels. When combined, there are tons of options for all types of users in all types of climates.
Cushioning is padding created by terry loops (Think really dense towels. Towels are made from terry cloth, if you didn’t know.), which offers protection from impact, shock absorption, and extra warmth and comfort.
An important thing to consider is that while more cushioning can add warmth, performance fibers like merino wool naturally thermoregulate. Therefore, you can wear cushioned socks year-round. I do, at least, and I know I am not alone in preferring cushion.
Darn Tough has three standard cushioning levels which are best defined as follows:
- No Cushion: The socks is knit with no Terry loop cushioning. These are thin socks, regardless of yarn weight.
- Cushion: Terry loops underfoot, around the toes, and behind the heel in these padded socks. The most popular and versatile cushioning level.
- Full Cushion: Terry loops run throughout the entire foot, through the leg, and up to the cuff in these cushioned socks, for a full wrap of cushioning around the foot and leg.
- Ultra-Lightweight: This yarn weight creates the lightest possible merino wool sock out there! I sent my brother a pair of our ultralight socks and he calls them, “a ghost of a sock”. But don’t be scared; while it is super low-profile, this weight still has the durability and tech-features you need.
Lightweight: Our lightweight socks are knit with yarns that are great for most activities. These are my go-to everyday socks, especially in spring and summer, as they have a close, breathable fit that keeps my feet cool without sacrificing performance.
- Midweight: Midweight socks are ideal for the year-round athlete. I wore only 2 pairs of our Midweight with Cushion socks thru hiking the Appalachian Trail and faced temperatures ranging from 15-95 degrees F throughout the trek. Midweight yarns offer insulation and protect your feet from impact, while also wicking away sweat.
- Heavyweight: The burliest, heaviest yarn for maximum warmth in rugged, extreme cold conditions. We use this weight in our Mountaineering socks, our Heavyweight Hunter socks, and our cold-weather Tactical socks.
Pick Your Sock Height
Beyond cushion and weight, you'll also want to pick your sock height. Think about what height is best for your footwear and activity. Ranging from no shows to knee highs, Darn Tough has a full gamut of sock profiles and lengths.
How tall are your shoes and boots? Do you need to protect yourself from dirt, debris, or bugs? Are you okay with your socks showing? Some of this is preference.
Personally, I only wear socks that go above my ankles, often opting for a Micro Crew or Crew. These heights keep me warm and protect against dirt and debris when I’m running or hiking. I also like showing off some fun colors and patterns. But I know folks who run in No Shows and others who run in Over-The-Calf Socks.
Additional Technical Features
Many of our socks include tech features specific to fit and function of footwear and activity, including mesh, targeted cushioning, knit structures, and more. Here are a few to consider when choosing socks:
- Mesh: Mesh channels moisture away from your feet and leg, helping keep them cool and dry. Look for mesh in running, athletic, ski and snowboard, and lightweight hiking socks, as well as a few work, hunt, and tactical socks.
- Targeted Cushioning: Some socks feature targeted cushioning in high-impact zones. In our Ski & Snowboard category, some socks include a Shin Pad, while the Steely Work socks have an extended toe box to protect from steel toe boots.
- Ribbed Knit: Ribbing is created by knitting in additional elastic to create a shaped, supportive structure that helps keep the sock right where you want it. Ribs vary in width and density, allowing more or less bulk depending on the preferred feel, activity, or style.
Don't Underestimate the Material
As I mentioned earlier, most Darn Tough socks are knit with Merino Wool, which makes the ultimate performance socks. Merino is an all-weather fiber. I’ll say it again, Merino is an all-weather fiber! (we debunked myths to the contrary). Think about it this way: Sheep have been hiking and running in wool for over 10,000 years! We humans have been wearing Merino Wool since the 1200s.
A few styles are knit with Coolmax® or Thermolite® fibers instead, synthetic fibers that are vegan and packed full of tech that imitates the properties of Merino. While they are good fibers, we mostly knit them for folks who cannot wear wool.
Merino versus synthetic fibers aside, remember the one fiber you don't want to choose for socks: cotton.
Find the Right Size
Make sure you choose the best sock to fit your foot! A poorly fitting sock can lead to foot fatigue from bunching or slipping if it’s too big or cut off circulation if it’s too small.
We knit socks to closely hug the foot, but close does not mean tight. If you are on the cusp of a size or between sizes, we recommend sizing up. Check out our size chart.
Last But Not Least, Patterns and Colors
When choosing a sock, the pattern or color you choose usually comes down to preference. Wear what you like! That said, sometimes uniforms or jobs require specific colors or patterns, like many jobs of our Tactical sock wearers.
There are other considerations too, of course. I know some hikers who only wear lighter colors so they can spot ticks or other bugs that land on them. We try to offer a wide array of colors for many uses and personal styles.
How to Choose the Best Socks
To recap, how to choose socks comes down to considering what your end goals are, be they specific activities, a certain look, or a mix of both. Consider your footwear, the weather outside, and your personal preferences around height, weight, and cushioning. From there, you can find the socks that work best for your needs, and feel and look good while doing it.
I hope you’ve learned something by reading this post and are now equipped to find the ideal socks for you. Feel free to check out our Sock Finder if you need a few recommendations. Until next time, I’ll see you out there!
About the Author
Owen (VanGrizzle on the trail) works in Product Design and Development at Darn Tough. He's worked for the company since 2016, but even before he was hired, Darn Tough socks were the only socks he would wear. He's a resident sock tester, having thru hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2017 and Vermont’s own Long Trail twice.