If you're wondering why you would pay $20 for a pair of socks, you need to read this.
Investing in quality socks is always worth it
First, socks are worth a few extra bucks. Hiking clothes are about keeping you comfortable while you're doing uncomfortable things. When it's wet, cold, hot, muggy, windy or rainy, having the wrong sock for the occasion means you're going to be uncomfortable. Socks are one of the few pieces of hiking clothes that you should buy with hiking in mind, however, they are also the cheapest.
If you're balking at $20 socks keep in mind that you're not paying 4 times more for quality socks than cheap ones, you're paying $15 more. That's less than most people will spend on coffee in a week and coffee has never stopped you from getting a blister. If you had a blister right now on your foot, would you pay $15 to get rid of it? If you say no it's because you've never had one.
Why Not Cotton?
Cotton kills is a phrase you may have heard before. When cotton gets wet it stays wet and doesn't move moisture from your skin (wicking). In practice waterproof boots will not protect you from getting your feet wet. Read more about that here. Wearing cotton socks, therefore, can be problematic.
This problem is especially bad when:
- It's cold out. The water in the cotton will stop it from keeping you warm if the air outside is colder than you. Being cold and wet is very dangerous (hypothermia) and is also ridiculously uncomfortable.
- It's warm out but you're crossing a bunch of creeks or rivers. Your feet will just stay really wet and you'll wind up with pruned feet. Pruning (maceration) isn't just a cosmetic problem. It means your skin will be uncomfortable after a while and more prone to blisters as a result of softening.
If Not Cotton…
The short answer is synthetics or wool. Technically wool will retain water pretty well (bad) but it does move it away from your skin (good). Synthetics are also very popular, especially in the ultralight category. Basically you're looking for things that move moisture from your skin and both wool and most synthetics are good at that.
Which you want depends on how high you're prioritizing warmth. Generally if you're buying high end socks (Darn Tough, Smartwool) and don't know what you're after you can just search by activity and let brand reputation carry you forward into making a good choice. Just pay attention to things like cushioning and arch support if you need it.
In winter you'll most likely wind up with a wool or wool blend. Blending wool with synthetics generally makes the socks a bit stronger or durable. Just avoid cheap wool socks that are blended with cotton. Also, pay attention to reviews. You'll see inexpensive wool socks with a lot of reviews that say they fall apart quickly or after a few long hikes.
In summer, when you're more worried about getting rid of heat than retaining it, synthetics or wool will work. Keep an eye out for socks made out of Coolmax or merino wool. Good merino wool socks will still keep your feet cool by evaporative cooling but offer some additional benefits such as odor reduction. Coolmax is a popular alternative as well that is durable and dries very quickly.