Hiking Socks 101: Keeping Your Feet Happy on the Trail

Smartwool Socks Hiking Guide

We'll admit it...we've got a thing for socks. While socks may not be the most glamorous element of your outdoor kit; we'd argue it might be the most important piece of gear you own. So we teamed up with the experts at Smartwool to give you the down and dirty details behind this essential equipment and why sock selection is so important. The Smartwool PhD® Outdoor Socks and Classic Hike Socks were recently featured in the Cairn Spring Obsidian Collection.

Why'd we team up with Smartwool? They basically created a new category of outdoor gear over 20 years ago when they first introduced high-performance Merino wool hiking socks and forever changed how outdoor enthusiasts look at their feet. 

Think about it: You wouldn’t prepare for an afternoon stroll in the park the same way you would prepare to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Each activity deserves to be treated differently. Smartwool offers a complete line of men’s and women’s Merino wool hiking socks. You've heard the Cairn Crew tout the benefits of Merino in outdoor apparel, but if you need a refresher, keep reading for the full scoop on Merino - specifically the ZQ certified wool utilized by Smartwool.

Group Hike - Sock Selection

Now, on to sock selection.

We're focusing on two of our favorite sock lines from Smartwool to illustrate some of the key elements to look for when you're selecting a sock for your next adventure. The Cairn Crew has trail-tested soooo many socks, and we were stoked to feature these two styles in a recent Obsidian Collection.

Classic Hike Sock

Smartwool Classic Hike Sock  

Some things stand the test of time; Smartwool's Classic Hike sock is a bit of a legend. The company launched the Merino wool hiking sock industry with the Classic Hike back in 1994. Today, the Classic Hike sock continues to be one of their best-sellers, and for good reason. For more than two decades, its tried-and-true design has carried thousands of happy hikers to their destinations and back. And thanks to the natural odor resistance and breathability of Merino wool (check out the details a little further down) those happy hikers also had stink-free, blister-free feet!


Activity-Specific Cushion

The Classic Hike comes in a variety of cushions, depending on where and how far your journey takes you. Different terrain and duration require different cushion. Here's a quick guide to help you determine the right cushioning based on terrain, weather, and activity.

Sock Cushion Guide

Smartwool PhD Socks

Smartwool PhD® Outdoor Socks

Smartwool continues to push the boundaries of innovation in comfort and performance with the PhD® (performance at the highest degree) sock. These Merino wool socks are chock-full of smart features, advanced technologies and dialed fit systems. They’re hiking socks that help enable you to focus on the trail, soak in the views, beat your personal best—whatever your goal may be—these socks are there to support you without being noticed. Think of them as your ghostwriter, allowing you to take all the credit for your accomplishments.


Here is a rundown of some of the features that are stand-outs for the Cairn Crew when we are on the hunt for great socks.


Great socks - like all of your gear - are an investment, so durability is essential. Nobody wants to deal with worn or torn socks mid-way through a trek! A patent-pending, Merino wool-based durability construction made to outlast your greatest adventures, Smartwool's Indestructawool™ Technology brings durability to high wear zones, like the heel, toe and ball of the foot—without sacrificing comfort. 

Construction and Fit

Is there anything worse than a seam rubbing on your baby toe for hours on end? We think not. Smartwool's 4-Degree™ Elite System utilizes a four-way elastic stretch that creates a fully supported, ultra-wrapped feeling. The fit system is designed to avoid slipping, bunching or binding—so while you’re moving, your socks stay put. Plus, a Virtually SeamlessTM toe helps eliminate chafing for the ultimate, comfortable hiking socks. 

Breathability In All the Right Places

Like the right cushioning in the right places, bonus breathability in the right places can impact the comfort of your climb. Smartwool PhD socks employ activity-specific mesh zones - unique mesh zones on the top of the foot that increase breathability. While you’re working up a sweat climbing that ridgeline, these mesh zones are helping your feet stay cool and dry.

Gender Specific Fit

Groundbreaking news: men’s and women’s feet have anatomical differences. Our shoes feature distinct fits, so why wouldn’t our socks? Smartwool developed a specific fit for each, with our women’s socks featuring a slimmer heel pocket, narrower profile, and women-specific mesh ventilation zones.


The Wonders of Merino Wool

Many of us know too well once your feet are feeling beat, the exhaustion quickly spreads. Merino wool socks work just as hard as you do to provide maximum comfort while you’re on the trail. Merino wool is totally different than the rough, scratchy traditional wool your grandmother used to knit those sweaters (I feel itchy just thinking about it). Merino is a bit of a magician. We can take the mystery out of its tricks with a little science. 

Breathability and Moisture Management

Breathability is the ability of a fabric or fiber to transport moisture in the vapor state from an area of higher humidity to an area of lower humidity. In other words, the more breathable a product is the better it is at removing moisture from the space between your skin and your sock. As your body heats up, the moisture vapors are absorbed by the wool fiber and released to the drier environment outside of the fabric. No sweaty swamp foot!

Temperature Regulation

Merino helps regulate body temperature, working to keep you cool in warm weather and warm in cold weather. Wool has the ability to store moisture within the structure of the fiber. As your body warms up, the moisture stored within the fiber begins to evaporate, cooling the air between your skin and the fabric. For chilly weather, wool has a natural crimp to it that helps it trap dead air. When the temperature drops, dead air is a fantastic insulator and provides a great buffer against the cold.

Odor Resistance

Believe it or not, you can wear those Merino wool socks several days (or weeks) without needing to throw them in the wash. They stay fresh! The chemical structure of Smartwool's Merino wool allows it to transfer 30% of its own weight in moisture vapor, at high humidity, without feeling wet. Because of wool’s ability to effectively manage moisture, odor-causing bacteria doesn’t stand a chance without a wet environment to thrive. You can wear Merino wool during intense activity and over extended periods of time without having to worry about stinky socks.

Icing on the Cake

Not all Merino wool is created equal. Smartwool goes the extra mile with sustainability, animal welfare and U.S.A.-made socks, because it’s not only the right thing to do, it yields a better product for you to enjoy.

 ZQ Accredited

Smartwool's main raw material—wool—is natural and renewable. They partner with the New Zealand Merino Company, which proudly developed ZQ, the world’s first Merino wool accreditation program. This program ensures environmental, social and economic sustainability and safeguards animal welfare. 

Keeping it Local

Smartwool socks are made in the U.S.A. using the finest Merino wool from around the world. Skilled craftsmanship is passed down from generation to generation through the hardworking men and women in their factories. 

Explore more about Smartwool by visiting smartwool.com.

What features are most important to you in a hiking sock? Have you learned the hard way how to choose quality socks for your activity? Tell us in the comments.