Outdoor Socks: The Ultimate Moisture Wicking Guide

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Without a doubt, socks can be considered the most underrated clothing accessory in the world. This is because although there are approximately a billion people or more who wear socks on a daily basis, only a fraction of those people actually cares about the brand of their socks or the moisture wicking material with which they are made up of.

However, if you’ve been looking to upgrade your socks you’re in luck. Below is going to give you the info you need when making the right choice before you make that next purchase.

So, what are the best moisture wicking socks for the outdoors: In are opinion the best moisture wicking socks are made up of Merino wool due to it being an all-natural material and its ability to keep your feet warm and dry while wicking moisture and absorbing it all at the same time.

But the key is knowing what works best for you because you might need a certain sock for a certain situation and I feel below will have you covered for just that.

Why Are Sock Materials Important

You, like many, probably take your socks for granted. However, socks are an extremely crucial piece of clothing. This is because when it comes to socks, both the hygienic aspect and the comfort aspect counts.

Socks that are made up of poor quality materials can leave a pungent odor, which usually turns other people off. And keeping your feet dry and comfortable is extremely important if you’re standing or walking all day.

Therefore, understanding the various wicking materials of which socks are made up of is extremely important, to avoid a potentially embarrassing or uncomfortable scenario. You certainly don’t want to worry about how bad your feet smell, do you? Or be uncomfortable all day?

Different Choices for Sock Materials

With improvements in technology, the way socks are made today differs a lot in terms of the techniques that were used say, a couple hundred years ago.

New materials, types of fibers, new fiber blending techniques, and better dyes are constantly under formulation. Such improvements certainly lead to a wide range of clothing material options, including socks.

Socks Made with a Combination of Fabrics

As you see below, different sock materials have different benefits. Therefore, most socks that you will purchase are actually made with a combination of materials, which provides the benefit of multiple best properties of different materials. Knowing the benefits of each of the materials listed below will help you to make an informed decision when shopping for socks made with a combination of materials.

What is Moisture Wicking?

Before reviewing sock materials, it’s important to explain the term moisture wicking. This term has become quite common among clothing brands and is commonly used when describing different sock materials.

Wicking basically refers to the moisture absorbing properties of a fiber. Some fibers absorb sweat from the surface of your skin, and then release the moisture out into the air through evaporation. This way, wicking helps in preventing soaked socks, bad odor, and sweaty feet.

What is Moisture Absorption?

Moisture absorption is the process in witch water or sweat gets absorbed into small tiny gaps that look like pores inside the fiber. Cotton is the most common absorbent fiber that is best know for this, however there’s been many other fabrics that have been designed to also absorb sweat. Ideally you would want to have both wicking and absorption in a pair of outdoor socks.

Commonly used sock Fabrics:

To help you choose the best material for optimum protection from sweaty/smelly feet, we’ve compiled a list of sock fibers, including both synthetic and natural materials that wick or absorb moisture the best. The table below will show you are favorite to least favorite.

MaterialTypeMoisture Wicking Moisture AbsorptionBest propertiesActivities good for
Wool: MerinoNaturalHighHighSame as regular wool,but with the added benefits of softness and less itchiness, so more of a luxury item Best for keeping feet warm and dry with the added effect of moisture wicking
WoolNaturalHighHighWarmth, breath-ability,
moisture absorption, moisture wicking
Best for keeping feet warm and dry
BambooNaturalHighHighWill keep your feet warm in colder months and cooler in warmer monthsGreat for outdoors and all season, Eco-friendly
AngoraNaturalHighNoneWill keep feet warm very comfortable Staying warm
CashmereNaturalLowHighActs as a n insulation and will keep the feet warm Cold weather casual wear. A luxury item
ModalNaturalLow50% Higher then cottonColor fade resistance
Sweat absorbtion
Pajamas, indoor lounging
CottonNaturalLowHighLightweight,comfortable, moisture absorbing,dry easily Casual wear
SilkNaturalHighNoneMoisture absorbing, tensile strength, Acts as a heat insulator Best used as added layer
Cool MaxSyntheticLowHighMoisture wicking, durable, BreathabilityGreat for outdoors,
sport activities,
Olefin (PolypropyleneSyntheticHighMediumLightweight, moisture wicking, durable, quick dryingGreat for outdoors and keeping feet warm
AcrylicSyntheticHighNoneMoisture wicking, soft,warmthCasual wear, sports activities.
NylonSyntheticLowHighVersatility, strength, commonly mixed with other materials Swimwear
Elastane Lycra/SpandexSyntheticLowNoneElasticityOften combined with other materials

Acrylic

Acrylic is one of the most durable fibers that has been artificially invented. Acrylic fiber is popular for the soft and warm feel that it gives. While socks made from acrylic are certainly perfect for a winter’s day out due to their warmth, they are not preferred during the spring/summer seasons, because acrylic fiber is not a good absorber of moisture.

Acrylic socks are also poor insulators, which means they hold less heat once they get wet.

  • Type: Synthetic
  • Best used for: A casual look, activities involving a lot of rough movement, and sports.
  • Wicking level: High
  • Absorption level: None
  • Shopping tips: Since acrylic is not the best absorber for sweat and moisture control as compared to cotton/wool, try to buy the ones that have dense padding. Socks with a dense padding will increase the amount of sweat and moisture absorbed. Hence, this is especially beneficial when you are looking to buy acrylic socks for sports/activities.
  • Highly suitable for: They are highly recommended to people who develop ulcers quite commonly, and for people who have open wounds/sores on their feet, like blister.

Angora fiber

Angora is a fiber that is obtained from the Angora rabbit hair. A combination of Angora and a range of other fibers results in a highly comfortable, fluffy, and warm socks.

These socks, however, are suitable for winters only. This is because these socks tend to be rather warm and can cause feet to sweat in hot weather. They also have some moisture wicking properties.

  • Type: Natural Fibers
  • Best used for: Ideal for thermal layer. It’s a higher quality knitwear.
  • Wicking levels: High
  • Absorption level: None
  • Shopping tips: Great for colder outdoor environments. The sweat wicking will keep your feet warmer and more comfortable.
  • Highly suitable for: Outdoor work in colder conditions. Allergies to wool, People who suffer from arthritis. Higher luxury wear.

Bamboo fiber

Bamboo fibers, as the name implies, are taken from the bamboo plant. These fibers are soft, and allow more air flow as compared to cotton. Furthermore, these fibers have a natural sheen which makes it feel almost like silk.

Bamboo socks have good thermoregulating properties, which means they help keep your feet cool in the summer and warm in the winter by helping to insulate heat.

Since bamboo is highly durable and hypoallergenic, it is considered as a luxury fiber for socks, which is good to wear in summers due to the breath-ability.

  • Type: Natural Fibers
  • Best used for: Insulation for colder months but will also keep you cooler in the summer as well.
  • Wicking levels: High
  • Absorption level: High
  • Shopping tips: Eco-friendly, many styles and price ranges to choose from.
  • Highly suitable for: Anyone who wants an alternative eco-friendly product that fights fatigue, blisters and also has great sweat wicking abilities.

Cashmere

The cashmere fiber is made from the soft cashmere goat hair. It is extremely suitable to wear in the winters as it provides a great level of insulation and comfort. In fact, due to its softness and comfort, it is almost considered as a luxury material for socks.

  • Types: Natural Fibers
  • Best used for: Higher end luxury items
  • Wicking levels: High. Naturally breathable
  • Absorption level: High
  • Might be a bit more expensive. And will need more care when washing.
  • Highly suitable for: Anyone looking for warmth and dryer feet.

COOLMAX®

COOLMAX® is a synthetically designed polyester fiber with good moisture wicking properties. This fiber was developed by a company called DuPont in 1986. This fiber is resistant to shrinking and fading. In the manufacture of socks, COOLMAX® is usually combined with spandex, cotton, or wool for greater warmth.

Socks that are made of a COOLMAX®-cotton blend carry a good level of breathability, which makes them a wonderful choice for sweat control. Hence one could say that the COOLMAX® fiber was specifically engineered to fight foot sweat.

  • Types: Synthetic
  • Best used for: Many apparel application on the market
  • Wicking levels: High
  • Absoption level: High
  • Highly suitable for: Outdoor activites

Cotton

It is highly likely that you already have dozens of cotton socks in your drawer. In fact, most of the socks that people have in their drawers are made up of cotton fiber. Even though they are commonly used, they are not really the best option to avoid feet sweat and odor.

In comparison to other fibers, cotton fiber is lightweight and absorbs moisture pretty effectively. Furthermore, cotton socks dry easily. Perhaps the most important aspect of cotton socks in relation to the sweat/odor issues is that they are breathable. This means that they allow the flow of air in and out without acting like a tough insulator.

You might be surprised to hear that cotton socks are perhaps the main reason why many people have sweaty and stinky feet later in the day. This is primarily because although cotton socks absorb moisture easily, they also hold that moisture and do not let it evaporate.

So, that moisture stays wrapped around your feet, contributing to foot odor, and chafing. That means if you want to avoid smelly feet and potential blisters, it’s best to avoid cotton socks for activities when your feet are sweating a lot.

Apart from regular cotton, there are also some special kinds of cotton socks available on the market.

These include:

  1. Organic cotton: Organic cotton is grown from plants that are not modified genetically in any way whatsoever. Furthermore, these plants tend to be grown without the use of factory-made artificial fertilizers.
  2. Recycled cotton: Also known as recovered cotton, recycled cotton is actually re-spun from the scraps that are discarded after the usual spinning process.
  3. Mercerized cotton: It is the regular cotton yarn that is undergone through a finishing process known as mercerizing. This adds some greater level of softness and intensifies the dyes used.
  4. Combed cotton: Combed cotton has the short fibers and other impurities removed. This means that combed cotton is made up of straight long strands of cotton only. This results in a softer finish. However, the combing process raises the costs which make combed cotton more expensive in comparison to regular cotton.
  • Types: Natural
  • Best used for: Average socks
  • Wicking levels: High
  • Absorption level: High
  • Highly suitable for: Light active use will eventually cause odor from sweat absorption if not dried out

Elastane/Lycra/Spandex

All three terms i.e. Elastane, Lycra, and Spandex refer to a single type of synthetic fiber which is made with polyurethane. While the term spandex is most commonly used in the United States, Elastane is a term for this fiber that is used all over the world. This fiber gets its third name, Lycra, as this was a name that was used to market it. Lycra was first developed by the company DuPont in the year 1959.

This fiber carries a good level of elasticity, so socks made from these fibers give a close fit. This makes these socks suitable in cases where joint support is required. However, they are not breathable which makes them unsuitable if you’re trying to avoid sweaty feet.

  • Types: Synthetic
  • Best used for: A close fit. Great for joint protection.
  • Wicking level: None
  • Absorption level: None
  • Highly suitable for: Form fitting, Light weight athletic wear

Modal

Modal fiber is a naturally occurring fiber, which is primarily obtained from beech trees. Socks that are made up from a blend of modal fiber hold their colors better and they tend to be better absorbents of sweat.

Due to this reason, they can keep the moisture away from the feet. However, in a humid weather, they are likely to retain a good level of moisture for a long period of time. This would result in feet odor and sweat.

  • Types: Semi Synthetic
  • Best use for: Pajamas, underwear, towels etc
  • Wick level: 50% more absorbing then cotton
  • Absorption level: 50% more absorbing then cotton
  • Highly suitable for: Not sweaty feet.

Nylon

Nylon is a highly versatile and strong fiber that is used in various clothing items. Depending on the fiber thickness, Nylon socks can either be bulky, or they can be thin and silky. Nylon fibers are usually used in combination with other fibers.

The most popular combination made with the Nylon fiber is that of cotton. A combination of Nylon and cotton, however, is not very breathable and does not absorb moisture either. This results in a high degree of foot sweat and moisture during a warm weather, resulting in odor.

  • Type: Synthetic
  • Best use for: Swim wear
  • Wick level: None
  • Absorption level: None
  • Highly suitable for: Swim wear

Olefin (Polypropylene)

Olefin fibers were developed in the mid-1900s by Italian scientists. The development of olefin fibers is considered to be something of high value. This led to the scientists winning a Nobel Prize in 1963.

Olefin fibers tend to be very lightweight yet very strong and durable. Furthermore, they dry quickly and are also easy to clean. On top of that, socks made up of the Olefin fibers tend to be highly comfortable and long-lasting.

Properties such as these make the Olefin fibers the ultimate material to be used in socks. With just the right level of wicking and moisture repelling, a couple of olefin socks are a must for your sock drawer! On a technical note, Olefin socks are said to repel the moisture away from the feet 25x faster as compared to other fibers.

  • Types: Synthetic
  • Best use for: Vehicle interiors, carpeting.
  • Wicking level: Highly
  • Absorption level: Medium
  • Highly suitable for: Any outdoor activities that need water and sweat wicked away

Silk

Silk is a popularly known clothing material which is smooth and is very soft fiber that absorbs moisture with ease. On top of that, silk has a high level of tensile strength and is a heat insulation. However, silk socks can be pretty expensive as obtaining silk has its own costs.

Of interest, silk is obtained from special caterpillars and their cocoon.

  • Types: Natural
  • Best use for: Clothing
  • Wicking level: None
  • Absorption level: None
  • Highly suitable for: Layering with other layers

Wool

Other than cotton, wool is the second most popular material that is used in the production of socks. You might be surprised to know that a single fiber of wool is constituted of a couple million coiled springs that have elastic properties.

These springs then get stretched during high levels of activity and later bounce back to their original state.

The distinct properties of wools include no wrinkles and a high level of breathability. Wool also provides a significant level of warmth. This is primarily due to the level of air it traps in between the skin and the socks.

This layer of air trapped in between acts as an insulator. Hence, socks made up of wool are not suitable for summers as they can induce moisture/sweat in warm weather conditions.

Nevertheless, one interesting fact about wool socks is that they tend to absorb more than 30% of their own mass in terms of the moisture before getting damp.

Here is a list of all the benefits of wool socks:

  • Wool socks wick the sweat away, resulting in dry feet as the fibers do not retain high levels of moisture for longer periods of time.
  • Wool socks absorb more than 30% of their own mass in terms of moisture before damping out.
  • They offer a high level of breathability with great insulation. This traps heat within your shoes, which is extremely beneficial in the cold weather.
  • The Merino wool always stays warm, even with it is damp or wet. This makes wool socks the prime choice for outdoor activities, like hiking or working.

In general, wool socks come in extremely handy when you have to maintain a constant yet comfortable temperature in your body. This is because wool socks tend to trap a layer of still air between the socks and your feet. This layer of air acts as insulation. If it is cold outside, this insulation layer helps prevent your feet from losing their natural heat.

If it is very hot outside, the layer of air will prevent the heat from transferring towards your feet from the surroundings. However, this goes on until a fixed limit. After this, the socks become highly saturated and then technically, they start feeling cool to wear.

As far as the wicking level goes, wool socks absorb the moisture with great ease. Wool also happens to repel water droplets. If you would drop a couple of water droplets on a wool sock, you will see the water dripped away without getting absorbed by the material.

Furthermore, these socks also prevent the feet from losing too much heat to the surroundings until they get saturated. In an opposite scenario, the wool wicks the moisture/sweat away from the feet towards the socks surface hence resulting in warmth. This aids in the evaporation of the moisture from the upper surface of the socks.

As far as the types of wool socks go, there are many different types of wool socks available on the market. However, Merino wool is the most special among them all. The Merino wool comes from the Merino sheep.

While retaining all the properties mentioned above, Merino wool is extremely popular for its distinct level of softness and comfort. This makes Merino socks more of a luxury clothing item.

Also, the Merino wool does not happen to have itching properties. Nevertheless, wool socks in general, are great for those people who suffer from foot odor. Fortunately enough, wool socks do not retain odor and moisture in themselves.

Another less common type of wool is ‘Smartwool’. This wool is more like a clothing brand with highly popular socks made up of wool. Smartwool here refers to the distinct qualities of the wool socks that SmartWool’s company produces.

  • Types: Natural
  • Best use for: Keeping feet warm and dry
  • Wicking level: High
  • Absorption level: High
  • Highly suitable for: Sweaty feet, Outdoor activities, Keeping feet dry and warm

Conclusion

So, it should not be to alarming to find out that all natural fibers will be your best bet for warmth and dryness when upgrading your socks. The best socks fiber that includes moisture wicking, breathability, and great softness.  is the Merino wool. For a runner-up, we might say that Olefin is yet another highly effective fiber for your socks.

Nevertheless, before choosing a good pair of socks, several factors need to be taken into account. These factors include moisture wicking, allergy, softness, elasticity, and the breathability of the material. Often, cost is a factor as well and application you might be using the socks for. However, I know that often spending more in this department will defiantly make the difference for your feet.