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I’ve been searching for the best merino wool socks for hiking & adventuring for years. After trying dozens of brands, types, and styles, its come down to the three ‘big dogs’ in this extreme sock showdown.
I’ll cover durability, comfort, warmth, and all the important things you’ll need to know when searching for socks. Yes, this is a very serious article about socks.
In fact, I don’t even own non-merino wool socks – that’s how serious I am. I’ve had dozens of different merino wool socks at this point.
Chances are that if you’re reading this drivel, you’re already interested in merino wool socks and why they’re way better than regular socks so I’ll just skip that entirely.
First, an introduction on the different brands.
Table of Contents
The three big merino wool brands
First I’m going to cover ethics, company morals, sourcing, and so forth between these brands so we can go into the rest with some preface.
Darn Tough – Toughest Merino wool socks?
Darn Tough is based out of Vermont, USA, and the brand of Cabot Hosiery Mills (wiki) – a family business started in 1978 who used to manufacture socks for larger brands like GAP. In 2004 they took it into their own hands to sell socks designed for durability under their own label.
All manufacturing is still done in Vermont and here are links to their sustainability & sourcing ethos. They seem to use 100% RWS-certified wool, primarily sourced from South Africa, New Zealand, Uruguay and Argentina.
Overall, Darn Tough gets a thumbs up from me in the ethics & morals department. Oh yeah, they have a 100% for life guarantee, which promises warranty & recycling for any pair of Darn Tough socks, ever.
Smartwool – Smartest Merino wool socks?
Smartwool (wiki) was founded in Colorado, USA, in 1994, but purchased by VF Corporation in 2011, who also owns brands like North Face, Supreme, icebreaker, Vans and more. Smartwool is focused on being an outdoor activities type brand.
In 2010, Smartwool signed a contract to exclusively source its Merino wool from the New Zealand Merino Company. Their sustainability page shows that the wool is ‘ZQ Certified‘ which seems to be a fairly decent standard but not as clear as I’d hope for it to be.
Overall, Smartwool gets a passing grade in the ethics & morals department, despite being owned by a megacorporation with shareholders interests to pay priority to.
icebreaker – Fanciest Merino wool socks?
Icebreaker (wiki) was founded in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1995 and purchased by VF Corporation in 2017. They do their manufacturing in China since 2003. The brands focus & marketing has shifted it towards being an active & lifestyle type brand.
Icebreaker used to have a baacode which allowed you to trace exactly where the wool of your clothing originated from. This is no longer the case. They also use the same ZQ Certified standard which Smartwool uses, likely due to similar management principals because of a common owner.
Overall, Icebreaker also gets a passing grade in the ethics & morals department due to similar reasons as Smartwool – owned by a megacorporation but seems to have decently ethical standards.
Okay so lets go over the first point of comparison now that we’ve gotten brand identity out of the way – durability.
For reference, I’m an active person who runs, hikes, bikes, and does a lot of stuff with socks on.
These were the very first set of merino wool socks I ever bought. I searched far and wide for good merino wool socks on Reddit and /r/BIFL and /r/Ultralight and decided on them for their supposed reputation.
Boy was I satisfied.
Gone were the days of cotton and I have now found new love in proper temperature-regulating socks that stink way less. And boy, are these socks darn tough!
I used these socks until complete destruction which happened after a year or more and this occurred at the heel & toes. Most of the wear seemed to be via abrasion and overall the Darn Tough socks rate A+ on the durability scale.
Could they match the power of the Darn Tough? Well, honestly, no. All of my Smartwool socks showed signs of wear & damage significantly quicker than my Darnies. After ~2-3 months I noticed the fabric opening their holes.
I was a bit disappointed because, well, they’re supposed to be Smart. Maybe my toenails were entirely unkempt, I don’t know, but while the material and fit seemed right, they ended up worse for wear sooner than anticipated.
Not nearly as bad as generic or regular hiking socks, but underwhelming. I rate them a B on the durability scale.
I paid good money for a few pairs of icebreaker socks and they really broke even quicker than the Smartwools. They were much more plush, cushy, and seemingly delicate than the other socks I had. After just a couple weeks I even got a rip in the side of it from just pulling it up my ankle.
Toes & heel the same – a couple months and they were toast. A bit disappointing honestly. I rate them a C in the durability department.
Okay so the Darnies proved that they’re tough in durability, but what about comfort? That’s a pretty darn important thing to expect from your yarn.
Overall, really good, but I didn’t notice anything in particular and during daily wear I wasn’t amazed – the hiking socks were too thick and the sport socks were too thin. The material is also a little ‘rough’ compared to others, but not at all a disturbance.
However, in active cases, the Darn Tough socks were excellent with no slippage, good foot design, and overall, I rate them a B+ in the comfort department.
Smartwool regains points here because I really felt like these were excellent both when doing casual stuff & active things. They held on perfectly for sports, never got swampy, and were great for even sitting around all day.
Great footbox, comfortable material, just the right thickness and breathability. Excellent for all-around use and I rate them an A in this section.
Way to break the ice with some big pros and cons. I found the Icebreaker socks to be very comfy and soft from the get go and are terrific for casual use, but quickly lost their edge when it came to activities & sports due to slippage and almost clamminess.
They felt too ‘thick’ or fluffy when the going got rough and just didn’t have the right feeling for hiking & running. Footbox is great though over overall they get a B+ for comfort.
These guys have an insane warranty & return policy. Like, no matter what, you can send in your pair and get a new one, no questions asked.
Impossible to beat this standard and a huge motivating reason to order from them. A+++ on the warranty department.
They have a fairly decent policy which is a pretty standard 100% satisfaction guaranteed form. Items can also be sent in to be recycled you can also send it into their service centre.
This is pretty decent but only gets a B in my books.
They caught onto Darn Tough and implemented their own ‘Lifetime Sock Guarantee‘. You’ll need to provide proof of purchase and some other infos to receive a replacement pair or gift card.
Not bad, but it doesn’t touch Darn Toughs crazy good policy. As a result though they get an A rating.
When I first bought Darn Tough socks they were only made in hiking & ‘work’-styles. You know, they type you’d find on a construction site. This is still mostly the case but they certainly have some attractive, creative, and funky styles available now.
The overall style can be likened to the overall brand identity – functional, cozy, and ‘homely’.
Smartwool can be likened to Darn Tough in many ways in terms of design ethos, but they certainly are a lot more creative in their trendy and funky fashion department.
They’ve really got it all in terms of styling and if you’re looking for vibrant-looking or basic styled merino socks, Smartwool definitely has the catalogue for you.
All about style and leaving it simple. Modern, minimalist, classic, non-offensive, and basic. Meant to pair well with jeans, shorts, a suit, or running shoes.
While some of their socks have some patterns and visuals on them, I’d say that they’re generally very ‘professional’ and lifestyle focused.
How about other Merino wool sock brands?
I’ve tried a good dozen different merino wool brands like Mund and countless no-name brands. While they’ve all been fairly good, I can actually notice a difference between generic $5-$10 merino wool socks and the high-end offerings from the big 3 above.
To me, ethics, sustainability, and business practices is pretty important, and generic/no-name are hard to gauge as a result. Did they originate in a depraved industrial sheep warehouse or do they just skip the megcorporate middle-man? Hard to tell.
Honestly, this entire review is pretty ridiculous because at the end of the day, most of these socks are barely better than each other and a matter of placebo and preference.
I’d say, go for whichever (ethical) offering that appeals to you the most. At the end of the day, my loyalty rests with Darn Tough because of their transparency, company history, incredible warranty, and quality.
Yeah, paying $25 for a single pair of socks seems ridiculous, but I’m a pretty ridiculous person anyways.
So yeah, Darn Toughs for a darn tough work/hiking sock, Smartwool for sports, hiking & lifestyle ventures, and Icebreaker for the casual dailywear person.
Anyways, I hope you enjoyed this completely excessive article about socks! It took a while to write. Consider donating a coffee-amount of coins via PayPal to keep this project alive 🙂
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