In the immortal words of Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump: “There is one item of G.I. gear that can be the difference between a live grunt and a dead grunt. Socks, cushion sole, O.D. green. Try and keep your feet dry when we’re out humpin’.” It may seem strange to devote an entire column to simple socks, but if it’s important enough for Lt. Dan, it should be important to you. Yes, we already included socks in our recent winter running roundup (also our women-specific story), and our “Ask Chris” on winter running accessories, but socks are just that big of a deal. If you don’t nail this tiny little detail, not only will you have a miserable run, but at the very least you risk blisters—at the very most you risk sickness that can quickly derail your preseason base training. The most important thing is that the best pair of winter run socks changes based on the day, and a little bit of knowledge on knowing what to use and when will go far. Read on for our tips on selecting the right pair for the conditions and then a few of our top picks.
Dry = Warm
While the best winter run socks might not necessarily be “cushion sole, O.D. green,” but Lt. Dan had a point about keeping your feet dry while out in the field. So many triathletes think that the key to a good run is warm socks, but socks that are too warm—especially when combined with thick winter run shoes that might have a waterproof layer like Gore-Tex—can be the worst thing for a tri soldier. If your shoes and socks cause your feet to sweat, they’ll get wet, and just like anything, being a little bit cold, but still dry, is way preferable to very warm at first, but then wet. The big trick here is that everyone is different: Some people have “hot feet,” some have “cold feet.” The best tip is to start light and get thicker as you go. Don’t buy the thickest pair you can find and then move down from there. Also, don’t forget to take into account what shoes you’ll be wearing, as some Gore-Tex shoes can be incredibly warm and might require a surprisingly light sock.
Know the Lingo
Not all sock brands have a “thicker” or “warmer” option in their line. Instead, many companies prefer to identify thickness by level of cushioning. A more cushioned sock will be warmer in most cases than a lightweight one, but the best winter running socks will also have a breathable top, so you get a combination of warmth/cushioning without the dreaded sweat.
For the most part, the length of your socks is personal—style is no one’s business but their own (or so I tell myself when I see triathletes in airports with compression sleeves). But in the winter, you’re going to get some advice: Go with an ankle-length sock. Not only will it (obviously) keep your ankles warmer, but it’ll prevent a gap between your tights—if you’re wearing them—and they’ll prevent the elements from sneaking into your shoe. Rain and snow and mud all have a way of creeping into shoes regardless, and it’s made worse when that stuff finds its way between your skin and your socks.
Avoid Hiking Socks
I know some people will disagree with me here—there are great pairs of hiking socks that work for running, but that’s an exception to the rule. Hiking socks are generally made for activities with a lower heart rate than the normal runner, and they’re made to specifically fill a boot, so you may end up with hot, sweaty feet, and a running shoe that feels too tight. If you’ve got a pair of hiking socks that have always worked, please let me know in the comments, but 90% of them are not the best socks for winter running.
Try Some Different Materials
If you love super thin, synthetic materials for running in summer and fall, give something else a try when it comes to winter and early spring. My big recommendation is a Merino wool blend that will keep your feet warmer, still breathe, prevent odor, and last for a long time (when blended right). Not everyone loves Merino for the summer, but don’t be afraid to give it a shot when the thermometer dips. While not as common (yet) as Merino or synthetic socks, there are also a few bamboo options on the market. Keep an eye peeled for these natural fibers to become more popular in the next few years.
Now that you know a little bit about what to look for in the best winter running socks, check out a few feature-based picks.
Best Winter Running Socks For Standing Out
Smartwool PhD Run Light Elite Print Crew Socks
It’s no surprise that Smartwool does an amazing job of blending their 53% Merino wool with elastane, polyester, and nylon to create a mid-weight sock perfect for the winter, but the thing that really makes this pair stand out is the fun colors. The Run Light Elite Print has a great design and still checks off the boxes for breathability, height, and cushioning that won’t overheat your feet. If you train in truly brutal conditions, check out their “Cold Weather” version.
Best Winter Running Socks For Support
Wigwam Surpass Lightweight Mid-Crew
Our testers loved the arch support in this midweight crew sock, as it can help relieve foot issues like mild plantar fasciitis. A fully synthetic blended sock, the Surpass still boasts good midweight cushioning—particularly in the heel—and great moisture control. A surprising feature on this pair was the way that the toe box wasn’t too constrictive while still keeping tight support on the arch and keeping the cuffs under control.
Best Winter Running Socks With Merino
Darn Tough Vertex Micro Crew Ultra-Light Cushion
While the name of these socks may imply a super thin sock, this is the perfect thickness for all but the most brutal conditions. Keep in mind Darn Tough is based out of Vermont, so their bar for “lightness” may be a little skewed, but they make a great Merino wool sock that feels super soft and appropriately thick without getting bulky. Though they’re not the only brand to offer one, Darn Tough’s guarantee is also a huge perk.
Best Winter Running Socks’ Guarantee
Feetures Merino 10 Cushion Quarter
Feetures has always made a great pair of socks, and their Merino 10 line is no exception. Though they use slightly less Merino in their blend (34%), the result is a slightly more stretchy and lightweight sock for those who are on the fence about going to a 50% Merino blend. That said, Feetures’ biggest win is their unlimited guarantee that will replace your sock for any reason (yes, that includes holes). Call their customer service, and you’ll immediately speak to an actual human who will walk you through the process to get a replacement. Think of it as a sock for life.