When it comes to summer adventures, there’s a world of possibilities — but a limited amount of luggage space. Seasoned travelers learn to pack light, knowing they’ll repeatedly wear a few key travel clothing staples rather than execute a wardrobe change for every new setting.
So how do you know which are the best travel socks to reach for, day after day? Here’s a Travel Socks 101 course to help you make an educated decision.
Best Travel Sock Varieties
Remember tube socks? They certainly had their place in history, and still come in handy when you need a retro tennis pro costume, but sock technology has come a long way. Now you can find socks with a nearly customized fit and features like built-in arch support or gender-specific mesh zones for ventilation. Savvy travelers should save the generic cotton tubes for dusting and consider these more functional options.
Compression Socks for Travel
Compression socks are basically tall, tight socks that have long been recommended for airplane travel and other situations where you might be sedentary for long periods of time. The idea is that the added pressure helps fight the effects of gravity, which can cause fluid to build up in your feet and legs. The term “graduated” compression socks refers to a design that focuses most of the pressure around the ankle, gradually getting lighter as the sock fits up the length of the leg.
Wearing compression socks for travel is an especially good idea if you are prone to swelling or are recovering from an athletic injury. Unless you have a specific recommendation from a doctor or physical therapist, we recommend looking for wool compression socks that have 10-20 mmHg (that’s short for milligrams for mercury unit used to measure blood pressure) of pressure — a comfortable level that can be worn by anyone, all day long.
The only potential downside to compression socks is that they traditionally have a distinctly orthopedic, medical look. These types can be found in pharmacies, made of black nylon or other neutral-colored synthetic material. But don’t worry — we have better options for you.
Our product designers were inspired to create a new generation of wool compression socks for travel after listening to input from our team of ski, snowboard and running athletes.
“We all know Merino helps you stay odor free day after day, but we wanted to also offer a comfortable solution for those days when you are spending multiple days on your feet in cramped cars, trains, planes, and rickshaws. That’s where our solution of compression came from, the power of Merino with the assistance of compression as you travel to whatever your next adventure might be.”
Zachary King, Smartwool Product Line Manager
How to Wear Compression Socks for Travel
Many people find compression socks are the best travel socks, but the tightness makes them difficult to get on. Here’s a pro tip: turn each sock almost inside-out before putting it on your foot, then roll it up your leg.
- Reach your arm all the way into the sock, until your hand is touching the inside of the heel.
- Pinch the fabric at the heel and hold it while you peel the sock down from your arm, turning the upper portion of the sock inside out.
- Remove your hand and fit your foot into the foot of the sock.
- Roll the rest of the sock up and over your calf.
Another bit of advice: wear the socks at their natural length, i.e., don’t tug them up, fold them over, or roll them down. Doing so will add pressure to that point, potentially causing more restriction than you need.
Pressure-Free Fit Socks
Pressure-free travel socks are almost the opposite of compression socks, and may be the best travel socks for taking a walking tour of a foreign city, or hiking among the ancient ruins. In active situations, pressure-free travel socks minimize any possibility of constriction.
Anatomical pressure-free socks are designed to follow the natural curve of the leg, as opposed to a straight fit that stretches around the calf and leaves an indentation when you remove your socks at the end of the day. Non-binding socks means that there is no band across the top, which also helps alleviate pressure.
How to Wear Non-Binding Travel Socks
If you’ve never worn pressure-free or non-binding socks before, there is virtually no risk in trying them for the first time while traveling. Just follow these steps:
- Put them on your feet.
- Add a pair of shoes.
- Forget you’re even wearing socks for the rest of the day. They’re that comfortable.
Best Material for Travel Socks (and the Worst)
It will come as no surprise that we’re going to say that Merino wool is the best material for travel socks, because it is! But let’s discuss all the options just to be sure.
Just Say No to Cotton
Despite its breathability, cotton is an inferior fabric for socks. The reason is that cotton is super absorbant, and when your socks get drenched in foot sweat or Venetian canal water, cotton socks will keep that moisture trapped against your skin until you can take them off. And wet socks are the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and fungus. Sorry, but it had to be said.
Just Say “Meh” to Synthetics
Synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, and rayon do have some benefits. They are durable, and they are known to wick moisture away from the skin. The only problem with 100% synthetic socks is when they’re contained within a shoe and that moisture has nowhere else to go. Unless you’re wearing very meshy sneakers or boots, the moisture will slosh around, potentially causing blisters. And they can get real smelly, real fast.
Embrace Wool Travel Socks
You can literally embrace them if you want, because Merino wool socks are extremely soft. But embrace them figuratively because they deserve a coveted place in your backpack, suitcase, and life. Here’s why the best travel socks are made of wool, or a wool/synthetic blend:
- Moisture management: when your feet sweat, the moisture is absorbed and held within the fibers, not next to your skin.
- Wool has natural antibacterial properties. Since bacteria is the source of unpleasant odors, you can typically wear wool socks several times without washing them. You’ll have no qualms about kicking off your shoes on the plane.
- Temperature regulation: the structure of wool fibers creates a little microclimate that absorbs water so your feet don’t get too cold, and causes the water to evaporate before your feet get too hot.
For more information about the magic of Merino wool, there’s another whole science lesson available.
Anatomy of a Travel Sock
Now that we’ve covered the types and materials for the best travel socks, we can move on to Chapter Three: Fit & Construction. The importance of wearing socks that fit well cannot be overemphasized, especially in situations where you’ll be on your feet, frequently wearing the same pair of socks.
One element of sock anatomy that probably doesn’t get enough attention: the toe seam. A rough or bulky toe seam can cause major discomfort on a long trek, so you’ll want to look for a smooth flat seam (or better yet, our own Virtually Seamless™ toe).
Those with a daintier foot will appreciate a women’s specific fit, which typically has a narrower heel and is slimmer throughout the length of the sock. This prevents the bunching and slipping that occurs with socks that are too loose, so you won’t have to stop and yank your socks up every few steps.
Mention of the anatomical pressure-free fit bears repeating: if you’ve ever been irritated by a tight sock band cutting into your leg, the pressure free socks will change your life.
A built-in supportive arch brace is also a necessity for travel. You know how important arch support is in your shoes and hiking boots, so why not enhance the benefits by including it in your socks?
All purveyors of high-quality socks should offer multiple cushioning options. If your trip entails only a moderate amount of walking in a warm climate, the best travel socks for you might have ultra-light cushioning. But if your plans include cresting Kilimanjaro, a thick cushion will better absorb impact.
A high performance travel sock isn’t just one solid piece of knit fabric. It should have extra cushion where you need it and mesh ventilation zones where breathability is important.
Final Exam: Which Are the Best Travel Socks?
Happy feet are the key to successful travel; ultimately, the best travel socks for you are the ones that are the most comfortable on your feet. (It was a trick question.) With limited luggage real estate, you can’t go wrong with one pair of compression socks for travel in planes, trains, and automobiles, along with one pair of pressure-free or non-binding socks for traipsing around the world on foot. Bon voyage!