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How to Choose Your Best Pair of Cycling Socks

March 6, 2019


How to Choose Your Best Pair of Cycling Socks

In just three simple steps, this quick and easy guide will walk you through how to make the most informed decision when buying cycling socks.

Choosing Cycling Socks Isn’t Complicated

Don’t think about your socks when cycling? Good! That means they’re doing their job.

But, all too often this isn’t the case. Instead, it’s easy to spend hours researching bike shoes, but we usually put very little thought into sock choice, which can lead to unnecessary hot spots, irritation, blisters, poor temperature regulation, and pain.

The good news is that choosing cycling socks isn’t complicated. In fact, the process involves just three factors: material, height, and price.

In this quick guide, I’ll discuss how these closely-related elements can have a significant impact on your cycling experience, as well as how you can choose the right combination that meets your unique needs.

Do You Need Cycling-Specific Socks in the First Place?

The bottom line is that your socks don’t have to be classified as ‘cycling’ models. I regularly use several low and mid-rise pairs of Darn Tough hiking socks across all four seasons with a great deal of success.

After all, if there’s one point to make in this guide, is that the right pair of cycling socks will depend almost wholly on personal preference. Also, the process will likely involve trial and error.

With this said, manufacturers often design cycling-specific socks with features that meet a general bicyclists’ needs, such as:

  • Additional padding to reduce pressure points or hot spots in certain areas
  • Reduced padding in other regions that maximizes tactile feedback
  • An elastic cuff that helps prevent slippage, and also helps prevent dirt and other debris from entering
  • A blend of materials that is easy to clean, even when very dirty, dries quickly and can withstand repeated washing
  • Low-volume construction that forms a close fit
  • Stretch panels underneath arches to conform to curves
  • Varying levels of compression that can help improve circulation and recovery following exercise
  • Strategically placed, anatomic panels around heels and toes

How do cycling socks accomplish all of this? Through a mixture of specific materials. As such, this is where you’ll begin in your purchasing process.

Step 1: Choose Your Materials

Common Materials Used in Cycling Socks

Rarely are cycling socks created from just one material. Instead, they’re often woven from blends of different fabrics that deliver certain benefits, depending on the performance goals.

Here are some common fabrics and other materials commonly found in cycling socks:

Material Cycling-Related Benefits
Acrylic Micro-denier (i.e., soft, fine) fibers frequently used in conjunction with wool due to their heat retention and moisture-wicking capabilities.
Coolmax Special polyester fibers engineered by DuPont textiles that promise to improve breathability and moisture wicking.
Meryl Skinlife A premium polyamide fiber that features permanent antimicrobial properties.
Merino Wool Soft, thin fibers from Merino sheep that naturally provide temperature regulation, absorb moisture, and resist odors.
Mesh More of a weave than a material, these fibers (often made from nylon or polyester) form a criss-cross pattern with spaces in between, allowing for improved airflow.
Nylon A family of synthetic polymers (polyamides) that’s spun into soft, semi-stretchy fibers used for a wide variety of clothing.
Olefin A synthetic polypropylene fabric derived from oil production that’s durable, resistant to stains, and prevents mold and mildew buildup.
Polyester Lightweight fibers made from a plastic resin called polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that are strong, durable, resistant to shrinking and stretching, dry quickly, and easy to take care of.
Polypropylene A durable synthetic fabric that transfers moisture.
Primaloft A synthetic insulator that’s water resistant, retains body heat, and is typically found in winter cycling socks.
Silk A soft fiber produced by silkworms that’s typically woven in with other fibers and materials to improve temperature regulation and skin feel.
Spandex (aka Lycra, Elastane) A stretchy fabric invented in 1958 and made from a minimum of 85% polyurethane polymer.
Tactel A trademarked nylon fabric from Invista that promises the ability to dry eight times faster than cotton, while remaining twice as soft and 20% lighter than other fabrics.

Furthermore, some sock brands like Gore-Tex, Sealskinz, and Shower’s Pass use various waterproof (‘hydrophilic’) and windproof fibers and construction methods to deliver related benefits.

But, What About Cotton?

According to the California Podiatric Medical Association, there are approximately 150,000 sweat glands in each of your feet, which produce as much as half a pint (8 fl oz) of sweat per day.

This is why is cotton is such a poor choice as a cycling material. It starts out heavier than many other fibers commonly used in clothing and absorbs moisture instead of wicking it away or transferring it. And once this occurs, it regulates temperature poorly and tends to form hot spots and blisters the wetter it becomes.

Compared to generic cotton socks, which absorb moisture and are unable to regulate temperature, cycling-specific socks like the Swiftwick Vision Five (right) feature fabrics that wick away and transport moisture, durable nylon heels and toes, seamless toe construction to maximize fit and comfort, anatomic stitching, and 5” cuffs that remain in place.

The Relationship Between Cycling Sock Fabric & Performance

Together, manufacturers select sock materials based on the conditions under which they’re supposed to perform. And according to the specific fibers used and the density of their weaves, cycling socks fall under four weights: ultra-light, lightweight, mid-weight, and heavyweight.

As a couple of examples, Merino wool is a mid-weight fiber that delivers softness, waterproof and antimicrobial properties, along with the ability to regulate temperature when wet, making it an excellent choice for riding in cold, snowy environments, or in conditions where your feet repeatedly get wet (e.g., the Pacific Northwest).

On the other hand, these same characteristics could make Merino a less optimal choice during the summer or other hot conditions, whereas thinly woven, quick-drying, and more breathable ultra-light or lightweight polyester fibers would almost certainly work better.

To maximize comfort and performance, manufacturers frequently use different materials in different areas of their socks, such as Merino wool on top to regulate temperature, moisture-wicking materials on the soles, Lycra mesh to keep the socks in place around ankles or calves, and so forth.

Again, though, the combination of materials and placement that’s ‘best’ for you will primarily come down to your performance priorities and personal preferences.

The lightweight Team DeFeet sock (left) is made from 60% nylon, 39% CoolMax EcoMade, 1% Lycra, while the mid-weight MTB Mid Sock with Hydrostop from SealSkinz (middle) mixes Merino wool with Stretchdry. Assos’s Tiburusocks_evo8 socks (left) feature 70% nylon with 30% elastane, and fall somewhere in the middle from a weight perspective.

Pro tip: Regardless of the materials you choose, make sure that you wash new socks before wearing them on a ride, which helps get rid of chemicals and other nastiness acquired during the manufacturing and shipping processes. This also helps soften the material and makes it easier on your skin.

Just remember that some fabrics shrink more than others during their first washing, which could impact fit.

In addition to materials, familiarizing yourself with cycling socks’ fit and height can also help you make a better choice right from the start.

Step 2: Select Your Height

In most instances, cycling socks are available in three heights: long (reaches to the shin), mid (extends to just above the ankle), and low or no-show (below the ankle).

And if you’re an amateur cyclist (i.e., don’t race in UCI events, which bans socks that extend above the middle of the leg), height is almost wholly a matter of personal preference. In other words, it has zero impact on performance.

With this said, outside of being able to sport bigger, bolder designs (if that’s your thing, of course), longer socks do offer some potential advantages, including trapping heat and adding an extra layer of protection in the event of a crash.

On the flip side, this could cause you to overheat during summer months, so it’s—once again—all about the intended application and your personal preferences.

Cycling socks come in four primary heights: No-show (far left), low (center left), ankle (center right), and knee (right).

Let’s discuss one final step before wrapping up.

Step 3: Pick Your Budget

When it comes to most cycling gear and accessories, there’s often a direct relationship between price and quality. As a basic piece of clothing, though, this isn’t necessarily the case with cycling socks.

In other words, most standard, mainstream cycling socks range between $10 and $30 per pair, with popular online retailers frequently offering sale prices in the single digits. And you’re not certain to have a better experience by paying more for a pair.

It’s often a different story with ultra-specialized cycling socks. For example, knee-high compression socks can reach $50, which are anatomically designed to boost circulation and blood flow in the legs and feet. In this instance, online customers often report that saving a few bucks could have a big difference in performance.

Another example is cycling socks designed for extreme climates, whether cold, moisture, wind or a combination of all three. It’s not unheard of for these types of socks to exceed $80, and saving a few bucks isn’t worth a miserable ride (or putting your health at risk).

Regardless of your budget, though, because of trial-and-error nature of choosing the right cycling socks, I’d recommend purchasing from a manufacturer or retailer who offers at least a 30-day refund policy—even if the socks are worn.

To help get you started in your research, here are a few top-rated options on Amazon:      

The Bottom Line When It Comes to Choosing Cycling Socks

In a nutshell, how do you choose the best cycling socks?

You make your selections based on the materials, construction, and height that will best suit the conditions in which you plan on riding while remaining within your budget. And with so many choices available at a wide variety of price points, this last part shouldn’t be a problem.

Just keep in mind that no single pair of cycling socks will meet everyone’s needs, so expect to try at least a few before landing on the perfect combination of comfort, fit, and performance.

Keep rolling: The Best, Must-Have Bike Accessories: Your Checklist For Getting Started

Derek has more than two decades of experience as a cyclist, and is the founder of TreadBikely. He currently travels full-time with his family via RV, enjoying the country's best biking destinations. A secular Buddhist, Derek frequently explores the intersection of cycling, mindfulness, and compassion in his writing. #rolloutblissout
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