Woolen socks are an essential item for many avid hikers and backpackers. They are breathable, sturdy and much more odor-resistant than your typical cotton socks. A decent pair can set you back a few dollars, so it is essential to wash and care for them properly if you want them to last. With the right amount of T.L.C. your favorite wool socks will see you through many miles on the trail.
So, what is the best way to wash wool socks?
There are a few different ways you can wash them safely: in a machine, hand-washing at home or even out on the trail. Quality wool socks can last a long time between washes, so only wash them when it is absolutely necessary – less is more in this case! Many manufacturers will include their recommended care tips, but here are some handy instructions if you’re still unsure.
How to machine wash your wool socks:
- Turn the socks inside out and place them into a fine mesh laundry bag, then into the washing machine.
- Use a very mild detergent, and – if it has one – set your washer on a “knits” or “wool” cycle as they are much gentler.
- Set it to the lowest spin cycle you can, this will help release some of the moisture without knocking the fabrics about too much.
- To dry, roll the socks in a towel to absorb water and lay flat to try. Do not wring, squeeze or hang-dry the socks, as this can loosen and warp the fabrics’ shape.
Note: For most wool types and blends, it is recommended to use cold water only if using a washing machine.
How to hand wash your wool socks at home:
- Fill a bowl with cold or tepid water, just enough to cover the socks, and let them soak for ten minutes.
- If needed, use a mild detergent and gently blot the socks to remove any dirt. Do not scrub them as this may loosen and damage the fabric.
- Rinse through with warm water, then with cold, and roll them up in a towel to squeeze out excess water. Finally, lay them flat to dry.
Note: Hand washing is recommended over machine washing; if you have the luxury of time. Woolen fabrics ideally need individual care and attention to keep them in top shape wear after wear.
How to hand wash your wool socks while on the trail:
There’s nothing like a fresh pair of socks on the trail! Wool socks can be bulky, so many long-distance hikers will choose to bring just a few pairs, and wash them as needed. You could bring a bowl and follow the hand-washing at home steps above, or check out this handy tip:
- Fill a watertight dry bag or zip-lock with cold water and allow the socks to soak for ten minutes or so.
- Add a small amount of mild, biodegradable detergent to the bag and lightly agitate it.
- Wait for 15 minutes then agitate again before draining the bag. Remember to ditch your dirty water at least 200 yards from any water source.
- Refill the bag with clean water and shake again to rinse off any lingering detergent.
- Ditch the water and repeat as necessary.
- Gently press excess moisture out between your two palms (don’t squeeze or wring).
- Lay them on a rock or fold over a tent line to dry.
Note: Try to keep your wool socks out of direct sunlight – if its a warm enough day then the ambient heat will suffice, and your socks won’t be damaged by direct UV rays.
Many backpackers will wash their socks in the morning, then lay them on the top of their pack (loosely secured) all day while they hike, so they have the best chance of drying before the evening.
This method will only work if you are hiking in temperate climates with little rainfall as you are relying on the ambient air temperature to dry your socks. If it is too cold or humid you will have wet socks for the rest of your trip!
Washing merino wool vs regular wool
Merino wool is a popular wool for outdoor activities. It is generally lighter and softer than “regular” wool; but is incredibly durable and thermally efficient.
Merino fibers are naturally coated with a waxy substance called Lanolin, which acts as a safeguard against moisture, odors and mildew. Because of these unique properties, merino requires washing much less frequently than most other wool, and this also helps to preserve the Lanolin coating.
Some wool can be tumble-dried on a low heat, but Merino should never be tumble-dried as this can damage the waxy coating and distort the wool.
It is also advised to store merino socks flat, rather than balling them up or folding the tops. As it is a flexible wool, if stored improperly this could stretch or strain the socks over time, distorting them from their original shape and condition.
How often should you wash merino wool?
Most manufacturers of merino wool will advise multiple uses between washes. Before washing, try airing them outside or in an airing cupboard overnight and see if that eliminates the odor. If the odor remains or they are stained, then wash them as advised in the steps above.
It also goes without saying that the less you wash your socks, the better it is for the environment. That rings true for all your gear: washing and drying clothes is quite water and energy intensive – save it where you can!
How to “unshrink” wool socks
Believe it or not, hair conditioner acts as the perfect softening agent for woolen fabrics.
- Dissolve a dime-sized amount of conditioner in warm water.
- Let the socks soak for a while.
- Rinse with another batch of warm water until all of the conditioner is out.
- Place the socks on a towel.
- Gently roll both together to squeeze out the excess water.
- Gently start to pull the socks back to the right size and shape, by comparing them to a pair of similar socks.
- Continue to reshape them as they dry. This may need to be repeated a few times depending on the severity of the shrinking.
Should you wash wool socks inside out?
Anyone who has owned wool clothing will surely have noticed small bobbles start to appear on the outside. This is known as “pilling” and occurs when the short wool fibers start to intertwine and knot together. This is especially prevalent in a washing machine as the items tumble about together, and the delicate wool fibers get knocked around.
By washing socks – or any wool items – inside out, you prevent too much rough-and-tumble for the outer layers of your socks, and it should help to preserve them for longer.
Should you wash wool socks before wearing?
Generally, wool socks don’t need to be washed before wearing as it is their natural properties which lend their many uses. However, many people prefer to wash any and all of their new clothes before wearing, to get rid of any chemicals used in the manufacturing process.
It is worth researching where and how your socks are made before determining whether or not you need to wash them before you first use them.
Why do socks get stiff?
Stiffening of fabrics can happen for a number of reasons. Perhaps the socks are still soiled, there is some lingering detergent or the water used was too “hard”. This is why it is recommended to use a very small amount of mild detergent and ensure that garments are thoroughly rinsed before you set them to dry.
Even though tumble drying is permitted for some woolen fabrics, this can exacerbate the “stiff sock syndrome” even further as it will “set” the dirt or detergent deeper into the fabric. Make sure that your socks are well and truly clean and chemical-free before placing them in a dryer, or dry them naturally.
How long should wool socks last?
There is no average lifetime of a wool sock, it totally depends on how often you use them and how well you care for them. Hiking socks are generally put through their paces, with many miles confined in a hot, sweaty boot.
The best hope you have for increasing the lifespan of your socks is to pay attention to the manufacturer’s recommendations and following the care instructions listed above.
There are a few extra things you can do, such as:
- Cut your toenails! Socks can easily snag if your toenails are too long or pointed, especially if you’re hiking miles a day.
- Never use harsh chemicals. It can be tempting to use bleach or a hard detergent to remove tough stains and soiling, but this will only damage your garments in the long run.
- Pair the right socks with the right shoes. Hiking socks are specially designed to be hard-wearing and tough against the rub of a hiking boot. Don’t use a delicate pair of cashmere socks intended for lounge wear out on the trail!
- Also, wear the right size hiking boots – loose shoes rub much more on your socks (and feet. Ouch.).
It might be a rogue choice; but for the past few year’s I have exclusively used Kirkland trail socks for my various hiking endeavors. That’s right, I buy my hiking socks in bulk from Costco. They are a Merino/Nylon blend and I’ve found that they breathe extremely well on the trail, don’t retain odors and stand the test of time. They are also a fraction of the price of other “branded” socks.
If that doesn’t do it for you, I also have a couple of pairs of SmartWool Hike merino socks which have served me extremely well, they just come at a much higher price. This is a popular, reputable brand with a decent satisfaction guarantee, so you can rest assured that your dollars are well-spent.
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Suzie Hall has a passion for all things wild and is a scuba diver and Orcalab researcher based in Hanson Island off the north coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. She spends most of her time exploring this great wide earth and her travels have taken her to some remarkable locations including Patagonia, Kyrgyzstan and the wild British Columbia coast. Fueled by a drive to protect our wild spaces and their inhabitants, Suzie works in conservation projects around the globe and lives to write about the amazing people, places and wildlife she encounters.