smartwool's performance hike light cushion crew socks
(Photo/Eric Phillips)

Smartwool ‘Performance Hike’ Sock Review: Cushy, Secure, Good for the Planet

After 27 years, this sock leader is updating its most popular silhouette with fibers that are recycled, stouter, and smoother.

Skiers, snowboarders, sledders, dog walkers: You know that ice-cold feet can become an arch-nemesis on a winter day. Fortunately, that pain catalyzed Smartwool — one of the most formidable outdoor sock manufacturers in the industry — to create functional, well-made socks that manage foot comfort.

Now, three decades later, the brand is pushing the boundaries of quality, sustainable hosiery. Enter the Performance Hike sock lineup, an overhaul of the company’s inaugural hike sock, and the formerly known PhD and PhD Pro models. The collection is also Smartwool’s first ever to use recycled nylon.

smartwool's performance hike light cushion ankle socks
(Photo/Eric Phillips)

Why Use Recycled Fibers in Socks?

Who typically saves their beaten socks after the heels or toes are worn through? Next to no one. That’s reason enough to establish a system of closed-loop manufacturing, as trashed socks add 5,025 tons of carbon emissions to the planet each year.

From footwear to towels, carpets, and clothing, nearly 17 million tons of textile waste is generated annually in the United States alone, reports the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That’s a big pile to reckon with.

If we can feel good in a pair of socks while adventuring and do good for the planet, that’s a win. So we tested this new design to find out if it’s as strong and comfortable as its longstanding predecessor.

smartwool's performance hike light cushion crew sock
(Photo/Eric Phillips)

Review: Smartwool Performance Hike Light Cushion

In spring 2021, the Performance Hike Light Cushion sock reached feet. Our team grabbed the women’s and men’s ankle-high and crew versions. We kicked off testing in Sedona, Ariz., on a hiking trip that followed local COVID-19 protocols.

First, we explored Devil’s Bridge Trail, which tops out at 50-foot-high Devil’s Arch, one of the area’s largest natural sandstone arches. The intermediate out-and-back is 4 miles on packed gravel and rocky singletrack with 400 feet of ascent/descent. Read more about the hike in our GearJunkie guide, “The 8 Best Hikes in Sedona.”

Next, we opted for a bigger challenge, hiking a 10.4-mile out-and-back up Wilson Mountain, overlooking town and panoramic red rock formations. The 2,451-foot climb alternates between smooth singletrack and rough, steep sections. The conditions were arid and 75-80 degrees F.

smartwool performance hike light cushion crew socks
(Photo/Eric Phillips)

On our hike, this sock’s athletic construction reminded me more of a thickset trail running sock than a traditional hiking sock. Despite being lightweight, a noticeable protective cushion sat beneath our metatarsals, toes, and heels. The sock felt supportive and soft, and the top is thin and breathable. The material, including the welt, didn’t slouch or slip and wasn’t restrictive.

We didn’t experience any hot spots or blisters, which was fortunate for our inaugural treks following ski season. The ankle-high version is nice for hotter weather, but we’re partial to the crew length for added ankle and lower leg protection.

After returning to Crested Butte, Colo., we spent the past few months testing the socks on more 10- to 15-mile hikes in the Elk Mountains. We wore them mountain biking, hunt scouting, and for general daily use. The climate is usually dry and 75-85 degrees F, but there were some super cool, wet days during monsoon season.

The socks wicked sweat and regulated temperatures well, keeping our feet warm when it was chilly. That said, I got a blister when I wore the socks with burlier, non-breathable hiking boots on a long, hot hike. Blister prevention hinges in part on socks but also on the footwear for the day’s conditions: I messed up that combo.

Ultimately, we reach for this sock daily — it’s become a favorite. It simply feels good to pull on, is durable, and manages moisture. Also, the fabric has yet to show any pilling or decline.

smartwool's performance hike light cushion ankle socks
(Photo/Eric Phillips)

Performance Hike Light Cushion: How It’s Different

If you eliminate nylon — or polyester or elastane — from a sock, it becomes a potato sack. Recycled nylon only became available 2 years ago, and Smartwool jumped on the opportunity to become more sustainable, said John Ramsey, product development director at Smartwool. They also wanted to make the blend more supple, using a finer merino wool.

“To shift yarns, you need to breed it into the supply chain. We have a close relationship with our merino wool farmers in New Zealand — we didn’t want to leave them high and dry — and worked together to build the change,” explained Zach King, product line merchandising manager at Smartwool.

Compared to the retired PhD and PhD Pro models, this new sock features a less restrictive welt, beefier underfoot cushion and reinforcement, and a roomier toebox. Also, the terry loops extend past the seam above the toes, so the interior feels plush. Check out the specs below.

smartwool performance hike light cushion crew socks
(Photo/Eric Phillips)

Smartwool Performance Hike Light Cushion Ankle Socks

  • Height: Reaches across the ankle
  • Cushion: Light
  • Material: 55% merino wool, 32% recycled nylon, 11% nylon, 2% elastane
  • MSRP: $21 (men’s & women’s)
  • Key features: ZQ-certified merino wool, virtually seamless toe, patent-pending Indestructawool technology that tightly knits premium yarns

Smartwool Performance Hike Light Cushion Mountain Print Crew Socks

  • Height: Reaches 3.25″ above the ankle
  • Cushion: Light
  • Material: 54% merino wool, 29% recycled nylon, 12% nylon, 3% elastane, 2% polyester
  • MSRP: $23 (men’s & women’s)
  • Key features: ZQ-certified merino wool, virtually seamless toe, artwork by painter Noelle Phares, patent-pending Indestructawool technology that tightly knits premium yarns

Smartwool Performance Hike Sock: Conclusion

The new Performance Hike Light Cushion crew sock is a multifaceted, lasting pair that we enjoy pulling on for long days whether we’re hunting, hiking, or cruising around town. While this sock isn’t as tailored as a streamlined run sock, and definitely isn’t a thick winter sock, it meets our needs on most days from spring through fall.

smartwool's performance hike light cushion crew socks (2)
(Photo/Eric Phillips)

More good news: Smartwool plans to update all of its socks with recycled nylon by June 2022. It also aims to use 100% climate-positive wool, 100% regenerative materials, and 100% circular products by 2030.

For more tried and true hiking sock options, be sure to check out GearJunkie’s full guide “The Best Hiking Socks of 2021.”

Check Crew Price at REICheck Ankle-High Price at REI

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Morgan Tilton

Staff Writer Morgan Tilton is an adventure journalist specializing in winter sports coverage, travel narratives, and outdoor industry news. A recipient of nearly a dozen North American Travel Journalists Association awards, when she’s not recovering from jungle expeditions or doing field research in far-out villages she’s usually trail running, mountain biking, river surfing, or splitboarding in Colorado’s San Juan and Elk Mountains, where she grew up and lives today.