Boot Sock Showdown: SmartWool, Darn Tough Vermont and 5.11 - ITS Tactical

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Boot Sock Showdown: SmartWool, Darn Tough Vermont and 5.11

By Bryan Black

Over the last eight months I’ve been in and out of three different pairs of socks; SmartWool Heavy Crew Trecking, Darn Tough Vermont Boot Socks and 5.11 Level 1 Socks.

I’ve got both positives and negatives for each pair of socks represented here, but first let’s talk socks in general and why you should care about quality.

Protecting your feet is nothing to take lightly and the right pair of socks makes all the difference. You depend on your feet to not only support your body and whatever weight is attached to it, but to also get you to where you need to be.

Selecting the Right Pair of Socks

Nothing ruins a hike, ruck or run faster than bad socks. Well, maybe boot that don’t fit would ruin it faster, but that’s for another article. The goal of wearing socks that perform and fit will is not only to make your feet comfortable, but also to reduce the potential for blisters.

Blisters are the number one cause of a bad day under a ruck and are formed from repeated friction to your feet coupled with heat and moisture from sweaty feet. Moisture + Friction + Heat = Blisters. I’m sure you don’t need me to explain this to you, as you’re an anomaly if you’ve never been blessed with blisters.

While improperly fitting boots are commonly to blame, selecting the right pair of socks is just as important. You want to stay away from 100% cotton socks, which just absorb moisture. synthetics and synthetic blends will wick away moisture and help take one of the three blister causing variables out of the equation.

You also want socks that fit! In the Navy I was issued those crappy one-size-fits-most Wool Dive Socks that are just about useless. In BUD/s you’re constantly wet and those things bunched up big time and the ends of my feet, even when we weren’t running with wet boots. Bunched up socks are a sure way to spawn blisters, so again, get socks that fit.

These socks reflected below were all worn with the same pair of boots, Magnum Spider 8.1 Desert HPi Boots (review coming soon!) and used in everything from daily wear to multi-day hikes in the same pair of socks.

SmartWool Heavy Crew Trecking Socks

I’ve had multiple pairs of SmartWool socks over the years and they’re definitely a comfortable sock, especially these SmartWool Heavy Crew Trecking socks. Made up of 80% Wool, 19% Nylon and 1% Elastic, they truly don’t feel like traditional wool socks.

I don’t know about you, but for me, traditional wool socks get shaped and stiff. By shaped I mean that they almost get pressed into a shape from repeated wear and can make it tough to take them on and off. I didn’t get this at all with the pair of SmartWool socks and with 80% wool I fully expected to.

What I did get was bunching though. Despite the built in flat-knit side panel that’s supposed to prevent bunching, these things crept down to my toes. It wasn’t massive, like Dive Socks do, but it did happen. I really attribute this to how soft these are inside. Don’t get me wrong, I love soft socks just as much as anyone, but I think the softness is what enabled them to slide while my feet were drier.

They were truly the most comfortable socks out of the three reviewed here and I didn’t get any blisters, despite the sock creep. There were some slight hot spots at the bunched points, but I attribute some of the blister prevention to the reinforced sole and heel woven in. I also attribute not getting blisters to my feet. I mention this just to say that tougher feet prevent blisters better, so if you’re training for an event wearing boots, don’t wait until the event to start wearing them!

The SmartWool socks also repelled odor well, I didn’t notice any overly obnoxious odor coming from my feet after wearing these.

Made in the USA from imported yarn

Darn Tough Vermont Boot Socks

I had very high hopes from the Darn Tough Vermont Boot Socks as I’d heard good things about them, but had never worn a pair. They certainly didn’t disappoint! Made up of 69% Merino Wool, 27% Nylon and 4% Lycra Spandex, these surprisingly had more of a traditional wool sock feel than the 11% higher wool content SmartWool socks did.

Not necessarily a bad thing by any means, but there is a slight bit of the shaping that I mentioned earlier with these socks. I did find that they stayed put on my feet, which I feel was helped by the mid-foot support that creates a tighter band all the way around the arch area. Darn Tough Vermont also mentions that they use fine gauge knitting for more stitches per inch and a hugging fit.

The heel didn’t feel reinforced on these socks, but the package states that the heel, toe and foot bottom use 4-ply reinforcing nylon. My feet did remain blister free and hot spot free as well. No issues with odor either.

100% USA Made – Berry Amendment Compliant

5.11 Level 1 Socks

The first thing that I noticed about the 5.11 Level 1 socks were how long they were, I guess I didn’t notice that I had the 9″ “over the calf” socks, rather than the 6″ socks. They should be called “over the knee” socks though, as that’s where the “one size fits all” socks came to on me. I mention this just to mention it, not to take away from the review of these, as 5.11 makes a 6″ version as well. The 9″ just isn’t for me.

Made up of 80% Coolmax, 8% Nylon, 8% Spandex and 4% Rubber, the 5.11 Level 1 socks are fairly comfortable, yet sparse in some areas. I’ve never worn a pair of Coolmax socks before, but I feel like they actually retained moisture more than the two pairs of mostly wool socks above. Coolmax is the Dupont trademark for polyester and not something I feel competes well with wool based socks.

I actually did get blisters on the back of one of my heels from wearing these socks. I attribute this to the heel area on these not being reinforced like the arch and bottom of the foot is (shown by the white stitching on the socks). There wasn’t any issue with bunching on these at all, but I did feel like they had some stink to them unlike the other socks, especially after wearing them a second day. Coolmax isn’t as naturally stink resistant as wool is.

Made in China

Inherently Anti-Microbial

Here’s a fun fact: Using wool is a natural way to inhibit mildew, as wool fibers naturally prevent moisture from being held in. As bacteria is attracted to smooth positively charged fibers like synthetics, it’s subsequently detracted from the neutrally charged rough fibers of wool.

I personally like wool socks better when it comes to hiking or anytime I’m wearing boots. Both the SmartWool Heavy Crew Trecking Socks and Darn Tough Vermont Boot Socks are good buys, but I’d have to declare the Darn Tough Vermont Boot Socks to be the winner in my testing. While neither are 100% perfect, the bunching of the SmartWool is a turnoff. Comfortable yes, but not what I’d choose on multi-day excursions.

Keep in mind that everyone’s feet are different and this review should only serve as a guideline. Socks, like many other clothing items can be a personal preference and what works the best for the way you were built. Hopefully this helped you learn a bit more about some other options for socks out there. Just trust me when I say not to go out and buy Wool Dive Socks!

Do you have a favorite pair of socks? If so, which ones do you like the best and why?

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  • Mike

    I am always looking for good socks to wear and I think I have one other pair that will do well along with the ones you reviewed. Cabela’s Ingenius are comfortable, well wearing. and no forming. I use these as my work socks in construction and have had no problems.

  • Joseph

    You left out my favorites, Covert Threads

  • I’ve used Thorlo, Smartwool, 5.11, Underarmor, some Gander Mountain brand, and probably a handful I can’t remember. Smartwool is the only one I went back to buy more. Thorlo is pretty decent as well. For any extended stuff I usually use Wigwam sock liners as well.

  • Donovan Matthew

    price was not a factor of your review? Price vs Quality with the quality worth the price kind of thing?


  • Good review. I am a fan of Thorlo with Wigwam sock liners. As a smokejumper, this was the perfect combination to prevent blisters and provide comfort through the summer fire season. I use Superfeet in all of my shoes, and that has made a world of difference as well.

  • Stu


    Just wondered what your take on military socks with built in liners was?

    IE — Wigwam’s Trail Mix Fusion, aka the INgenius Hiker

  • I’d just like to add my two cents worth. After purchasing a variation of the SmartWool socks (and for pretty cheap I might add), they are my sock of choice for nearly all my outdoor excursions. I had some of the same bunching that the reviewer mentioned but it really didn’t bother me much. I attribute it to the near-perfect combo of the socks and the particular boots I wear. I haven’t tried the other socks mentioned, so my review is a little biased but I’m always on the hunt for a good pair of socks as well and the SmartWool ones are a very safe bet. Happy hunting, gents.

  • viator

    I initially tried both the Darn Tough Vermont Boot Sock and the Mountaineering sock, after years of wearing non-stop Thorlo combat boot socks. A week later, I broke down and ordered a couple weeks worth of both, split between the two. If you like the boot sock, the mountaineering sock provides more cushioning and is thicker, all around, though obviously it’s a bit warmer, as well. They’re pretty much all I ever wear now, just varying between the two based on expected temperature.

  • Wayne K.

    Good review. I’m a sockaholic. I’ve given socks to my son after getting home and just trying them on because I didn’t like the feel. I know it’s goofy. I’ve not worn the 5.11 or the Vermont brand. I suppose most or all sock makers have various models of socks. I didn’t particularly like the SmartWools. I seem to be partial to a thicker sock. I do agree with your assessment of the wool blend though. I’ve never cared for the Coolmax sock either–too thin but good material. I have Thorlo (OK); a couple of Cabela’s I like well; Bass Pro has their $9.95 Lifetime Guarantee sock I like pretty well too. I bought several pairs of Wigwam a few years ago and I am still wearing them–some of my all time favs but I cannot remember their model name. Most all of mine are the wool blend. Slight creep as you mention but nothing I can’t live with.

  • Wayne K.

    I forgot to mention–when you do your boot review(s), I would like you to mention your opinion on side zippers. I know, it’s not a critical element but ….

  • TacticalTom

    I’ve tried Thorlo, Cabelas, and Wigwam for extended use and never liked any of them.

    About ten years ago I used SmartWool for the first time on a ten day hike through Utah’s Canyonlands and was hooked for life. I’ve never worn anything else on a long trip. I combine mine with a tight fitting, generic, all synthetic dress sock as a liner.

    Last year I used this combo at the SEAL Adventure Challenge, where we were wet and sandy the whole time, and was the ONLY person at the end who did NOT have blisters. This was after running miles, swimming, and log PT in boots. I will never use anything but SmartWool!

    I do have some 5.11 socks that are provided as part of our uniform, but I haven’t tried them on yet.

    For those that do get blisters, I like the Foot Care Kits from ZombieRunner

  • PanicNpain

    I’m active duty military and I’ve worn both the 5.11 and Darn tough socks. I am in fact wearing Darn Tough socks right now. I had two issues with the 5.11 socks when I wore them and that was the length because they were knee height and the lack of reinforcement in the heel area. I’ve ever gotten blisters from the 5.11 socks but I have worn holes in the heel fairly quickly. I’ve been wearing the Darn Tough socks in theater now for about 5 weeks and I have to say, it feels nice to pull your boots off after 14-16 hour days and have your feet be dry and not stink because the socks work so well. The socks also have quite a bit of cushioning and are very comfortable.

    Good review Bryan.

  • As I type this I’m wearing some of the Darn Tough’s in Afghanistan, I am very happy with them.

  • Robert

    I typically wear Smartwool Light Hikers and don’t experience the bunching you mention. My use involves heavy boots year-round and alot of rain and drizzle outside of summer. They are the best socks I have found for keeping my feet dry and comfortable.
    Thanks for the review.

  • Irishmanlost

    I pretty much have to go with Smartwool as well. I have also tried Bridgedale socks, although I would consider them more for light hiking.

  • Frank

    Smartwool is the way to go. I wear boots all day on duty and have tried every sock out there. At an average of $12.00 to $15.00 a pair at REI its a tough pill to swallow but they work, keep my feet dry and comfortable and I have never had a blister.

  • Austin Vermillion

    Bryan – Great review and glad someone with a public voice in the industry did a concise, direct comparison. Good on you!

    We did a similar test a few months ago to look at a heavy boot sock, except we used the Smartwool PhD heavy weight sock and the Darn Tough Mountaineering Sock. Personally I will say the Smartwool is more comfortable, but the long term durability showed to be much less than the Darn Tough.
    Currently, Darn Tough is been the brand of choice as the issued sock for both ultra-light crew and regular boot socks. They are also really responsive to the community in terms of production and requirements.
    Based on prior discussions, I am pretty sure Smartwool is aware of the lower durability factor and should be doing something about it in the future.

  • johnyD

    Smartwool equivalent socks can be had from BassPro:
    They are $10 and have a lifetime warranty which is more than I can say for REI Smartwool at $17-$19 a pair!

    • Erik Brown

      REI is 100% satisfaction guarnatee, so if you have some smartwool you bought from them and aren’t happy take them back for refund. 🙂 That said their branded wool socks kinda suck.

    • Wayne K.

      These are the ones I mentioned in my earlier comment. I like these. As I read some of these where some say things like, “I tried the Cabela’s and didn’t like them.” Bear in mind, Cabela’s like many others, makes a boatload of socks–some I like and some I don’t like from the same store.

  • Jeffrey

    You should try the SmartWool Expedition socks. They are about $20.00 a pair, but they are the best sock I have ever used. The wick the sweat off your feet, and damn… they are plush, and great for boots.

  • Erik Brown

    Smartwool PHD’s don’t bunch, for me anyway. I’ll check out the darn tough for sure! 5.11 not so much since they come from China. boo. 🙂

  • Bryan, looks like we missed the boat by a few months. We just added socks to our lineup here at Magnum. If you want to give them a shot, let us know and we’ll send over some pairs to test out.

  • Casey

    Another SmartWool fan here. I’ve been wearing the PhD Medium Crew at work for about eight months now, and they work great when combined with a pair of OTB boots. I haven’t had any issues with bunching, even though I went one size up (large, which is supposed to fit up to a size 11, was just a bit too snug for me). I have noticed a bit of pilling on the side of the socks, but otherwise, they’re holding up quite well – I bought several pairs and make sure to rotate them so that they get even wear over time.

    When I was on active duty, I swore by Thorlo Cushion Boot Socks, as I used to prefer a thicker sock. I don’t recall having any issues with them, but they were unnecessarily long. Since I got out, I’ve primarily worn Covert Threads Sand socks, which are a good value, but do tend to bunch up a bit. I’ve also briefly tried the Darn Tough Boot Socks that you reviewed, which were alright, and some variation of Ingenius socks, which were too thin, and tended to bunch up, as well.

    While I can’t say I noticed much of a difference in cushioning between any of the brands I’ve mentioned, the SmartWool PhDs are my sock of choice simply because they have, by far, the best anatomical fit out of anything I’ve tried, and that fit works wonders when it comes to eliminating hot spots and other discomfort.

    Gear Scout did their own sock review last year, which has some great info. See below…

  • Wayne K.

    Casey: you are correct, that is one comprehensive report(s). Not much left out. If I may refer back to johnyD above:
    “Smartwool equivalent socks can be had from BassPro:
    They are $10 (actually $9.95) and have a lifetime warranty which is more than I can say for REI Smartwool at $17-$19 a pair!”

    I have 3 pairs of these and I like them a lot. Now, they are a little thicker sock than average. Made in USA but by whom, I don’t know. I know Wigwam makes some for Cabelas. And like the Military Times report says you should try different ones by different manufacturers to find the ones you like most. My gut says most guys probably don’t give socks that much thought. I know many do but I bet most don’t.

  • Wayne K.

    Last comment, I promise. I forgot one plus regarding Cabelas. On some of their sock line, they give you the wall thickness of the sock for a comparison. Example: .125 vs. . 175–a convenience factor that I use if I’m used to a particular sock of theirs. This last comment proves there is no horse so dead that one cannot continue to beat it 🙂

  • Andy Korpash

    I have several different pairs of ingenius socks that I wear hunting and for work and love them. Wish they were available when I was in the service instead of the green crap they issued.

  • Larry Pylant

    I have worn all kinds of socks, from the ugly O.D. socks issued in Basic trng. to the same old sweaty socks issued in the Republic of Vietnam. Have used the SmartWool socks which were O.K. but the Darn Tough socks are the best I’ve placed on my feet. Wore them yesterday to church & they were like an extra skin on my feet. Have had surgery on my right foot for bone spurs in the past & the socks seem to support my right ankle, its been broken too from playing basketball. Thanks for the stickers from your company. If anyone asks me “Whats with the Darn Tough emblem”? I won’t hesitate to tell them about your fine product. Thank You, L. Pylant

  • Keith

    I’ve been wearing Bass Pro Shops’ merino wool sock for about ten years almost exclusively. Wife buys them on sale for about 10 bucks a pair and they have a lifetime guarantee. I’ve only worn out one pair but haven’t tried out the warranty yet. They come in different sizes so since I wear an 8-1/2 shoe, I can get the “mediums” and I don’t have to worry about the heel sliding up to my ankle.

  • I love wearing Wigwam socks because I think that this socks are very quality. Wigwam socks are made from merino wool and because of that are very comfortable and most important they are warm :).

  • Shawn

    I really like the brand FITS socks. They come in more sizes to properly fit your foot. I have walked the mountains of the ‘Stan in them and not a blister or hot spot yet.

  • Martin

    This is what do with my socks, and I own a lot of them. I mark each pair 1,2,3,E,H, ect. so I know which pair is which. I know when one pair is looking a little rouhg around the edges I know to pitch them.

  • Yan

    Any of you guys wear a smaller pair of socks under the wool socks? Or would it be better to wear the wool socks first and another pair of some other type over the wool, Or 2 pairs of wool? Like during winter, I can’t wear only one pair of wool socks in here, the feet will freeze in 10 minutes…

  • steve

    I’ve had great luck with the Danner acadia cool max socks and fox river military.

  • RobertJonath

    Well, there is no need of wearing small pair of sock under the wool socks, as they are already warm and if you wear they would create sweat.  
    <a href=”″>Underwear Distributors</a>

  • Allwet

    Would you believe those crappy dive socks(originally cold weather /foul weather socks)were actually sought after…LOL.
    Though when wet they were a nightmare-dry, not so bad when compared to cotton or synth’s

    Then I switched to the wigwams….that was then….

    Now I use the Smart Wools,  my only complaint is that I never purchase enough pairs…..easy to justify saving a few bucks walking through Academy, not so when you realize you are headed into the boonies and are down to 2 pr!
    If you don’t have the luxury of fresh change outs every few hours, use  2 pair/day…and swap em out as needed. I take the just worn pair , turn em inside out ,and fasten em to the back of my pack when the weather is nice, or to a belt loop under rain gear if its nasty.
    Have a god one-

  • Thadeus1977

    Great, detailed info.  Just finished a 34 mile ruck on pavement in the hilly terrain of northwest Alabama in honor of my brother SrA Mark Forester.  This was the 5th year and I’ve faithfully used SmartWool trecking.  However, this year I incorporated 2 pair of Darn Tough boot socks in the mix and I like both brands.  No blisters, just changed my socks every 5-7 miles and used some powder for moisture.

  • nac Can

    Any advice on a good hot weather sock? I’m starting a job at Big Bend National Park in Southwest Texas and been looking for a good desert sock that will keep my feet cool but will protect from blisters. Thanks

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