Nothing makes me go ‘ahhhhhhhhh’ quite so much during a bike ride as the perfect pair of socks.
Yes, that’s right. Socks.
This seemingly ordinary and small part of my bike touring wardrobe has become the part I obsess most about. If my feet are happy, so is the rest of me.
The best socks Andrew and I have found for touring are made of merino wool from sustainably raised New Zealand sheep.
We discovered merino wool socks at a small sports shop about a month into our world bike trip. It took us a few minutes to get over the initial sticker shock of $15-20 U.S. for a single pair, but after riding through our first day of terrible rain our feet were clammy and cold. The allure of a warm, soft pair of socks temporarily overcame our tight budget. Fast forward 4 years and now we wouldn’t be without merino wool socks.
What’s so great about merino wool? For a start, it’s not like the itchy wool sweaters you might have worn as a kid. It’s lightweight, soft, breathable and — perhaps most importantly for a bike tourist — odour free.
The ability of these socks to pull sweat away from the skin, as well as the wool’s natural anti-microbial properties, mean they don’t get stinky, even after wearing them up to 5 days in a row without washing. They are also incredibly comfortable. Sports models tend to come with extra cushioning around pressure points.
When it comes to the question of which merino wool socks to buy, there are dozens of brands to pick from. The socks we’ve bought and tried are from two of the biggest names in the business: Icebreaker and Smartwool.
On the surface, there’s not much between them. Both companies offer a range of sizes and styles, including specific cycling socks. Our first pair of merino wool socks came from Smartwool. They lasted a long time and we loved them. Our opinion has changed, however.
After buying our first pair of Smartwool socks, the quality seemed to go downhill. Recent socks we’ve bought from Smartwool wore out too quickly. We now favour Icebreaker socks, because we find they last a lot longer. Durability is important when you’re paying $20 U.S. for a pair of socks!
We could write a whole essay on how the Icebreaker socks we bought in New Zealand are in nearly perfect shape, despite being 15 months old, including 5 months of constant use as we biked across North America. Or we could tell you how the last 3 pairs of Smartwool socks we’ve tried have all developed holes after just a few weeks, even though they weren’t subjected to the rigours of a daily bike tour (and how it took us a long time to get a replacement for one pair through customer service). A picture is worth 1,000 words though, so take a look at this one.
For us, the photo says it all. The Icebreaker socks (on the left) have been used intensely for over a year but don’t show a fraction of the wear that the much younger Smartwool socks do. The Smartwool socks in this picture saw irregular use over 6 months. For this reason, Icebreaker is now our favourite brand.
In our experience, other Icebreaker products are equally as tough. The very first Icebreaker tops we bought in 2006 have been worn regularly over the past 4 years, handwashed and wrung out in more hotels than we can count and they are still going. The first tiny holes only appeared a few months ago.
This review is based on Icebreaker and Smartwool socks that we bought with our own money. We were not paid or bribed to give this review and it reflects our honest opinion of the products concerned.