In December I visited my parents in Massachusetts, and my mom had waiting for me a box of possessions that I needed to bring back to Colorado or throw out. Along with newspaper clippings from the Sea-to-Sea Route, a Valentine’s Day card from a high school sweetheart, and running logs from the pre-Strava era, I found some clothing and equipment from the Great Western Loop in 2007, including a pair of DeFeet Wooleator socks.
Long-term review: DeFeet Wooleator Socks
A decade later, my go-to sock is still the Wooleator, which is a non-padded, thin sock made of 61 percent USA merino wool, 37 percent nylon, and 2 percent spandex. All told, I have hiked and run at least 20,000 miles in the Wooleator. I ran 4,000 miles in them just last year.
The Wooleator shares a similar construction to DeFeet’s original classic, the Aireator, which uses polyester fiber instead of merino. The top of both socks is a highly air-permeable mesh, which improves the dissipation of heat and moisture.
I wear the Wooleator for:
- Backpacking and hiking in 3-season conditions;
- Road and trail running year-round, with temperatures as low as the single-digits;
- Alpine skiing, as a liner sock inside my plastic boots; and,
- Nordic skiing and snowshoeing, as a liner sock beneath the warmer DeFeet Woolie Boolie socks and sometimes a vapor barrier liner sock.
I use the Wooleators for casual purposes, too, except if I’m wearing flipflops or brown dress shoes. They can be worn with black dress shoes, no problem, although my wife dislikes the pairing on principal.
Don’t ask me to compare the Wooleators to other hiking and running socks from Darn Tough, Smartwool, DryMax or others brands — I’ve never been compelled or curious to try them. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I suppose.
In addition to its performance, the Wooleator offers another perk: it’s made in the USA, like all DeFeet products. Since 2005 I’ve been a grassroots brand ambassador for the Hildebrand, North Carolina-based company, receiving a few pairs of socks and wool Duragloves each year in exchange for sharing my experience with clients and readers.
There are several versions of Wooleator, with the only difference being the cuff height. I wear the:
- 1-inch Argyle for 3-season running, because they insulate the least and look the fastest;
- 3-inch D-Logo for backpacking and ultra marathon races, because they cushion my shins from my hiking gaiters and they seem less vulnerable to debris entering the sock than the 1-inch Argyle; and,
- 5-inch HiTop for colder temperatures, when I need to cushion my lower-calf from tall boots and to cover fully the gap between my running tights and shoes.
Why do I keep wearing the Wooleator, mile after mile and year after year?
1. Wearable range
The Wooleator performs excellently for nearly all of my purposes. One sock and done.
The only notable exception is when big game hunting in the Colorado Rockies in October or November, when I find that one pair of Woolie Boolies work best — it’s too cold for the Wooleators on their own, but not yet cold enough for Wooleators+Woolie Boolies.
2. Moisture management
After becoming wet with perspiration, submerged in a snowmelt-fed creek, or washed during a rest stop, the Wooleators dry quickly and retain little moisture. They are thin and unpadded, and consist mostly of hydrophobic fibers like merino wool and nylon (with a tiny bit of spandex and no cotton).
Moisture management performance is not as good as a pure synthetic sock like the Aireator, but overall I think the tradeoffs are worthwhile. Plus, wool remains relatively comfortable when damp.
If you have worn both polyester and merino wool shirts, you know that wool produces far less odor. The same is true of polyester and merino socks — the inherently anti-microfibial wool fibers help to reduce foot funk (though not eliminate it entirely, especially on longer and wetter trips).
Spandex improves fit, but it’s heavier, more water absorbent, and less durable than polyester, nylon, and merino. It’s advantageous for a sock to include some spandex, but it’s not a substitute for a well fitting design. The Wooleator contains only 2 percent spandex, and fits my feet like a glove.
My size 11.5 feet are narrower and lower volume than average, and I find that size Large (for sizes 11-13) are best. If your feet are wider or larger, I’m interested to hear how they work for you. Please leave a comment.
Even if I get them for free, I’m not interested in a high performance sock that can’t withstand extensive abuse — they’d be unreliable on longer backpacking trips, and it’d simply feel wasteful.
It’s difficult to specify the lifespan of the Wooleators, because it’s affected by user factors (e.g. weight, gait), choice of shoes, environment (e.g. wet, gritty), and perhaps a few others. On the Great Western Loop, during which I was following established hiking trails through semi-arid environments, I sent two fresh pairs about every 600 miles. During the Alaska-Yukon Expedition, my records show one fresh pair every 300 miles. Normally, I would mail my used pairs home because they were not yet completely worn out.
More recently, two new pairs easily endured trips of 150-200 miles on the rugged Kings Canyon High Basin Route, Wind River High Route, and Pfiffner Traverse. At the finish, they were still in “good” condition.
The most common blowout point for me is along the Achilles, at the bottom of the cuff, although they remain usable for a while so long as I don’t yank hard on the cuff. The true death kneel is normally a hole in the heel, or sometimes on the underfoot. I have never had a hole develop in the toebox.
Questions about or have an experience with the Wooleator? Leave a comment.
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I have had holes develop on my big toe on three pairs. But this only happens on 20+ mile road runs. No durability problems with trail runs or hiking. For road running I now use the Aireator, which is a little tougher.
Aside from that issue, no problems. The 5” plain version of the wooleator is the most versatile sock in existence – you can wear them to work or to run 100 miles. But for races I prefer the “Do Epic ****” version just for the mindset.
I have never tried the Defeet socks, and I don’t like to wear those little anklets when hiking, but can see their usefulness when running with sneakers, and even though I ran a lot when younger, (4:52 mile), I never really liked running.
However I will engage in running when being chased by a T Rex, an angry girlfriend, ex-wife,or the equivalent if necessary.
I am actually more of a a swimmer, a former Navy Diver and Frogman if you will, and even as I approach retirement age, I can still manage to conquer, (and embarrass) younger guys who mistakenly accept my challenge to a swimming race.
Anyway, I digress…this was supposed to be about socks!
I have mainly used socks made by Bridgedale, and what do you know, there are still three pairs of Bridgedale Wool and nylon socks sitting in my sock drawer that were purchased way back in 2003 as seconds from Sierra Trading Post.
I have use them on many hikes, and while I worked in places like Alaska, California, and Florida as a Ranger, and I still see no actual wear, and they just feel tough and durable, yet warm and comfortable.
Maybe being manufactured in Ireland has something to do with that result, and I would add that I think that wearing a very thin liner sock does help to prolong the wear.
I just purchased my first pair of Darn Tough socks from Massdrop, the Cool Max Full Cushion Boot Socks, (love the boot height), and I am anxious to see how the Cool Max and Merino combination performs in warm Florida where I am living.
I am sure that the Defeet socks are great, but I just love the “No Questions Asked, Lifetime” type of warranties that you find at places like Darn Tough, Wrightsock, Farm to Feet, Eddie Bauer, Orvis, and LL Bean.
I hesitate to buy Smartwool, even though I read good reviews, due to a very short two year warranty period, and I have never had good results with Thorlo, and see why they only offer a thirty day warranty.
I have read many accounts by Thru-hikers that returned their Darn Tough socks that had worn out after a thousand miles, in order to receive a new pair at no charge.
Sounds pretty good to me, along with the reports of high performance that one seems to experience with Darn Tough.
I am open to, and curious about trying new things, so I will also eventually try the Farm to Feet socks, as well as some of the Wright socks, that have the lifetime warranties that I just mentioned.
Thanks Andrew, and I remember meeting you in person in Orlando, when you worked as a Go-Lite ambassador.
I still have the hat you gave me, and have continually marveled at your achievements, especially the Alaska Yukon expedition, as I have watched that Nat Geo video many times, and shared it with others, including Rangers that worked for me.
Having worked as a Wilderness Patrol Ranger in Alaska, I realize just how difficult that expedition was to complete!
Wishing you continued success!
Wooleators (the tallest ones – 5 inches I think?) have been my go-to for 5 or 6 years now. I use them pretty much all seasons, since Seattle is relatively mild year-round. I too have size 11.5 feet, although mine are wide and high-volume. The larges still fit great.
My failure point is *always* in the toe-box. For some reason my big toe always wears a hole through the socks. I usually darn them a couple of times before the fabric is too thin to repair anymore. I suspect most of the damage is done while cycling – the holes almost always appear after a long ride.
The only other place I’ve had a failure is when trying to force a sopping wet pair of socks back onto my feet, and my fingers tore through the cuff. Those socks were already pretty worn, though.
It’s so funny how people wear out shoes and socks differently. In contrast, I have *never* had a toe-box failure.
Putting a finger through the cuff does not surprise me. That’s my typical blow-out point, and I start to see a hole develop there I start treating it more cautiously when putting it on and taking it off.
I have wide feet and usually need a more square toe box for my shoes. I ran in wooleators year round and my usual first blow out point is at the inside edge near the ball of my foot. They’re amazingly long wearing though.
Good review and I appreciate the extensive comment from Scott M (thanks for your service Sailor). Both of you talked about how many miles a pair of your preferred socks lasted. My question to you both is, if you don’t do extensive long distance hiking, riding and running, but instead prefer shorter but regular daily outings how long in terms of time, not distance, can I expect a pair of your various go-to socks to last? Also, Scott’s comments prompt a question for Andrew, what kind of guarantee does DeFeet socks have?
I think that socks last longer if they are laundered more regularly. Dirty socks (inside of dirty shoes, probably) don’t last as long because the grit abrades the fibers. I would have to imagine that being wet is hard on the socks, too.
A high quality pair of socks should last many years when used as you described. I use mine more extensively, but to give you a sense: recently I finally had to throw out a pair that dated from 2010. I know the origin date because in 2011 I switched to a different color scheme. Another example: most of this summer I ran in three pairs of socks, washing and drying them after every run. I ran 4,000 miles this year, with my highest mileage in the summer. Each of those pairs probably had 750 miles on them.
Not sure what DeFeet’s warranty is. Frankly, given how much mileage I get out of these socks, I wouldn’t return them even if I had paid for them. $15 for 750 miles, that’s pretty good I think.
Thanks. You have a good point that although some brands carry a life-time warranty, after nearly 1,000 miles and using them every couple of days for 8 or 9 years, they don’t owe you anything even if they did have a life time warranty.
Nice article: I also have been wearing Defeet for awhile = since 2004 I love them, the woolie boolies are def my fave in cold weather, perfect for the AT in November 🙂 The wooleators are fantastic at keeping smell at bay, look good, they feel great on foot.
I also wear a size 11.5 shoe, but I do go with the XL size..Have you tried that before and see if you tear the back of your socks as much? Curious.. Thanks man!
I have a low-volume foot and I think the XL would be too loose, resulting in folds and discomfort.
Definitely agree that socks last longer if kept clean.
More important, they feel better.
Even more important, clean socks are far less likely to cause blisters and other foot maladies.
I used to wear out socks like crazy, but a year ago I invested $35 in two pairs of Darn Tough anklets.
They’re kind of thick, but I like that. I only wear them to run and hike, putting them on just before a workout and taking them off after. I average 90 minutes per day in them, and turn them inside-out afterwards, and air them out.
I’m amazed, but they feel clean for a solid week used that way.
I have ~1500 miles on those two pair, and can detect NO wear. Really!
They are also guaranteed for life. I expect to take advantage of that guarantee someday, but it doesn’t look like that day will come soon.
Stinky shirt, grungy Ex Officio briefs, a week without a shower, all cool.
Gotta have clean, soft, springy socks, though.
Oh, I forgot to mention that I always wear Altra Lycra gaiters, so get NO dirt coming in from the top.
That’s hugely important.
These seem to be discontinued… what is your current sock recommendation?
They’re not, https://defeet.com/collections/wooleator
Do you have a comparison of the regular wooleator and the wooleator comp? The latter being lower wool content that allows more customization of colors – they offer both in the custom design program
I don’t, sorry.
My guess is that you’ll give up some of the wool properties (warmer when wet, less stinky) but gain some of the benefits of synthetic fibers (dry time, durability).
The one model I can tell you to avoid is the Mondo Wool. It doesn’t have a beefed up heel cup like the Wooleator does, so for running and hiking this area becomes the point of failure — after a good bit of use, you’ll blow a hole there.
interesting – the original wooleator is c60% wool but coloured/patterned/comp can be as low as 30% wool.
I’ve had some Woolie Boolie comps for a few winters (30% wool) alongside regular (70% wool) and they’re definitely tough and still seem to have the similar warmth and odour resistance.
I’d definitely not worry about trying them. I get the feeling with my older Wooleators that it’s the wool that wears away leaving the nylon so a lower wool content might be a real benefit on them.
Agree with your assessment.
Another explanation (besides durability concerns) might be that versions with longer cuffs (and more patterns) have more nylon and elastane, to keep the cuff tight and to inject the colors.
I’m sticking rocking this sock and I’ve not noticed much difference in durability since I started wearing them. For me, the first blowout is almost always in the heel.
Favourite socks – Wooleators in summer, Woolie Boolies when its’ cold. Started using them for cycling but now for pretty much everything. High top plain grey are my dress socks these days…
Last for many years, but mine seem to eventually fail on the Achilles or around the bottom of the cuff like yours. (though I’ve put some small holes in some on the inside of the ankle in crashes). I’ve never had a pair go at the toe box.
For those looking…The 1” wooleator was discontinued for about 2 years. It was my go to pair for almost everything, so I stocked up before but still ran my collection thin in those two years.
They now have a new wooleator pro 1”. I can’t attest to durability but I got the gray one recently and fit is great, possibly better. The price is now $20 so helps to look for sales. A big unknown too is that the sock has different material makeups for the different colors, so there may be performance (warmth or odor resistance) or durability differences. Would love to hear what others find out on this.
Hey Andrew, enjoyed this breakdown, I’ll admit its the first I’ve heard of the wooleator but you’ve peaked my interest. I use a darn tough sock for hunting and while they have been the comfiest hunting sock I’ve owned, I still start to get the hot spots after about the 7 or 8 mile mark on a hike. Pairing with a merino sock liner also seems to help but I think I will have to give the wooleater a try.