Properly fitting hiking socks are one of the most important pieces of outdoor equipment. Although their importance may seem mundane, anyone who's ever experienced blisters on a hike knows how critical quality socks are to foot comfort and injury prevention. Over the past several decades sock-science has created models using natural and synthetic materials for various activities and environments. The following article discusses the design, materials, and types of socks, as well as some tips on how-to choose the proper pair.
Quality socks are just as important as proper fitting hiking boots to ensure comfort on the trails.
The design and look of socks will vary with each manufacturer as well as the weight-class of the sock (see "Selecting a Sock" below for weight descriptions). However, the main components of a hiking sock are as follows:
The top of the socks is the section slightly above your ankle upwards. It often has an elastic material and ribbed design to keep the socks from falling down. This section is often what's seen above a boot and includes a cuff, which is the finish at the top.
The instep covers the top of your foot from the ankle down to your toes. This area can feature minimal to average cushioning depending on the type and weight of the sock.
The sole, like a boot, this section is the bottom of the sock. It includes the area slightly above the ankle to the toes and contains the majority of the cushioning, including sections for the ankle, heel, toes, and the balls of your feet.
Side panels are found in some designs. These sections are sandwiched between the instep and the sole and may contain specific materials for airflow and moisture-wicking.
The arch brace, or arch support, is the section of the sock that surrounds the arch of the foot, supporting the foot's arch and holding the sock in place.
Gone are the days of the 100-percent wool socks. Today, natural and synthetic fiber blends is the sock standard. Yet wool still comprises a significant percentage of the fabric components of a hiking sock (many manufacturers list the percentage of materials used on packaging). When searching out a hiking sock, you will likely find wool will compose anywhere from 25- to 85-percent of the overall sock material
For those of you, like me, who have a childhood memory of extremely itchy, wool socks - fear no more; merino wool will help you overcome an itchy wool phobia. Merino wool has the qualities of regular wool (excellent breatheability, insulation, strength, and quick drying time) minus the itch; in fact, it's a soft and comfortable material to wear. Mohair and worsted wool are two other common wool types found in socks.
Merino wool has the qualities of regular wool minus the itch.
Silk and elastic are two other natural fibers commonly found in socks. Silk wicks moisture and provides a smooth feel. Elastic helps socks maintain their shape and fit snug on the foot.
Avoid socks containing large quantities of cotton for hiking or other outdoor activities. Cotton is a poor insulator and retains moisture. The latter trait is what leads to hotspots (i.e., friction areas) on your feet when you hike and ultimately causes blistering. Cotton socks are a recipe for disaster when hiking - do your feet a favor and don't wear them.
Many synthetic materials are used in socks as manufacturers tend to produce their own specialty products to enhance sock comfort, insulation, moisture-wicking ability, and cushioning. Some of the common technical fibers used in socks are listed below.
Polyester has both moisture wicking and quick drying time properties
Acrylic provides insulation, a soft feel and wicks moisture well
Nylon gives elasticity as well as strength to the sock
Spandex functions mainly as an elastic material to ensure a snug fit
Gore-Tex is a breathable membrane
CoolMax is a special fiber that wicks moisture
Selecting a Sock Style
Hiking socks often come classified in three main weights: light, medium; and heavy. When selecting socks, a good rule of thumb is to match the weight of the sock to the weight of your hiking boots. For example, a lightweight sock will compliment light hikers on easy trails for a few hours of hiking. Step-up your trail type or intensity and you'll want midweight socks. While heavyweight socks will be needed when tackling rough and difficult terrain for several hours.
How to pick what sock to buy once you've loosely chosen a weight category can be influenced by several factors, including: biomechanics, activity and your specific footwear, and weather conditions and temperatures.
Knowing about your biomechanics is not as complicated as it sounds. Biomechanics is the mechanics of muscular activity, and knowing the nuances of how you move can help you choose where you'll need cushioning in a sock. For example, after walking, or hiking, for a long period most of us have spots on our feet that are more prone to soreness or irritation than others. Granted, some of these spots may be irritated by improperly fitting footwear, but some of it has to do with biomechanics.
Look for extra cushioning in the areas that get sore when buying a sock. Often a sock with extra heel or toe cushioning is what's required. Another example may be someone who often finds the tops of their feet rub the tongue of their boots, causing discomfort. In this case, this individual should look for extra padding in the instep of a sock.
Footwear to Match Activity
A straight match of sock and boot weight doesn't always cut it on the trails. In some cases, altering the sock-to-boot-weight formula makes more sense and is more comfortable. This often occurs when one wishes to temporarily stretch their footwear beyond its intended use by increasing the activity duration, intensity or the difficulty of trails and terrain. Note: this is often a temporary solution; in the long run, you'd be better off to buy the proper footwear for better support and cushioning, as well as reducing the chance of injury, like twisting your ankle.
For example, an individual with a pair of light hikers may want a pair of midweight socks to provide support and cushioning if planning to hike long hours, for several days on rough trails. In this instance, even though the socks do not match the boot's weight, they compliment the activity and its intensity. Another situation could be an individual using heavyweight socks in midweight boots for extra cushioning at the toes to descend steep trails.
Climate and Temperature
Climate and weather can also be factors in breaking the sock-to-boot-weight formula, whether it's adding weight for cool climates to reducing weight for warm environments. To illustrate with an example, a backpacker with midweight hiking boots could carry three sock weights on a multi-day, intermediate mountain climb. At the beginning of the hike lightweight socks could suffice in hot temperatures, yet as the trail difficulty increases and the temperature gets cooler, switching to mid- to heavyweight socks may be necessary.
One point to keep in mind is moisture trapped in a boot leads to hotspots and will cause blisters at the friction points. The balance between keeping feet warm and properly cushioning, but not overheating them, is difficult. It is sometimes better to bring extra socks, changing them often, drying worn ones, to ensure your feet stay dry and warm.
One Sock, Two Socks
Some hikers opt for an additional liner sock.
Today, most socks are individually designed to suit feet when hiking. The fabric blends will insulate, wick moisture and cushion all at the same time. Yet another method to achieve these same results is a two-sock system. This system teams a thin, liner sock with a thicker, outer sock. It also follows the layering principle of outdoor wear. The inner layer wicks moisture from the skin, keeping it dry. The outer layer cushions and insulates, but also wicks away moisture. Additionally, the liner acts as a second skin, providing additional protection from friction and reduces blister-prone hikers. Whether you prefer to wear one or two socks is really a matter of personal preference as both approaches work.
Here are some quick tips on choosing the best fitting sock:
1) Each weight classification varies in features and design from manufacturer to manufacturer, so try on a few different brands in the same weight class to find the best fit for your foot.
2) When trying on socks look for a snug, but not tight fit. The material shouldn't pull too tight or be baggy in any area of the foot.
3) Buy socks in various colors so you can change from worn to dry socks on long hikes as needed.
4) Check washing instructions, as high maintenance ones may not suit you.
5) Purchase a range of sock weights. In most cases a few light- and midweight hikers will do fine, and one or two heavyweights may be necessary if you plan to hit difficult terrain or cold conditions.
Quality socks are just as important as proper fitting hiking boots to ensure comfort on the trails. When compared to cotton sport socks, hiking socks may seem a little expensive but it's a small price to pay for reducing blisters and providing proper cushioning. You also don't need to be hiking to wear them. I find I wear light hikers on autumn urban walks, don mid-weights on cool mornings in my fishing boat, and use a pair of heavyweights in my snowboarding boots.