Walking socks – not a lot to talk about, right? But if you take a look at any manufacturer’s description of their latest high-tech socks, you’ll probably lose all hope. Hundreds of material combinations, plus a wide variety of yarn counts and innovative product treatments make the once ordinary knitted sock from yesteryear a product that now requires a great deal of advice. It might be hard to believe but choosing the right outdoor socks is an underestimated task.
What should walking socks do?
The first question is: are you looking for socks for hillwalking, which are normally worn with mid-cut, lightweight and breathable shoes? Or are you shopping for more serious trekking tours where you’ll be carrying a heavy backpack? Or do you need socks for a winter hike?
Firstly, there is a right answer for all these uses. In general, however, an ideal sock should protect the foot from friction and therefore, from blisters. It should offer cushioning around the heel, support for the ball of the foot when rolling and it should quickly transfer moisture outwards. This last point is particularly important, because you lose up to a quarter of litre of moisture in sweat from your feet every day.
It makes sense then that the vast majority of manufacturers of functional socks rely on synthetic fibre materials whose core competence is the transfer of sweat. These make the perfect team with a suitable pair of Gore-Tex shoes. In addition, there are various proportions of elastane (for stretch socks), merino wool (and not just for the feel-good factor) as well as treatments of all kinds (e.g. Polygiene) to prevent odours and more.
Sock Buying Essentials
Point 1: a wrinkle-free fit! No matter what kind of trip you’re planning for, your socks – thick or thin, synthetic fibre or merino wool – must fit perfectly. If they wrinkle at the toes or anywhere else, this results in unpleasant friction and pressure points, which can lead to blisters. Good shoes mean nothing if your socks don’t fit.
Point 2: with or without padding? As a rule of thumb: the heavier bag on your back, the better the padding on your socks should be. There is a wide variety of designs – with more cushioning in the heel area, the midfoot and/or the toes. For summer day trips in low mountain ranges, you can definitely go for a thinner pair with little or no padding. If you’re heading off on a trekking tour with a tent and sleeping bag on your back or walking in winter, you should pick a thick pair of socks and also make sure the padding fits well for you!
Point 3: the material. Polyamide, polyester, merino, elastane? This is a personal choice. All materials have their own pros and cons, it’s all about the perfect blend. Polyamide, for example, is generally more abrasion resistant than polyester and is mainly used in particularly stressed areas such as the heel and toes. Merino at the ankle and midfoot provides comfort and padding, while a stretch-polyester blend on the instep improves fit and breathability. In addition, there are inserts which increase the compression pressure to promote blood circulation. Every company has their own recipe for the perfect outdoor socks!
Trivia and practical tips and tricks
- Which season am I walking in? This helps decide whether the socks should be thin or thick and whether they should have a higher content of virgin wool (in winter).
- What kind of touring am I planning? A hiking tour with light footwear? Then a mid-cut pair with little to moderate padding is recommended. A difficult mountain or trekking tour? Then go for a shin-high pair with more padding. Ski touring or trail running? Compression socks can be very useful.
- What kind of shoes am I wearing? Even the most breathable pair of socks isn’t much use if you’re wearing full leather shoes. Socks with a higher proportion of virgin wool and padding to reduce friction and pressure points would be appropriate here. For breathable and lightweight Gore-Tex shoes on the other hand, I prefer socks with Coolmax, Fibretech or similar polyester/polyacrylic fibres.
I shouldn’t complain either when my good old cotton socks feel like heavy, wet rags after 800 metres of ascent because of dripping sweat. The right combination of shoes and socks makes the biggest difference – and this is something that everyone has to find for themselves.
And last but not least two comments on frequently asked questions: Never wear freshly washed socks! this may sound disgusting to cleanliness champions, but there’s a serious reason behind it: detergent residues in the sock fabric can attack the sensitive foot skin and when mixed with sweat, can cause irritation. You can easily avoid this by wearing your walking socks at home after washing and before the next trip.
The second point is about the debate on wearing two pairs of socks at the same time. I don’t want to take sides at this point, but I’ll weigh up the advantages and disadvantages from my own experience. When military service still existed and young recruits had to march 30, 40 or 50 kilometres with luggage, we were instructed to wear two pairs of socks if we had problems with blisters. And lo and behold, I have never had problems with blisters – despite or perhaps even thanks to wearing two pairs of coarse cotton socks together.
In my own time, I enjoys hikes and hill walks in a proper, modern pair of walking socks – and lo and behold, they were also great. The most important thing is that the socks and shoes fit perfectly. Recently, I was embarrassed to have problems with pressure points whilst mountaineering (admittedly, I was wearing pretty new mountaineering boots). And who would have thought it, all my worries were forgotten with a second pair of socks…