Choosing The Right Socks
The same care and attention you put in to choosing your boots and shoes should also apply to choosing your socks. A quality pair of socks will feel comfortable, provide cushioning to high impact areas, wick moisture away from your skin, offer good circulation and help to maintain a consistent and comfortable foot temperature. Like footwear, there’s no one sock that does everything. Instead, you are going to want a range of different socks in your kit list for different activities or help you adapt to changing climatic conditions.
Socks come in various thicknesses, ranging from very thin lining socks to thick double layered socks. Whatever sock you go for, it's important to relate its thickness to the fit of your footwear because the thickness of your sock can change the volume of your foot and potentially make your footwear feel too tight.
Lightweight socks are primarily designed to help keep your feet cool. They are lighter because they are not as cushioned as thicker socks. However they do retain some lightweight padding in key areas where you need it most. For short, lowland walks, in warm, dry conditions like in summer, these socks are perfect.
Most hillwalking socks fall under this category. They’re great because they are highly versatile, capable of performing well in both warm or cooler conditions. Whilst heavier than lightweight socks, they provide a higher level of cushioning around the heel and ball of the foot and are warmer. They’re the sock of choice for most extended walks in the hills and mountains, in pretty much all weather conditions, except extreme cold or heat.
As the heaviest, these socks are also the thickest, warmest and most cushioned socks available. Designed for use when adventuring in the toughest terrain in extremely cold temperatures, they’re great for mountaineering and alpine pursuits or when the temperatures drop toward zero. You’ll find them much too warm for summer use, and a bit overkill for most UK walking conditions, but they still have their uses even if you are not mountaineering in the depths of winter. They can work just as well as a cosy pair of camp socks, or for everyday low-exertion activities where you’re standing around in the cold, or if you just feel the chill.
Walking socks come in a variety of materials which all have their own benefits. A mixture of natural and synthetic materials is common in socks and is designed to balance out any negatives that one material may have. The most important things to consider are how much your feet are going to sweat from the activity, how long you’ll be wearing them, the terrain you’ll be in, and climatic conditions you’re likely to encounter – then choose materials to suit.
Whilst great for comfort at home and work, everyday cotton socks aren’t suitable for strenuous activities like hillwalking because of the amount of sweat your feet generate from the extra exertion. Once wet from sweat, cotton socks struggle to cope – wrinkling up as they absorb this extra moisture, keeping it next to your skin. This combination of softened skin and friction is exactly what you want to avoid as it makes your feet vulnerable to blisters. Cotton socks are also slow to dry and have zero insulation capabilities once wet. However, cotton is cost-effective and comfortable in the right conditions, and many walking brands do still use it in a mixture of other materials to improve its performance.
A popular material for use in socks, wool offers fantastic insulation properties and manages to retain heat even when wet. The more wool used, the warmer the sock will be, which is why it's often found in colder weather walking socks. On its own though, it doesn’t have much elasticity, can be a bit scratchy, dries slowly and can wear out quickly. That’s why you’ll usually find wool being used alongside a combination of other materials.
Merino wool is a superb material for walking socks due to its fantastic ability to manage moisture and regulate temperature. Merino absorbs and wicks sweat away from the foot meaning your feet stay drier - making them less prone to blisters - and feel comfortable in both cool and warm conditions. Because merino is such a fine wool it also means that it’s not as itchy as normal wool and has the added bonus of being odour resistant. Socks that use merino wool are an excellent choice for hillwalking, their only small downsides being they are usually more expensive, and dry slightly slower than some synthetic materials.
Human-made synthetic materials are often combined with natural materials like cotton or wool to help balance out a sock’s imperfections. Synthetic fabrics can offer better structure, more durability, breathability, and/or be waterproof. Nylon and Lycra® for example help socks retain their shape, create a snug fit and, in some sock styles, provide arch support. CoolMax® polyester, Wickspun™ acrylic and Isolfil® polypropylene are other commonly used synthetic fibres good at wicking away moisture to keep your feet dry. Overall, they are another great option for walking, their only downsides being, compared to merino socks, they can be less comfortable in hot conditions, and their insulation qualities are reduced if they get wet.
Always try your socks with the footwear you intend to wear them with as the two things working in conjunction are what ultimately delivers the comfort you need. Depending on if you are in a boot or a shoe, you’ll want to think about fit and sock height. They should feel comfortable – not too tight or too loose. Most walking socks come in a standard crew-style (mid-calf length) and covering your ankles will help protect them from dirt, insects and branches. Go for whatever feels most comfortable, but look out for the following:
Too tight and they could start to affect the circulation in your feet.
Too loose and you’ll get friction putting you at a higher risk of getting blisters.
Too low on your ankle and you may find that the heel and/or tongue of your footwear starts to rub.
Too high and you might find your feet to become too warm.
Walking socks come with a range of features that help further enhance comfort. Here are some of the key ones to look out for:
The absence of a seam in this vulnerable area takes away the chance of any painful rubbing across the top of your toes.
Look for thicker padding areas (created by an increased density of the weave) on the heel and ball of the foot for added cushioning and protection. You’re looking for just enough cushioning but not too much, as excessive padding can make your shoe feel too tight. Good cushioning can be a real foot-saver on longer walks or over rough terrain.
The elastic at the top of the sock helps to secure it around the foot and maintain its shape, reducing friction and the chance of blisters.
Found on the top of the foot, this feature allows heat to escape, giving the sock better breathability.
Some socks offer a tighter, reinforced weave in the arch of the foot to improve support and keep the sock in place. This is primarily helpful if you have high arches but can be useful for those with regular arches or flat feet as well. Keep in mind, though, that your footwear is the key factor for arch support.
Many socks have layering to improve performance and reduce rubbing. An inner layer will often be made from synthetic material beneath a warm natural outer layer, such as wool. The inner layer will move with your foot and wick away moisture to keep it cool, whilst the outer layer moves with the shoe.
Whilst socks are primarily designed to keep your feet dry on the inside (by wicking away sweat), investing in a pair of waterproof socks will ensure your feet stay dry even if your waterproof footwear fails to keep water out or aren’t even waterproof in the first place. SealSkinz, are the leader in waterproof socks and its pioneering StretchDry technology is 100% waterproof, windproof and breathable. The StretchDry technology also eliminates blistering, has enhanced moisture control, provides comfort, prevents odour and offers a good balance between warmth and breathability.