One of the most important things to think about when planning for a hike is what goes on your feet. Your feet absorb the most impact over the course of time, after all. Most hikers put a lot of time and effort into thinking about their hiking boots without considering socks. Now, I know what you’re thinking: How much do hiking socks really matter? Can’t I just use a pair I already own? And even if I do buy into the idea of a hiking sock, what do I need to know to buy the best pair for my hike Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.
Why hiking socks are important
Whether you’re embarking on a thru-hike or a day hike, it’s worth putting some time into sock selection. A little thought can save you a lot of discomfort down the road. For instance, it takes about six months on average to hike the entire Appalachian Trail (AT), which is equal to about 365 miles per month or just over 12 miles per day (beginning hikers average 8 miles per day). On the other side of the country, there is the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which takes about five months to hike. That’s equal to about 530 miles per month or almost 18 miles per day. Since the average number of steps per mile is around 2,250, that means an AT hiker would take 27,000 steps per day and a PCT hiker would take 40,500 steps per day. Investing in the right socks to cushion your feet over even one day of hiking seems like a good idea given those numbers. Furthermore, the longer you’re hiking, the more likely you are to get injured somehow. Injury is the top reason for not finishing the PCT and 58.8 percent of people surveyed about their hikes on either the AT or the PCT reported getting injured. Forty-five percent of PCT hikers and 35 percent of AT hikers reported a foot injury over the course of their hike. Some of the most common injuries (blisters, plantar fasciitis, ingrown toenails, bunions, neuroma, corns and calluses, athlete’s foot, etc.) can be prevented by investing in proper socks. Now that you know why hiking socks are helpful, let’s dive into what you should be looking for when you’re buying your first pair.
Hiking socks material
What your socks are made of is arguably the most important specification to pay attention to and here’s why: According to the California Podiatric Medical Association, there are about 250,000 sweat glands in your feet and they can produce about a cup of sweat per day under normal circumstances. When hiking, your body will produce more sweat, especially in your feet. Apart from being gross, this can cause problems with foot health. When your feet get sweaty, the excess moisture increases friction between your foot and the sock/shoe, which can create blisters that hinder your ability to hike. Excess sweat also contributes to athlete’s foot, corns, and calluses, so choosing a material that wicks away that sweat is of the utmost importance. Your material options include the following:
Most backpackers and experts swear by merino wool and with good reason. Merino fibers are comfortable in both cold and warm conditions and they don’t itch like ragg wool. Furthermore, merino can absorb up to 30 percent of its weight in moisture, which helps moisture wick away from your skin.
Some synthetic materials, like Hollofil®, Thermax®, and Thermostat® are good for insulation. Much like wool, they’re good at trapping warmth, and some materials dry even faster than wool does. Other materials, like polypropylene and CoolMax®, are good for wicking away moisture, and still others, like nylon and Lycra, help retain shape, create a good fit, and provide arch support. If you do choose to go synthetic, be aware that a mix of fibers may be the best bet to ensure your feet stay warm, dry, and properly fitted.
Silk is a great insulator and can reliably wick moisture away from your foot, but it’s not very durable. It is a great option for sock liners, which can be used in conjunction with more traditional hiking socks to reduce friction and provide even more moisture wicking.
While cotton is technically an option, it’s absolutely not recommended. Cotton will absorb water and sweat and it dries slowly, making it a poor choice for preventing blisters. It also provides minimal insulation when it gets wet, which makes for cold, painful feet. Most importantly, make sure you choose a proper sock material that works with your hiking boot design and not against it. Depending on your make and model, different materials will pair better.
Hiking socks weight
There are also several different thicknesses, or weights, of hiking socks that are best for different purposes and types of hikes.
Hiking sock liners
These are used underneath other socks to help prevent blisters, athlete’s foot, corns, and calluses. They absorb your sweat, wick it away, and reduce wear to your thicker hiking socks.
Ultra lightweight hiking socks
These are best for summer hikes or any hike that will subject you to hot weather as they prioritize wicking. However, they do lack in padding, so be aware of that if you require extra support. These socks should fit in any hiking boot without a problem.
Lightweight hiking socks
These socks are best for warm weather, but they’re quite versatile when it comes to the type of hike, ranging from backpacking to day hikes. They’re great for high-intensity activity and can fit inside almost any hiking boot without needing to upsize your shoe.
Medium weight hiking socks
Best for warm or cold weather, these socks are also built for intense hikes. They’re more durable than lightweight socks, and they also prioritize warmth alongside moisture wicking and comfort. These socks may make your boot fit feel a bit tighter. If so, lace your boots so that they’re looser or buy a half-size up so that you won’t develop friction blisters.
Heavyweight hiking socks
As you may well imagine, these socks are for cold-weather hikes. The top priority here is warmth, but there is usually extra padding in the ball of the foot and the heel to make sure your feet stay comfortable. These socks are usually too thick for sneakers or hiking boots that run small, so make sure to pay attention to fit. Buy boots and lace them to ensure a snug fit that also doesn’t constrict your foot.
Trekking-style hiking socks
These are the thickest of the hiking socks and are generally used for extremely cold environments. They won’t be necessary for most hikes, but if you decide to hike high altitudes in the winter, you’ll be thankful for them. However, their thickness means that they’ll only fit in boots that are fitted to accommodate them. Buy your boots accordingly!
Apart from the fit issues that come with the thickness of different socks, there are other things to consider when choosing your ideal hiking socks. In the same way that you pay attention to sizes when you buy hiking boots, you should pay attention to the sock sizes. In fact, pay attention to the fit of your socks before you buy boots to ensure both fit together as best as possible. There are also gender differences when it comes to socks that should also be noted because women have a different heel width to ball of foot ratio than men. Overall, hiking socks should fit snugly, but not tightly. There should not be any bagginess, as this will contribute to friction blisters.
General tips for choosing a good sock design include:
- Turning the sock inside out to look at how dense the fabric loops are. The smaller and denser the loops are, the longer the sock will cushion your foot and absorb moisture at a high-quality level.
- The seams of any sock should be flat. Seams that stick out can create pressure points that lead to friction blisters.
- Hiking socks should also have some aspect of elastic stretch. This allows the sock to stay in place on your foot.
In general, a good hiking sock should have stronger fibers in the toe and heel to reduce friction and elastic fibers should be present in the calf and ankle to hold the sock in place. There are also a variety of sock lengths to think about:
- Ped socks are about 3 inches in length and fall below the ankle bone.
- Low-cut socks also fall below the ankle bone, but are a bit longer than peds at 3-4 inches in length.
- Mini-crew socks fall between 5 and 7 inches.
- Quarter length socks are a bit longer than mini-crews, at 5 to 9 inches.
- Crew socks extend beyond the ankle, but not beyond the thickest part of the calf (9-12 inches in length).
- Over-the-calf socks are the longest of the hiking socks. They are typically 15 inches or more.
Depending on the terrain you’re hiking in (how tall the grass is, etc.) and the height of your boots, you might want to choose crew socks or higher to protect your legs from cuts and abrasions. When you consider what your feet go through in the course of a hike, no matter the distance, it makes sense to prioritize what goes on them. Now that you know to pay attention to the basics of material, weight, fit, and design, you’ll be able to find the best sock for your feet and your hike.