Choosing the right hiking sock

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Hiking socks are more than simply woollen bags you put your feet in

Properly fitting hiking socks are one of the most important pieces of outdoor equipment. It always seems strange that people can spend hundreds of pounds on good quality waterproof jacks and well fitted walking boots, then just wear a cheap or old pair of badly designed socks. However mundane socks may seem anyone who has suffered with blisters whilst on a long hike, or has had cold feet whilst skiing or standing on a wet and cold winter belay ledge will appreciate their true worth. There is no need to suffer, the cost of modern pair of socks is tiny compared to the costs of other outdoors equipment. With so many choices available,  choosing the right hiking sock is easier than ever.

Sock Design

Sock design varies between manufacturers, however the main parts of a hiking sock are:
The top of the socks is the section above the ankle. Most socks will have a ribbed design and contain an elasticated material to keep the socks from falling down. The length of this part can vary considerably. In winter, you may prefer a longer, almost knee length sock for extra insulation, in summer you may prefer a much shorter one or even an ankle sock so that no part of the sock is visible.
The instep is the top of the foot from the ankle to the toes. most socks will have no extra padding here, although some may be necessary around the ankle area if wearing badly fitting boots.
The sole is the bottom of the sock, from the heel to the toes and is probably the most important part as it contains most of the sock cushioning.
Some designs have additional side panels, sandwiched between the instep and the sole. These often contain specific materials to increase airflow and moisture-wicking.
The 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.

Natural Materials

Fortunately, the old 100% Woollen socks from years gone by are rare. Good quality modern socks are a mixture of materials, either different materials for different parts of the sock or a blend of materials for the whole sock. Wool will still be a significant part of the sock, but will be anywhere between 80% to a slow as 25% of the overall sock material. The wool used however, is likely to be merino wool. Merino wool has all the warmth of ordinary wool but with the associated itching and reduced sweating. It also natural antimicrobial properties so will not smell as badly after several days use. Cotton is another common material used in socks, although avoid a sock that contains a high cotton percentage as it will lead to hotspots and blisters.

Synthetic Materials

There are many different synthetic materials used in socks. There are also a lot of brand names as large manufacturers often produce their own versions of common materials (often the same as everything else but with a fancy name) to enhance sock comfort, insulation, moisture-wicking ability, and cushioning. Some of the common technical fibres used in socks are listed below.
Polyester has both moisture wicking and quick drying time properties
Acrylic provides insulation, a soft feel and has wicking properties
Nylon and elastane both give elasticity as well as strength to the sock.
Spandex functions mainly as an elastic material to ensure a snug fit
CoolMax is a common trade name used in socks, which is a form of wicking polyester.
Some socks may contain silver ions, which are excellent at controlling bacterial and fungal infections. These socks tend to be a little more expensive, but are well worth the cost if they are the right choice.

There are many more than on this list, but whatever material is used will have been chosen for its strength, elasticity, insulation and wicking properties.

Selecting a Sock Style

Socks are often classified in three main weights: light, medium; and heavy. A lightweight sock will work well for walking in lightweight boots or trail shoes on easy trails for a few hours. A heavyweight sock will be needed when tackling rough and difficult terrain for several hours. A medium weight sock will lie somewhere in between. There are no hard and fast rules though, if you have only one pair of hiking boots for year round use, then you may need to wear the same sock type year round.

Walking

After walking for a long period most people will have areas on their feet that are more prone to soreness, and whilst a certain amount of this soreness may be the result of badly fitting footwear, some of it has to do with bio mechanics, simply the body mechanics of movement.
Buy a sock that has extra cushioning in the areas that get sore. Usually it is the heels and toes that get sore first so look for a sock with extra heel or toe cushioning. Some people find the tops of their feet rub the tongue of their boots. In this happens, look for extra padding in the instep of a sock. At this stage, it is worth mentioning specialized insoles. In some cases, socks may not be the whole answer to sore feet. After market insoles for your boots are definitely worth investing in. After market insoles will cup the heel securely and correct gait. They are particularly effective with people who suffer from all degrees of flat feet.

Climate and Temperature

In hot weather, your feet will get hot quickly when walking. Think about changing your footwear and sock type in very hot weather. No sock on the market will cope with heavy boots and very hot weather for a long time, it is asking too much of even the most technical sock available anywhere. In heavy rain, your socks will stay dry only as long as your boots do. Moisture trapped in a boot leads to hot spots and will eventually cause blisters at the friction points. It is a difficulty balance keeping feet warm but not overheating them, and providing enough cushioning. It is sometimes better to carry several pairs of socks and change them regularly.

One sock or two

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. Some people prefer another method to achieve these same results: a two-sock system. This system uses 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. If you have odd sized feet, you may find a two sock approach on the smaller foot is essential. Whether you prefer to wear one or two socks is really a matter of personal preference as both approaches work.
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