By: Andrew Forrest - February 2023
In this article, we will cover the key factors to consider when choosing hiking socks, including material, thickness, fit and sizing, construction, cushioning and support of the walking sock.
Choosing the right hiking socks is essential. The wrong socks can lead to blisters and discomfort, ruining an otherwise great walk.
An average person takes about 2,000 steps for each mile walked, so that's a lot of friction created between your hiking sock and your foot, which is why it's important to choose the best hiking socks for your feet, to ensure that your hike is as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.
People spend a lot of money and time on choosing walking boots, but socks are the connection between the boot and the body, so choosing the right ones is important for a comfortable and blister-free walk. Much like walking boots, no one sock covers all types of hikes and walking seasons, so why not add a range of socks to your hiking gear?
The best hiking socks should feel comfortable on your feet, wick moisture away from your skin, provide cushioning to high-impact areas, and help to maintain a comfortable foot temperature to avoid excess sweating.
We believe it is worth spending a little more on quality hiking socks that provide this and looked after, should last for many years.
There are a few key things to consider when choosing hiking socks, which we have set out below.
Walking socks are available in a variety of materials, each of which has its own benefits and disadvantages. Because no one material is ideal, walking socks are often made from a blend of natural (wool, merino wool and cotton) and synthetic (nylon, Lyrca, Coolmax etc.) materials.
You need to consider where and when you'll be wearing your walking socks, as that has a big bearing on the type of walking sock you need. For each of the seasons, you need a hiking sock that provides the right balance of comfort, warmth, breathability, and durability and is fast drying.
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.
The most common materials you’ll find in walking socks are:
Wool is used in many walking socks. It is a natural material that retains warmth even when wet. The more wool that is used in a sock, the warmer the sock is, which is why it is used in many thicker winter walking socks.
Wool is naturally odour resistant due to its fibres' unique properties. Used on its own though, wool doesn't have much elasticity, so is often used in conjunction with other materials to make your hiking socks. Wool socks can also be a little itchy.
Merino is a type of wool from Merino sheep. Its big advantages are that it is thinner and softer than regular wool and so not as itchy. It regulates moisture and temperature and wicks sweat away from your feet, meaning they are less prone to blisters. Again, it is naturally odour resistant and is often mixed with other materials to improve durability and speed of drying. The merino wool socks are more expensive though.
Man-made materials are often combined with natural materials to create a blend for the 'perfect' sock. Man-made materials can improve natural materials by adding the elements the natural materials lack, so offering better structure, durability and breathability to the sock and even the ability to be waterproof.
Spandex (Lycra etc.) helps the sock retain its shape and hold around the foot and fabrics such as Coolmax (a polyester fabric) and Isofil (polypropylene) wick moisture away from the foot. Materials such as nylon and Cordura are added to make the sock more durable and ones such as thermolite are added to reduce perspiration and provide warmth.
You also have materials like Smartwool, which uses a unique knitting method so that Merino wool sits against the skin and nylon/elastane on the outside.
Whilst cotton socks are a common choice for socks worn at home, work or out and about, they are not suitable as walking or hiking socks. They easily absorb the sweat from your feet, which can then quickly cause blistering.
Once wet, they also have a tendency to crease up causing more discomfort and blisters. Some of the synthetic blends of walking socks do include some cotton in a mixture of materials used, as cotton is relatively cheap. Cotton is also very slow to dry and provides no padding or insulation once wet.
Walking socks come in various thicknesses that are suitable for different terrains, conditions and different climates. Remember though, that when choosing socks, the thicker they are, the more volume they will take up in your hiking boot, potentially making your hiking boot or walking shoe feel too tight. It's always a good idea when buying boots, to take along the hiking socks that you plan to wear in them.
Hiking boots are generally built to accommodate thicker socks for cushioning and insulation, whereas trail running or walking shoes need a thinner sock with some cushioning in higher impact areas.
How thick or heavy the sock is, is usually a guide as to how warm or how much cushioning the sock will give you. You need to consider where you'll be walking for how much cushioning you'll need and the time of year for how much warmth. Cushioning is great, but the thicker sock can cause the foot to be too warm and sweat can cause blisters. It's generally a case of trying various socks until you find the perfect balance for you, there is not really one answer to are thick socks better than thin socks, or are thin socks better than thick socks - it's a personal choice and dependent on how, where and what time of year you are using them.
Hiking socks are generally classified into three weight categories:
These are generally relatively thin socks but do have some cushioning in certain areas like the heel, ball of your foot or on the achilles. They are lightweight to keep your feet cool and great for summer walking.
If you are on strenuous trails, you may want to move up to the next weight, but I have always found these to be fine for most summer walks in the UK, but maybe that is because I'm used to walking in fell shoes, so prefer the lighter, thinner socks.
Most hiking socks fall into this category as they are very adaptable, being able to be worn in warm or cool conditions and provide a higher level of cushioning than lightweight socks. They can be worn on pretty much any day or mountain walk in the UK, with the exception maybe of extreme heat or cold. Combine this with the right blend of materials to manage your foot temperature, to help prevent blisters.
I use these mainly as my main winter socks inside my hiking boots. My overall sock collection is probably 60% lightweight to 40% midweight, with one pair of heavyweight socks.
Not surprisingly as their name suggests, these are the heaviest and thickest walking socks, making them the warmest and most cushioned socks. They are really designed for tough terrain and extremely cold temperatures and are a bit too much for most UK conditions. They are great for mountaineering and alpine pursuits, or for maybe standing around watching outdoor sports in winter! That said. if you suffer from cold feet, give them a try - just remember the extra volume they take up in your boot.
The length of your walking sock is something else you need to consider. Ideally, the sock should finish just a little higher than your hiking boot or walking shoe, which should minimise footwear rub, protect your feet and help stop the sock from slipping down.
If the sock is too short, your hiking boot or shoe could rub against your ankle, but if too long your lower leg and feet may get too warm. Some people do like knee-length socks for the winter for that additional warmth.
You just need to find the one that suits you or your walking shoes or hiking boots the best.
The main three lengths for walking socks are:
These usually sit just above your ankle and are best for fell shoes and low to mid-cut walking shoes and boots.
The majority of hiking socks are crew-length socks. These come up to mid-calf, so covering your ankles and the top of the boot. This helps protect your ankles and lower leg from scrapes if your boots have a high cuff. I personally find them too warm on hot summer days, but I am not wearing high walking boots, so don't need the extra protection around the ankle.
These provide additional warmth for winter mountaineering and added protection around your shins and calves. There are not too many choices for knee-length socks and my only pair only ever get worn for warmth in winter but not on walks.
There are also some socks around now classed as ¾ crew, so halfway between ankle and crew length.
Socks generally come in size ranges e.g. 6-8½, 9-11½ etc. Many people get a slightly bigger size in their walking boots than their normal shoes, so make sure you buy your sock size for your foot and not your boot if you have 'sized-up'.
The size is key to a comfortable walk, if they are too big, they can crease up with the excess material and cause blisters. If the socks are too small or tight, they can reduce the circulation in your feet and cause potential hot spots, which could end up forming blisters.
So it is not better to have tight or loose socks, you are aiming for a snug fit, and importantly the sock heel cup needs to line up with your heel.
If the size ranges are 4-7, 8-11 etc and you are (say) 7½, generally go for the smaller sock. The larger one will be too loose and the smaller one should have a bit of give in it.
There is a range of features that walking socks can come with to enhance their fit and comfort. Some key ones to look out for when buying them are:
This is a loop within a loop, that offers additional levels of protection.
Your main arch support will come from your hiking boot or walking shoe, but this can be supplemented by arch braces in your socks. These 'arch braces' are reinforced areas to help support the arch and keep the sock in place, to help reduce friction.
Some socks provide additional cushioning and protection targeted at high-impact areas such as the ball of your foot, your heel and your toes.
Fabric is included in layers, so that the inner layer moves with your foot and the outer with your boot, so reducing friction and helping prevent blisters. Both layers should work in tandem to provide cushioning, support and breathability.
Elastic is built into the walking sock to secure it around the foot and retain its shape, which reduces sock movement and friction, which along with moisture management helps prevent blisters. It reduces the possibility of bunching under the foot.
Many socks have shaped heel support padding or 3D-shaped heel cups that keep the sock in place to prevent slippage.
An open mesh structure on top of the foot reduces insulation and allows heat to easily escape, improving breathability.
Whilst wool is naturally odour resistant, many socks have odour prevention built into them, which can help eliminate bacteria and wick away moisture, to keep them comfortable and cool, which in turn helps with blister prevention.
The flat or seamless toe box ensures the ends of the socks are comfortable and have no excess bulk that a normal seam would create, so not causing irritation or potential blisters.
Some socks include silver yarn, which helps kill bacteria and prevents odours.
Some socks are actually waterproof. The main ones I've seen of these are Sealskinz, who pioneered the use of a unique hydrophilic membrane that's 100% waterproof but still pulls moisture away from your foot. They feel almost like a normal sock but are generally just a little thicker, as they are three layers bonded together, with the middle layer being the waterproofing one.
Many socks have built-in wicking properties, which allow the transfer of moisture away from the foot, to keep the foot dry and warm, so helping prevent blisters and keeping the foot comfortable. Some of the fibres in the socks also help air to circulate, which helps keep the feet cooler, especially on summer walks.
Blisters are the bane of many a hiker, including myself. There are several causes why blisters form on feet whilst walking or hiking - friction, pressure, heat and moisture.
Walking and hiking, especially over long distances or over uneven ground, creates constant friction and pressure on your feet as your boots and socks rub against the outer layer of skin on your feet. This can then lead to a separation of the outer layer of skin from the lower layers, creating what are known as 'hot spots'.
Blisters usually develop in areas where heat or moisture aggravates the skin by causing pressure or friction. There are more sweat glands on the soles of your feet per square inch, than anywhere else on your body, so no wonder it can get quite warm and humid in your shoe or boot!
Many of the features of socks set out above try to mitigate the causes of friction, pressure, heat and moisture and thus reduce the chance of you getting blisters. Proper fitting walking socks do go a long way in helping prevent blisters.
If you want to learn more about blisters, check out our 'Tips for preventing and treating blisters - a guide for walkers, hikers and backpackers' article.
Hopefully, the key things we have set out above will help you make an informed decision when you are choosing your next hiking socks. If you still have any issues with your feet, how you tie your laces can also help alleviate many foot issues.
We do get asked other questions about walking socks not fully addressed above, so we have set out answers to the more common ones below.
The main thing is to follow the manufacturer's care instructions that come with the socks. Generally, just turn your socks inside out (skin particles and bacteria lurk on the inside), wash at a maximum of 30 degrees for socks with wool in or 40 degrees for synthetics and do not use fabric softener. Fabric softener, whilst it might soften your socks, it damages the synthetic fibres and their ability to absorb moisture. The care instructions will say whether you can dry them in a tumble, but in the main I always air-dry them.
These are socks that can be worn comfortably in spring, summer and autumn. You may need warmer socks for winter.
Before all this technology was put into walking socks, many people used to wear two pairs of walking socks on their hikes. The thinking was as above - one pair moves with your foot, one pair with your boot and overall this reduced friction and helped prevent blisters. I still know a couple of people who swear by this method today.
Technology has moved on though, and the double layers or different layers of material built into hiking socks effectively do the same job, in just one pair of socks. I would only suggest trying the two-pair method if you are really struggling with blisters using any of the modern-day hiking socks. Two pairs of socks do add quite a bit of volume to the boot and can cause the boot to feel tight, which may cause blisters in itself.
Yes - you really do need hiking socks. As set out above hiking socks are constructed to provide cushioning, support, breathability, warmth and durability which provide comfort whilst walking and help negate friction, pressure, heat and moisture, which are the causes of blisters.
Yes - specific walking or hiking socks do make a difference. Everyday socks don't have the construction of walking socks, so lack the cushioning, breathability and other features that hiking socks consist of. As set out above, hiking socks are constructed to provide cushioning, support, breathability, warmth and durability which provide comfort whilst walking and help negate friction, pressure, heat and moisture, which are the causes of blisters.
I would say yes. Expensive is a relative term - many of the merino wool socks and most of the features mentioned here are available for around £20. For that, you get a long-lasting sock that should provide you with comfortable and hopefully blister-free walks.
I sometimes use my running or fell socks inside my fell shoes for walking. They do provide support and are moisture-wicking.
They do though only provide a minimal amount of padding and if you are wearing ankle-length walking boots they won't provide adequate protection around your ankle. So I would say, yes you can use them with fell shoes, but most of the time you should use specific hiking socks and definitely if you are wearing hiking boots for walking.
Normal, everyday socks are generally cotton socks that provide very little cushioning or support. Once wet, cotton has a tendency to crease up, causing more discomfort and blisters.
As set out above, hiking socks are constructed to provide cushioning, support, breathability, warmth and durability which provide comfort whilst walking and help negate friction, pressure, heat and moisture, which are the causes of blisters. Normal socks do not provide all of this.