Anyone new to hiking may not realise the importance of a good pair of socks. In fact they may blame their blisters or sore feet on their footwear, when in fact the culprit is inadequate socks.
So what makes hiking socks different to regular socks besides the big price tag?
I spoke to Jim Evans, a product manager at Bridgedale, a company that specialises in hiking socks. Watch the video or read the quick summary below:
Why do you need hiking socks? Why not just use regular socks?
Hiking socks have far more padding on them using something called Terry Loop, the same kind of stuff your bath towels are made of. This padding goes up the back of the ankle, on the heel cup and around the toes. It will vary depending on the type of footwear you are wearing - ankle height boots or more of a trainer style.
So what does that do?
The padding on hiking socks helps prevent foot fatigue. It acts as a cushion so your feet get less tired or sore, particularly on long hikes or wearing heavier boots.
Does the sock you use vary on the type of walk you want to do?
The sock you choose depends more on the type of footwear you will be wearing. For example, if you are wearing a thick leather boot for winter walking, you might want more protection around the toe of the sock for warmth and padding. Similarly, if you have ankle boots, you'll choose a sock with more padding higher up the ankle. Trainer style walking shoes don't need padding in the same places. Jim's top tip: whichever socks you try on when you purchase your boots should be the same type of socks you wear all the time.
Let's talk blisters. What causes them and how do hiking socks help?
Blisters are caused by two things:
1. Friction - any place that your foot rubs against your sock or sock and boot, a friction point will occur. You will feel it start to get hot and if you take your boots off, it will look slightly red. That is how a blister starts to form. It's best to put a plaster on the area immediately before the blister forms. Also re-adjust your sock or laces and check your boots for debris or loose threads in your socks or boots that may be causing the hot spot.
2. Moisture - when skin gets wet, it gets soft. Add friction to the mix, and a blister is likely to occur. Moisture doesn't just come from standing in puddles in boots that aren't waterproof. Your feet sweat as you walk, which creates moisture. Hiking socks are designed to wick the moisture away. Bridgedale, for example, use a mixture of natural and synthetic fibres. They're designed to draw the moisture from the foot, hold it within the sock so that it can then be evaporated away.
Do you need different socks for summer?
Ideally you should always wear the same type of socks that you used when you purchased your boots, but there are lighter-weight socks that have less fabric using a mesh design for greater breathability, yet still have good protective padding. See our give-away below. If your feet get hot in summer, you might want to try a cooler pair of walking shoes - and then choose lighter weight socks to go with them.
Do you need a liner sock / two pairs of socks?
The two socks only work if the inner sock is particularly slippery. The inner and out sock need to be able to slide over each other. You can't team two thick pairs of walking socks together for instance as they wouldn't slide. You could use a specific liner sock underneath your hiking sock. They don't have any terry loop, so they're much thinner. They are typically used more for extra padding or warmth, rather than as a blister avoidance technique, but some people use two pairs and swear it prevents blisters. Liners can be changed easily midway through a walk, to reduce moisture, while keeping the same pair of hiking socks on throughout the day. Jim suggests beginner walkers don't start with two pairs of socks. Just get a good single pair until you know what works for you.
How to choose the right size sock
Socks come in a size range e.g. 4 - 7, and there is normally enough give in them to accommodate your feet if you are on the cusp of a size e.g. on the line between medium or large. If you have to choose, go for a slightly bigger sock than a smaller one. You obviously don't want to go too big as that will cause excess fabric in the boot that could rub. But having a sock that is too small means that the heel cup will try to pull downwards as you walk, leaving your sock halfway down your foot. Which is super annoying!
How should you care for your socks?
Strictly speaking, you should wash hiking socks - like Bridgedales - on a wool cycle, washed inside out and shouldn't go into the tumble dryer. But in reality, most people (including Jim) wash their hiking socks as part of a normal wash and do tumble dry them - just be sure to use a low setting. BUT MEGA BONUS TIP: Do not use fabric softener when washing your socks. Here's why:
Fabric softener's active ingredient is silicone, which causes the fibres to feel soft. But silicone is also hydrophobic, it hates water, effectively making your socks water resistant. It's what is used on the outside of waterproof jackets. So if you wash your hiking socks with fabric conditioner, you are in effect applying a layer of silicone to your socks, which removes all the natural moisture wicking properties they have. Who knew?!
Do you need to buy a woman's fit sock?
Often hiking socks are advertised as 'women's fit' but they are simply a smaller size version of a unisex sock. Bridgedale has created some specifically women-friendly features like adjusting the toe box size and heel cup, so that they fit better. That said, just because it's a women's fit sock, doesn't mean it will fit your feet if you have broad feet (similarly, men with narrow feet should look at women's socks). Don't limit yourself just because it has a designated sex on it. Try them on and see what works for you.
What should you pay for a pair of hiking socks?
As a rough guide, you should spend between 10 and 15% of whatever you spent on your footwear. So if you spent £100 on your hiking boots, you should spend between £10 and £15 per pair of hiking socks. If you're on a tight budget, you might want to consider buying slightly cheaper boots and spend more on socks. But it depends on your hiking aspirations. If you are going for shorter walks, having expensive boots might not be a priority. If you want to walk all day or do multi-day hikes, it's better to spend more on good footwear and socks.
How long should a good pair of socks last?
They can last years - in fact they often last longer than the boots, yet cost just 10 to 15% of the price. So they are a worthwhile investment, particularly if you've spent money on a big walking holiday or charity challenge, only to have it scuppered on day one by a blister thanks to poor socks.
Top sock tips: