Updated: Oct 3
In the world of hiking, wearing the right socks can be a game-changer.
This post will help you decide which socks to wear on your hiking or backpacking trip.
I know what you're thinking, "Socks, really, does choosing the right hiking socks even matter? Well, yes, and... maybe no. When I first started hiking I didn't pay too much attention to my footwear. I was just glad to be out there doing something I'd never done before. That was back in my day-hike-only days. But as I hiked more and longer, I learned the hard way that socks actually matter. We are always on our feet. Even if we have a job where we primarily sit in front of a computer screen, we still have to get up to go the restroom, get coffee, and do many other things that require walking. For those of us who choose to hike or get outdoors more often, socks play an important part in how comfortable we are while we are on the trail. Wearing the wrong socks can cause blisters (a hiker's nightmare), chaffing, and other problems that only get worse the more we walk. To make the best choice in hiking socks you must consider four things:
I must admit, I have not had any real problems on any hike I've been on due to wearing the wrong socks. However, I can imagine hiking the PCT or any other extended hike that might take days to trek will require you to pay more attention to your sock selection.
Generally, hiking socks are thicker than regular socks, but you can buy them thinner as well. You can also buy socks that are reinforced in certain areas like the heel or toe. That brings me to the subject of fit which is really pretty intuitive stuff. I read a post on REI's website talking about how socks should fit and I thought, "I really did not need them to tell me I should buy the right size sock." Who doesn't buy the right size sock? So you start with the right size, (ha-ha) then decide based upon your history of hiking what pain points you have experienced in your feet. I know I must have socks (and shoes) that don't crunch my toes too much. That means I cannot wear any Keen footwear, nor can I wear any compression socks (not that I would ever wear compression socks on a hike as some do) but you get what I mean - you need to decide which brand or type of sock fits your feet the best.
Check Your Terrain, then decide on sock height.
If you are going on a hike that you know will possibly have things like Poison Ivy, nettles, or other thorny things on the trail, you might want to consider wearing longer socks (even if it doesn't look cool!) For that matter, you might also consider not wearing shorts as well. Socks are like a second and third skin. They protect you from scratches and abrasions that could affect your hiking experience (if you wear shorts). Of course, you want whatever type of sock you wear to be above the cuff line of your shoe so they don't rub against your skin. There are four different sock heights: No show, Ankle, Crew, and Knee-high. The first three types need no explanation, but a writer at REI said this about knee-high socks:
"You’ll only find a few options in the knee-high category, and they’ll probably be for mountaineering. High socks protect against abrasion that big, burly boots can cause around your shins and calves. The coverage can also help keep your lower legs warm when you’re climbing through the night and crossing glaciers."
The fabric of your hiking sock is importantconstructed socks are constructed from a blend of materials including Wool, Nylon, Polyester, and Spandex. Wool socks are now the most popular because they keep your feet dry better than other materials. Marino wool is considered the best wool out there. Nylon is another good material because of its moisture-wicking capabilities, and they dry fast. Polyester is a synthetic material like Nylon. Polyester is a durable material that can keep your feet warm in cold weather. and they also dry fast. Spandex is stretchy so it holds its shape well and is becoming a popular material in combination with other materials in high-quality hiking socks.
Hiking socks come in several levels of cushioning: Heavy, medium, light, and no cushioning. The best cushioning level for you depends on things like the weather, the length of your hike, and the kind of shoe or boot you are wearing. For a short day hike a light sock will do the trick. If your hike is 10 miler you will probably want to get a thicker sock with more cushioning. High-impact hiking activities require more cushion than the average cotton sock.
Cotton Socks are terrible for hiking
Everyday cotton socks are okay for short day hikes, but on longer hikes, they are not so good. The main drawback of cotton socks is they hold moisture and keep it next to your skin. Once your skin gets wet, blisters will inevitably come next. Walking on uneven, rocky, or gravelly terrain for several hours is tough on your feet. You don't want to learn the hard way that buying the wrong socks will ruin your hike because of a blister.
Hiking socks will take care of your feet on the trail if you take the time to choose the right socks for your trip. Yes, they are in most cases, more expensive than regular socks, but the differences are worth it. Most importantly, hiking socks keep moisture away from your skin, and provide extra cushioning in the most important places. So the next time you order a pair of hiking footwear, don't forget to pick up a few pairs of good wool socks too!