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Socks for Hill Walking

August 30th, 2009

walking-socks.jpgWhile most people select their footwear carefully, knowing that a badly fitting pair could mean sore and blistered feet, not many pay such attention to their choice of socks. Yet, although obviously less crucial to comfort than your footwear, socks do make a difference and some types perform and last better than others.

Wool Socks

Socks have four functions. These are to help cushion your feet from the hard ground, to absorb the moisture given off by your feet and carry it away from your skin, to minimize friction from your footwear, and to insulate your feet from the cold and, to a lesser extent, heat. Wool performs these functions better than anything else and is still unequalled for socks. Some synthetics may work well at one or more functions but none will do all four like wool. Cotton does all of them very badly and should be avoided for walking socks. In particular it soaks up water and then takes ages to dry, chilling your feet in the process.

Wool is not the most durable material, especially when constantly rubbed, so socks usually have nylon added to reinforce the toes and heel. This is the accepted view and one I followed until 1990 when I used good quality all-wool socks on a 1000 mile (1600km) walk through Canada’s Yukon Territory. These proved harder wearing than any other socks I have ever had, making me wonder why nylon is added to most wool socks. I suspect the reason is the quality of the wool. The best wool blend socks use wicking synthetics such as polypropylene rather than plain nylon, which does not transmit moisture very well. For that reason I would avoid socks with less than 50 per cent wool if the rest is just nylon.

Construction and Styles of Socks

There are three styles of thick sock. The most common is the loopstitch construction where the inside of the sock is made up of soft, flurry terry towelling type loops. These are very comfortable, especially when new, and cushion well. They need to be washed regularly if they are to stay so, preferably after every day’s wear. This is what day walkers normally do anyway but it is not so easy for backpackers or those on hut to hut tours who may need to wear the same pair of socks for several days in a row. Then loopstitch socks can matt down to a hard, sweaty mass, especially under the soles. In this condition they do not provide much warmth and they are uncomfortable to wear. Restoring the fluffy loops is just about impossible regardless of which washing powder or conditioner you use, so I no longer wear loop stitch socks on long trips.

The second type of sock is the old fashioned knitted Ragg wool one. These provide a bit less cushioning than loop stitch models when new and do not feel quite so luxurious. They can be worn for days on end without the performance declining and they soften up well when washed.

Both Ragg wool and loop stitch wool socks have been around for a long time, but have now been joined by a more complex design. These socks come in a bewildering array of styles, each designed for a particular activity.

The main difference between these designs and traditional socks is in the use of different densities and different materials over different parts of the foot to give extra shock protection and warmth where required and to maximize the wicking away of moisture. Most of these special socks are a blend of wool and wicking synthetics. Some are 100 per cent synthetic, which is good for those who are allergic to wool.

A useful feature found on many socks is a rib-knit leg. Wool and some wicking synthetics carry moisture upwards along their fibres from inside the boot to outside where it can evaporate. Ribbing is said to help this process.

The best socks I have found are Extremities Mountain Toesters, which are made from 49 per cent Merino wool, 49 per cent texturized polypropylene and 2 per cent Lycra, with a triple density loop stitch construction. The lower part of the sock, including the toe and the rear of the ankle, is very thick for warmth and impact protection. The top of the foot and the calf is less thick while the upper rear of the sock is relatively thin for minimum bulk. The cuff is ribbed. They are the warmest, hardest wearing cold weather socks I have ever worn and have kept my feet warm in temperatures down to -27 degrees Celsius (-17 F). Mine have been worn without being washed for eight days at a time and they have stayed warm and comfortable. No other socks I know will do this.

In warm weather I prefer thinner socks. I forego wool in favour of wicking synthetics as thin wool socks just do not last. There are quite a few so-called liner socks around that work well in running shoes. Slightly warmer and thicker are double layer socks — as the name suggests, these are really two socks sewn together at the toe and cuff. There are a number of makes, some 100 per cent synthetic, others a wool and nylon blend. The idea is the same as wearing two pairs of socks: to reduce friction between your feet and your footwear. I have found them surprisingly warm even when damp, though not adequate on their own for the coldest winter weather. They are cool enough for warm weather use. The comfort is very good and they are ideal for wearing with running shoes, trail shoes, and lightweight boots. They remove moisture quickly, keeping the feet dry in warm weather. They are also very light — about 2 oz. (55 g) per pair — and thus excellent for carrying as spares.

Length of Socks

Socks come in various lengths. If you wear breeches, then knee-length socks are essential. Calf-length socks are good for use with boots if you wear shorts or long trousers. I like to turn the tops of my socks over my boots when wearing shorts as this keeps debris out. The shortest ankle high socks are fine with shoes but tend to work down inside boots.

How Many Pairs of Socks?

When heavy boots were standard wear year round, wearing two pairs of thick socks at a time was recommended, presumably to minimize rubbing from the stiff leather. Today this is no longer necessary unless your boots are slightly too big. My feet are on the wide side so I have always worn only one pair of socks.

A compromise is to wear one thick pair and one very thin inner pair, usually made from a wicking synthetic material though there are silk versions available. I have tried both polypropylene and silk liner socks under thicker pairs. For me they made no difference whatsoever to how comfortable, warm, or dry my feet felt but some walkers do find liner socks worthwhile.

Sock Care

Socks should be washed regularly. Turning them inside out before you do so helps restore the inner fluffiness, which is the bit that matters. Fabric conditioners also make a big difference to the softness and I always use one.

Eventually all socks develop holes. Often the fibres clump together to form hard knots in places too. From experience I know that both of these cause blisters and sore spots. Darning holes, unfortunately, only produces rough edges that also rub the feet and so is not worth doing unless you want to wear old walking socks for everyday wear.


Amy Weber is a freelance writer and article supplier for DailyArticle.com, a source of some surprisingly inexpensive but original articles on hill walking socks, camping gear, and other topics for those who are patient enough to browse through the full selection.


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