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Not too long ago, hiking socks were very different. Serious hikers usually wore loose fitting thick wool socks that tended to become more and more loose and rag-like, even after only a few hikes. Today’s hiking socks are much improved, and are a very important part of any hiker’s gear list.
Hiking socks are an essential piece of hiking equipment. Although they cost much more than basic socks ($20-$25 per pair), they offer a fit designed for comfort while hiking which includes cushioning, wicking ability, insulation, strength, and compression.
It’s not hard to imagine that, in terms of comfort, one of the most important things in hiking is your feet. All of those miles and all of those steps have to be done on your own two feet. Anything that you can do to make your feet happier will make you happier. To paraphrase a popular saying, “If your feet ain’t happy, ain’t no part of you happy!”
Modern hiking socks are designed to help in everyway they can. Yes, a good pair of hiking boots or hiking shoes is extremely important too, and even the best socks money can buy won’t be able to make up for a bad pair of footwear, but by the same token, a bad pair of socks can be a problem even with good shoes.
What’s the Difference Between Hiking Socks and Regular Socks?
So… $20-$25 for a single pair of socks? There’s gotta be a reason people buy them. Let’s find out the differences and why hiking socks are totally worth the added expense.
Hiking socks add extra cushioning where it’s most needed – in the ball and toe area as well as the heel area. This is done by using a knit terry technique that loops the yarn and produces a thicker pile. The thickness is something that is noticeable right away when you first look at the socks. Sometimes the thicker parts are different colors which makes it all the more noticeable. Hiking socks also use a very dense weave that adds even more cushioning as well as strength to the sock. In the old-style wool socks, the loose weave spread apart easily and holes appeared quickly.
Note: Some socks have categories for the amount of cushioning they have – everything from no cushioning at all (good for a liner sock) to thick cushioning (best for a long backpacking trip with a heavy pack).
What on earth is a liner sock? Well, you might not realize that wearing more than one pair of socks might save your feet from blisters–go check out my article on how many pairs of socks you need to go on more serious hikes if you’re curious.
Good hiking socks are made from high-quality Merino wool. There are other types of wool, but Merino wool (named for the breed of sheep from whence it comes), is both soft and dense. Merino wool is an excellent moisture-wicking material. This keeps your feet dry which is the key to avoiding blisters. Cotton does a terrible job of wicking moisture and an excellent job of hanging onto it. In humid weather, or if your feet are sweating, cotton socks will rub and cause friction with your skin. Not long after that, a blister begins to form, and not long after that, you’re no longer having any fun.
Wool keeps your feet dry, and that helps keep your feet warm. The thicker pile in the key areas for cushioning is also helping keep your feet warm for those high mountain hikes over lingering snowfields. Even in hot weather, wool is still able to breathe and will help cool your feet somewhat. If it’s really truly hot, your feet are going to suffer a little no matter what socks you’re wearing.
You can even wear socks with sandals and get some of the benefits of insulation. Although most consider socks with sandals a faux pas, it can be a very practical move. Yes, some people hike in sandals, which can be an option in the right circumstances, but that’s another story for another blog post.
As you can see, the design of the socks has compounding benefits. The cushioning and tight weave adds insulation as well as strength. I can attest that they really do last a long time and can endure regular use and abuse. I had a pair of good hiking socks that I wore almost every day, hiking or not, and it took about three years before a hole appeared. I’m not one to be easily impressed (especially by something as seemingly bland as a pair of socks), but I was duly and definitely impressed!
Some brands don’t seem to stand up to the same abuse–for example, I got a big set of athletic socks from Costco with the heavy padding, and while they are very comfortable they’ve worn away much quicker than my Wigwam hiking socks.
As mentioned, hiking socks have a tight fit. They typically have lycra and/or nylon integrated into the weave to help with elasticity and they conform to your foot and leg quite well. This not only helps to reduce friction and therefore blisters but also helps with blood flow in your legs. In general, hiking socks are not medical-grade compression socks, but a tight fit will help somewhat, and can keep your legs from tiring so quickly. It should be noted that ankle-high socks or mid-calf socks are not going to be of much benefit in this way. In order to get a true benefit from compression, the sock needs to cover all or almost all of your calf.
Yes. They are expensive. You can buy a 12 pack of cotton socks at Walmart for something like $1 to $2 per pair, and there’s nothing wrong with that if you’re just going to be bopping around the house and the yard, or if you’re going on a very short hike.
In these cases, any sock you like will do, but if you plan to get into hiking, and loading up the miles, especially while carrying a heavy pack, then investing in a few pairs of good hiking socks is essential. Also, because of their strength, it’s not like you’re going to have to buy new ones all the time. As with anything of high quality, good socks will last a long time.
Note: Here are a few top brands in alphabetical order to look for when searching for hiking socks:
- Farm to Feet
How to Make Hiking Socks Last Even Longer
That pair that I mentioned earlier that lasted three years? I wore those all the time. I wore them to work. I wore them to run errands. I wore them around the house. I wore them to walk the dog. Heck, I probably wore them sleeping a few times. I also wore them on hikes, both long and short, but imagine if I only wore them for hiking – I’d probably still be wearing them! Yes, that does attest to how comfortable they were, but if you spend a lot of money for hiking-specific socks, it might make sense to you to save them just for hiking – sort of like you might save your hiking boots just for hiking. That way, you can probably enjoy years and years of hikes in the same pair of socks.
One last thing – don’t put them in the dryer! Yes, I already made this mistake for you as well. As with any wool item, the best way to dry them is by just air drying. The heat of the dryer with shrink them substantially – like that wool sweater you once put in the dryer and then had to donate it – to a kid’s store!
Socks will stretch back out a bit, but not fully. Air drying is the best way to keep the right fit for your feet!