When choosing women’s hiking boots and gear the humble sock is easily overlooked but can be as important as the boot in providing comfort to the foot.
We intuitively know that the wrong socks can lead to blisters, fungal infections, wet, cold and itchy feet and in extreme cases they can also contribute to frostbite. Not only does a sock need to be comfortable but it should also wick moisture, protect against shear, support natural posture, keep feet cool, distribute pressure, promote circulation, absorb shock and be tough. Quite a lot to live up to and my baggy old white cotton socks certainly don’t fit the bill! As a foot can sweat 1 to 2 pints of fluid a day, wicking (which is the process that draws moisture away from the skin) is particularly important in socks.
Socks can be made from natural and synthetic fibres. Surprisingly cotton is a ‘no no’ when it comes to hiking socks as it does not wick well, is not warm when wet, takes a long time to dry and can lead to hotspots (friction areas) which cause blisters. Wool, by contrast, cushions the feet, has much better wicking qualities and is warm even when wet – but it takes a long time to dry and can be itchy. Silk is lightweight, smooth, warm, comfortable and has good wicking qualities but it is expensive and not very hardwearing so will quickly hole if toenails are a bit long or the boot linings are rough.
Synthetic socks come in polyester, acrylic, nylon, spandex, GoreTex and CoolMax fibres. Depending to some extent on the type of fibre they all have good wicking qualities are soft, elastic, durable and cushion the feet like wool. In blends they enhance the qualities of natural fibres such as wool.
Parts of the sock are the sole, the instep, the sidebar, the arch brace and the top. The sole of the sock covers the bottom of the foot from slightly above ankle to around the toes and contains most of the cushioning, it may be made in terry weave for comfort and stretch-ability. The instep covers the top of the foot and does not normally have any special features. Socks with side panels are designed for enhanced airflow and wicking, and those with an arch brace hold the sock in place and provide extra support for the foot’s arch. The top of the sock is the part that’s visible and has elastic ribbing to stop the sock from falling down.
Socks come in various weights and lengths and it’s usual to match the weight of the sock with the hiking season and the weight of the hiking boot.The main types are:
- Liners – these are very short, lightweight with good wicking capabilities and are often worn as a layer inside thicker socks to help prevent blisters,
- Light-weights – these provide comfort and wicking and are used on short hikes in warmer weather.
- Mid-weights – these are warmer and have more cushioning than lightweight socks and would normally be used with liners on colder hikes,
- Heavy -weights – these have the most cushioning for winter, colder and longer hikes, and are also usually worn with an inner pair of thinner socks or liners.
When buying socks it’s often possible to try them on in the shop. They should fit snugly and comfortably; too tight and they will be uncomfortable and may cut off blood flow, too baggy and they will lose the benefits of arch and leg support. They also need to pad hotspots if your feet are prone to blisters. When buying also, remember to check the washing instructions, as after all the effort of selecting the last thing you want is for them to shrink or expand on the first wash.
Finally, if you suffer from cold feet there’s always battery heated socks! The batteries, which run for around 12v hours, are lodged along the top rim of the sock and an extremely thin heating element keeps the feet nicely warm.