Whether you’re a hiking expert or just tagging along with some friends for a weekend hike, your socks matter more than you might think. No one wants sweaty, sweltering feet or toes so frozen you wonder if they’re still there. You also don’t want to end the perfect hike limping on painful, blistered feet.
If you’re confused about which type of hiking socks to buy, you aren’t alone. There are a wide range of styles, comfort levels, and lengths available. In this article, we’ll do our best to give you all the information to choose the right hiking socks for you.
What are the different types of hiking socks?
We can usually categorize hiking socks based on several characteristics. Most hiking socks are composed of wool or synthetic blends with touches of spandex for flexibility.
While there are many brands and styles of hiking socks available, you can categorize them based on four different factors. Different types of hiking socks form out of four qualities: height, cushion, fabric/material, and fit.
When choosing the right hiking sock for you, you’ll want to think about where and when you will be wearing the socks. After all, socks that are perfect for summer could leave you shivering your timbers off in the winter. Wintery hiking socks could stifle your feet in the summer and make for an uncomfortable hike.
If the sock fits, wear it–unless it’s too short or too tall.
There are several popular lengths of hiking socks. Some are better for hiking than others. The most common sock heights range from no-show to ankle to crew to knee high. Most hikers prefer a crew-length sock for several reasons.
Regardless of whether you’re wearing light hiking sneakers or heavy-duty climbing boots, the crew sock will cover your legs to the middle of your knees. This means that the bottom half of your legs will be protected from abrasions caused by your boots.
Additionally, it’ll add an extra layer of protection between your bare skin and the elements. Crew socks offer better coverage than the ankle or no-show socks. They are also more widely available than knee-high socks.
Additionally, especially in the summer months, crew socks may be more comfortable than longer socks. After all, hiking is quite a workout. If you’re working up a sweat, you don’t want your socks to add to the discomfort on your knees.
Although no-show socks can be popular for their ability to hide in even the lowest footwear, they are not ideal for hiking. In most cases, no-show socks will open the door for abrasions and blisters.
Since no-show socks barely cover your feet, they should be worn sparingly. They are only appropriate for specific circumstances. If you are wearing no-show socks, you should only pair them with shoes designed for light hiking or trail running. Even then, you’re probably better off opting for ankle socks.
If you want to let your legs experience the maximum amount of sunshine, ankle socks are a nice compromise between crew socks and no-show socks. If you’re wearing ankle socks, the space around your ankle bones will receive some extra cushion and protection.
At the same time, they’ll keep your lower legs from getting a strange tan line that sometimes comes with crew socks. For low-cut or mid-cut boots, ankle socks are a great option for hikers.
After ankle socks. Crew socks offer the next highest level of coverage. According to camotrek.com, Crew is the classic height for a hiking sock. Usually, crew socks hit your legs several inches above your ankle bones. This height is ideal for wearing with high-cuffed boots. As long as it doesn’t feel like it would stifle you, you can wear them with lower shoes in the summer months, as well.
Finally, hiking socks come in knee-high lengths. If you’re having a hard time finding knee-high hiking socks, you’re not alone. Knee-high hiking socks tend to be relatively rare compared to crew and ankle varieties.
This is because knee-high hiking socks usually serve a specific purpose. High socks will protect your shins, ankles, and knees from bulky, tall boots. They also ensure that your calves stay warm in cold terrain. Outside of these situations, knee-high boots can be impractical and uncomfortable for hiking.
Levels of Cushioning in Hiking Socks
If you’ve gone shopping for hiking socks, you’ve probably noticed that different hiking socks come in different levels of thickness. When hiking socks have a lot of cushioning, they’ll be thicker and warmer. Hiking socks with less cushion are thinner, so they’re better for warm weather hiking.
For cushioning, you can choose your level based on the kind of activities you have planned. If you’re intending to do some light summer hiking, you might want less cushion. For mountain climbing in the winter, more cushion is better.
While more cushion might seem best for high-impact hikes, you’ll want to strike a balance between comfort and constriction. Higher cushioned hiking socks will warm up your feet more. This can be great in frigid climates, but it can also leave you squelching with sweat in warmer areas. Plan to pick the cushioning level of your socks to suit the weather and your activity level.
Typically, you’ll see four different levels of cushioning in hiking socks: no cushioning, light cushioning, medium cushioning, and heavy cushioning. Socks with no cushioning are super lightweight. This makes them perfect to pack for hiking trips in the desert or other high-temperature climates. No cushion socks tend to breathe and keep your feet cool.
When buying no cushioning socks, make sure that the socks are not designed to be liner socks. Liner socks simply slip under socks of higher weights. Liner socks are meant to keep feet dry. In the earlier days of hiking gear, liner socks were a crucial part of avid hikers’ closets.
At the time, socks did not have the moisture-wicking technology they do today. In modern times, liner socks have lost their popularity because most hiking socks keep feet dry and comfortable nowadays. Still, if you prefer to have an extra pair of socks under your hiking socks, liners are a good choice.
The next level of cushioning is called light cushioning. Light cushioning is perfect for warmer weather since lightly cushioned socks aim to stay dry and comfortable. Light cushioning socks are thin, similar to no cushioning socks.
The main difference between lightly cushioned hiking socks and hiking socks without cushioning is that lightly cushioned socks have padding in crucial zones. This keeps the heel and the ball of the foot, for example, comfortable throughout your hike.
After light cushioning, medium cushioning is the next level. Medium cushioning socks include enough cushioning to keep the heel and ball of the foot comfortable. Additionally, medium cushioning socks provide extra insulation against cold weather. Once you’re heading into cooler temperatures, you will want medium cushioning hiking socks in your backpack.
Finally, heavy cushioning is the most cushioned hiking socks of the bunch. These socks are thick, warm, and highly protective against rough terrain and chilly temps. Heavy cushioning socks are also ideal for long hikes. This level of cushioning is great for long, chilly trips.
However, it’s not suitable for warm weather. If you wear heavy cushioning hiking socks in the summer, you’ll be sweating bullets from your feet. Opt for lighter cushioning for shorter trips or warmer trips–your feet will thank you.
Like wool or polyester? It’s hiking sock material.
Since hiking socks are usually made of blends of multiple materials, it’s tough to pinpoint specific hiking socks materials. However, certain materials are more popular in blending in hiking socks than others.
As a general rule, most hiking socks are made out of wool blended with other fabrics to create flexibility. Wool is popular among hiking sock companies for several reasons. Firstly, wool helps to keep the temperature in your boots regulated better than most other fabrics.
What’s more, wool prevents sweaty feet while cushioning your feet softly. Since wool is antimicrobial, it holds onto unpleasant odors less tightly than synthetic fabrics.
When you think of wool, you might think of that awful, itchy wool sweater your grandmother knitted you in the 1970s. Thankfully, manufacturers have come a long way in making wool a tolerable fabric.
Nowadays, most sock companies use an itch-free brand of wool known as merino wool. To increase durability and moisture-wicking properties, the majority of wool socks blend wool with other materials.
Another popular hiking sock material is polyester. As a synthetic fabric, polyester retains heat, repels moisture, and dries faster than some natural materials. This makes it the perfect material to blend with wool in hiking socks. Some hiking socks will blend wool, polyester, and another material called Nylon.
While nylon is rarely used on its own to create stretchy, flexible hiking socks, it pairs well with polyester and wool. In addition to nylon, many hiking socks incorporate a tiny amount of spandex. The spandex lets socks maintain their shape. It also prevents socks from wrinkling and “bunching up” in boots.
Brief History of Socks
According to shosett.com, “Going back to the Stone Ages, cca. 5000 BC, the first ‘socks’ that our cavemen ancestors wore probably looked nothing like what we have today. There aren’t any socks left over from that time but we have some clues as to what they might have looked like from cave paintings and archeological finds. It seems like these rudimentary socks were made from animal skins and pelts tied around the ankle.”
After these early ages for socks, the Greeks had ‘piloi’, which was a kind of sock composed of matted animal hair. The Greeks seemed to wear these socks with sandals. After that, the Romans encased their feet in woven fabric or leather strips.
Around 200 AD, the Romans created garments that resembled the modern sock. In the same century, the Ancient Egyptians created the first pair of knitted socks. The Egyptian style slit at the toes for easy wearing with sandals.
From the Middle Ages on, socks were a luxury afforded by the noble few. Surprisingly, socks only covered the feet after the 12th century. If we saw the first socks today, we’d hardly recognize them as socks! Over time, regular Average Joes and royalty alike wore socks. With the dawn of the knitting machine, socks quickly evolved from the 1500s into the garments we know and love today.
How are hiking socks different?
As decideoutside.com shares, “Hiking socks are often made from wool or other fibers designed for exceptional insulation and friction reduction. Additionally hiking sock fabric is specially designed to trap air pockets to provide insulation. Hiking socks also have extra cushioning in the heel and ball of your foot.”
Are Compression Socks good for hiking?
According to gohikevirginia.com, “Compression socks help prevent leg fatigue and pain while hiking. Since they improve circulation, you should not end the day with swollen ankles or legs. These tight socks also help force lactic acid buildup out of your legs after hiking and can help increase your muscle recovery rate. They are a win-win.”