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The highest mountain in hiking? It’s not Everest, it’s picking the right socks. They are the first and most constant source of protection and comfort your feet have, so are easily one of the most important choices hikers make. The following is a quick review of most of the factors involved in those choices.
Wool – Wool is an organic and natural wonder fiber sheep seem to have grown just for hiking. It’s breathable, moisture-wicking, and highly odor resistant. It seems counterintuitive, but it retains more heat when wet and cools better in hot weather more efficiently than just about any other fabric. A fine quality merino wool blended with small amounts of synthetic fibers for strength, durability, and elasticity works best for almost all hikers. The fiber and how it is woven lends itself to a higher degree of shock absorbance per weight that most other fabrics, as well.
Synthetics – Synthetics are for the most part breathable, moisture-wicking, and quick evaporative. They include fabrics like spandex, nylon, and polyester. Some have a tendency to “pill”, which is forming small surface balls, and odors tend to cling longer on it.
Cotton – No. Just no. Cotton is awesome for casual everyday use as it is mostly inexpensive, comes in a universe of styles and colors, and is comfy. But cotton retains moisture leading to saturation, which in turn causes skin softening, which in turn may lead to blisters.
Crew – Are about mid-calf height. They stay up better than lower heights, are better keeping debris from working down inside the sock and reaching a pressure point next to the skin, and help protect ankles and shins from trail hazards like jutting rocks or prickly bushes. These are worn with both low and mid-height trail footwear.
Quarter – Are commonly worn just over most people’s ankle bone and no higher. These are normally worn with low cut hiking or trail running shoes, as they are high enough to keep out many debris, but too low to prevent rubbing or chafing on the bare skin above the sock in a taller hiking boot.
No Show – Are commonly worn just under most people’s ankle bone and no higher. These are almost exclusively worn with low cut shoes and trail runners. They are normally the lightest socks available but have some drawbacks. They have virtually no protection against incoming debris or protruding obstacles.
Heavy – As the name implies, they are the warmest and thickest socks. Because of that, most hikers find them too hot and take up too much volume in their shoes or boots to be practical. For those hikers in extremely cold conditions that have allowed for the extra volume in their footwear choices, or just use them for sleeping socks, they are a good choice.
Medium – These are best worn in cold to warm weather. They probably have the most versatile temperature tolerance and shock absorption range of just about any sock thickness. These are normally not hot weather socks for most applications, though.
Light – Are the bestselling sock cushion style for most hiking applications, since most hikes are in the cool to warm range. They have enough cushion on the heel and ball pressure point areas to sustain most hikers for short or long hikes and are just thin enough to be very breathable and moisture-wicking.
Ultralight – These breathe very well and dry very quickly, as well as take up no real volume inside of footwear, allowing for a truer fit. They will normally wear out quicker than the other thicknesses. Hikers will sometimes wear these as liners, either standalone or in tandem with other hiking socks to help prevent blisters.
Sizing – In general hiking socks should be snug enough to resist bunching up and maximize wicking and breathability, but not so tight as to strangle capillaries and restrict toe movement range. Should your foot size be between two size ranges, choose the bigger size of the two.
Care and Feeding
Laundering – Although at first glance this first point may not be the most important component of laundering socks, it so is: To prevent losing a sock or socks, procure a right-sized mesh laundry bag to put dirty hiking socks in, and put it in the washer when ready. No more lost expensive hiking socks! All organic fabrics shrink to one degree or another when laundered and especially dried. Consider that when first buying new socks, and second when cleaning them. A good grade of merino wool fabric is especially vulnerable to shrinkage from hot water in the washing phase and higher heat from the dryer. If at all possible, after washing following the maker’s instructions, either hang up or lay out the socks to dry. Besides avoiding most shrinkage, It extends the life of the socks with less wear and tear due to mechanical drying.