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Tracking down the best pairs of socks for your summer hiking adventures is no easy task, is it? But it’s a critical one to get right because the wrong pair can turn an awesome day in the countryside into a nightmare of blisters, chaffing and stinky sweaty feet.
Socks, and feet in general, are often forgotten in the rush to track down the most capacious hiking rucksack or the most calorific energy bars for fuelling your hikes. The truth is though that they’re really where the rubber, quite literally, meets the road.
Our feet can take a real beating on a day’s hike. Whilst some people might think that winter hikes are the toughest on our tootsies, it’s actually summer hiking that can do the most damage as our feet can get very sweaty. Even in the, ahem, stifling heat of a typical British summer.
We’ve already investigated the best hiking boots, so let’s turn our attention to the fluffy inside layer.
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How to choose socks for summer hiking
Socks are socks, right? Pick any old pair (or a couple of odd ones from the washing basket) and you should be fine, yeah? Use your winter socks for summer hikes and vice versa? Unfortunately, picking the right pair of socks for your summer hiking expeditions is a little more complicated than that. Pick the correct socks, pop them on, and that’s the last you’ll think about them until you take them off at the end of the day’s walking. Choose a pair that’s not right? Well, then you’ll be thinking about nothing else for the whole day. Soggy and sweaty toes, blistered heels, rubbed ankles, and a load of other problems. All of which will do more than take the shine off your day out on the trails.
So, how do you pick the right pair of socks for summer hiking? There’s a number of factors to consider. Let’s take a look now.
First up, let’s talk sock fabric. How important is the stuff that the socks are actually made from? Well, turns out that it’s very important indeed and it’s my number one factor to consider when I’m choosing a new pair.
My favourite sock material to choose is wool because it’s a naturally absorbent fibre that can soak up a whopping 30% of its own weight in moisture (i.e. sweat, in this situation). Taking that moisture away from the skin of your feet will ensure that they keep dry and will therefore reduce the chance of blisters forming. Wool also feels soft and comfortable against your skin and it’s naturally odour-protecting. In particular, look out for socks made out of merino wool. This is wool that comes from a Spanish sheep breed, by way of New Zealand, and has all the properties of wool turned up to the Max. It’s not cheap but it is the best type of wool for a summer hiking sock.
Woolly socks are expensive and so it’s worth considering other cheaper, but still great, sock fabric options. Manmade materials, including polyester, are cheaper and still wick sweat fast and dry speedier than wool. The downside to manmades is that they don’t have the odour-control that wool does but, if you make sure to wash them after every hike, that won’t be an issue.
In Winter, if you’re wearing long walking trousers, then it doesn’t really matter what length your socks are, so long as they go over the top of your boots.
For summer hikes though, when the knobbly knees make an appearance, sock length becomes more of a consideration.
If I’m likely to be walking through an area that has lots of scratchy vegetation, then I’ll tend to stick with a longer sock that gives a little more calf protection from thorns etc. The trouble with long socks though is that they will tend to hold onto more heat and can give rise to sweatier feet. So, if the trails are relatively open and thorn-free then I’ll tend to go with a shorter sock, rising just above my boot tops.
Winter hiking socks are often much thicker than summer socks in order to give a little extra thermal protection for your feet. In summer though this can lead to hot and sweaty feet, which can then lead to cheesy-aroma tootsies and rubbed skin. I find that it’s better to have a thinner pair of socks for summer and will often use ‘liner socks’, which are less bulky than winter ones and frequently used to give a double sock layer to protect from blisters.
Hiking socks are often made differently from standard everyday socks. Look out for features that make a sock especially suitable for hiking, such as additional padded sections around the high-contact areas like the toes and heels. These help to cushion and protect these tender spots.
Like any item of clothing that sits next to your skin, such as base layer tops and underwear, they should also be made with flat seams. These stop abrasion and rubbing on the skin, which can lead to blisters forming. A quick tip here – if you do find that a pair of socks is rubbing, then it can work to turn them inside out. This might sound odd but it moves those abrasive non-flat seams to the outside of the sock where they’ll be against your boots and not your skin.
Other sock considerations
Wear them in before a big hike – just as you would with a pair of hiking boots, always try them out around the house and for a short walk or two before you head out for a longer hike wearing them. Problems that might not be obvious at first will rapidly reveal themselves when you’ve actually got your feet in them. Better to find this out when you are close to home, and can do something about it, rather than in the middle of the countryside or halfway up a hill.
Take them off when you finish your hike – no matter how perfect a pair of socks your feet are going to get a little warm and sweaty through a day out on the trails. So, once you’ve finished your hike, make sure you take your socks off as soon as you can in order to let your feet breath and your skin dry out. It’s also a good opportunity to inspect them for any problems that might be developing so that you can nip them in the bud. Particularly important if you’re doing a multi-day hike.
Wash them after every use – it’s not just to combat the stench, but salt crystals from sweat can rub against your skin causing sore areas. Whenever I go out for a weekend’s hiking and camping, I’ll wash my socks in the shower block or a river and then hang them up to dry ready for the next day.
Choose the right socks for a day’s hiking in the summer and you’ll forget you’re even wearing them.
Choose the wrong socks though and they’ll be the only things you end up thinking about. Not the views, but the pain of blisters. Not the invigorating fresh air, but the stench of sweaty toes. Not the achievement of summiting a peak, but the agonising rubbing on your tender skin.
Many items of hiking gear can be expensive, but socks aren’t one of these. So, make sure you get the right pair and enjoy your summer adventures.