Socks are one of the most important bits of outdoor kit. Too often they are overlooked or poorly cared for – something of an afterthought. They can help enormously to keep feet warm, dry and blister free, essential for a comfortable day. Prices and technical features have been creeping up in recent years and with most people wanting a range of socks for different conditions/footwear, it’s important to get the choice right.
Socks should fit well so that they don’t ruckle, and seams should be flat, or the sock should be as seam-free as possible to avoid rubbing points. Confusingly, sizing differs between shoe size (remember you may well wear a larger size of walking footwear than normal as feet swell during hiking) and small, medium etc – it’s really is a question of getting used to each brand’s own fit. Length varies between short ankle length for summer hiking in trail shoes, calf length for more general use and longer mid length which adds warmth in winter and makes it easy to tuck into trousers if required to help prevent dirt or snow from entering (or summer ticks).
Socks are usually wool (often merino), polyester or nylon, or a blend of these with some elastane to add stretch – cotton socks should be avoided as they retain moisture meaning cold damp feet from sweat even on dry days. Wool keeps your feet warm even when damp, and merino wool tends to reduce odour as well as adding softness, giving the most comfortable feel. However man-made fibres are more hardwearing, easier to care for and often less expensive.
Some people who are blister-prone prefer a very thin, wickable, liner sock, and some manufacturers (such as 1000 Mile) incorporate this double design into their “blister-free” socks.
Socks last much longer and stay softer if they are washed and dried according to the instructions. Turn inside out and use a cool (30°) and gentle (wool) machine wash with a small amount of gentle detergent and no fabric conditioner – or hand wash. Use only very cool tumble drying with no heavy wringing out – in general slowish drying away from direct heat sources is best. All this will prolong the life of socks. In this review we’ve tested a range of socks on the market now covering different seasons and types of walking – here’s what we found:
Trekking Merino Sock
Materials: 52% merino wool, 32% polyamide, 13% polypropylene, 3% elastane
Sizes: Unisex 3.5 -5, 5.5-7.5, 8-9.5, 10.5-12
Unusually, Hanwag socks are separately shaped for left and right feet – an asymetrical design intended to provide the most padding where really needed. The Trek Merino socks have a high merino content, which is GOTS-certified (covering both ethical and environmental standards). These are very well-padded and cushioned for quarter length socks, offering excellent comfort for most of the year in trail shoes, but I think they may become a little too warm in the hottest summer weather.
Materials: 61% Coolmax polyester, 23% polyamid, 12% polypropylen, 4% elastane.
Sizes: Unisex UK 3.5-5, 5.5-7.5, 8-9.5, 10.5-12
Also shaped for right and left feet, this unisex general hiking mid-calf length, man-made fibre sock has proved to be a hard wearing and comfortable all rounder. Fairly lightweight and slightly erring on the small side of the sizing chart, this sock has a lot of zones of stretch and thickness which makes them snug and comfortable to wear. Extra terry looped cushioning at the heel is generous enough to cover the achilles area and the bony sides of the ankles which sometimes get rubbed. There’s more cushioning at the toe where the sock’s only seam is very flat and minimal. My feet tend to be very hot and these kept them cool. The socks were quick drying and seem to be robust with little wear so far despite long days and numerous washes.
Ultimate Tactel Approach Sock
Materials: Outer: 54% merino wool, 45% nylon, 1% Lycra, Inner: 100% Tactel
Sizes: Men’s: M (UK 6-8.5) L (9-11.5) XL (12-14) Women’s: S (UK 3-5.5) M (6 – 8.5)
1000 Mile specialise in 2 layer socks aimed at reducing rubbing and blisters – the company provides a money-back guarantee if you suffer blisters within a year of purchase or the socks wear out within 1000 miles. The double layer system works fairly well and the inner is good at wicking sweat away – worth considering if you normally use a seperate liner or are prone to blisters. The downside is that over time the inner and outer seperate and after washing both parts need to be carefully reshaped. Good support around the arch of the foot and cushioning at the toe and ball – personally I could have a little more at the actual heel. The fabric is reinforced in a circle around the heal which helps reduce wear and tear. This lighter weight, mid-calf sock is aimed at 2 season walks mainly in trail shoes but I have found it comfortable to wear in winter boots and found they kept my feet warm. There is a very minimal seam at the toe, and little odour after multiple days. Not as fast drying as some but excellent value.
Fusion Walk Sock
Materials: 30% merino wool, 46% nylon, 23% cotton, 1% elastane, Inner: 100% Tactel
Sizes: Men’s: M (UK 6-8.5) L (9-11.5) XL (12-14) Women’s: S (UK 3-5.5) M (6 – 8.5)
The Fusion Walk socks offer the same guarantee as the Ultimate Tactel Approach socks, and also have the the two layer design with the same advantages and disadvantages. The design, however, is very different – these are aimed more at the colder months; although described as mid-calf length I found them very long, best suited for wear in traditional, heavier boots.
RRP: £26.99 (currently on offer)
Materials: 75% cotton, 8% X-Static, 14% spandex, 3% elastic.
Sizes: Unisex: UK 3-5.5, 6-8.5, 9-11, 11-13
The unique selling point of this summer weight ankle sock is their boast to be odour free. Alpkit claims this comes from the X-Static silver fibres woven into the fabric – silver having natural anti-microbrial properties. This is a thin, primarily cotton with added stretch, sock with only minimal additional terry cushioning to underfoot, heel and toe – the cuff can be folded back to cushion the achilles. Not too tight, they are comfortable with a barely-noticeable seam at the toe. Although they do get damp through sweat they wick well and are quick drying. They are also very hard wearing. I have worn them almost continuously on 2 month-long trips to the Alps, walking tough paths in trail shoes, with only minimal washes and although they looked very dirty, they genuinely did not really smell once dried and could easily be worn day after day. For this reason I think they are worth the high price.
Women’s Hiker Micro Crew
Materials: 59% Merino Wool, 39% Nylon, 2% Lycra Spandex
Sizes: Women’s S (UK 4.5-7) M (7.5-9.5) L (10-11.5) Men’s version available.
US-based Darn Tough produce a huge variety of colourful outdoor socks, often coming up with limited edition graphics and offering a lifetime guarantee against wearing out. However based on their 1903 design the Hiker Micro Crew is one of their classic, best sellers. Elasticated from the ankle up with some compression at the mid-foot there is no slippage and it’s a comfortable sock to wear. I found it slightly on the long side in the foot and the toe seam is more noticeable than some but it did not cause any problem. A really good amount of cushioning for a midweight sock – I would wear these year round. They wick well presumably due to the high merino content. Remarkably robust these really do live up to their name – although we have worn out a couple of pairs of Darn Tough’s over the years, we do an extreme amount of walking and the wear was more due to mishapen feet (sticking up toe and bunion causing friction points) than a problem with the sock. A great all rounder and worth the money.
Light Hiker Quarter sock
Materials: 52% Nylon, 44% Merino Wool, 4% Lycra Spandex
In design terms, these are quite similar to the socks above, with a lower cut that is designed for wear with trail shoes rather than boots; both the wool content and price are a little lower. Much like the Hiker Micro Crew, there is quite generous padding underfoot but thinner fabric on top, giving comfort whilst preventing the feet from becoming too hot. These are very hard wearing and are a great choice for those who prefer walking shoes to boots.
X-Plorer Heavyweight Hiking Sock
Materials: 38% Merino Wool, 38% Acrylic, 15% Polyamide, 7% Cordura®, 2% Elastane
Sizes: Unisex; S (UK 3 – 6), M (UK 6 – 9), L (UK 9 – 12)
Highlander Outdoor are a Scottish brand with a focus on effective but good value gear. The X-Plorer Heavyweight wool sock is at the top of their sock range. These are very well padded socks which work brilliantly in heavier boots, especially in winter. With a decent level of merino wool, I was suprised at the luxurious feel at this price point, a match for some of the more expensive brands; the softness has been retained after multiple washes. Highlander’s lighter weight socks come in at under £10. A quality traditional sock offering excellent value for money.
Materials: 58% Merino Wool 28% Recycled Polyamide 12% Polyamide 2% Elastane.
Sizes: Men’s M (UK 5-7.5) L (8-10.5) XL (11-13.5) Women’s S (UK 2-4.5) M (5-7.5) L (8-10.5)
One of Smartwool’s most popular socks, the Light Hike Crew comes in a bewildering range of colours and funky designs including limited editions. A high merino wool content means they breathe well and don’t get overly hot. A snug fit, I found them comfortable with a good amount of support and thick cushioning at the toe, ball and heel. The crew length cuff and upper are of thinner material and elasticated ribbing means there’s no slippage. If anything the cuff was slightly on the tight side, I’d want to keep moving them up and down slightly on long days. Generally they seem true to size in both men’s and women’s. We’ve both used these socks for years and found them to be durable as long as they are cared for properly, and reasonably quick to dry. When they have been chucked in a warmer wash they have a tendency to go a bit cardboardy – easily avoided. Generally a good 3 season all rounder for both trail shoes and boots.