Buyers' Guide - Socks

You simply won't notice the right pair, but the wrong choice can ruin a great day in the hills. We check out the humble walking sock and tell you what to watch out for when buying.

Posted: 16 September 2005
by Jon

Socks, the great forgotten component of your outdoors wardrobe, but one that can make the difference between all-day comfort and a painful case of blistered foot and a ruined walk.

The good news is that things have moved on a long way from the old days of rough, scratchy Norwegian wool rag socks and two-layer sock systems. With a top quality modern sock, you should be able to get away with just the one - no liners needed. You can use a lining sock and some walkers still prefer to, but with the correct sock, it shouldn't be necessary.

Ultimately a walking sock does three main things: provides cushioning, increases insulation and helps to wick moisture away from the skin and outwards. That last one is crucial as damp skin loses its elasticity, tears easily, swells up and is prone to blistering.

Socks For All Seasons...

We say seasons, but in some ways it makes more sense to think in terms of footwear. With lightweight approach shoes or runners, for example, it makes sense to use a 'cut-down', shorter, lighter sock with cushioning confined to crucial areas, like toes, heel and forefoot. It'll allow a closer, less sloppy fit, help your feet breathe when you're moving fast but still keep you comfortable.

For three-season walking boots, a medium-weight sock is usually the way to go. You'll get a little more insulation and comfort padding, but without a whole loads of overheating insulation.

Finally, winter mountaineering boots tend to be worn with thicker grades of socks, though there's no rule that says they must be. A thicker sock will be warmer in sub-zero conditions and provide more cushioning despite less forgiving stiff sole units.

One crucial piece of advice is to wear the socks you normally favour when buying boots and size them accordingly. Buy in the afternoon too as your feet swell up during the day.

Fabric Choice ...

In the old days wool was the fabric of choice and it's still a decent option. It provides good insulation and decent comfort in the right grade. It tends to hold onto moisture however and loses shape with use, so many modern socks take a more sophisticated approach.

One solution is some sort of wool / synthetic mix. Bridgedale, for example, do this at fibre level wrapping a high-wicking synthetic fibre around a traditional wool fibre to offer a combination of warmth and wicking performance. Smartwool take a slightly different approach using very fine merino wool to offer greater comfort than normal woo. Thor-Lo takes a different approach again, using acrylic fiber for their socks saying that it wicks better, is more durable and holds its shape when wet. The acrylic, Thor-Lon, is blended with wool for all-round performance.

In socks designed for hotter conditions, where wicking is a high priority, even more synthetics are used, particularly Cool-Max either on its own or blended with other fabrics.

Sock Design

The featured sock has pretty much reached a pinnacle with X-Socks who have more technical features in a pair of their socks than most climbing packs manage... The basics though are simple: cushioning where it's needed, on the heel, toes and ball of the foot for example. Most designs now use a hooped, terry-type padded area in these regions.

Aids to fit in areas like the heel and forefoot where older socks tend to lose shape and bag out with the resulting possibility of blisters. Elasticated bands across the forefoot are common now for example. Finally, an elasticated cuff or cuff area to keep the sock up and in place while you're moving.

X-Socks take things a lot further with ventilation channels which are supposed to help cool the foot and socks designed specifically for the left and right foot plus lots more, however whether the additional technical features give improved performance is less clear.


Sorry, three categories seems a bit mean so we thought we'd add a 'colour' section. Light coloured socks show the dirt, dark-coloured ones are more resistant so you have to rely on the smell to decide whether they need washing. So, on that note, we'll call it a day on the sock front...

More Help and Advice

This article should have given you some basic pointers. The good news is that there's a load more advice on OUTDOORSmagic:

  • Ask on the gear forum about general issues or specific items.
  • Check the member reviews section for user experiences of kit.
  • See OM editorial reviews on the front of the site for our impressions.
  • Ask Richard Gear if you have a specific question you need answering.

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