For boots to do their job well, the right socks are necessary. Go to the store and you will find multitudes of socks to choose from. The material and construction of your socks are very important considerations. Cotton, Ragg wool, merino wool, acrylic, and polypropylene, are some of the materials used in socks. They each have their strengths and weakness, which I will cover briefly here.
- No cotton! Cotton is a wonderful fiber for many things, including socks for everyday use. However, it is a mistake to wear cotton or cotton-blend socks while hiking. Your feet sweat and cotton absorbs and retains moisture, keeping your feet damp and causing the skin to soften. Add to that the friction caused by hiking and conditions are ripe for blisters.
- Ragg Wool is the classic choice of fiber for backpackers’ socks and is still one of the best. Ragg wool wicks moisture away from the foot, keeping the foot much more comfortable. It doesn’t mat down as quickly as some of the terry-looped socks available on the market, providing some welcome cushioning for your feet. The main problem with Ragg wool is that many people are allergic to wool. One way to get around this is to wear polypropylene liners under the wool socks. Another nuisance with Ragg wool is the special care they must be given. As a ranger, I wore wool socks with liners through all seasons. They took good care of my feet and I never got blisters-even with new boots! The problem I found the most difficult was laundering them. After a few months, the socks would be so tight with their elasticity gone that it was difficult to get them on my foot. I ended up replacing them after only a few months of use, even though the socks themselves were in good shape.
- Merino Wool is my favorite choice for socks. High quality merino wool has all of the good characteristics of Ragg wool without the problems. There is one brand in particular that I find exceptional—SmartWool. Not only is the fiber of superior quality, but the construction of the sock is wonderful as well. One major problem with finding good socks is finding some that fit your foot snugly, not too tight and not too loose. SmartWool socks fit beautifully with just the right amount of elasticity to hug my foot. Many people who are allergic to wool can wear high-quality merino wool. Another benefit of these socks is that they can be laundered without losing their elasticity. I still don’t put them in the dryer.
- Acrylic and acrylic-blend socks are also good choices for hikers. Although they do not last quite as long as wool and tend to be hotter as well, they do wick moisture away from the feet. The synthetic socks I find the most comfortable and that fit me best are Thorlos, but there are other brands to choose from that may fit your feet as well. Some of the synthetic socks have nice cushioning in areas that get the most impact. Again, fit is extremely important.
- Polypropylene is primarily used in liners – thin socks worn under the thicker main socks. The purpose of liners is to wick moisture away from the skin and out to the main sock, where it is dispersed. Liners can also be used as a protective layer to keep wool from touching the skin of sensitive individuals. They can also reduce friction between the foot and the boot. If your boots are a little big, liners can fill in some of the extra space so your foot doesn’t slide around.
- Silk is also used in liners for the same purpose as polypropylene. It feels wonderful but must be pampered somewhat when laundering.
Construction is nearly as important as the material used in socks. Features to look for are:
- Flat seams, especially above the toe. Bulky seams can create areas of sensitivity where blisters are likely to form.
- Snug, not tight, fit. I prefer socks with good elasticity that hugs my foot comfortably, preventing the material from bunching up.
- Thick socks that provide cushion for the ball and heel of your foot.