A Hiker's Guide to High-Performance Socks

September 01, 2010
Howard E. Friedman, DPM
Trail Walker


A Hiker's Guide to High-Performance Socks



hiking sockBarefoot running and even barefoot hiking have been in the news recently, purported to simulate a more natural method of ambulation. Athletes and podiatrists are debating the merits of barefoot running. But, two things are clear. Ancient men and women wore shoes, or, at least sandals. And, people have even been wearing socks for almost as long! In fact, a sock from around the 12th century is on display at the Textile Museum, located in Washington, D.C..

The reasons to wear shoes are obvious: they protect the foot and can help provide stability. The usefulness of socks is less obvious, but no less important. The primary role of socks is to help absorb and dissipate perspiration of the feet and provide a “second skin” for the feet that can be changed and modified as conditions warrant. Although barefoot running or hiking may appeal to some, wearing shoes and socks is very beneficial

Then and Now

Before the wide availability of textiles, socks are thought to have been formed from animal skins. As textiles became common, socks were woven from cotton, wool, or even silk. In modern times, cotton has been the prevailing fabric for everyday as well as athletic use. In the mid-20th century, synthetic materials such as nylon and Rayon became popular as stocking material.

More recently, however, wool and select synthetic materials have become the fabrics of choice for both hikers as well as many other athletes engaged in endurance activities, such as long distance cycling and running. But how those fibers are used in the design and the quality of the manufacturing of the sock are just as important as the actual ingredients.

What the Research Shows

Research into sock material has been conducted by the military in an effort to help reduce foot blister formation in army recruits; other research has been performed by podiatrists as well as the textile industry. Compared to cotton, many high-performance synthetic materials are more effective in reducing the incidence of blister formation and are also effective in helping control odors.  

Much of the sock textile research has focused on wool, a protein produced by sheep skin cells. Research has verified that wool, even when wet, can still insulate and maintain warmth. Wool can absorb more moisture than cotton. Moreover, wool was shown, in one study, to retain fewer fungal elements than either cotton or nylon stockings.

Laboratory research performed by the Wool Research Organization of New Zealand (where sheep are said to outnumber humans 13 to 1), demonstrates wool’s superior wicking abilities when compared to synthetic fabrics and that wool can even absorb moisture when it is in a vapor state, meaning wool can begin wicking moisture even before droplets form on the skin.

Moisture Management

“The main battle is moisture management,” explains Paul Willerton, vice-president for marketing of DeFeet International, a manufacturer of high-performance socks. In a telephone interview, Mr. Willerton explained that the prudent use of wool as well as synthetic materials is important in creating a sock that is both durable and effective at helping to maintain dry feet. Military recruits, hikers, and backpackers all cover many miles in a single day, weighted down with the contents of their backpack plus food and water. Keeping their feet dry is critical to avoiding common foot problems such as blistering and chronic skin fungal infections.

Companies such as DeFeet blend various amounts of wool and synthetic material, using proprietary designs and computerized sophisticated weaving equipment to produce socks tailored for specific activities. So, according to Mr. Willerton, DeFeet-sponsored ultra-long distance hiker and backpacker Andrew Skurka, prefers a thin sock with a high wool content, designed with a breathable mesh panel over the top of the foot. This same design, however, is also used by DeFeet to manufacture a synthetic sock made primarily of nylon.

What to Wear?

Shopping for high performance socks in an outfitter shop or on-line can be overwhelming. First, expect to pay ten dollars or more per pair of socks. Consider the weight of the sock. Finding the right sock for you, your shoe or boot type, and your level of activity may require some trial and error.

A thin sock will be more appropriate for warmer weather and a thick sock would be a good choice for winter hiking. A mid-weight sock may be adapted for year-round use. High-performance socks are generally marketed as either lightweight, midweight, or heavyweight thickness. Some socks will have extra padding in the heel or forefoot, or, may have mesh paneling in the top portion of the sock, for extra ventilation.

Check the sock “ingredients.” If you want the benefits of wool, look for socks with at least 30% wool content. Some wool socks can have as much as 70% or more wool content.  

Synthetic materials can also be useful. Many of them are quite durable and may extend the life of your expensive socks. (According to its spokesman, DeFeet has created a synthetic sock with wicking capabilities yet able to withstand more than 10,000 simulated steps in lab testing before the material wears out.) Common synthetic materials include nylon, polypropylene, and Coolmax, a patented fiber. Blends of fabrics are common. Blending helps to maximize the benefits of each fabric: the moisture wicking and temperature preserving benefits of wool, for example, with the durability of nylon.  

Take into account the type of shoe or boot you will be wearing. If the hiking shoe fits close to the foot, a thin or lightweight sock will be preferable. A heavyweight sock will likely be too snug. A good fit is important to avoid bunching of the sock material, which can lead to skin irritation. High-performance socks generally are made without prominent seams, making them more comfortable to wear and further reducing the chance of skin irritation.

Even a high-performance sock, however, needs time to air out and dry. Therefore, at rest stops along your hike, remove your shoes, and, if time allows, even your socks, if you begin to feel that they are becoming damp. On backpacking trips, change socks daily, giving the just worn pair adequate time to completely dry.

Be partial to purchasing high-performance socks from a company dedicated to your activity. The design of the sock as well as the integrity and quality in the manufacturing process will impact the final product. Moreover, the high-performance companies determine what materials and designs work best together in part by testing their products on professional athletes, including sponsored hikers and backpackers, who report how the products hold up on the trail. This enables the manufacturer to create a product that will help you maximize your hiking miles in comfort and with dry, blister-free feet.

Howard Friedman is board certified podiatrist and frequent contributor to Trail Walker.