You're no doubt aware that the choice of hiking socks is essential to avoid blisters, overheating and unpleasant rubbing, unless you suffer from insensitive feet. It's important to note thata good pair of hiking socks won't compensate for a poor choice of footwear - the ideal is to choose both carefully. To choose the right hiking socks, it's essential to know what you want from them: comfort, protection against chafing, thermal insulation, etc. It's also preferable that they fit snugly around your feet. It's also best if they dry quickly, are strong and durable, and minimize odors (although, let's be honest, part of the problem isn't just the socks!).
Pay attention to size
Hiking socks are generally available in a range of sizes, e.g. 36-38, 39-41, 42-44. You don't need a more detailed explanation to understand how to choose the right size.
However, if your size falls between two ranges (e.g. 38.5) and you can't try them on, I recommend you choose the smaller size, especially if the socks are stretchy, to avoid uncomfortable creases. Alternatively, you can consider another model with different size ranges.
High or low socks?
Hiking socks come in different heights, from low socks to high socks, as well as various options in between. To choose the right size, all you need is a sock that extends beyond the collar of your shoes, to avoid direct contact between your skin and the shoe.
Even with low-cut shoes, you can still opt for high-cut hiking socks. This offers better protection for your ankle and leg against knocks and rubbing, as well as keeping you warmer. Best of all, it adds a touch of style to your outfit.
What about thickness?
When choosing hiking socks, you'll quickly notice that they come in different thicknesses. So, should you opt for thin, thick or somewhere in between?
Thick hiking socks:
Offer good comfort by effectively protecting the foot.
Insulate more from the cold (with materials and construction similar to thinner socks).
However, they can be less snug-fitting and tend to move more easily when walking, and they can also lead to greater perspiration in hot weather.
Thin hiking socks:
Stay in good contact with the foot and move less.
However, they offer less comfort and insulate less from the cold (with similar materials and construction).
The question doesn't arise too much, as you'll need to protect yourself from the cold and thick socks will be more appropriate, especially as you'll be less likely to sweat.
You need to find a compromise between comfort and warmth, especially for long, uneven hikes over difficult terrain.
Socks that are too thin can put a strain on your feet, especially if your shoes are poorly padded and/or if you have sensitive skin on your feet.
With socks that are too thick, you risk sweating more and getting blisters more easily.
Breathable, non-waterproof shoes are better at wicking away perspiration and offer less insulation against the cold than waterproof shoes with a Gore-Tex membrane, for example.
Generally speaking, you can opt for thinner hiking socks with soft, lightweight footwear (such as trail shoes) than with heavy, rigid footwear (such as full-grain leather trekking boots).
Sock materials and construction also play an important role in insulation and moisture wicking.
Which materials to choose?
Synthetic fibers such as polyester, polyamide, polypropylene and acrylic are most commonly used in hiking socks. These materials offer good thermal insulation, wick away perspiration efficiently and dry quickly. They are also tough and durable. Different fibers have been developed to meet specific needs, some focusing on wicking away perspiration and drying quickly in hot weather (such as Coolmax), while others prioritize thermal insulation while wicking away perspiration (such as Thermolite). However, it should be noted that without antibacterial treatment, these materials can develop unpleasant odors.
Elastane, a synthetic fiber found in small quantities in many hiking socks, helps maintain their shape, ensure a snug fit and prevent wrinkling.
Cotton, on the other hand, is not recommended for hiking socks. It tends to absorb moisture, doesn't wick it away efficiently and dries slowly, encouraging the formation of blisters. What's more, cotton is abrasive and doesn't insulate against the cold when wet. 100% cotton socks are therefore not recommended, except perhaps for short summer walks. However, cotton can be combined with synthetic fibers or wool to enhance comfort. Socks containing a moderate proportion of cotton can be used, but are best reserved for short hikes or easy walks. One advantage of cotton is that it is less likely to develop odors, especially compared with synthetic fibers.
Merino wool is increasingly used in hiking socks. It offers optimum comfort and insulates against the cold, even when wet. Merino wool also regulates temperature, providing effective insulation against heat. What's more, it has natural antibacterial properties that limit the appearance of unpleasant odors. However, merino wool wicks perspiration slightly less well than synthetic fibers, and can wear out more quickly, especially if not combined with other materials. That's why you'll often find hiking socks made with a blend of merino wool and synthetic materials.
Cordura is a brand of fabric renowned for its resistance to tearing and abrasion. Although not a material in its own right, the term "Cordura" is often mentioned in the composition of hiking equipment, including hiking socks, in small proportions.
Certain materials, especially synthetic fibers, can promote the development of unpleasant odors. For this reason, some hiking socks are treated with an antibacterial agent to limit the occurrence of odors. This treatment can be beneficial on long hikes, especially in groups!
It can be difficult to keep track of all the different materials used in socks, especially when several of them are present in the same sock and in varying proportions in different zones. What's more, materials are not the only determining factor, as their treatment and construction also play an important role.
If you have a sock with a composition of 73% cotton, 24% polyester and 3% elastane, and another with a composition of 64% merino wool and 36% polyamide, this gives you an idea of the advantages and disadvantages of each material and their potential use.
It's important to note that some materials can cause overheating, but it's difficult to predict this when choosing, as it depends on the individual and the treatments applied. If you experience overheating, it may be worth trying other types of socks, provided you're sure the problem isn't with the shoes themselves.
Reinforcement zones: Many hiking socks feature reinforcements in the heel, toe and sometimes other areas. If you want a durable pair, make sure it has these reinforcements. By looking at a worn pair of socks, you can easily spot the areas that need reinforcement, depending on the morphology of your foot and footwear. For hiking boots with a high shaft, it's best to choose socks with reinforcement high up in the heel.
Loop and fleece zones: Loops are a thick weave, while fleeces are a thick, soft fabric. These zones offer good comfort and effective protection against rubbing. If parts of your foot are sensitive or prone to blisters, make sure the socks have such zones.
Breathable zones: Breathable zones are designed to wick away perspiration. They are generally thinner or have wider stitches than other parts of the sock and are located in areas with less friction, such as the instep, sides of the foot, sides of the calves, etc.
Support bands: Many socks have support bands (elastic bands) that hold the sock in place, for example at the ankle. It's impossible to know how effective they are without trying them on, but at least you know what they're for.
Seamless sock: The type of seam and its location are important, as they can create excess thickness and cause blisters and other discomforts. Ideally, try the socks on with your hiking boots to determine whether or not they are uncomfortable. Where this is not possible, "seamless" or flat-seamed socks are a good option.
Double, anti-blister, double-skin hiking socks: Anti-blister hiking socks, also known as double or double-skin socks, are made up of two superimposed layers of fabric. The idea is that certain movements occur between the two fabrics (and not between the sock and your skin) as you walk. So it's not your skin that suffers the friction, but the sock. This design is inspired by the practice of wearing a pair of thin socks under a pair of slightly thicker hiking socks. Double socks are not 100% blister-free, and not all models are created equal, but many people notice a difference compared to "single" socks.