Choosing Socks

June 22, 2005

AMC Outdoors, July/August 2005

Ah, a sock’s life. Absorber of sweat, keeper of odor, it lives entombed within the dark abyss of your shoes. Toenails prod it, footfalls pound it, and friction slowly wears it away as it dutifully protects your foot from blisters and abuse. Socks definitely take one for the team—and yet when was the last time you thought about their well-being?

You can start by learning more about the variety of fibers commonly used in today’s socks, and investing in the right styles and fit for the activities that interest you. While socks may never have a happy life, the right materials will at least help them live longer…and keep your feet riding in comfort while they’re at it.

Don’t sweat it

Your feet are the second sweatiest part of your body after your armpits, and the 250,000 sweat glands found on each foot can generate between half a cup and a cup of perspiration per day, depending on your level of exertion. Unless this moisture is wicked away, your feet will become soggy and the skin soft. And damp, mushy skin blisters a lot faster than dry skin.

Thus, as you gird your feet for battle each day in this hostile environment, your socks’ primary mission—which they have to accept, really—is to manage moisture and keep your feet dry. Secondary objectives include effectively padding the foot and keeping your feet warm or cool depending on conditions.

Step right up

First some basics. A properly fitting sock will be snug on your foot, and not bunch up, move around while you’re active, or slump down around your ankles. Styles that encircle your arch and instep with elastic help keep the sock in position, while good elastic around the ankle keeps the slump factor down. An increasing number of manufacturers are producing women’s socks, which are designed to fit smaller, narrower feet.

Avoid buying sock sizes that require you to stretch them to fit properly around your heel—the extra tension will blow them out much faster than a properly fitting style. And keep your socks out of the line of friendly fire from the inside. “The biggest sock killer is toenails,” explains John Vonhof, author of Fixing Your Feet, Prevention and Treatment for Athletes. “If you can feel the edge of your nails as you run your finger over your toes, they’re too long.”

A good yarn

Next time you wade through the sock aisles, take a closer look at the packaging. Most companies these days label the mix of fibers used in their socks, which can help you identify which is right for your intended activity.

Wool is one of the most common fabrics used in socks, and with good reason. It manages moisture well, and sucks both liquid and vapor sweat away from your feet. Wool provides good padding and warmth, and can absorb up to a third of its weight in water without feeling damp or losing much of its insulating ability.

Socks with a higher wool content are good choices for hiking, backpacking, and cool-weather activities, where extra warmth and padding for heavy footfalls are desirable. Some people find them uncomfortably hot in warm weather, however, and too warm for high-exertion activities like running. Wool is also less durable than most synthetic materials, and does not hold its shape well.

Many people think of wool as an itchy, scratchy fiber. But several varieties are remarkably plush and itch-free. Look for socks that contain merino wool, which comes from a specific breed of sheep that produces long, thin wool fibers. These qualities give merino wool a soft, cushy feel. “Merino is the cashmere of sheep,” notes Gardner Flanigan of SmartWool socks, which exclusively uses merino wool in its products.

Ragg wool, on the other hand, is the rough material that many people have experienced from uncomfortably itchy sweaters. It is a common and inexpensive form of wool, generated from the “leftovers” of shearing room floors. Once woven, it contains numerous loose fibers that scratch the skin and tends to be the least durable of wool varieties.

There is a near endless variety of other sheep and wool types. If merino wool is not listed, check to see if the socks at least use worsted wool, which is “combed” before being spun into yarn. This removes many of the loose fibers and helps decrease the itch factor.

Cotton appears in a lot of inexpensive socks, but should be avoided. It absorbs more moisture than wool, loses all of its insulating ability when saturated, takes forever to dry, and will sag and bunch when wet. “Nobody out there in any sporting activity should be wearing cotton socks,” Vonhof states bluntly.

Nylon and polyester are extremely durable, and often provide the base fabric through which wool is woven. (Nylon is usually the see-through mesh that appears as you wear out the heels and toes of your socks.) These synthetic, non-porous materials absorb very little water, dry quickly, and help give socks form and structure.

Nylon and polyester themselves do not move moisture, but manufacturers apply a variety of hydrophilic, or water-loving, coatings to the fibers to wick water away from your feet. A multitude of brand names are tagged on to these various formulations—Coolmax, Capilene, Ultimax, etc.—but they all amount to more or less the same thing. Unlike wool, these coatings can only transfer liquid moisture, which can lead to a clammy sensation next to your skin.

Socks with a higher nylon or polyestercontent tend to be more durable, and are a good choice for the thin, light-weight styles often preferred by runners.

Acrylic is another commonly used synthetic material. It closely approximates the plushness of wool, while offering the increased durability of a synthetic. Other materials used include Lycra, or Spandex, which provides the hugging elastic; polypropylene, or olefin, a synthetic that provides good insulation; and alpaca, a fiber that comes from llamas and has many of the same properties of wool.

Matt Heid is senior editor of AMC Outdoors.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.