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The Sock Fits: Trail Sock Buyer’s Guide

Socks are as important as the footwear we buy. Follow our two-step buyer's guide.

Let’s face it, most of us don’t put a lot of thought into the socks we wear. Yet nothing ruins a hike faster than blisters, which are caused by moist feet and friction. Today’s high-performance socks not only keep your feet dry and comfortable, but they also cushion and support your feet and even improve overall foot health. And there are a variety of socks to choose from. Some are synthetic; some are all-natural; and some are a combination of natural and synthetic fibers. Some socks are thick; others are ultrathin.

Some have padding, and some have a tight weave in the middle that helps support the arch of the foot. You probably had no idea there were so many choices.

Confused? Don’t be. Just follow our quick two-step buyers’ guide.

Step One

Stay away from 100-percent cotton socks. On an hour’s run, your feet produce enough sweat to fill an 8-ounce glass. Cotton socks will absorb all this moisture, your feet will feel soggy and uncomfortable, and you will, quite possibly, develop a blister. “It’s important for a sock to move moisture,” says Roy Pirrung, a champion ultramarathoner who’s been testing socks for Wigwam for many years. “A sock should be able to wick moisture away from the foot. An all-cotton sock can’t do that.”

Look for socks made from either synthetic fibers (acrylic, CoolMax?, nylon, Polartec) or a blend of natural fibers (cotton, wool, alpaca) and synthetic fibers. Both wick moisture away to keep feet dry and warm in winter as well as dry and cool in summer.

Step Two

Pay special attention to fit. “Fit is crucial,” says Pirrung. “If the sock is too big, it will bunch in the shoe. If it’s too tight, it will restrict toe movement. Also, it’s important that the sock fits around the heel.”

Not only do your socks need to fit your feet; they also need to fit the footwear you’re going to wear them in. After all, what good is a high-tech pair of socks if they make the shoe fit tight? “The shoe and sock must work together,” says Pirrung.

As for special features, some socks have padding in high-impact areas like the heel and toe. Consider these if you have a heavy footstrike or are prone to blisters. Remember, though, that padded socks are thick, and if you like them, make sure your socked foot will fit into your shoe.

Expect to pay $5 to $16 for performance socks. That’s not cheap, but it’s a lot better than blisters and clammy feet.

Sock suggestions

With all the great high-performance socks available these days, it isn’t easy deciding what to buy. Here are five guidelines:

  • Don’t buy 100 percent cotton socks. Choose those made from synthetics or a blend of synthetics and cotton. Synthetics such as acrylic and CoolMax® disperse blister-causing perspiration and keep your feet drier and cooler.

  • Watch out for toe seams–they’re one of the biggest cause of blisters. Consider socks that are padded in high-impact areas, like the heel and toe, especially if you have a heavy footstrike or are prone to blisters in these areas.

  • Pick out socks that have a tighter weave in the middle of the foot. This provides support and helps prevent slippage. Make sure you buy the correct size. This prevents bunching and slipping and, thus, blisters.

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Article adapted from Sock Options originally published in Runner’s World magazine.

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