Damian Hall Reviews Walking Socks

By Damian Hall

How best to keep you pinkies warm and snug when out hiking this autumn and winter.

Do you really need a pair of socks specifically for walking in? Well, Alfred Wainwright and those grizzled hill-walking pioneers may have looked to have coped just fine, but as with other baselayers, cotton is the curse here. Most non-hiking socks are made from cotton, which absorbs moisture and makes blisters much more likely. So while Wainwright was grinning on the surface, he was probably grimacing underneath those whiskers as his pinkies throbbed red raw. No, wait; he usually looked pretty cantankerous. It figures.

What to look for:

Comfort is the number one priority. Are the socks going to keep your feet blister, chafe and hot-spot free for your walk? Socks are like a referee in football: you shouldn’t notice a really good pair. But a bad one can ruin the whole experience – and make it pretty ouchy. More cushioning often means more comfort, both initially for that warm snuggly feel, but also during a multi-hour walk, to keep heels and toes protected. But also, are they a good fit? Could a pair be so warm and thick that they make getting into your walking boots a squeeze?Warmth will be another key feature at this time of year, but too warm and they could make feet sweat and moisture often leads to the walker’s nemesis: blisters. So ideally some moisture wicking ability and/or breathability are a good idea. And lastly, do they feel robust enough that they will last a while?

Thankfully socks are one of the least complicated bits of kit to buy. Often, a really good pair just feels right.

Hadrian's Wall Path in Spring: Hadrian's Way1000 Mile 3 Season Walk Sock

Price: £15.49
Website: 1000mile.co.uk

These are one of the big fluffy pairs that instantly put images of late winter afternoons by a roaring fire in mind. They feel snuggly to the fingers and demand that you put them straight on. They’re made from merino wool, my favourite material for socks and about the softest type of wool available. The beauty of any type of wool is that it retains warmth when wet and is almost always comfortable. These cleverly manage to warm your feet without overheating the wearer, while moisture wicking properties and slight moisture repellency conspire to keep pinkies mostly dry. They also have padded zones, such as on the heel and covering the Achilles tendon, ankles, toes and the ball of the foot. The only downside – and it’s a quixotic quibble – is that all this comfort means a thick and bulky sock. Perfect for winter, but perhaps less suitable for the milder seasons.

Rating: 9/10
Pros: Warmth, comfort, performance.
Cons: Bulky and too warm for some seasons.
Verdict: Excellent warmth, comfort and performance.

Hadrian's Wall Path in Spring: Hadrian's WayBridgedale TrailBlaze

Price: £16.49
Website: bridgedale.com

Bridgedale’s TrailBlaze socks are also made from merino wool, with the same abilities for thermal regulation and moisture control. They claim their CoolFusion™ Technology combines merino with other technical fibres to produce a highly ventilated sock – with a next-to-skin softness that’s light but also comfortable. And frankly, these claims seem perfectly valid. I also find Bridgedale socks to be impressively durable, especially considering their lighter-weight feel. This is much more of a year-round sock. Possibly a tad too warm in mid-summer and you would perhaps opt for the 1000 Mile socks in mid-winter, but they’re an excellent choice the other 10 months.

Rating: 9/10
Pros: Breathable, light, durable, versatile.
Cons: Not as warm or light as some options.
Verdict: An excellently versatile combination of warmth, comfort and durability.

Hadrian's Wall Path in Spring: Hadrian's WayInjinji Trail Mid Weight Mini Crew

Price: £16
Website: injinji.com

Injinji socks have a cult following in the trail-running world, chiefly because they’re less likely to cause blisters. The toesock – or glove-style – design keeps your pinkies from rubbing against each other and lets them breathe. As blisters are largely caused by moisture and friction, it reduces their likelihood dramatically.Practitioners of natural walking and running techniques tend to advocate toesocks too, because they help splay the feet out as they should be so they are more engaged with the ground, rather than having toes cramped together, which over time weakens them.Injinji make a huge selection of varying thicknesses and lengths, colours and styles, but though this one’s designed with the trail runner in mind, it serves the hiker equally well. It’s got decent cushioning and though they’re shorter than most hiking socks, an elasticated cuff helps keep mud and debris out and they wick away moisture with aplomb.They’re also really comfortable, and their surprising appearance means at Christmas they’re also excellent for causing merriment with young children and freaking out the occasional older relative who’s had a little too much sherry.

Rating: 8/10
Pros: Encourage blister-free, natural walking.
Cons: Not as much cushioning and warmth as some options.
Verdict: The more health conscious option here.

Hadrian's Wall Path in Spring: Hadrian's WaySealSkinz Thin Mid Socks

Price: £34
Website: sealskinz.com

Hate it when your toes get wet? Don’t we all? It means they’re more likely to get cold, develop blisters and, far worse still, be all white and wrinkly at the day’s end. A potential solution? Waterproof socks. SealSkinz specialise in waterproof products for the outdoors and are especially well known for their socks. I’ve used them a lot in winter, in the very worst bogs, snow and moorland the Pennines can throw at me. They’re surprisingly breathable – a small amount of moisture can build up after a really long day, but not enough to cause blisters, discomfort or even be noticeable. And they’re genuinely waterproof, warm (merino wool is used) and comfortable. I recklessly tried my first pair fresh out the box to walk the Welsh 3000s – nearly 24 hours on my feet in mostly wet conditions – and they were faultless. However, I’ve also had experiences where they’ve failed, and it took me a while to work out why. I believe the waterproof membrane is fairly fragile – to be flexible enough for the foot – and once breached they’re no longer waterproof. A tiny bit of grit can end the sock’s waterproof qualities. The simple answer though, is to wear gaiters too.

Rating: 8/10
Pros: Warm and waterproof feet in the most testing conditions.
Cons: Price and reliability/durability.
Verdict: When they work, they’re amazing. But they need care.

Hadrian's Wall Path in Spring: Hadrian's WaySundried Running Socks

Price: £15 (for pack of two)
Website: sundried.com

It’s hard not to warm to a company as staunchly ethical as Sundried. They claim to be very conscious of workers’ (who’re encouraged to exercise for five minutes every hour) wellbeing, the environmental impacts of the global fashion industry (both eco footprint and pollutants) and make a donation to a children’s charity for each item bought.We all surely want to support companies like this. But are the products any good? It’s a huge relief to say they are. Very good.Made from a combination of CoolMax® and Lycra, these socks are thinner than the others on test here, but deliciously soft. They’re designed for running, but work equally well for most types of walking. Their trump card is their ability to wick away moisture well, while a cushioned sole makes them really comfy. Compared to other options, there’s not as much cushioning and warmth, so they mightn’t be first choice for long winter days out. But for warmer times, or just dossing about the house at the weekend, they’re sublime.

Rating: 8/10
Pros: Super-Ethical, moisture wicking, comfy, value for money.
Cons: Not as warm or cushioned as some.
Verdict: Excellent lighter-weight option that are good for the world.

** Damian Hall is an outdoor journalist who’s completed many of the world’s famous and not-so-famous long-distance walks, including Everest Base Camp trek for his honeymoon. The tea-loving hillbilly is author of the official Pennine Way guide and his newest book, Long Distance Walking in Britain, is out now. There’s more self-aggrandising hogwash on Twitter (@damo_hall) and at www.damianhall.info. **

Originally published 02/10/17

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