Socks, the great forgotten component of your outdoors wardrobe, but one that can make the difference between all-day comfort and a painful case of blistered feet and a ruined walk.
The good news is that things have moved on a long way from the old days of rough, scratchy Norwegian wool rag socks and two-layer sock systems. With a top quality modern sock, you should be able to get away with just the one - no liners needed. You can use a lining sock and some walkers still prefer to, but with the correct sock, it shouldn't be necessary.
Ultimately a walking sock does three main things: provides cushioning, increases insulation and helps to wick moisture away from the skin and outwards. That last one is crucial as damp skin loses its elasticity, tears easily, swells up and is prone to blistering.
Socks For All Seasons: We say 'seasons', but in some ways it makes more sense to think in terms of footwear. With lightweight approach or running shoes, for example, it makes sense to use a 'cut-down', shorter, lighter sock with cushioning confined to crucial areas, like toes, heel and forefoot. It will allow a closer, less sloppy fit, help your feet breathe when you're moving fast but still keep you comfortable.
For three-season walking boots, a medium-weight sock is usually the way to go. You'll get a little more insulation and comfort padding, but without a whole load of overheating insulation.
Finally, winter mountaineering boots tend to be worn with thicker grades of socks, though there's no rule that says they must be. A thicker sock will be warmer in sub-zero conditions and provide more cushioning despite less forgiving stiff sole units.
One crucial piece of advice is to wear the socks you normally favour when buying boots and size them accordingly. Buy in the afternoon too as your feet swell up during the day.
Fabric Choice: In the old days wool was the fabric of choice and it's still a decent option. It provides good insulation and decent comfort in the right grade. It tends to hold onto moisture, however, and loses shape with use, so many modern socks take a more sophisticated approach.
One solution is some sort of wool / synthetic mix. Some brands do this at fibre level wrapping a high-wicking synthetic fibre around a traditional wool fibre to offer a combination of warmth and wicking performance. Others take a slightly different approach using very fine merino wool to offer greater comfort than normal wool. Yet another option uses acrylic fibres, which help with wicking, are durable and hold their shape when wet. Other acrylic socks are blended with wool for all-round performance. In socks designed for hotter conditions, where wicking is a high priority, even more synthetics are used, either on their own or blended with other fabrics.
You wouldn't think there was much design needed in the sock itself, would you? Well, you'd be wrong! Some manufacturers have now managed to squeeze more technical features in a pair of their socks than most climbing packs manage... The basics, though, are simple: cushioning where it's needed, on the heel, toes and ball of the foot for example. Most designs now use a hooped, terry-type padded area in these regions.
Some manufacturers have included aids to fit in areas like the heel and forefoot where older socks tend to lose shape and bag out with the resulting possibility of blisters. Elasticated bands across the forefoot are common now for example. Finally, an elasticated cuff or cuff area to keep the sock up and in place while you're moving.
Some super-technical socks take things a lot further with ventilation channels which are intended to help cool the foot and socks designed specifically for the left and right foot plus lots more, however whether the additional technical features give improved performance is for you to decide.......!