The humble sock. Many people get dressed each morning without much thought to what goes on their feet. Indeed, before you know it, the shoes are on and you’re flying out the door, charging head-first into the day.
And you might think that a colourful, jazzy sock is as complicated as it gets for a foot covering. However, you’d be wrong. There’s a world of socks out there, all created with different purposes in mind.
Chances are, you already have a wider variety of socks in your drawer than you realise. And we’d bet you might not be aware of the difference.
The fact is, not all socks are designed with aesthetics solely in mind. Like any item of clothing in our wardrobe, different types have different uses and purposes.
You wouldn’t go swimming in jeans, would you? So why wear the wrong protection on your feet? But before we get into the different types of socks, we’re going to take things back to basics…
What does a sock do?
You might think that’s a silly question, but take a moment to consider it. They keep your feet warm, yes (and a comfy pair of knitted slipper socks will always go down a treat). But what else?
Actually, quite a lot.
Socks are the padding between your feet and your shoes. They provide a barrier that protects the somewhat delicate skin of your feet from the tougher materials of your shoes. This barrier prevents the inner seams of your footwear from rubbing on your skin, causing friction and the accursed blisters we often associate with a new pair of boots.
That’s not all, either.
Socks also absorb moisture from your feet. Like it or not, feet can get sweaty inside even the most breathable of footwear. This contributes to reduced friction, minimises uncomfortable ‘hotspots’, and helps to regulate your temperature.
So no, a sock doesn’t just keep your feet warm.
How do different sock types vary?
Besides their shape and size, socks designed for different purposes have varying thicknesses, cushioning and even different ways to fight sweat and odour.
Most of us have known someone with particularly unpleasant foot odour (or we’re the culprit ourselves). Well, did you know that often said person’s choice of sock is a contributing factor?
Instead of selecting your socks by colour or style, we suggest you decide based on what you intend to use them for. Yes, for wearing on your feet, of course. But then what? Hiking socks are thicker and more hard-wearing, for long treks. If you need more protection for your feet, you should consider looking for socks with a higher thread count.
How about running? Sports socks often have a reinforced heel and toe to prevent rubbing. Some have additional support with cushioned soles. And, of course, remember to check the sizing of every pair.
6 Essential Sock Varieties
Casual socks are those that require the least input from you, as the wearer. These are the type that you’ll wear most days. The kind you will be comfortable in for day-to-day walking. They can be made of a variety of materials, both natural (cotton, silk) or synthetic, and don’t need to counter extensive sweating.
These are the foot soldiers that get most of us from Monday to Friday without any drama. They’re a great option for expressing your individuality with a fun colour or funky print. And honestly? Who doesn’t love a gift of socks?
So long as they fit well, and are comfortable, casual socks don’t take too much thought.
Sometimes referred to as business or formal socks, dress socks are usually targeted at men. Since men’s formalwear isn’t as complicated as women’s, dress socks are often a great way to put a bit of personality back into a suit or tuxedo, along with ties, bow ties, cufflinks, cummerbunds and the like.
Since formal and business wear are similar, but not quite the same, the requirements for a dress sock can vary a little.
For example, if you’re going to a wedding, you might dance. Here, comfortable dress socks are a must. You’re also able to be a little freer in your colour and style choices.
However, if you’re selecting dress socks for work, then your choices are limited to the expected level of workplace professionalism. In this case, more muted colours such as grey, black and dark blue are safer.
As with all socks, quality counts. Choose your dress socks according to the impression you want to make. They might not be as visible as the rest of your attire, but mismatched, colourful socks in a business meeting will be noticed.
A somewhat self-explanatory variety, but important and more nuanced than you might have thought. Hiking socks come in more shapes and sizes than you might expect, much like hikers themselves.
If you’re one for a casual walk on a sunny day, that means selecting a sock that’s lightweight. You wouldn’t want your feet overheating, after all! It also means looking for socks with some padding, because even a shorter walk can lead to chafing and blisters.
For a mid-weight hiker’s sock, look for materials such as merino wool, cotton or Ingeo (which is made from 100% renewable sources). These are great if you’re backpacking and carrying additional weight, as they help your feet absorb the extra shock.
Merino wool is a particular favourite of ours, as it’s tough enough to survive even mountaineering, and provides extra cushioning.
No matter what type of hiker you are, with hiking socks, sizing is more important than ever. Wearing ill-fitting socks for any length of time can:
- encourage chafing
- cause blisters to form
- restrict the flow of blood
They’re also providing you with less support than correctly fitting socks, and will wear out more quickly.
Another consideration you should keep in mind with hiking socks is the length. Many avid walkers and hikers wear boots specifically designed to protect their feet; this means their socks need to be higher than the boots.
Shorter socks will lead to chafing and discomfort around the ankles, and quickly spoil your hike. You might not have worried about sock length before, but you’ll certainly regret it when blisters rear their horrible heads.
Running socks should be light and breathable, as you’re more prone to sweating when exerting yourself. They also need to fit into your shoes well, and offer some arch reinforcement, as well as additional padding.
Padding in socks should help them to fit more securely, but not be tight enough to cut off the blood flow.
If you run long distances, it’s worth investing in compression socks; these handy dandies have been specifically developed to promote better circulation, which can help prevent injuries and soreness. Most compression socks are made of special synthetic materials.
Sports socks tend to be made of stronger materials and are designed to wick away moisture from your feet in addition to providing support. No matter what sport you take part in, you should always choose your sports socks for their fit and comfort; they should be smooth across your toes, sole, and heels in order to avoid chafing and blisters.
Often lumped in with hiking or sports socks (and we can see why), thermal socks are designed for cold weather, outdoor activities.
While they appear to simply be thicker than the average sock, you might be surprised to learn that many actually have small air pockets for additional insulation and warmth. They work by trapping heat but remain breathable to avoid a build-up of moisture inside the sock.
Thermal socks aren’t just for skiing and snow-related activities, though. Sure, there are varieties with differing thicknesses suitable for different levels of skiers (thicker for novices, thinner for more professionals). But they’re also suitable for a range of purposes, from commuting on the chilly bus to protecting the health of the vulnerable and elderly.
There's even a range of thermal socks designed specifically with women in mind, since their feet tend to get colder than men's.
Finally, there's the famously comfortable slipper socks for at-home lounging, or bed socks with high wool content to keep your toes warm at night. Now, these aren't technically thermal socks in the same nature, but they serve the same purposes (only for indoor use instead of outdoor).
Specialist & Support Socks
Specialist socks include medical support items, such as stockings and compression socks. These are often provided to people who’ve undergone surgery, or if someone is at particular risk of blood clots (such as later in pregnancy). You may have seen people wearing compression socks on long flights, as they can protect against Deep Vein Thrombosis.
There are also specialist socks for those with diabetes. Oh yes, you read that right. These socks are made of less restrictive materials to minimise pain from compression. Effectively, they help reduce swelling in the ankles and feet.
So, there you have it. Most days, you can select a jazzy, patterned sock of your choice, and have no problems.
But if your feet are under duress, it’s in your best interests to select a sock for the occasion. That way, you can get on with your activities without worrying about what’s going on inside your shoes.
There’s a world of master-crafted socks out there designed to make every aspect of your life just that bit easier and more comfortable. Go forth and enjoy it, we say!