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Textbook advice for hiking footwear seems to be: wear cushioned socks!!! And make sure your boots fit!!!

For me, it seems that wearing a cushioned sock ensures that a boot simply will not fit comfortably. Ever. But many arguments I hear in favor of wearing thicker socks suggest they make the boot fit better, so now I am wondering how important sock weight really is, provided the boots fit in the first place.

I have wide feet but they're "shapely" rather than boxy. So my foot is wide where the toes start, but it tapers significantly towards the heel. I also have a high instep and arch. I'm not convinced that my foot is particularly high volume, I think it just has funny proportions. Usually when I find a boot that is not crushing my instep or forefoot, the rest of the boot feels very sloppy and too loose. Heel slippage is consistently a problem. I've tried various tying techniques to no avail.

When I throw cushioned socks into the mix, say smartwool midweight hikers, it seems to exacerbate these problems even more. Thicker socks don't seem to solve the heel slippage problem at all, and while they make the overall fit more snug and a bit less sloppy side to side, very often they make a potentially comfy forefoot or instep area painfully, unworkably tight. I currently wear thicker socks with boots that are the least painful I've found, but I can't say the fit is "good".

SO. Searching for new boots, I found a pair of keens (Wander WP model) that seem to fit very well, with thin wool running socks (smartwool phd ultralights, to be exact). Unfortunately they fit so well in combination, that's the ONLY sock weight that I'm ever going to be able to get into these boots comfortably. But there is extraordinarily little heel slippage, the instep is reassuringly snug without being tight, there's no side to side slop, yet my forefoot/toes are free and easy. Note I did try the boots on at the end of the day, when my feet are at their worst. They might be a bit more swollen in the heat, but I can't really simulate that.

Preferred hikes are in the baby Alps, but these are all well traveled and maintained trails with stable surfaces, albeit rocky in places. The most challenging aspects are they can be steep, and one can be walking with significant cant/camber for long stretches, which I have found very difficult in lighter weight shoes as they just don't offer enough support on these tilted surfaces. Otherwise, loose stone, rain, mud, cowpies and occasional snow are the worst of it.

So the question is: what pitfalls could I face out on the trail if my boots actually fit, with the tradeoff that I am limited to only wearing non-cushioned, relatively thin socks?

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    For me, it seems that wearing a cushioned sock ensures that a boot simply will not fit comfortably Don't wear cushioned socks then. It's advice, if it doesn't work for you, you don't have to follow it. – user2766 Apr 6 '16 at 12:27
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    Everybody has its own foot and commercial footwear is simply built on foot lasts that are a population average. So you try different things and go with what works for you. If the combination you found is what fits stick with that. Some boots can be reshaped a bit depending on the materials they are built with, with others you can play with various insoles but you need to have something close to a good fit as starting point. And dont be afraid to try the other gender model, sometimes it can be the perfect shape for your foot – Erik vanDoren Apr 6 '16 at 15:36
  • @Liam that is my gut feeling and I'm inclined to go with it, but I don't grasp the possible consequences of wearing a thin sock in and of itself (warmth aside). Thin socks are new territory for me :) – mrmr Apr 6 '16 at 16:31
  • @Erik vanDoren, I agree with all you say, and your advice makes perfect sense. Unfortunately I'd need a size 4.5 or so, which so far has left me stuck with unisex or female-specific boots (I'm female). If I end up rejecting these particular boots (which are gender specific) I can look for a size 5, mens.....it's worth a try. – mrmr Apr 6 '16 at 16:31
  • @mrmr, u can also try the junior models, generalizing a male last will have more toe room than a female last, that could be the ticket for you. Some biomechanical differences between sexes are taken into account in the design but those are worth nothing if the footwear is ill fitting, and even those tweaks are still based on average measurements so you dont know where you fall. A store with good selection to try and knowledgeable&experienced employees is the best to go to, do try with different insoles if you can, they can help in leaving more room for toes or helping u fill the heel cup – Erik vanDoren Apr 6 '16 at 17:17
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"Cushioning" can be better achieved with an insole designed for that specific purpose. Since almost all hiking boots allow you to swap insoles, there is no reason to get socks for "cushion".

Cushioning also doesn't really help with blisters (though this is hotly debated as you can see here).

Thicker socks will help with warmth but there are also other solutions for that, including buying the sturdier boots you already want, using gators, and/or using higher tech materials

So all that being said, just buy thin socks (I use these) and boots that fit well with those socks, and don't worry.

  • this is exactly what I was looking for: talk about socks, themselves, and the factors that might favor thick ones. I have not seen the you linked in Germany yet, but I also haven't looked for them - I'll definitely give them a try! – mrmr Apr 7 '16 at 18:13
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Advise such as this is aim at the less informed and suits the majority of people most of the time. You have a solution that works for you, don't feel compelled to change it because someone who you never met, who has never put your feet into your boots tells you its better.

It sounds like you boot are too small and wrong shape for you to wear thick socks, so thick socks means a new set of boots. If you are otherwise happy, its a waste of money buying new ones. Your next set of boots might (or might not be) be better with thick socks, so when fitting, try a different sizes with thin and thick socks. You will tend towards what you know works -thin socks, but be aware you may miss an opportunity to do better. (For this reason I do not the process of buying new boots as its expensive to go for something that does not work....)

  • No these are new boots that I tried on. The boots I have now will take a thicker sock, per the usual advice, but my toes are cramped and the heel still slips. That's why I'm trying to discover how important a thick sock is in and of itself - I've just never found a boot that fits me well with a thick sock. I won't buy these new boots if it's likely I'll be facing a whole new set of problems because of the thin sock. – mrmr Apr 5 '16 at 20:43
  • @mrmr, the thin sock is not a problem in itself as much as a thick sock isnt a solution to anything in itself. If you need more impact cushioning look for a better insole, if everything else fits without rubbing, sliding or cramping then wont be a problem if the sock is thin. Unless you want something thicker for winter. U said it yourself that you never found a boot that fit well with a thick sock. – Erik vanDoren Apr 6 '16 at 15:45
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The most important things are:

  • Do what works for you.

  • Try boots with the type of socks you intend to wear them with.

Sock weight can be used for fine tuning even once you've bought the boots but these two points are critical.

You may find that the "better" socks (with padded weight-bearing sections) are worse for you than cheaper hiking socks with a uniform weight.

For the distances I do these days it doesn't matter very much but on multi-day trips (assuming it wasn't too hot) I always chose to go for two pairs: one thin "normal" pair and one thinnish hiking pair with padded sections.

A good fit is by far the best way to avoid blisters, and ankle protection comes from the boot not the sock - again a good fit will optimise this.

The only note of caution I'll sound is don't overcommit if you make significant changes. Just like you wouldn't set off on a long day's hike in new boots, either carry the socks to go back to your old system at the first sign of discomfort, or break your feet in gradually. This is expecially true if switching to something that's more likely to rub.

You may also find changing your laces/lacing pattern helps by allowing you to lace the boot tighter in some places than others.

  • Yes all of this makes perfect sense. But the problem still arises with: how does the sock type matter independent of how it alters the fit of the boot? Meaning I have always tried to find a boot that works with thick socks as this is what one is "supposed to wear" when hiking, but it has left me with the situation where no boot really fits. If I buy these boots I really won't be able to fine tune them with thicker socks. – mrmr Apr 6 '16 at 15:40
  • sorry, I tried to edit my last note which in reply to you, but it was too late. What I was getting at regarding your point #2, if I choose the sock that I intend to wear with the boot, what criteria should I use to make that sock choice? – mrmr Apr 6 '16 at 16:56
  • That's a good question. I'd try the padded ones, if they don't work I'd try 2 thin pairs, before finally settling on one thin pair. I prefer 2 pairs but often have to add an insole or thicker footbed. If from your own experience you find that everyday socks are what works for you, then just stick with them (or something similar as you may want to avoid cotton). – Chris H Apr 6 '16 at 20:33
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  1. Try thick socks and 1 to 1.5 boot sizes larger.

In passing: I used to take a 9 or 9.5 Now I take 11. Feet keep growing.

  1. Lookup custom boots. For decades the White Boot Company in Spokane WA made custom logging/forestry boots. They were expensive, about 2.5 times the price of reasonable store bought boots, but I've had professional foresters tell me that they last several times as long.

  2. I've found that work boots generally are more generously sized than hiking boots. My present fav are 10" CAT steel toed boots. I can put on two pair of work socks in them and my feet and happy.

  3. For actual hiking, I prefer runners. I get EEEE shoes 1 full size over my everyday size, and wear a pair of polypropylene socks under a pair of medium weight work socks.

  4. for winter use, I use a pair of nylon shell with felt liner boots 3 sizes larger so that I can wear 3 pairs of work socks inside them. This combo has kept my toes happy at -55. (Toes were about the only happy part of me...)

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    I have often heard this advice to buy a boot much larger than one would normally wear, basically to accommodate a thicker sock. And I've tried that too (that's what I currently have). But my experience is that a larger boot/shoe puts the widest part of my foot behind the widest part of the boot, and also behind the natural flex point. It doesn't work for me so far. – mrmr Apr 6 '16 at 16:12

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