Selecting Shoes and Socks: Advice for Mature Travellers

Walking–we typically perform this motor function without any thought for our body movement or concern for our feet! Yet, transitioning from general activity to a walking and hiking tour means, in addition to adding exercise or a fitness regimen before you depart, choosing the right footwear.

This article looks at the importance of socks and shoes in keeping you mobile and active without problems or aches and pains from your feet. The transition from reasonable levels of activity in the home environment to several hours or walking and standing per day  means you should consider your footwear including socks as part of your holiday or vacation wardrobe.

Odyssey Traveller commenced offering small group tours in 1983, and the stories around the water cooler suggest that Odyssey’s leaders have encountered a lot of inappropriate footwear, from thin plimsoles on rocky terrain, to stilettos on cobblestones.  This article seeks to give advice to assist you with preparations in advance of  your holiday about choosing the best footwear for your holiday.

Choosing socks

Walking and hiking shoes socks

Whether you are on a walking or hiking program or a discovery program with Odyssey Traveller you should review and possibly replenish your sock collection for this and future holidays you may consider taking.

There are plenty of configuration of socks on the market and this advice applies equally to men and women–the best thread choice for socks is merino wool with a blend of nylon and spandex.

1. Why is Merino wool the best material for hiking and walking?

Walking and hiking shoes socks

Merino wool is sourced from sheep that like to live in the extreme mountain environments, e.g. New Zealand’s southern alps. This wool is extremely comfortable and does not generate the scratchy itchiness of yesteryear’s woollen socks. Merino wool socks also draws moisture away from the skin, allowing the skin to breath in the shoe and regulating temperature, even more so when in a gortex-lined shoe. The other advantage of Merino wool is that this wool takes much longer to acquire that dreaded worn-sock smell before being washed.

For comparison, cotton socks are a heavier material, absorbs moisture, and doesn’t dry when wet. Whilst polyester may keep you cool, it tends to smell very quickly if it is not washed regularly.

Looking at the fabric blend in choosing socks, the mix tends to be between 50 to 80%. The balance is a variable blend of nylon, Lycra, elastane or spandex. The additives give the sock its flexibility and stretch to fit as well as lasting longer than the Merino wool. Synthetic polyester fibres do not absorb moisture at the same rate as wool and therefore require less drying time for a freshly washed pair of socks.

If you want to go deep on detail, then the Merino wool thread varies in thickness. However, a thick thread or high Merino content does not mean that they are the best and most comfortable sock for the journey.  Reviewers such as those at Switch Back Travel make the point that weave density and a Merino wool content of 61% produces a sock that tend to hold their shape and last longer than the others that the team reviewed.

2. Knee-high, crew or quarter-height socks

Do you notice the difference sock length makes on your walk? Knee-high socks are historically the choice of walkers and hikers. Today manufacturing technology allows for a diversity of material and types of socks to be produced. Today there are three distinct options for walkers and hikers:

  • Traditional knee-high socks, great for when extra warmth is required
  • Crew socks
  • Quarter-height or ankle socks

For summer walks in warm temperate or Mediterranean environments, crew or quarter-height socks are likely to be the most appropriate. However if you have selected any cut of walking shoe other than low cut then chafing is very likely to be a problem.

3. Sock thickness

Typically socks for hiking and walking come in four thickness levels:

  1. Ultralight
  2. Lightweight
  3. Mid-weight
  4. Heavy-weight

For summer walking in the UK and Europe a lightweight sock would suit. If you suffer from hot feet, then consider a mix of ultralight and lightweight socks.

Ultralight socks can quickly become threadbare within a few months of wear, becoming thinner across the ball of the foot. Ultralight socks can also result in chafing and potential blisters as the level of padding is comparably less than other socks.

Lightweight socks should be considered as the perfect sock for hiking and walking in temperatures up to the mid-20’s Celsius (low-80’s Fahrenheit) . The lightweight version of socks selected should provide good padding and insulation to the foot. Another option to consider is the ¼ length lightweight sock, with less coverage on the leg will keep you cooler and the padding on the sole will cushion the foot on long walks.

Mid-weight & heavyweight socks–For Odyssey Traveller’s walking programs, these types of socks are going to be too hot for the foot for walking and hiking in, and are best avoided for the spring, summer and autumn periods, which are when Odyssey Traveller offers it small-group tours. In normal temperatures your feel will sweat, leaving your feet damp and potentially chafed if your walking shoes are  too big for you.

4. Caring for you socks

Walking and hiking shoes socks

Air drying on the line is the best way of looking after your socks after being washed in the regular wash cycle. Putting socks in the dryer, particularly those socks with a higher merino wool content will still result in your favourite pair of socks shrinking. To this end a cold or warm wash cycle is best for your hiking and walking socks to extend their life.

Walking and Hiking Shoes

Walking and hiking shoes socks

This section seeks to remove for the novice to the experienced walker some of the apparent mystery that has emerged in shoe design for hikers and walkers, when strides in materials and design have leapt ahead in the last few years. For decades, the 1.5 kg leather lump with screw in soles on each foot was the only choice!

The best walking and hiking pair of shoes will result in an extremely comfortable fit that lets the kilometres (or miles) just float away underfoot! The following paragraphs set out some tips and advice in selecting a suitable shoe for your hiking or walking program with Odyssey Traveller.

5. Comfort is key

Over the next few paragraphs many items that make up a shoe will be discussed to at least give you an awareness as to how the shoe should feel and how the constituent parts come together in the making of a shoe.  Ultimately though, the shoes must be comfortable, as you will spend several hours each day in these shoes over a 17- to 20-day period if you embark on an Odyssey Traveller educational tour.

So the coveted day-glo pink may win you prizes with the granddaughter, but how do they actually feel?  To assist with the feel process, make sure you are wearing your selected pair of walking or hiking socks when you visit the store, or try on your online purchase right away after you receive it.

The comfort, as you will read, is almost instantaneous. The old advice that you need to break shoes in with several kilometres of walking is no longer applicable. Today’s purchase will be ready for kilometres pretty much out of the box. Blisters and chafing are more likely to be the effect of incorrect sock choice than breaking shoes in. So before you join your program do spend some time wearing the shoes to adjust to any chafing points before the tour starts and place band aids over those points where rubbing occurs.

6. Do you need hiking boots?

Walking and hiking shoes socks

Today, footwear choices are more eclectic as designers and suppliers continue to segment the market to meet the needs of the instant walker. Choice is extensive from boots and low-top hiking shoes to trail runners, along with the movement away from leather to synthetics that match leather for performance but are lighter and more breathable. Development in support and foot protection for the walker round out the major changes in hiking and walking shoes for all demographics.

The general advice to mature and senior travellers looking to change or replace their footwear is look to purchase hiking boots if you need ankle support and the terrain is dicey.  Consider hiking or walking shoes if you like a reasonably stiff shoe and stability underfoot but keep your ankles free and you feet feeling light. Trail running shoes are for the athlete seeking to cover distances each day and are not considered as an option for Odyssey Traveller’s market.

7. Waterproofing: yes or no?

The ideal hiking or walking shoe will include breathable gortex. This is a system that pushes hot air and moisture from the inside of the shoe to the external environment through permeable parts of the shoe in relevant areas to keep the foot cool. However, given that Odyssey Traveller tours tends to walk in fair weather, the benefit of non-waterproof shoes with advanced breathability provides comfort on days in the low to mid-20’s Celsius and can still cope with a heavy shower. A waterproofed hiking or walking shoe will add cost to your budget.

8. Ankle support and stability in the older walker

Saint James way, Spain
Walking the pilgrimage track of Saint James Way, Spain

A pair of lightweight shoes that will also allow you to explore historic towns and cities are a great idea, but you will loose lateral stability on uneven surfaces. This can be traded off with some walking poles, or if you have weak ankles and know the terrain will be rocky and uneven, buy a pair of hiking and walking boots.

9. Natural vs synthetic uppers

Leather may be a fine material, but for comfort and weight a hiking or walking shoe that is all synthetic or a combination of leather and synthetics is suggested. As we wrote previously, the need to break a shoe in before embarking on a multi-day walk is consigned to history. Today’s shoes are pretty much good to go right out of the box.

10. Understanding shoe construction and the role of the midsoles

Designers apply two different approaches to the midsole that will influence the comfort and ride of the walking or hiking shoe. The midsole is the layer that is sandwiched between the sole of the shoe and the insole. The insole being the layer that your foot rests on when you put the shoe on.

The two midsole foam materials are EVA and TPU.

  • EVA (Ethylene vinyl acetate) is a foam and is typically used in lightweight shoes and boots. It has a habit of wearing down quickly, weighs less than TPU and is soft and comfortable.
  • TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) is a hard plastic material. It absorbs impact from walking and does not compress over time.

Commentators explain that the material in the midsole is just one part of the overall achieved comfort for a shoe. The shank (see #14) is also an important contributor to the level of comfort achieved.

11. The sole of your walking and hiking shoe

Tread design varies and in recent years tyre companies such as Michelin and Continental have been providing their technology to the design of the soles of these shoes.

A soft compound will put more vibration into your joints when you walk over hard surfaces. A quick fingernail test will give you an idea of overall softness v hardness of the sole. A softer sole indicates more grip, spacing out of lugs will give more traction on the descent.

12. Toe caps

Proper toe protection is often a reason to upgrade shoes. A pair of well-made walking and hiking shoes will include as part of the design a thick rubber band that covers the front and sides of your foot. This is protection for your feet from stubbing your toes on rocks and tree roots encountered when walking.

When considering which shoes to buy, this is an important feature to consider.

13. Shank

A shank gives the walking or hiking shoe rigidity. Lightweight or trail running shoes will typically not have a shank.  Contemporary hiking and walking shoes or boots will either have a full length shank or a ¾ length shank. A full length shank typically made of plastic provides rigidity to stop your heel from dropping down and reducing muscle fatigue in your calf. The ¾ shank is considered by many reviewers as a good compromise between rigidity and flexibility in the shoe.

14. Lacing system

Walking and hiking shoes socks

Avoid gimmicks. A badly fitting shoe can blister the heel or cause planar fasciata which can often take months to rectify through intense stretching to re-adjust the length of tendons.

Often we need to customise the lace to get a good fit. Gimmicks such as a one-pull lacing system apply a universal tightening to the entire shoe, creating problems particularly with mature and senior walkers whose feet are often wider than the designer envisaged which will lead to walking problems.

We would suggest a typical lace-up walking or hiking shoe.

15. Care of your walking or hiking shoes

Walking and hiking shoes socks

Your walking and hiking shoes should last for a couple of  thousand kilometres of wear. If you are walking 6 to 10 km/day for leisure and travel, then 6-9 month replacement cycle from urban wear is not an unreasonable expectation for a lightweight low-top pair of shoes.

Your shoes though will benefit from a clean and wipe over with a soft damp cloth and good airing in the sun to freshen them up on a regular basis. Everyday wear for three weeks on an Odyssey Traveller walking program will push the shoe to the extreme, but 10 to 14 hours of time off the foot and drying out will give the shoes time for the material to recover for the following day’s activities. To accelerate the drying out process, newspaper remains the perfect material. Just stuff them into your shoes to get them ready for tomorrow’s walk or hike with your contemporaries and program leader.

About Odyssey Traveller

Travel in your 80s

Odyssey Traveller is committed to charitable activities that support the environment and cultural development of Australian and New Zealand communities. We specialise in educational small group tours for seniors, typically groups between six to 15 people. Odyssey has been offering this style of adventure and educational programs since 1983.

We are also pleased to announce that since 2012, Odyssey has been awarding $10,000 Equity & Merit Cash Scholarships each year. We award scholarships on the basis of academic performance and demonstrated financial need. We award at least one scholarship per year. We’re supported through our educational travel programs, and your participation helps Odyssey achieve its goals.

For more information on Odyssey Traveller and our educational small group tours, visit our website. Alternatively, please call or send an email. We’d love to hear from you!

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