Compression socks for hiking are, in general terms, designed to gently squeeze legs a bit more than typical socks.
Compression socks have long been used in medical situations, where the main aim is to promote better blood circulation in the legs. Patients who show, or have the potential for, poor vein (venous) function are often advised to wear compression socks. Medical conditions that may require compression socks include, diabetes, deep vein thrombosis, varicose veins, leg ulcers, leg swelling and circulatory problems.
Another example of their more traditional use is when travelling on a plane and sitting for long periods. The aim, again, is to boost blood flow in vulnerable areas of the body where blood clots might occur.
In more recent times, compression products have become more commonplace in the athletics world, especially for runners and walkers. Most people will already be aware of tight fitting lycra and spandex shorts and leggings that are said to offer compression benefits for muscles – and compression socks are another addition to this wardrobe of products that are thought to aid performance.
For walkers, compression socks have become an increasingly common sight. They are usually knee-high and it’s claimed that wearing compression socks for hiking offers better support for the lower legs, especially calf muscles, as well as boosting endurance and stamina while walking and reducing the potential for injuries.
But sure, you are probably thinking, don’t the best hiking socks offer good support in the first place? In answer to this, yes they do to an extent but compression socks for hiking are are specifically designed to more snugly support your feet and lower leg, complementing the support of your best hiking boots and best hiking shoes. To do this effectively, many compression socks use an extra ingredient called spandex, a synthetic fabric that is prized for its elasticity.
Compression socks may also feature a graduated compression or they could have areas of more focused pressure, such as around the calves or the mid-foot. There is a sister product, compression sleeves, which are like a sock but without the foot.
Compression socks for hiking: the science of blood flow
Most people have a general idea that the heart pumps oxygen-rich blood to muscles and limbs through the arteries.
Once the cells have used up the oxygen and nutrients in the blood, the de-oxygenated blood and other waste products go into the veins, which are then channelled back into the heart.
After the de-oxygenated blood has made its way back to the heart, it is oxygenated again from the lungs. This process continues over and over.
It’s claimed that compression socks help to circulate blood more efficiently through the legs, which means blood returns to the heart faster.
The faster the blood is flowing, the better your circulatory functions and the better this process is, the more oxygen gets to your cells.
How do compressions socks benefit hikers?
Compression socks usually have graduated compression, which means they are tighter lower down the leg and looser higher up, or just below the knee.
They are claimed to be designed to help legs battle the effects of gravity by pushing blood back up to the heart. The pressure created by the socks pushes fluid up the leg and therefore increases blood flow to the heart.
The benefit claims include enhanced oxygen delivery; decreased lactic acid; and prevention of cramping.
Who are compression socks for?
Anyone can choose to wear compression socks for hiking if they want to. There is, in short, no good reason not to. For people with varicose veins or those who are prone to tight calf muscles, there could be greater benefits.
Many walkers – and runners – who hike long distances swear by compression socks because they say they aid endurance by decreasing the stress and strain on muscles.
Other hikers will tell you that they recover quicker from a tough day of walking, especially long-distance (see: what is thru-hiking?) or on a route with lots of steep ascent, if they wear compression socks during and after their activity.
Another reason to wear compression socks could be if you suffer with swollen lower legs when walking. It is important to ensure you have taken on board adequate water during a hike in warm conditions because this is also a reason why swelling can occur, but compression socks can also be an aid.
Compression socks for hiking: is there any evidence of the benefits?
Studies show varying results as to whether or not compression socks can improve performance due to increased blood flow. One piece of research conducted on runners concluded that wearing compression clothing may slightly improve variables related to endurance performance due to improvements in running economy, biomechanical variables, perception and muscle temperature. It found, too, that there could be some benefit from reduced muscle pain, damage, and inflammation.
Likewise, another study found that compression clothing in general “may assist athletic performance and recovery”.
Meanwhile, research on the effects on athletes of wearing “undersized lower body compression garments”, found that while they products offered some benefits thanks to to improvements in venous flow, this did not correspond to any improvement in endurance running performance.
Anecdotally, the evidence is a wide ranging, too, with some people reporting they never head out for a long run or walk without wearing their favourite compression socks for hiking, and others saying they found no benefits whatsoever. There is further anecdotal evidence that compression socks can help to reduce your potential for muscle cramping.
Perhaps the most interesting potential benefits of compression socks is after exercise. Studies that monitor the effects of compression socks on athletes during rest have had some positive outcomes.
The pressure of the socks and the increases in venous blood flow during recovery has been shown to reduce muscle soreness, or DOMS (Delayed On Set Muscle Soreness).
There is also some evidence that compression socks can help to speed up recovery by more quickly clearing blood lactate, but this also refers to wearing the socks after a workout.
How to choose compression socks
Compression socks for hikers and runners are usually rated for the level of compression so you should choose a design that suits your activity.
Sizing, especially around the calf, is important, too, and you will normally be given a choice of circumference when buying compressions socks.
The aim is for a neat-fitting sock but not one that feels over-tight or uncomfortable.
Note that compressions socks can feel tight when putting them on but then they should fit neatly and snugly.
It might be worth trying compression socks for hiking for different walking routes to see if they make a difference to your endurance, comfort and recovery process.
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Fiona Russell is a widely published adventure journalist and blogger, better known as Fiona Outdoors. She is based in Scotland and is an all-round outdoors enthusiast with favorite activities including trail running, mountain walking, mountain biking, road cycling, triathlon and skiing (both downhill and backcountry). Aside from her own adventures, Fiona's biggest aim is to inspire others to enjoy getting outside and exploring, especially through her writing. She is also rarely seen without a running skort! Find out more at Fiona Outdoors.