I can endure anything if my feet are warm, and dry is even better. I like winter sailing; not just the shoulder seasons, but also the wash-the-frost-off-the-deck cold of January and February. Unfortunately, I dislike pull-on boots and prefer the support and nimbleness I get from a lace-up deck shoe.
For me, and for many other sailors, all day comfort, foot health and knee health require the use of custom orthotics, which only fit and function properly in a lace-up shoe. Obviously, there’s a conflict.
These days I sail a Corsair F-24, a sporty boat that puts a premium on agility. When deep reaching on rough days, all it takes is a slow jibe for a trailing wave to catch us and roll through the open transom, resulting in wet feet. When sailing to weather a trip to the bow can be submarine duty.
My last boat was a cruising cat, with a quick motion under foot in rough conditions. Although the cockpit stayed dry under the hard top, a trip to the bow got you drenched with water coming up from both under and across the tramp.
I’ve found a good many non-boot solutions that work, but they all have limitations. Deck shoes with fleece or wool socks are warmish when wet, but still wet and aren’t much fun below 60F (see “Sailing Socks,” PS January 2019). Gore-Tex approach shoes with fleece socks are good for a little spray, light rain, or a little water splashing in the cockpit, but not if there is enough green water on deck to overtop them. The Gore-Tex lining will begin to leak in time, after which your $150 shoes are just sneakers. Still, I always liked them below 50F.
A drysuit with attached feet is top notch for horrible cold and wet, but although a dry suit never leaks, it will gradually get damp inside if you’re working hard, and eventually even if you aren’t, limiting its use to really wet conditions below 55F. Try on the suit with shoes before you buy; some can have an annoying wrinkle or seam and none are as comfortable as an ordinary socks (see “Soul Dry Suit 2-Year Update,” PS February 2016).
Neoprene dinghy boots can be worn with either a dry suit or fleece socks. With a dry suit they are warm in any conditions, but because of the constant squeeze they are not as comfortable as more conventional shoes and don’t really work with orthotic shoes. With fleece socks they are only so-so.
Seaboots are the traditional winter answer for good reason and nothing has changed. That’s where you will find maximum warmth and reliable dryness. Here are a couple of Practical Sailor reviews that cover the essentials:
-“Sea Boots Under $100,” PS September 2002
-“Sea Boot Camp,” PS October 2009
We tried waterproof Gore-Tex socks soon after they came out, probably 40 years ago. They cost a king’s ransom at the time and didn’t fit well, stretch much, or last long. Perhaps hiking was just too much for them, but we abandoned them when they started leaking after just a few trips. Time has passed, the product has improved by leaps and bounds, and the price has dropped to little more than comparable quality wool socks, so we thought we would give them another try.
What We Tested
We tested socks from Gill, Randy Sun, Sealskinz, and Showers Pass.
How We Tested
We tested the socks while sailing, of course, over a fall and winter season. If the weather wasn’t rough enough, we dunked our feet in the water before we started. We also wore the socks hiking in cold rain with sneakers and cycling in freezing temperatures. Normally, we wore them alone, but a few times we layered other sock beneath them, depending on the temperature and footwear fit.
Read the sizing charts. Although much more pliable than the first generation, waterproof don’t stretch as much as conventional socks and can vary considerably between brands. A men’s size 9 can be anything from small to large. Don’t oversize, but do remember that you may wear a thin sock under them. Sizing seems to allow for this.
There are countless styles, ranging from thin, low versions for runners to high insulated socks for hikers and sailors. We tested only the cold weather versions that came with merino wool inner layers.
We prefer ordinary socks in warm weather because they breath better, but if you like dry feet all year or sail in a cool water area, the thinner waterproof versions may be for you. Boot length is better in boots, and with low shoes the taller socks can keep water from wicking up your mid-layer. Mid-calf is more comfortable in moderate conditions.
Breathability is less than a normal sock, although they were never overly sweaty, even after a full day on the water at 60-70F. However, once they get wet, like any raingear that is wetted out, they don’t breath. The literature says they do, but no membrane can breathe once the surface is fully wet.
The Merino wool liners really help. Waterproof socks will take twice as long to dry as ordinary socks; you will need multiple pairs for multi-day trips. Stink seems to be a minor problem, again thanks to merino wool construction, which we strongly recommend. We could always wear them at least a half dozen times before laundering was needed.
Unlike a dry Gore-Tex shoe, they will feel squishy inside the shoe when fully soaked. Sometimes you’ll feel a cool spot, like your feet must be wet, but they aren’t. It’s just the water moving around. They are not quite as warm as dry socks, because ½ of the insulation is wet, but they are much warmer than wet socks, and you can always wear another sock under them. Even if they leak (they didn’t—we poured some water inside for testing) they remain warmer than wet socks, because like a wet suit, they hold the water in place so it can warm up.
What about some additional wind resistance in dry conditions? We compared them with wool and fleece socks cycling in freezing temperatures, a severe test of windy dry weather comfort. With shoe covers, wool and fleece socks were slightly warmer, probably because our feet were less clammy. Without the covers, waterproof socks were warmer, presumably because of better wind resistance.
|Cold Weather Knee Length Sock
|Cold Weather Knee-high
|Cross Point Mountain Sock
|Hydrotherm |Pro Socks
|80% nylon, 20% elastane
|90% nylon,10% elastane
|61% nylon, 32% polyester, 7% elastane
|Nylon, elastane blend
|97% nylon, 3% elastane
|50% merinowool, 50% acrylic
|35% merinowool, 26% polyester, 35% acrylic, 4% elastane
|66% Coolmax, 30% polyester, 4% elastane
|Merino wool blend
|35% Merino wool, 38% acrylic, 24% nylon
|PRICE, KNEE LENGTH:
Randy Sun Cold Weather Socks
Available in both knee-high and mid-calf, the mid-calf version is our favorite for cool weather wear with deck shoes. They are affordable, reach mid-calf, and are warm enough above 55F. However, the Gill Waterproof socks are much thicker and warmer.
Bottom line: We rate these a cool weather Budget Buy.
Showers Pass Cross Point Mountain Sock
These are very similar to the mid-calf Randy Sun Cold Weather Sock, they fit our shoes without changing the fit and were comfortable enough for all-day wear.
Bottom line: We wish they were a little cheaper.
Sealskinz Cold Weather Knee Length Socks
These reminded us a lot of the Gill socks, but with a little less thickness and padding. They are also the pair we have the most miles on, so they get a gold star for durability.
Bottom line: Like many Sealskinz products, they are Recommended.
Gill Boot Sock
The boot height is a full knee sock, which seems a little weird at first, but the extra elastic band at the top insures they stay up, nothing can sneak over them, and they do keep your calves warm, which is nice. Thick and luxuriously well-padded, these should make deck shoes comfortable deep into the fall unless you suffer from chronically cold feet, and through a mild winter if you have warm feet.
I’d rate them at about 40F in deck shoes, and slightly below freezing if it’s dry. You can always add a pair of fleece or merino wool socks inside them. Inside waterproof shoes or boots they add an extra level of security.
Bottom line: These are our Best Choice if you want to stay warm in all conditions.
We tested the waterproof socks in our comparison while sailing over the fall and winter season. If the weather wasn’t rough enough, we dunked our feet in the water before we started. We also wore the socks hiking in cold rain with sneakers and cycling in freezing temperatures. Normally we wore them alone, but a few times we layered other sock beneath them, depending on the temperature and footwear fit.
- Doubling up makes sense on colder days. Here boot socks are on top, and Randy cold weather socks on bottom.
- It’s easy to slip a wool sock under the waterproof sock.
- The Gill boot sock goes much further up the calf.
Dexshell Hydrotherm Pro Socks
We didn’t get to test these but a fellow sailor recommended them. They are medium thickness with a merino wool lining. His only complaint was that he wished they were boot-height. He wore another boot high pair of socks with them, noting that wicking was sometimes a problem.
Bottom line: These are good with deck shoes.
Made from 1.5 mm neoprene, NRS socks are generally watertight for a while, but after several uses the seams begin to leak. In dry conditions your feet get cold and clammy from sweat within 20 minutes. PS testing revealed very low insulation value (see “Sailing Socks,” PS January 2019) and this round of testing cemented our opinion. We wear them under swim fins for chafe protection and a bit of warmth, but that’s about it.
Bottom line: Nope. We do not recommend these for sailing use.
All winter footwear gets damp with condensed sweat. In the interest of reducing odor, increasing longevity, and having them ready to wear tomorrow, consider using a powered shoe drier for all shoes, boots, winter gloves, and waterproof socks. See “The Sailor’s Boot Drier,” PS February 2019.
We don’t have a single “best choice” for all wet conditions. For a long off-shore slog in cold weather, sea boots are the traditional choice. If you prefer the agility of deck shoes, waterproof socks can make all the difference, and we’re kicking ourselves for not trying these years ago. If it’s cool, the Randy Sun Cold Weather Socks are a great value, and when it’s cold enough that you are questioning your sanity, the Gill Boot Socks are great, with another sock under it if there is room. Now go enjoy some shoulder season sailing, without the distraction of frozen toes.