People often say footwear is a hiker’s most important piece of gear, and with the exception of safety and weather related necessities I would have to agree. With the wrong socks, your feet will be angry, so let’s talk about wool for a minute.
Wool is the outdoorswoman’s best friend when it comes to fabrics, no matter the season or the garment, but especially for those right-next-to-the-skin items like base layers and socks, because of these many magical properties:
- Moisture wicking
- Odor resistant
- Stain resistant
- Fire resistant
The slight crimp in the fibers creates little air pockets that serve as insulation barriers and give the garment greater warmth. When you wear wool, it regulates your body temperature the same way it does when it’s on a sheep: as your body temperature rises, the wool has the ability to transfer moisture and heat along each fiber and release it into the cooler, drier air. But when it’s cold outside, it traps the heat in.
For any weather situation in which sweat is a possibility, wool is the answer. Lightweight summer wool wicks moisture away from the skin, keeping you cool and dry; in the winter, exercise can complicate things, because you have cold air and a hot body, covered in a fine sheen of sweat, which leads to chills once you stop moving and the cold wind hits you. But wool evens all of this out. If you only read one sentence of this article, let it be this: don’t wear cotton.
Though protected from the wind, rain, and other elements in your boots, your feet are one of the most sweat-producing parts of the body and also one of the most important on a long trek. Your job is to treat them as best as you can. Good hiking foot care includes a well-fitting boot, keeping toenails short, emptying debris from your boots as needed, breaking in new leather boots slowly, possibly using orthotics or padded insoles, and preventing blisters. This last bit is where socks come in.
Most everyone has had a blister before, so you probably know how annoying and painful and distracting they can be. Your main sock goal is to prevent blisters, and that’s why we spent so much time talking about wool.
The main contributors to blisters are:
- Cotton socks, trapping sweat and keeping your feet wet (can be anywhere, often ball of foot)
- Sweat and friction in between toes
- Shoes too tight, constricting your foot (usually big toe joint)
- Shoes too loose, creating friction as they slip (usually heel)
- A seam or other manufacturing issue abrading the bony surfaces of your feet (usually instep)
Some people prefer liner socks to cut down on friction, and there are some great double-layer socks on the market that serve the same purpose. The idea is that the first sock absorbs moisture, and the second sock rubs on the first sock instead of on your skin. Some liner socks have individual toes, so if between-toe blisters are your issue, those might be your solution. Wearing a liner sock is a completely personal preference and not at all necessary, but try it, play around with it, see what works.
A good hiking sock can seem pricey, but for the comfort they provide and the pain they prevent, they are priceless.
The main styles are:
- No-show (below the ankle bone)
- Ankle (just over the ankle bone)
- Crew (between ankle and calf)
- Knee (hits just below the kneecap)
What you wear will be dependent on weather and personal preference. When it’s cold, there’s nothing cozier than a wool sock that covers your entire calf muscle, but you’ll probably fluctuate between ankle and crew. Some people love no-shows with their trail runners, but I always feel like they’re sliding down even when they aren’t. If you were going to get one pair to start with, the crew will be your most versatile and can be worn with footwear of any ankle height.
Different weights for different purposes:
- Liner socks: Thin almost like pantyhose, these are normally made of silk, nylon, poly, or wool, and have their origins back in the day of bad socks (when cotton and itchy hairy wool were a hiker’s main options). Nowadays most socks perform well enough on their own and don’t require liners, but a lot of people, especially distance runners, swear by them.
- Thin socks: For summer or hot-footed folks, these have little in the way of cushion but protect your feet while staying cool.
- Light cushioning: Padding in the toe and heel gives you cushion without adding too much overall mass to your foot. Good for folks with recurring toenail loss, toe bang, or heel pain.
- Medium cushioning: Good for cooler days, these are a little thicker; if your boot is already verging on too snug, these might push them over the edge. If you know this is your favorite weight sock, definitely bring them with when you go boot shopping as they have the potential to push you toward the next half-size.
- Mountaineering socks: Knee-height and thick, these are for glacier travel, midnight start times, and hanging out at cold basecamps. Meant for frigid temps, long days, and use in mountaineering boots, these bad boys are cushioned, durable, and super warm.
Some of our favorite brands are Darn Tough, REI, Smartwool, Injinji, Bombas, and Farm to Feet. Darn Tough has an unconditional lifetime guarantee that if they should tear (fire and dogs playing with them are not covered) or if their socks aren’t the most comfortable, durable, best fitting sock you’ve ever owned, you can send them back and get a replacement pair, no questions asked.
A good hike starts from the feet up, and there’s no point in wearing bad socks with great boots—so while you’re putting your boot game together, be sure to put some thought into your socks. Your feet will love you for it and reward you by carrying you many blister-free miles.
Wendy Harrington is a California native who has lived in a small town at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state since 2001. Her love of trail running and peakbagging has led her to summit all five Washington volcanoes, climb to the high points of three states, and put nearly a thousand miles a year on her boots. Her loves include ridgelines, saddles, granite, one-day pushes on big mountains, anything volcanic, long solo days, and objectives that push limits and test endurance.