Socks: The Most Underrated Piece of Hiking Equipment

Picking the right socks can be an art because he socks you chose to wear on a hiking or backpacking trip can make or break your experience. Socks have the magical power to gently swaddle and comfort your feet as you pound along on the trail for days on end, or to rub, chafe, blister, and generally allow you to devolve into foot-pain driven madness in a matter of hours.  If you think I am joking about foot-pain driven madness, you have clearly been lucky enough to avoid such a fiasco, and I applaud you.  I, however, have not been so fortunate.

An example: once upon a time, my partner, E, and I departed on the Juan de Fuca trail.  It was the height of summer, so E thew on a pair of cotton ankle socks under his hiking boots, and off we went.  Within the first hour, the sock had chafed his foot and slipped down over his heel, so his bare heel was rubbing against the back of his boot, the arch of his foot was stepping on a rope of sock, and his forefoot was blistering on the additional bunched up material.  By the end of the first day, he was quite miserable.  I gave him my spare pair of thick wool socks to wear for the remaining days and voila: happy camper.

For happy feet, pick thick, wool socks (bottom) rather than thin, cotton athletic socks (top).

Here is the thing about socks: socks perform important functions that keep our feet safe and happy while we hike.  Socks serve to moderate the temperature of our feet, provide cushioning between our bare foot and boot, absorb the sweat our feet create without chafing and blistering, and often manage the moisture from outside that intrudes into our boots.  The right sock will serve all these functions, whereas a faulty sock will result in blisters and misery.

So what makes a great sock?  

I’m old school, so I’d argue that all great proper hiking socks are wool.  Wool moderates heat (on hot, sunny days) and stays warm when wet.  Thick wool socks can retain a lot of moisture, keeping the moisture in the sock rather than against your skin.  I would also categorically advise against cotton socks, in any form.  Cotton does not retain moisture well, and sweaty feet will end up with a layer of moisture against the foot chafing against the sock.  Cotton is also really cold when wet, so misery usually follows.  

What do I personally wear?  I am a huge convert to Smartwool, and I prefer their medium or thick, well cushioned hiking socks.  Admittedly, the socks are a little pricy, so I have a little rule for myself: Smartwool socks are only for serious hiking.  Not for wearing around the house, not for driving, not for wearing in Blundstones.  Serious. Hiking. Only.  I also have a small trick to keep my feet extra comfortable: nylon liners.  I put a pair of nylon sock liners against my skin and cover those with a thick pair of wool socks.  The nylon liners wick the sweat away from my feet and the wool socks absorb the moisture, so my feet stay quite dry, even after 10 hours of slogging along.  I really recommend that you give it a try.

Ultimately, picking socks comes down to what you need to comfortable, and that can be an iterative process. Try out a few different pairs (preferably not on the first day of a multi-day adventure) and see what your feet need to be comfortable. There are some alternatives to cotton and wool socks, and I admit I haven’t explored them too much. Get a pair and test them out on a local, low-risk hike, and see what you think!  

Socks as a crucial and underrated piece of hiking equipment. The right sock will protect you from pain and keep your feet happy as you enjoy the wilderness and complete your next big hike with comfortable, safe feet. I’d love to know how you pick your socks, what you’ve tried and has worked, and what hasn’t worked!

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