Why wear socks? Opinions differ widely in what functionality a backpacking sock should deliver, but the main candidate functions are warmth, cushioning and a reduction in abrasion/blistering from foot-shoe contact and grit. There are also more niche areas of potential functionality, such as moisture management or blister reduction (e.g. toe socks).
Of these, I’m not a believer in sock cushioning at all. The potential cushioning in a sock seems minor – perhaps a few millimeters (1/8″) – and is likely trivial compared to the cushioning present in the trail and in hiking shoes (of which I’m also not convinced). I suspect sock cushioning packs down to almost nothing after not that many miles, and thus is both trivial and ephemeral. Cushioning also negatively impacts weight and drying time. For sweat management cushioning is a double edged sword, as is increases sweat absorption capacity but also increases sweating via added insulation. Combined with slower drying time after washing, I think cushioning has a net negative effect on foot dryness.
I also think that warmth is not a substantive consideration for 3 season sock use, so my 3-season sock thesis is that their primary purpose is to act a sleeve around your foot to reduce abrasion with the shoe and with grit that inevitably enters. If it wasn’t for this, I guess I wouldn’t wear socks in the summer. Some people do run or hike without socks, but I end up with abraded spots on my feet on long days.
I also find that my feet are more blister prone when they are hot and sweaty, so I like my socks thin to reduce heat buildup, and if I have enough socks, I like to change them out mid-day for dry ones. This also calls for thin socks, as these are less insulating and I can bring more pairs for the same weight.
Ideal Sock / Sock Strategy
If what I want in a 3-season sock is basically a thin foot sleeve, then the ideal sock should achieve this while being as cheap, light and durable as possible. There’s no merit in socks that are extra thick or knee high.
I find drying time quite important, as I like to wash my socks and then dry them outside of the pack while hiking. On a long trip, my typical strategy is carrying three pairs of socks. With this approach, I can be wearing one pair, drying another pair and I have a third pair ready for the next day for instances when rain thwarts my attempts to dry one pair. Alternatively, in nice weather this allows me to wash every 2nd day instead of daily.
Why Darn Tough
I’ve used socks from a lot of the major manufacturers: SmartWool, Drymax, Injinji, Fox River and PhD. I like Darn Tough socks the best because they satisfy all of my above criteria at least as well as any other brand, plus their no hassles warranty when you wear them out is great. You just stroll into any Darn Tough vendor with no receipt, show them worn out socks and they’ll let you swap them out (Update: This policy has changed as of 2017. Now you have to mail them in – a bummer on a long hike but not surprising since dealers along long trails were getting their stock cleaned out without many sales).
If you can manage not to roast them over a campfire – as I did for two pairs this past winter – you can theoretically satisfy your sock needs for life with just a couple pairs that are priced similarly to other brands. So over time Darn Tough’s can be a lot cheaper.
With that said, the ethics of warranting socks that have served you well are a bit murky. A few years ago the packaging for Darn Tough socks used to read:
“If you can wear these socks out, we’ll replace them. Free of charge. No questions asked. For life.”
But in the last couple years they’ve changed it to:
“If our socks are not the most comfortable, durable and best fitting socks you have ever owned, return them for another pair.”
So the clear allowance of wear as a reason for warrantying them is gone. Personally, I’m fine warrantying Darn Tough socks I bought under the old warranty – over and over for ever – since that was the deal when I first bought them, but I’m not so sure about buying a new pair and doing this. I find it difficult to claim with a good conscience that a hiking sock with no flaw other than holes after 500 miles has failed any of the three criteria that are now listed. Of course Darn Tough still seems to warranty all worn socks without hassle, so the ethical choice is yours.
I switched to Darn Tough’s early on during my PCT Thru-Hike and they lasted ~1800 miles using a 2 pair strategy, which were replaced once. The first set was replaced after 800 miles when they just had tiny holes because I was in a trail town with a Darn Tough vendor which are rare on the PCT. I put 1000 miles on the second set, at which point they were pretty destroyed (see below). So that’s about 400 miles per pair of actual use until holes started and 500 miles until they’re toast. In all cases, when the socks did wear out it was a gradual thinning of the bottom until slowly holes started, so it was easy to see coming.
I replaced my second set when I was done the PCT and used them until 6 months ago when they were still fine but I accidentally got BBQ’d over a campfire. Just today I bought 3 more pairs to gear up for an upcoming thru-hike next summer.
Which Darn Tough’s?
DarnTough sells socks in a number of cushioning levels (UL, light, regular, full, extra) with a number of sock heights (from the no show tabs to full height) and in two materials (regular, which is about half merino and half synthetic, or CoolMax, which is all synthetic). In short, you want the ultralight no show ones.
My recent order is my first time trying CoolMax, so I can’t speak to that material other than saying it weighs about the same, but I can discuss cushioning and sock height. In a comparison between the ultralight and light cushioned socks, the ultralights are way lighter and much faster drying. In the “no show tab” height, my ultralights weigh 26g per pair (0.9oz) while my light cushion pair weighs 49g (1.70z), which is 88% heavier (in mens medium). So with the ultralights you can carry nearly twice as many pairs for the same weight and they probably dry twice as fast, so having a clean, dry pair on hand is much easier.
The sock height situation is similar, with an innocent sounding difference nearly doubling the weight. Comparing socks in the ultralight cushioning, the “no show tabs” are 26g (0.9oz) while the 1/4 ankle version is 50g (1.8oz). This ankle band is really thick and slow drying, for little advantage. So with the “no show tabs” you can carry twice as many pairs for the same weight, or the same number of pairs for half the weight.
If you were to opt for both the light cushioning and 1/4 ankle height – which sounds like a reasonable choice for light backpacking sock – you’d be choosing a ~70g/pair socks (estimated) with inferior functionality (drying time) to the 26g/pr ultralight no show tabs. With the UL no show’s, you can carry my suggested strategy of 3 pairs of socks for only 76g and have a great set of durable, fast drying socks.
The No Show Tab Ultralights are the stand out socks in the Darn Tough line for lightweight backpacking. For $16/pair you can have great fitting, long lasting, fast drying socks that are good for 400 miles per pair.
Disclaimer: None. These are just great socks that I like.
I have found that my feet get tender a little more easily than others, and the little bit of extra cushioning can actually make a big difference to me. I think a not trivial part of this is that the cushioning can ‘eat up’ little rocks and sand — this could probably be prevented/circumvented if I had some lightweight gaiters and stopped using brooks cascadia’s which develop holes really quickly. You make a really good point about sock height… not sure why I used full length socks with trail runners. Probably a case of not thinking critically on my part.
In a side note. My wife and I did a near thru hike of the PCT (a few photos at http://scapehart.tumblr.com/) this year and were at least in small part inspired by your (and your wife’s) blog. We found your perspective resonated with us. Too many blogs either alter the reality of a thru hike by ignoring any difficult times, or turn into a whiny bitch fest of misery. For us, your perspective was realistic enough about the difficulties, while also keeping in mind that overall the experience would undoubtedly be something of great value. We look forward to reading about future escapades. Cheers.
It is important to know your own feet. My feet prune up a lot more than average when wet (whereas my wife’s feet hardly prune at all), so I need to be more careful with blisters in the wet (e.g. I’d rather take my shoes off for a creek crossing if the trail is otherwise dry because getting the shoes wet often means a blister). With regards to sand and little rocks, this abrades my feet without socks (I’m not sure how some people run barefoot) but even a thin sock solves this for me.
I’ve never liked those mini-gaiters. With lightweight runners I find I still get sand/grit coming in through the mesh of the shoe, so the gaiter doesn’t change that much, and it’s a hassle to put on and keep track of when it’s not on. So I keep things simple without them and it works for me.
I’m glad you enjoyed our PCT blog. My wife was pretty up and down on the trail – but really stoked in the last 1/3. She wanted to quit quite a few times in NorCal. There was about a month where she was semi-bummed out. My spirits tend to be more stable rather than soaring to the same heights and sinking to the same depths, so I was pretty happy to keep going but there were a few times T announced that she was quitting. Looking back on it now, she says it’s the best thing she ever did.
We’ve got another thru-hike planned for next summer. We’re getting really excited about it. It’s a yo-yo of the Canadian Rockies, which hasn’t been done before and will be tricky to pull off in the shorter hiking season.
Yeah, the section between Sierra City and Shasta took a little more, ahem, ‘dedication’ than we expected.
Best of luck on the yo-yo. Sounds ambitious, scary, and therefore fun. You will have at least two readers for what (if anything) you/your wife post about it. And if there is anything a USA resident can do to help just let me know. (I managed to royally screw up my back by not doing my PT exercises while hiking, so I will be enjoying backpacking vicariously through others for the next year or so).
Thanks. It’s great to have people follow along. I’ll be posting here and my wife at her blog (Intobohemia.ca).
Good luck with that back. Hopefully it whips into shape quickly.