In May 2018, I attended my first Appalachian Trail Days in Damascus, Virginia, repping the Darn Tough brand. I had thru-hiked the trail the summer before and was eager to get back out there to talk socks and meet up with friends.
The event celebrates the trail and its culture and attracts tens of thousands of past and current thru-hikers, brands and vendors, and other outdoor enthusiasts. It’s chaotic, in a good way. While I was excited to sell socks and service warranty claims on the spot, I was keen to educate folks on updating their trail experience with a better fitting, comfortable, technical, and durable sock.
During my thru-hike the summer before, I was surprised to see how many hikers were wearing cheap, non-hiking “regular socks,” often made of cotton and other less desirable sock fibers. As an employee of a premium hiking sock brand (in fact, the most worn sock brand on the Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest Trails), it is easy to forget just how many trekkers hike in socks that are actively working against them.
My time at Trail Days was the same. I witnessed many thru-hikers and day hikers in socks not up to the task of a hike of any length, as well as a lot of Darn Tough socks not designed for hiking.
One of the principal rules of hiking, especially multiple-day outings, is to take care of your feet. This means keeping your feet dry, warm in cold weather, and cool in hot weather with no sock slipping or bunching. The question is, do you need hiking socks to do that?
Today I’m going to share why you should wear hiking socks when out on the trail and why they make a difference for your journey.
Socks as an Integral Part of Your Footwear System
If you’ve seen any of my previous posts, you likely have read this before: You can have the best, most technical footwear in the world, but your feet are not going to be happy if you have the wrong socks.
The “wrong” socks can be a bad quality product. Please don’t lose sight, however, that it’s also possible to have quality socks made for something different. For example, I wouldn’t choose a loose-fitting lounge/slipper sock to hike in. Or a pair of dress socks. I also wouldn’t wear a heavyweight super-cushioned sock in my ski boot, as that would throw off the fit. You get my point.
Most people know the benefits of proper hiking footwear: appropriate support and comfort, traction, breathability, waterproofness, etc. In the end, however, socks are what directly touch your feet, not your shoes. Why, then, should socks be viewed differently than your footwear?
I recommend wearing socks designed for the activity at hand, just as one wears specific footwear. For example, you wouldn’t wear a running shoe to go skiing, or vice versa. You will better succeed with the proper footwear, and, in turn, that footwear will perform best when paired with the right socks.
This brings me to another important (and often repeated) principle: You should consider your socks part of a larger footwear system. This “system” includes everything between your feet and the ground: socks (including liner socks if you wear them, though we have some thoughts, shoes or boots, special insoles, gaiters, microspikes, snowshoes, or whatever else you’re sliding over those toes, lacing up, or buckling on.
It is vital to have a systems-minded approach to your gear. If your socks are too bulky for your shoes, you could create pinch-points or hot spots. The opposite is also true; too thin socks can leave space for your feet to slide around, creating hot spots through friction and causing foot fatigue. It will help if you give your feet enough room to move naturally in your hiking boots or trail shoes, but not too much space that could lead to slipping or sliding.
Socks designed around a performance fit with hiking footwear will help you accomplish the ideal fit. We can dive into some particular features next.
At this point, I’m sure it’s clear why you shouldn’t reach into your sock drawer for any old socks for hiking. But why do hiking socks make a difference?
As mentioned above, hiking socks fit and perform in hiking footwear in specific ways for the best possible time on the trail. You can check out a comprehensive list of the many design, fit, and technical considerations you can (and should!) consider in my previous post, “How to Choose Hiking Socks.” Still, as a quick overview, all Darn Tough hiking socks include the following:
- Cushioned Comfort (for long miles)
- Superior Durability (for years of use, backed with a Lifetime Guarantee)
- Performance Fit (no slipping, bunching, or blisters!)
- High-Density Knitting (assisting both Performance Fit and Durability)
- Moisture Management (for help with sweaty feet)
- Thermoregulation (for any weather)
- True Seamless™ Toe (for that good, smooth feel)
These features don’t happen by mistake or in any old socks. Properly incorporating technical features into hosiery takes years of proprietary know-how and, from a fiber standpoint, thousands of years of testing in nature (thank you, sheep!).
Why Wool Socks for Hiking
Material is a crucial differentiator between performance socks and non-performance (or, dare I say, junk) socks. Fiber makes a massive difference in your hike. The old adage, “Cotton Kills,” has truth to it.
Please avoid cotton on the trail, as it holds moisture and does not regulate temperature or odor. Your hiking shoes or boots will be useless if filled with hours of foot sweat. Many synthetic materials can only go so far and can smell.
Darn Tough specifically features Merino Wool from Merino sheep, which is naturally soft, durable, moisture-wicking, thermoregulating, and odor resistant. Merino is softer than other wools, without the scratch of older, less refined materials. Reinforcing this Merino with Nylon in high-wear zones for added durability and Spandex for a performance fit only makes the Merino Wool hiking socks better.
Another critical use of Merino in Darn Tough’s Hiking Socks is Cushioning, knit into the sock as Terry Loops for multi-day comfort, shock absorption, durability, and added material for thermoregulation and wicking of moisture.
Using Non-hiking Darn Tough Socks on Trail
Do they perform? Well, yes, they are Darn Tough socks, after all. However, these non-hiking socks are designed for their own specific uses, just as Hiking socks are designed for hiking, with a precise fit and feature set in mind.
Have I hiked in running socks or ski socks? Yes, but only when I feel fancy-free and out for a short excursion. For the best possible experience for your feet, I return to my earlier point to pair socks and footwear together for their intended purpose.
Other Uses for Hiking Socks
With the best-selling socks from Darn Tough being hiking designs, I’d be kidding myself if I thought people wore them only for that purpose. Our hiking socks are as functional as they are stylish, so admittedly, I wear a pair of hiking socks nearly every day as my go-tos for work and play. If a Darn Tough hiking sock can handle thousands of rugged miles, they ought to hold up for other uses, too.
Some favorite non-hiking activities for wearing Hiking socks include walking for fitness, camping, and running or working out (when you need something a little thicker than Darn Tough Run or Athletic socks).
With all the Merino and other fiber benefits and knit-in technical features I mention earlier, Hiking socks will get the job done. Throw them on in the garden, too, or around the house.
This may seem to contradict my earlier statements about using the right socks for a specific purpose. However, common sense allows some wiggle room. You can use rugged, technical socks for less-rugged (or as rugged!) tasks. For instance, you can tech-out your day at the office in a pair of flashy hiking socks, but I wouldn’t wear dress or casual socks on the trail.
To Sum It Up
Your feet should be a (if not the) focal point of comfort and personal care when hiking. To best create a footwear system that works every step, mile after mile, I strongly recommend using socks designed and tested for the task at hand. Set aside those cotton socks and pick up a pair of good hiking socks.
Can I hike in other socks? Just as I can eat a bowl of soup with a fork if I am desperate, yes. But wouldn’t a utensil designed for soup be better? (See my previous blog post on Spoons). I wouldn’t try to run a 5K road race in ski boots or fishing waders. That may seem like a dramatic comparison, but in the moment, nothing is worse than foot issues on the trail. On a hike of any distance – a day hike, long hike or backpacking trip, or other outing, I’d instead prefer to focus on nature and the world around me than be cursing out my feet.
'Til next time!
About the Author
Owen (VanGrizzle on the trail) works in Product Design and Development at Darn Tough. He's worked for the company since 2016, but even before he was hired, Darn Tough socks were the only socks he would wear. He's a resident sock tester, having thru hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2017 and Vermont’s own Long Trail twice.