Your socks are your best friends. Know how to care for and feed them.
Do you really want to hike without socks? I know I sure don’t, and I have first-hand stories to show why you shouldn’t. Plus, socks have been a (very seldom recognized) factor in the rise and fall of empires, due to their contribution to a person’s ability to walk for extended periods of time without damage to the feet.
In the hiking world, what we do is walk. Walking is three quarters of the reason we’re outside in the first place, and on top of that, it accounts for as much as half of the time in a thru-hike. Sometimes over 75% of one’s waking hours are spent on your feet, depending on how enthusiastically you are moving.
Without serviceable socks, you’re more likely to suffer injury and be forced off the trail. So, take care of your socks, and show them some respect. They deserve your thanks for allowing this hobby to be as great as it is.
WHY THEY’RE IMPORTANT:
Socks have been regarded as important to those whose profession requires long miles on their feet for as long as they’ve been around. There’s good reason for this, of course, as most hikers have found out. In the pre-mechanized military, when armies moved on their feet, socks were a principal concern of not only individual soldiers, but National Defense planners. Entire books were written on boot, sock and foot care, and huge pushes for knitting thousands of socks by anyone not otherwise engaged in war work were essential to keeping armies in the field.
“The question of the soldier’s socks, although not so important as his boots, is one which requires most careful attention.”(Soldier’s manual of foot care, 1916)
There are hundreds of articles on this and other websites extolling the types and materials of modern socks, their advantages, and so on. I shall not bore you with those details here. However, once you have chosen your preferred model in the proper size (Those are mine in the photo), you need to have a sufficient supply of them.
“To ensure having always a clean pair of socks on the march, four pairs of woollen socks are taken, one pair being worn, another pair being carried on the man in his personal kit, while the other two pairs are in the surplus kit.” (Soldier’s manual of foot care)
This is, of course, a concern of hikers now: Having sufficient and accessible socks for the duration of a hike requires carrying at least one spare pair in the pack and more in bounce-boxes or supply drops with family and friends. Once one reaches the next supply drop, worn socks can be replaced, and if time is pressing, the whole simply swapped out for clean, serviceable socks. I carry three pairs in my pack, because I’m obsessive, and four in my “surplus kit.”
MAINTAINING YOUR SOCKS IN THE FIELD:
Your socks, no matter what they might be made of or by what company, need to be maintained to keep them serviceable, and replaced when they can no longer serve their purpose. They should be washed when possible, cleaned when washing is not an option, and kept in good repair, which is a skill not frequently seen these days.
Keeping your socks clean should be pretty obviously important. Oils, water, dirt, salts, and other debris should not be allowed to stay in the socks, as it will inevitably contribute to blisters, sores, and even, in some bad cases, trench foot and other problems.
“Socks should not be washed too often, but should be carefully dried and cleaned by shaking and rubbing.” (Soldier’s manual of foot care)
Washing and drying your socks should follow the instructions of the manufacturer, which, if not on the sock or the packaging (which you likely recycled) there is probably information on their website. Wash them whenever you can, and as a rough rule, do not wear the same socks more than three days without washing.
In the field, if necessary, socks can be washed in your mess kit in cold water with some soap. Despite what marketers will tell you, a simple soap will work to clean just about anything, from your hands and face to your socks. It’s easier than you think to pull this off, really, as long as your mess kit has enough volume to hold a sock or two and some water:
Step One: Fill your mess kit with some soap and water.
Step Two: Add inside-out Sock and knead with the hands until water is dirty. Repeat this step.
Step Three: Empty soapy water (Remember to Leave No Trace) and replace with fresh water, knead until soap is removed.
Step Four: Squeeze sock free of water, block it out under a weight if possible to ensure it stays smooth, and hang or lay out in a clean place to dry. Turn over occasionally to ensure symmetrical drying.
NOTES: Do not rub soap into the socks, simply make sure it is in the water. Also, replace the water between batches of socks, otherwise you’re just spreading out the dirt more evenly. This can be a water-intensive process, so consider the water-budget when hiking, and plan to wash your socks where and when water is available, not necessarily at the very end of their washing interval.
Short of washing your socks periodically, you should clean them nightly at the end of your march. First, turn them inside out, to expose the interior cushioning loops. Then, crumple them up in your hands and rub the sock between your hands like you are creating a ball of clay, for about a minute per sock. After this has been accomplished, beat the socks out by holding the cuff and striking the socks against a solid object until there is no hint of dust rising from the socks. This process first loosens the dirt, sweat and debris in the sock, then causes it to exit rapidly under the force of striking. This will not wear your socks significantly, and will both loosen the padding that protects your feet, as well as allow the sock to continue absorbing sweat, oils and other blister-causing substances.
Whether you beat out your socks or wash them, it is imperative they dry thoroughly if conditions allow. This will preserve the life of the socks as well as your feet. Continually wet feet can lead to a number of extremely bad outcomes, and should be avoided if at all possible. If this means taking a zero day somewhere you can dry your equipment, do so. Your health isn’t worth saving a single day in a half-year excursion.
REPAIRING SOCKS IN THE FIELD AND AT HOME:
“Each soldier should be taught to darn his socks evenly, so as to leave neither ridges nor imperfections, and on no account should he be permitted to wear socks with undarned holes.” (Soldier’s manual of foot care)
Darning Socks is a rare skill, these days. It is, however, a very useful skill for the field, and prolonging the useful life of your expensive hiking socks. The guide linked to is a good introduction to darning, the process of essentially refilling the hole in a sock by recreating the weave with new thread. You should practice this on old everyday socks first, until you have a decent amount of skill, and you can make darns without ridges and wrinkles which will cause blisters.
While repairing or altering some socks, such as the Darn Tough Vermont brand, might be a concern when looking at warranties, you will need to weigh this for your particular case. For example, is it better to suffer potentially catastrophic damage to your feet to save the warranty, or simply repair the socks enough to get out of the 100 mile wilderness? Give the company a call to explain once you’re out of the woods, as it were, and I’m sure you won’t have too many problems. I would argue the time on the phone is worth saving your feet.
ALTERNATIVES TO SOCKS:
Just in case you somehow run out of socks, there are alternatives, two of which we’ll touch on here. They are a little more user-hostile than socks and come with a sharp learning curve, but, in a technical sense, they do still work.
“A substitute has been tried for socks in the shape of foot-cloths, which can be more easily washed and dried, as they are simply wrapped round the feet. It is a matter of small consequence if they shrink, but, even with these advantages, good, well fitting woollen socks have proved to be more efficacious.”(Soldier’s manual of foot care)
Foot-cloths are an interesting way to deal with the same concern as socks, but more cheaply. From personal experience, I wouldn’t recommend using them without extreme care to get all wrinkles clear when wrapping them, and then only when your supply of socks has been exhausted. These artifacts are quite ancient in their origin, and are better than going without any lining to a boot or shoe, however, socks are far superior for the inexperienced.
These foot-cloths, however, have been in use until very recently in some armies, including use up to the current decade in the Russian Armed Forces. They are cheap, easy to make, and relatively simple to use, with some practice, but are now being replaced in most cases. They are still used over socks in especially harsh cold environments for insulation, which isn’t a common care of hikers, but something you might want to take into consideration if you are planning a winter hike. Again, while they work, and have worked for centuries, there are better, readily available socks to take care of your feet with. I recommend using the socks.
A good primer on the use of foot-wraps can be found here.
Of course, you could also just go with no socks at all. I’ll let you figure out why that’s not a great idea on your own, if you’re so inclined, but be warned it’s been tried before:
“Some years ago the Germans did away with socks, and kept the soldiers’ feet well greased. It was reported to have been successful, not only from the point of view of economy, but it was maintained that the men marched more easily, and that the feet showed fewer blisters than when socks were worn. That this plan had its disadvantages is proved by the fact that the Germans are provided with socks at the present time.”(Soldier’s manual of foot care)
Remember: Your socks are your friends, and you should treat them well. Hitchhikers have towels; Hikers have socks.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.