A trio of very different socks, Tilley, Injinji and Fits, can make all the difference between sore feet and a carefree backpacking trip. The most important body parts for bipeds on a backpacking trip are feet—they take the brunt of the extra weight of the pack and the abuse of the trail. One strategy for pampering aching tootsies is to rotate different styles of socks throughout the trip to minimize hot spots and maintain dry feet at all times.
The choice of socks to wear on a long backpacking trip is very personal, much like the decision about which shoes are best (hiking or trail runners), packs (external frame or internal frame) or sleeping bags, (three season or four season). Sock choices can polarize around natural fibers vs synthetic, thick vs thin, sock liners or not. The key is to reduce moisture buildup, heat and friction to prevent blisters. The following three socks proved to be a winning combination on a recent backpacking journey.
A trio of socks
1. Tilley socks, made by the famous Canadian travel hat maker, are a marvel of moisture wicking. Made of 54% polypropylene, 42% nylon and 4% spandex they are guaranteed to dry overnight, and it’s true, they do, even in the most humid conditions. The polypro, notorious for retaining smells, is treated with Alphasan, a silver ion product that naturally controls the microbial action that leads to odor, so the socks don’t smell. Tilley socks are not marketed as backpacking socks but they are missing the boat because these socks are so comfortable, and stay so dry and odor-free that they make a perfect hiking sock.
2. Injinji toe socks look so funny that some people thought it was a joke when they first came out. No joke, these socks do more for preventing painful, annoying blisters between the toes than probably any other blister solution. They are comfortable and durable with a tight weave but beware of imitators who use inferior materials. Injinji offers a variety of toe socks in different weights.
3. Fits hiker crew socks, made of 65% merino wool, feature a sculpted shape that is sized to fit like a glove. The natural, soft wool fibers caress feet in a luxurious cradle. A few years ago wool was out in the outdoor world—too scratchy and heavy. Now wool is enjoying a revival as people learn that the softer merino wool feels great against the skin and wool’s ability to trap moisture in the fibers (instead of between fibers, as for synthetics) means that damp wool may not feel as clammy as you’d think. Fits socks can be a good hiking sock, but even better is to have a pair to put on at night when the temperatures drop.
Socks and blisters
A common foot problem to crop up on a backpacking trip is blistering. Some people are more prone to blisters than others and one way to reduce blisters is to change socks frequently, at lunch and rest breaks. This ensures that feet can be inspected frequently to identify redness or tenderness and keep feet dry. Cotton socks are not recommended because they tend to get damp and can feel rough. It’s a good idea to always have a spare pair of socks in an accessible part of your pack instead of being buried inside in a ditty bag. If the socks you’ve been wearing are damp just hang them off the back of your pack to air out and at the next break they will likely be dry enough to swap out with the socks you’re wearing.
Field test of three socks on the John Muir Trail
I tested these three socks on a 23 day excursion into the High Sierra on the rigorous John Muir Trail. In 15 years of backpacking I have suffered through extensive foot pain (from “right size boots” in the store that didn’t leave room for foot swelling on the trail), blisters on the back and inside aspect of heels and between almost all toes, resulting in ten taped toes and multiple heel tapes. I’ve tested all sorts of bandages, sock liners, powders, balms, lotions and salves. My blister kit has evolved through the years, always in an accessible place in my pack so I could minister to my feet at every break. Through much trial and error I finally hit upon the magic formula that works for me. In addition to sock selection the other key factor is using lightweight, breathable hiking shoes ½ size larger than my street shoes, which gives my feet (especially my toes) room to swell with heat and exertion. The result on the John Muir Trail was that I developed no blisters whatsoever and my feet remained mostly pain free (though they did ache for a couple of days after hiking over particularly uneven terrain—no fault of the socks).
I brought three pairs of socks, one each of the Tilley, Injinji and Fits. I alternated wearing the Tilley and Injinji socks either every other day or I rotated them throughout the day. If the Tilleys were a little damp at snack or lunch breaks, I’d remove them and they were almost always dry by the time I was ready to start hiking again—amazing. I washed a pair of socks every evening, finding that the Tilley socks always dried by morning even in damp conditions, while the Injinji socks usually dried by mid-day if I left them hanging off my pack in the morning. Overall, though the days were pleasant, the temperatures at night were much colder than expected, dipping into the low 30s and upper 20s, with heavy frost a couple of nights. I found that the one truly luxurious moment I looked forward to each evening, as the sun dipped behind a skyscraping peak and the thermometer plummeted, was to slip on a pair of Fits merino wool socks. The supple sock hugged my feet in a warm embrace, with plenty of room to wiggle my toes. My feet felt pampered, like they were in their own individual spa. My husband, who had decided he didn’t have room for one more sock, coveted my Fits socks, finding that the synthetic Tilley socks, which are so perfect for hiking, almost made his feet feel colder, and that the Injinji socks confined his toes too much at night, when they all wanted to be free to stretch out after their hard day’s work. Also, just like the difference between gloves and mittens, they are not as warm as a sock in a sleeping bag. I did wear the Fits socks hiking a couple of times and found them to be sumptuous, with a nice, thick cushion, though the socks themselves aren’t overly thick. They would be great for cold weather hiking. They felt wonderful while walking on cold, frosty mornings, but my feet did start to sweat in them once the sun came up so I rotated back to my Tilleys. Not surprisingly, the wool socks took longer to dry than the synthetic blends so I made sure to have plenty of sunshine ahead before washing them.
- Tilley socks. Guaranteed to dry overnight and, for me, guaranteed to prevent blisters. They wick moisture from the skin very effectively and dry so quickly that you almost don’t need another pair.
- Injinji toe socks. The unique toe sock design cups each toe, preventing them from rubbing together to create a blister. Very comfortable and dries reasonably fast.
- Fits Merino Wool. So unbelievably soft and comfortable, the wool fibers feel luxurious against the skin and retain body heat in cold temperatures, i.e. at night in a sleeping bag or in cold-weather hiking conditions.
- Tilley. At night, in cold weather, the synthetic blend almost feels like they are sapping heat so feet feel cold.
- Injinji. For sleeping the toe socks can makes toes feel too confined. They aren’t as warm as a regular sock because of the way they keep the toes separate from each other.
- Fits Merino Wool. May be too warm for warm weather hiking and they can take a while to dry.
Sock choices are very individual but trial and error can identify the best combination for comfort and blister prevention. The Tilley, Injinji and Fits socks are one example of a tried and true combination that works.
Tilley socks: $14-16
Injinji toe socks: $15
Disclosure of material connection: I received a sample from Fits in consideration for an unbiased review, but purchased Tilley and Injini socks for personal use.