Traveler's Gear Box: What's Covering Your Feet?

Teko's Summit Series Women's Light Hiking, top, and Lorpen's Men's Tri Layer Midweight Hiker are just two of the many socks you have to choose from for your next hike.

Treat your feet well on the trail, and you'll have some happy dogs come sundown. Ignore them and, well, let's just hope you can treat blisters. While good boots go a long way to keeping feet happy, what stands between your toes and your toe box is just as critical.

Silk liners with wool socks? Socks that combine wool and synthetics? Pure wool socks? Completely synthetic socks?

When did such a simple piece of clothing become so complicated?

Growing up back in the '60s, the mantra was silk or nylon liner socks covered by a decent wool sock. Cotton socks were -- and still are for hiking -- no-nos, for they held moisture against your skin and quickly contributed to hot spots and, not too much longer, blisters.

Today there still are hikers who won't hit the trail without a good synthetic sock on their feet, but Chip Coe, the chief executive officer of Teko, a maker of organic wool socks, isn't one of them. Your feet, he says, heat up much quicker with a synthetic liner than with wool and sweat soon appears. With wool, says Mr. Coe, the fabric deals with moisture when it's still in a vapor state by wicking it away from your skin, thus keeping your foot drier.

The folks at Teko are pretty high on their wool. Not only do they use fine-strand Merino wool, which makes for a nice, comfy fit, but the Argentine sheep it comes from are raised without encountering pesticides, and no herbicides or fertilizers fall on the grass they eat. And the sheep herders also practice "strict water conservation methods in their pastures," the company adds. And when it comes time to color and process the socks, Teko uses "only non-toxic dyes — no allergens, carcinogens, pesticides, heavy metals, or formaldehyde."

Now, Teko, which even makes wool liner socks, does make a sock from recycled polyester that it calls tekoPOLY, but this material is used for running and cycling socks -- high-intensity, relatively short duration sports where you're not worried about high insulating values in your socks -- while its hikers are made from organic tekoMERINO.

Like more and more sock manufacturers, they make both men's and women's models to deal with the narrower heels and tapered toes that most women have and most men don't. Their lightweight hikers (MSRP $16.95-women, $18.95-men) in the women's Summit series offer a mix of 71 percent tekoMerino wool for comfort and insulation and 28 percent nylon and 1 percent Lycra to help with the fit. The men's Summit series mid-hiking version has 73 percent tekoMERINO, 25 percent nylon, 1 percent Lycra spandex, and 1 percent polyester

Over at Thorlo socks, they're not completely sold on wool, saying it collapses and loses its "protective capabilities" when it absorbs water. As a result, while they use some wool in their socks, they blend it with Spandex. Some of their cold-activity (aka skiing or snowboarding) socks also are made with yarns from PolyEthylene Terephtalate, or PET, another synthetic, while some of their hiking and trail running socks are made from a wool-silk mix.

But Thorlos' main claim to mastering socks are different sized cushions, or pads, sewn into the ball and heel of their socks. These cushions are intended to compensate for the natural wearing-down of your heel and toe pads as you age.

At Lorpen, they also make socks with a blend of natural and synthetic fabrics (usually 75 percent Merino wool, 15 percent nylon, and 10 percent lycra). The layer next to your foot is synthetic, to help with wicking, the middle layer is Merino wool or Coolmax to further pull the moisture away from your foot, and the outer layer is a nylon for durability.

Now, the company has some new Tri Layer models (MSRP $16.99-$17.99) arriving in August. These feature base layers of PrimaLoft Eco-Polyester, a synthetic fiber designed for good insulating values. Against this layer the Merino layer is designed to pull the moisture away from your foot to keep it dry.

Yet another player in the sock world is SmartWool, and one of the directions they've taken is to make their socks more durable by replacing the nylon threads with a more densely spun wool.

Which sock is right for your feet? Sadly, in light of the cost, it will come down to trial and error and what feels right for you. The Thorlos with their pads take some getting used to; I never really did get there. I've long liked Lorpens, which fit my feet well and perform great. But so do the Teko socks.

Of course, regardless of the socks you wear, it's always wise to carry a spare (dry) pair to switch into if you notice your feet getting a bit "moist" from hiking, and a kit of blister remedies and preventions also can be a wise investment.

Comments

At these prices it's expensive to experiment.

Hello Travelers,

Just some gentle chiding here... It's worth remembering that our feet evolved over millions of years without wearing any shoes at all! Having been a river guide for 25 years, I've found that a pair of sandals can handle almost any hiking requirement I've tried short of snow and ice. I know that not everyone's feet are built equally tough, but the fact that 95% of society feels it must spend $50-$150 on hiking shoes makes me realize just how thoroughly we've been brainwashed by corporations who want our money! Try taking a walk or a gentle hike in sandals sometime - it'll take a little while to toughen up your feet, but soon enough, you'll hate having sweaty shoes on your feet all the time. When I first met my wife, she thought the sandal idea was nuts too, but now has hiked the entire 100-mile Western States trail in sandals. A few million years of eveolution can't be all wrong, and when you ford a stream, there's nothing to do!

Good point...but did she hike it in winter?;-)

No - July. Not trying to be ridiculous, just offering a new idea to experiment with. In winter I wear shoes/boots with socks just like most folks. And let's not even talk about skiing/snowboarding!

Have you tried "Five Fingers" from Vibram? Ran into a hiker in Arches with them just last week. Nice alternative, but still pushing the $100 ceiling...

Hi again,

As you might expect, I have not tried them - or anything else for that matter! I'm probably the worst person
around for feedback on stuff like this, partially because I have a serious aversion to supporting corporations and wasting money! But again, I realize that not everyone's feet will handle a shoe-less experience the same way. My wife said it's a lot like her horse - even though horses evolved without shoes, we're totally screwing them up by always shoeing them - now their feet often aren't tough enough to go without shoes. But I'm heartened by the fact that after a few months, horses' hoofs will harden a bit; people's too!

I had cancer two years ago and went through heavy chemo, now I have neurophy in the bottom of my feet mostly in the balls of my toes and heels. Can anyone suggest a sandal that has a good cushioned heel and ball area?

The best results I've had were from the John Patridge Trailhead socks that I got from Sierra Trading Post about four years ago. It was a closeout model, and went for about $4 at the time. Of course closeout means they're no longer available. It was a blend of about one-thirds each of merino wool, Coolmax polyester, and nylon with a little spandex to make it elastic.

I still don't get paying more than $10 for a pair of socks. I'm always on the lookout for socks at the off-price stores like Ross and Marshalls. I've gotten some pretty good deals like some full-length ragg-wool merino socks as well as some with the Under Armour brand.

The thing about synthetics is that they should be tailored for the conditions. I understand that some fibers are hollow core like Thermax, while others are meant to be cooler like Coolmax.

As far as wearing sandals - I'm a little too scared. I've stubbed my toes on rocks before and sometimes low brush can be pretty nasty.

Now that I've discovered Injinji toe socks, you will never see me hiking long distances in anything else. I have covered many thousands of backpacking miles in my lifetime, using a wide variety of footwear (sandals included). I frequently battled blisters between the toes until I met these socks.

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