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.