Socks - the Overlooked Gear
We can easily spend a load of money on fancy gear, buying the latest camping stoves, waterproof jackets, ultra-light backpacks, etc., and in doing so, overlook the humble sock. Your boots hit the ground and between your skin and those boots are your socks. As much attention and thought as you put into your boots, you should put into your socks.
"Thin over skin, thick over thin!" I remember having this yelled at me in boot camp, (USN) every morning for the first week there. You spend a lot of time marching around wearing boots that are heavy, stiff, and really uncomfortable. Basically, blister making devices on your feet. Having blisters would be painful and more importantly, prevent you from marching. Can't have that.
To counter this, we layered our socks. The thin layer was our black dress socks, over them you pulled on black cotton athletic socks. As you marched, the boot would rub against the thick sock, which in turn would rub against the dress sock, protecting the skin of your feet. This wasn't a 100% preventative against blisters, more like 95%, and we were happy with that.
I've applied the same rule to hiking. You're walking over rough terrain, carrying a load for several miles along the trail, and although you can stop whenever you like, blisters are still going to happen. No matter how much you spent on your hiking boots and had them expertly fitted, if your socks are just the cotton athletic variety, you're going to be blistering. So, "thin over skin, thick over thin!".
Now, instead of black dress socks and black cotton athletic socks, I use purpose made socks. There are loads of varieties of socks (Amazon has over 9,000 results for 'hiking socks', REI has 188 options) so it's good to know what to look for.
Hiking Sock Features
Below the ankle - these are worn by trail runners and should never be worn by anyone with boots that reach the ankle. You're just going to have boots rubbing against unprotected skin.
Ankle - These are just high enough to get over your ankle bone. Suitable for low and mid-height boots.
Crew - This is the classic height, covers all boot heights, (except for that lady I saw hiking in calf-high Doc Martens that one time), and is the most popular option for its ability to work with all boot heights.
Knee-high - preferred in the wintertime for warmth and worn by that lady in the Doc Martens.
No Cushion - these are your liner socks. I don't recommend wearing just liner socks. Your feet will slip and slide inside your boots too much.
Light to Medium Cushion - what you are looking for here is the cushioning in the heels and balls of the sock. Depending on the expected trail conditions and weather, you'll want to select a light or medium cushion.
Heavy Cushion - Basically your winter socks. Lots of cushioning all around and very insulating. Not recommended for summer hiking unless you're going high enough you're hiking through last winter's snowpack.
Wool - antimicrobial, insulating even when wet, cushioning, durable, if you don't already have several pairs of wool, (and I recommend non-itchy Merino wool) socks, you must hate your feet.
Silk - Lightweight, moisture wicking, insulating, silk makes a great liner but does wear out quicker than other options.
Nylon/Polyester/Polypropolene - dries fast, moisture-wicking, and very durable. Again, excellent liner.
Putting it All Together
Before going on a hike I review the trail reports, weather reports, how long the trail is, and how much weight I'm carrying. Based on those conditions I will select a Merino wool sock that fits those conditions. During the late spring to early fall seasons, I'll first put on a liner that fits snugly but not tightly. Over that, I will pull on a Merino wool sock of either light or medium cushion. Again, snug, not tight. During the late fall to early spring hikes, I'll pull on a knee-high liner sock followed by a heavy cushion Merino wool sock.
Depending on the trail reports (looking for mentions of stream crossings) I'll bring an extra pair of socks. Yes, my boots are waterproof but we all know two things, nothing is truly waterproof and boots have a big hole in the top where the foot goes in. I've swapped out socks at the mid-point of a hike more than a few times.
Here's the proof in the pudding, in the last seven years of hiking and backpacking, I've had blisters twice and they were minor and easily managed. :)
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Liner Socks (Thin over Skin)
These are intended to be sports socks for soccer, football, etc., and are made with Polyamide mesh. But who cares?
These are my recommendation. I've worn one a few times on hikes now and am in love with them. My merino socks slide right over them, there are no seams to bug my toes, they wick moisture really well, and they feel so good on my foot. Not everyone is crazy about compression socks or needs them, but for me, they're the way to go.
Pictured: CS Celersport Compression Socks
Liner Socks (Thin over Skin)
I recommend finding liner socks that are a blend of polyester/polypropylene, nylon and spandex. This will give you a sock with the ability to remain snug, wick moisture, regulate foot heat and allow the Merino wool sock to easily slide over the liner. Something else to keep in mind is the seams near the toes. You want flat seams, so check to see if the description of the sock mentions that. Those little seams can start to feel like big seams on longer hikes.
Pictured: Fox River Outdoor Wick Dry Alturas Ultra-Lightweight Liner Socks
Medium Outer Sock (Thick over Thin)
Light to medium outer socks are on the lower end of the Merino wool blend. In this case, the sock is a 30% Merino, 36% Nylon, 33% Acrylic, and 1% Elastane. This makes them a good choice for late spring, summer, and early fall hiking. You want socks that go over your liner with a snug fit, but not tight. You want to be able to wiggle your toes around without them feeling like the socks are pushing your toes together tightly.
Pictured: DANISH ENDURANCE 3 Pack Merino Wool Cushioned Hiking Socks
Thick Outer Sock (Thick over Thin)
For your late fall, winter and early spring hikes, you will want to go with socks that have 80% Merino wool. Your boots may be waterproof and insulated, but trust me, the cold and wet will get through and a thicker pair of wool socks will be needed. The socks shown here have 80% Merino Wool, 15% Polyester, 4% Nylon, 1% Spandex giving them plenty of insulation and with just enough elastic to fit snugly.
Pictured: Buttons & Pleats - Winter Boot Sock