Dropping $15 to $20 on a pair of socks can be a traumatic experience, but not as traumatic as a foot covered with blisters.
But when tube socks come by the dozen at big-box stores for a fraction of that cost, what makes high-end socks so expensive?
The duties of modern hiking socks are threefold — to eliminate friction, move moisture away from the foot and provide cushioning. Friction and moisture cause blisters, and cushioning absorbs impact and can improve the fit of a boot.
Hosiers knit socks from only a few yarn materials. The primary yarns define the sock's overall performance, while the secondary yarns add strength and elasticity, but also can impart features such as odor control, added warmth or faster drying. Grab a pair of socks off the rack, and you'll see the yarn materials listed as percentages right on the label.
Primary sock yarns are cotton, wool or synthetics.
• Cotton is cheap. If you work in your boots, stay away from cotton and cotton blends. Instead of wicking moisture, cotton socks absorb and retain sweat and moisture, which leads to blisters and bacteria growth.
• Raw wool is antimicrobial and wicks moisture well. It's one of the few fibers that wicks liquid and vapor moisture, and it retains warmth when wet. But it's itchy.
• The current industry favorite is merino wool, a fine-gauge wool from merino sheep raised in New Zealand and Australia. Finer wool translates into a tight yarn with fewer and thinner stray wool fibers to rub your skin and cause itchiness.
• Acrylic yarn is made from dissolved and drawn plastic, resulting in a fuzzy thread that wicks moisture well and is slippery enough to prevent friction. But it pills easily — the fibers form tiny balls of material on the sock surface. Synthetics enhance the antimicrobial and insulating properties of wool while adding durability and even artificial antimicrobial features or chemical treatments to reduce odor.
These make up the skeletal structure of the sock. Nylon is durable but does nothing to reduce moisture or to insulate, so sock makers use as little as they can to hold a sock together. Elastic is the final ingredient, branded as Lycra or spandex.
Sock shapes are based on 3-D foot shapes that are averaged and then cast into a solid shape called a "last." Each hosiery company uses its own last, so some will match your foot better than others. A baggy heel or toe box will cause blisters, and a tight sock will wear quickly. Try socks in different sizes from a few makers to find the right fit. Cheap tube socks are knitted around a tube, not a foot last.
The story of a sock's construction is told on the inside. Grab a sock and turn it inside out. Boot socks are generally regarded as "cushion" or "full cushion." Full-cushion socks have loops, called terry loops, covering the entire inner surface of the sock. Partial-cushion socks have terry loops only in high-impact areas such as the ball, heel and Achilles areas.
On some wool socks, you might find the foot bed is a thick, unlooped area instead of terry loops. This is felted construction and is very durable. The felted wool offers less cushion but stands up to abrasion better than terry. Felt tightens up, shrinks and eventually becomes stiff over a few months of laundry cycles if put in the dryer.
Boots and socks are an important combat mobility and survivability system and should be treated accordingly. After all, nobody blinks at $80 eye protection or $20 gloves.
Over the past few months, GearScout has been looking at what's new in socks — trying out different types and gathering recommendations from infantry troops. Here's what we've learned so far:
SmartWool Phd Outdoor Medium Crew, $22
This was a favorite of the infantry in the Afghan mountains, and we can see why. SmartWool places layers of merino on the inside and outside of the sock, with skeletal nylon and elastic in the middle. The result is a sock that pushes moisture out. In use, it performed well but did show signs of wear after a few months.
• 79 percent merino wool, 20 percent nylon, 1 percent elastic
Point6 Defender Crew, $18
Point6's made-in-the-U.S. line of public-service socks have nylon on the outside for durability. Point6 also uses compact spun wool to make a tighter yarn that the company says is stronger and more comfortable than traditional ring-spun yarn. The sock feels smoother, but claims of added strength are hard to substantiate. We wore a SmartWool Phd on one foot and a Point6 Defender on the other for a month in Afghanistan. Both socks remained intact, supple and odor free-(ish).
• 61 percent merino wool, 37 percent nylon, 2 percent elastic
Patagonia Midweight Hiking Crew, $19.50
Patagonia's hiking sock is the only one we've tested that has felted construction. Predictably, it's great when new and supple. But, just as predictably, we didn't have time to air-dry our laundry, and the socks made us pay. Within a few months, they shrank and stiffened to the point that pulling them on became tough. If cared for properly, these socks perform as well as the SmartWool's sandwich construction socks while offering the durability of a felted sole.
• 65 percent chlorine-free merino wool, 20 percent nylon, 12 percent polyester, 3 percent spandex
Fox River Himalaya Mid Weight Crew, $18
The Himalaya pairs synthetic PrimaLoft yarn with merino wool to produce a sock that insulates far better than a sock this thin should. The PrimaLoft fibers not only insulate, but they are quite tough, and after months of wear, the sock showed little sign of wearing out. Although thin enough to be mistaken for a summer sock, it would be a great choice for winters in the desert where it would manhandle temperature swings from the 40s to the 80s.
• 34 percent PrimaLoft, 34 percent merino wool, 30 percent nylon, 2 percent spandex
Bridgedale Special Operation Sock, $19
We used these thin-cushioned socks in Afghanistan's arid Helmand province for a few weeks and found they dealt with heat and sweat effectively. But the high percentage of nylon and a baggy shaft conspired to keep the sock from staying up. The SOS is still around in stores, but Bridgedale won't make more of them.
• 44 percent nylon, 27 percent merino wool, 27 percent polypropylene, 2 percent Lycra