Within the gear chain, the boots and socks which comprise the footwear link have a major influence on how well and how long we can effectively, comfortably hunt. Done right, you can grind through the longest of hunts; but, the wrong selection can end a trip before it has the chance to get off the ground.
We start with socks because we want to fit our boot with the sock we select, the resulting combination offers the highest possible performance with the greatest comfort.
Socks provide four primary functions which we use to guide the choice for our own needs.
- Moisture Management
- Boot Fitting
The most important role a sock can play is to manage the moisture within the boot and on the foot. Moisture management within boots is a unique challenge to address, the boot itself most often has two layers of material that effect moisture movement - the Gore-Tex membrane and the (most often) leather upper. Both of these require an out of balance atmosphere to quickly move moisture - a warm moist interior and cool, dry atmosphere outside the boot. The only avenues for heat and moisture to escape are either out the cuff of the boot or through the membrane and upper. Knowing we seldom see perfect circumstance, we need to choose the right sock to keep our feet dry regardless of the conditions we encounter.
The sock must wick moisture off the foot, then transport that moisture to the membrane or cuff. In cases where the foot produces more moisture than the boot can evacuate, we need the sock to also serve as storage. In other words, maximum sock performance is a blend of wicking, storage, and transport. These things are addressed by both the material of choice and its thickness.
The protective application of socks is seldom addressed outside of extreme uses, but it deserves consideration in just about every hunting application. Small things can cause major foot issues, contact with a riveted eyelet, excess lace tension, a bump on the foot, or a wrinkle inside the boot. When we look outside the boot we are trying to add a little cushioning from the trail miles and fighting through rocky or root-filled ground. An appropriately cushioned sock helps to limit pressure points and improve boot comfort and wearability.
As a boot fitting tool, socks play an important yet seldom considered roll. We have helped a lot of folks sort out boot fitting issues they have endured in the past, one we see most often is when boots go through a tangible change. We regularly meet guys who purchased the best boot they had local access to and either purchased their traditional size or the size that felt best, figuring the boot would stretch to accommodate them in the break-in process. The issue that results typically shows itself much later down the road, in the form of a boot that has stretched in some places and drawn up in others.
We see the change being tied to stretching the boot width-wise, then exposing it to cycles of wet and dry, hot and cold. Overtime boot volume diminishes and it reveals itself most often in the perceived length of the boot.
It’s good to start a new boot off with fresh, high volume socks wherever possible. Taking this path provides the consistent fit during the purchase time frame, sufficient foot protection during the break-in, and - in the event the boot changes a little- some volume can be recouped by going to a thinner sock. This helps ensure we can get the full useful life out of each pair of boots we buy.
The amount of insulation a sock can provide is realistically limited in most cases, and varying the thickness of the sock to increase or decrease warmth can influence the functionality of the boot. They are very intertwined due to the finite volume available within the boot, as you increase or decrease the thickness of the sock to alter its insulation properties you subtly change how the boot fits.
In some boots the volumetric changes we are talking about are a non-issue, but the more athletic the boot is the more critical these adjustments become. In these high performance boots a highly cushioned sock can yield to a tight fit. At the other end, we can see heal slip and general foot float to result from decreasing the volume, especially on hard to fit feet.
If we chase insulation too hard and dramatically increase sock thickness critical boot volume in the boot gets consumed, to the point at which the capillaries at the top of the foot become constricted. The resulting circulation decrease cools the foot – making a debatable return on the sock investment.
In most cases, warmth is better gained through boot selection than sock thickness.
Getting it Right
With that knowledge, we can pick the right textile for our own application with the appropriate amount of cushion, and in the correct height.
The type of moisture you will deal with and the footwear of choice will drive the textile selection. If you deal with lots of water and fast drying footwear, a synthetic sock can help get moisture off the feet to dry them as quickly as possible. On the other hand, if you hunt in fall conditions in a traditional boot we need the sock to both wick moisture from the foot and store it while the boot works to evacuate moisture – which is better accomplished through Merino Wool.
We run Merino for most instances. It covers the critical purpose of moisture storage when the boot cannot evacuate moisture as quickly as the foot releases it. This option wicks and absorbs significantly more moisture than a synthetic sock can, which helps to keep the foot dry over a wider array of conditions.
The ability of wool to absorb moisture does typically mean that the socks take longer to dry. In a backcountry environment, the primary trick is to rotate socks. End the day by switching into dry socks which you sleep in that night, then wear for the next day. The rotation often gives the socks sufficient drying time in decent weather. If that proves insufficient, a thin synthetic liner can help maximize the wicking power and place a conduit between the foot and the highly absorbent Merino sock. There are still lots of guys running a liner, but they are becoming less prevalent as general sock performance has increased. It’s a good nugget to keep in the back of your mind as you are fine-tuning sock performance to your needs.
If you have consistently sweaty, muggy feet the Merino sock will help keep your feet as dry as possible, the more cushioned that sock is the dryer the feet tend to become. While the thicker sock will make the ensemble warmer, it is typically only an incremental bump in warmth and not enough to dramatically increase perspiration in most environments.
Sock cushioning is really helpful from lots of angles. Being able to place a buffer between the foot and boot goes a long way to effectively employing rigid, lightweight boots. Increased cushioning protects the foot from abrasions and helps to keep the foot drier, the result is realized through a reduction of boot related foot injury.
The other big advantage to dense high-cushion socks is their ability to provide consistent cushioning over the course of multiday wear. If you are hunting in the backcountry, being able to rotate just a couple pairs of socks yields tangible in-pack volume savings.
Sock height should be driven by a combination of the environment and the boot height you intend to use.
Over the Calf sock heights are specialized and lend themselves to environments where the leg needs additional protection or insulation. If you are expecting to take a beating moving through really rough country, that additional cushion can help keep a little hide on your legs along the way. If you are dealing with deep snow day-in and day-out that over the calf sock provides lower leg warmth without having to increase base layer weight; the amount of work it takes to posthole heats the whole body up while the legs plunge into feet of cold snow. This solution helps keep the legs and upper body adequately insulated without running too hot. The most common height we see hunters elect are crew or micro-crew heights, both of which make it out the top of the boot. The crew works well with really tall boots, with shorter modern boots that excess height can slide down the leg. Micro Crew height on the other hand pairs neatly with most modern boots, providing just enough sock to stand out of the top of the boot with no excess. By matching your sock height as closely as possible to that of the boot tends to make an appreciable increase in comfort.
The Short Version
A mid-weight or mountaineering-weight Merino Wool sock provides the most dynamic, comfortable sock solution for the majority of boot wearers. The sweatier your feet run or the stiffer your boot, the more cushion you want in your sock, you will realize the comfort increase immediately. If you aren’t sure which way to go, get a few different sock weights and experiment before you start fitting boots. Once you’ve made the selection use that sock to fit your boots and you will great success and utility out of the combination for years.