For some hikers, a pair of white cotton socks matched with a pair of Champion running shoes is the perfect combination for hiking 30 mile days in the desert. Someone else might prefer black dress socks and minimalist shoes from Merrel or New Balance. Still others like Darn Tough socks with Altra shoes. My personal preference is Injinji No Shows with Hoka shoes.
"What had I done wrong?"
I was in Julian, California on my fifth day of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. My knee hurt some, but my main concern was my feet and the fact that they were rotting out from underneath me. "What had I done wrong?" I remember asking myself. I had blisters on my heels, which were painful, but the blisters between my toes were not looking good at all. I was worried about infection. Blisters are the result heat, moisture, and friction. Reducing or eliminating any or all of these will reduce the likelihood of blisters forming. So, I went through my foot-care checklist again. Breathable shoes that were a half size bigger than normal: check. Thin merino wool socks from Darn Tough: check. Change my socks every 4 hours: check. Clean my feet at every sock change: Check.
And still, I had blisters forming underneath blisters! I could hear it already: "Why did you quit the PCT?" "Well, I had a blister — but it was a monster!" That excuse seemed pretty weak, so I decided against quitting then and there. I needed to change up, but to what?
On the advice of a fellow hiker, one Amazon Prime order, and two days later, I was wearing Injinji toe socks, specifically the NuWool ankle-height variety. Wool because it was supposed to reduce odor and ankle-height because, well, I don't know. I just don't like tall socks.
Looking back on it, switching to toe socks was an act of desperation. My feet were already pretty mangled at this point, and I had no idea what to do about it. Switching to Injinji's was the right move, but I still had to watch the blisters carefully for the next week or so. I kept up with my routine of changing my socks every-so-often during the day and making sure to thoroughly clean my feet every time I changed socks. I had blisters beneath both of my big toenails and there was no saving them. I was going to lose both nails. Instead, I focused on the blisters between my toes. Even though I was on my feet all day, the blisters between my toes healed! The only variable I changed was the socks. A PCT miracle!
I decided to carry three pairs of toe socks. It worked perfectly. I could wash one pair and while those were drying on the outside of my pack, I'd wear the second pair. The third pair went into rotation when I inevitably soaked the second pair. Drying wet socks on a sunny day takes an hour or two. On overcast or humid days, it could take twice as long to dry them out. Occasionally, I'd toss damp socks into the foot box of my down quilt at night. By morning, they'd be dry and warm, ready for another day of miles, miles, and more miles.
The unique feature of Injinji socks is that they individually package each toe into its own compartment. Traditional socks smush your toes together. Separating the them creates a cushioned space between the toes, which in turn creates the following advantages:
- Each toe can move independently without yanking the adjacent toe along with it.
- The fabric between the toes allows moisture to escape more efficiently.
- It reduces friction between the toes, even if there is dirt, grit, or dust present. In other words, there may still be friction, but it's not the skin-on-skin variety.
- The front of the sock is now fixed, eliminating the possibility of the sock twisting out of place when things get... let's say "dynamic".
While the new socks couldn't do much about the desert heat, they did help with reducing friction and moisture. This small change stopped toe blisters from forming and even allowed the existing ones to heal. Amazing. I would still get heel blisters from time to time, but I discovered that had more do with the insole/shoe combination I was using and very little to do with the sock.
During my thru-hike, I tried several different weights of Injinji socks. The liners, which are super thin, were useless on their own—which kinda makes sense since I think you're supposed to wear another sock over them. In summer temps in the desert and in the mountains, the original weight and medium weight socks were too thick and held onto moisture more than I expected them to. After about an hour of walking in these socks, my shoes were a steamy, wet jungle and I had to change my socks often.
On a lark, I switched to the lightweight toe socks. I needed socks pretty badly and the local REI only had pairs of lightweight Run 2.0's, so I went with those. Sure, they were made from synthetic fibers, but they still felt fantastic and greatly reduced moisture build up in my shoes. The original weight and medium weight socks were more durable, but the lightweight socks performed much better. If I had choose, I'd go with the lightweight socks.
Showing a little wear after 400 miles.
I wore my toe socks in all sorts of conditions. I wore them in 107°F heat, 100% humidity, misty rain, downpour, sleet, freezing rain, and snow. I wore them at 77 feet above sea level and 14,500 feet above sea level. The socks went from dry to wet to frozen and back to dry again without stiffening up like Darn Tough socks will. In the same conditions, I've seen people's Darn Tough socks stiffen up like boards. You could pound nails with those things. The Injinji's got a little crispy, but they were still comfortable enough to wear.
To sum it all up, I had heard of toe socks before I left for the trail, but they seemed kind of gimmicky to me, with maybe a bit of look-at-me tossed in for good measure. It turns out that these socks saved my thru-hike and that is the Honest to God Truth. I don't even want to think about what my thru-hike would have been like without my Injinji toe socks.
If you are thru-hiking or attempting some other kind of long-distance lunacy, don't wait for the blisters to form and consider switching to Injinji socks before you start. Your feet are your ride. Ignore them at your own peril.