The lowly sock. It’s battered, stretched, soaked, wrung, rolled, crushed and worn through. It is one of the least expensive pieces of our wardrobe, but has perhaps the most significant, sustained contact with the body, whether on the trail, the mountain or the slope. A good sock is remembered only when donning and removing, while a bad sock is at best an annoyance and at worst can jeopardize a trip or even one’s health.
Growing up, I had a pair of thick boiled-wool hiking socks, but never looked forward to using them; against bare skin, the itching was nearly unbearable, and I couldn’t ever get the fit right when trying to use a liner sock. For years, I relied on the old green Boy Scout socks, which I recall being made of cotton. In fact, for all my youth and much of my adulthood, cotton socks were the thing for me. It wasn’t until much later, in college, that I changed out my cotton running socks for some synthetic model and saw the years of soaking wet feet and terrible blisters evaporate. But even then, I didn’t like the feel of synthetic socks against my feet.
A few years ago, as I made a point to spend more time in the outdoors, I started reading about the virtues of Merino Wool, a material abstractly familiar to me for its use in fine scarves and sweaters. Its producers apparently had succeeded in increasing the quantity of this wool in the market enough to make it a viable material for socks. “It doesn’t itch,” they said. I was skeptical, but intrigued enough to buy a pair.
I started with what seems to be the biggest name today in wool socks and baselayers, SmartWool. And they were great. Merino wool really is an impressive material; renewable, soft, insulating, wicking and durable. My only problem was that I wanted to wear them all the time, and over a number of months they wore thin in the higher-use areas. At around US$ 20 a pair, heavy use could turn into a pricey proposition.
As a substitute for SmartWool, a number of online reviews recommended a company with a clever name: Darn Tough. The company offers a wide variety of footwear featuring Merino Wool (and some synthetic CoolMax, from thin, under the ankle liners to extra-thick mountaineering socks. Not only were Darn Tough socks touted as more durable than competitors’ hose, this Vermont company practically dares you to put their product through the ringer: “If you were able to wear out a pair of Darn Tough socks, we’ll replace them. At any time. Just package the socks up, fill out the form, and send to the appropriate address—we will send you a brand new pair!”
In use, I’ve found Darn Tough socks to fit my wide feet better than the SmartWool ones I wore previously; the elastic across the top of my instep doesn’t constrict as much. The Merino Wool feels cozy, no matter the climate; the structure of the Merino fibers insulates well and keeps feet warm when the weather is cold and cool when the mercury rises.
And, miracle of miracles, Merino socks don’t itch! Last summer I was getting my father outfitted with some new hiking shoes and socks, and I recommended to him a pair of Darn Tough socks, without liners. His look askance told me he’d spent as long a time away from wool socks as I had, and for the same, itchy reasons. But I finally convinced him that “these wool socks don’t itch.” Now he’s a convert, too.
My Darn Tough socks have proved burlier than the other wool socks I’ve tried; though it’s only a ballpark estimate, I would say about twice as durable. They stand up well to machine washing and drying; we don’t take any special steps to keep them clean apart from sorting them with the darks. Combine the durability and ease of care with increased comfort and an unconditional guarantee, and it’s going to take a lot to convince me to try anything else.