Packing for your first backpacking trip can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Picking out lightweight gear is fairly straightforward, but people carry more clothes than they actually need. Socks seem to be the biggest problem area most people have. Do you really need to carry a fresh pair of socks for every day on the trail? How many pairs of socks should I bring on a backpacking trip?
Most people bring 3 pairs of socks (you can get by with 2) on backpacking trips to minimize pack weight. You have one pair of socks for the hike, one pair to sleep in, and an extra pair in case the first 2 get wet. The key is choosing merino wool socks instead of cotton. Merino wool socks stay dry longer, don’t absorb sweat, reduce the risk of blisters, and have antimicrobial properties so they rarely smell. You can wear the same pair of merino wool socks for days on end.
Packing for a multi-day backpacking trip is easily the most challenging part of the hobby. Carrying a few extra pounds won’t kill you, but it can seriously slow you down on the trail. Plus all that extra weight can cause unnecessary stress on your muscles.
Buy 2-3 pairs of merino wool socks so you won’t have to worry about keeping them fresh. Merino wool has antimicrobial properties so they don’t smell and handles moisture better than anything else. I recommend going with either Smartwool or Darn Tough hiking socks. I prefer the comfort of Smartwool, but both options are extremely durable.
Try to pack light and get rid of anything that isn’t entirely necessary. You can’t ditch your main gear without buying lighter options, but you can reduce pack weight by cutting down your wardrobe. In the rest of this post, I’ll explain how you can ditch your extra socks, without negatively impacting you on the trail.
How Many Pairs Of Socks For Backpacking
Packing for your first backpacking trip can be a serious mental challenge. Most people start off by planning their route, picking out lightweight gear, and figuring out food/water, but they tend to overlook their clothing. This leads to a carrying way more clothes than you need and an overloaded pack.
I recommend carrying 2-3 pairs of socks. There are ways to keep your socks dry and fresh so they won’t stink. Here are a few tips so you can lighten your pack load and eliminate extra socks.
- Bring 2 Pairs of Socks (3rd optional): Bring at least 2 pairs of socks so you always have a fresh pair to put on. I like to bring a 3rd pair of socks to wear when I’m washing my socks or the other ones get wet. The extra pair adds 2.5oz to my pack so it’s more than worth the extra weight.
- Rotate The Socks: Rotate your socks by wearing a clean pair in the morning for your hike and put on the second pair once you get to camp. It feels so nice to put on a fresh pair of socks after a long hike, but I like to wait for the 2nd pair until all my camp chores are done and I’m sitting down to relax.
- Think About Sleeping Barefoot: Take your socks off before heading to bed so they have a few hours for sweat and body oils to evaporate. I like to air my feet out when I’m sleeping, but some people would rather sleep in socks. This is the perfect time to add your 3rd pair of socks into the rotation.
- Wash Them After Hikes: On longer backpacking trips, I add washing my socks and other clothes to my daily chore list. This isn’t necessary on short weekend trips where you can wait until you get home to do laundry, but sweaty clothes can get nasty by the end of a 2 week trip. Just wet the clothes and use biodegradable soap (campsuds) to clean them out. Rinse them off with clean water and hang everything up to dry.
- Choose Merino Wool Socks: It might seem crazy, but switching over to merino wool socks made made more of a difference to my hikes than any other piece of gear I’ve purchased. It’s right up there with adding an inline filter to my hydration pack. Merino wool socks are much better than synthetic/cotton socks. They dry in 10 minutes, wick away sweat, don’t absorb moisture, never smell, are extremely durable, and are comfortable regardless of the weather. I’ve been wearing the same 3 pairs of Smartwool socks on every backpacking trip for the past 10 years.
I’ll get into the benefits of merino wool socks below, but you should definitely pick up 2-3 pairs (Smartwool Socks) for long backpacking trips. They’re way more comfortable and solved all of my blister problems. They can be pricey, but they’re worth their weight in gold.
You might be able to save $5 by going with budget offerings, but the quality won’t be there. Walmart sells Realtree brand merino wool socks for $10 that are pretty nice, but they pill and snag in the washing machine. I keep a few pairs of Realtree socks to wear around the house and shovel my porch in the winter.
Why Should I Bring An Extra Pair Of Socks?
You almost have to carry 1-2 extra pairs of cotton/synthetic socks, but carrying an extra pair of merino wool socks is optional. Cotton socks absorb sweat and take forever to dry so you almost need to carry 2 pairs per hike to be comfortable. Put a pair on in the morning and 2 hours later they’ll be soaked in sweat. Rotate through your extra pairs as the day goes by to avoid blisters.
Synthetic socks are better at controlling moisture, but you’ll smell them from a mile away after a long hike. You end up with sweat, body, oils, bacteria, and fungus growing in the socks. That can lead to foot fungus and bacterial infections if you were to get a blister/cut on your feet. Washing them with biodegradable soap helps some, but you need a real wash for the smell to completely go away.
You can get away with two pairs of merino wool socks, but I always carry a backup. I’ve never worn through a pair of Smartwool socks so it’s not a durability issue, but I like to always have a fresh pair of socks to rotate into. This gives me a clean pair to put on after stream crossings when I hang the wet pair on my pack and allows me to wear socks while doing my laundry.
I can wash both pairs and set them out to dry while I’m wearing the backup. You can go barefoot around camp or wear lightweight sandals, but I like to protect my feet and wear shoes. I’ve had sticks get jammed into my sandals giving me sore feet for the remainder of the trip.
Can I Bring Socks For Each Day?
You can always carry a fresh pair of socks for each day on the trail, but that will add 1-2 extra pounds to your pack. That isn’t a horrible idea if you’re wearing cotton and synthetic socks, but it’s entirely unnecessary with merino wool. Just make sure you rotate cotton/synthetic socks and wash them regularly so they stay freshish. Make sure you read down to the bottom where I explain how to wash your socks.
Merino wool socks are by far the best option for backpacking. I would go with either Smartwool or Darn Tough Socks. I like Smartwool socks since they seem to have more padding, but both options are extremely durable. The only downside is merino wool socks can be expensive. Merino wool socks don’t absorb moisture or get smelly so it would be stupid to bring more than 3 pairs of merino wool socks. Save the pack space/weight for more important gear.
Ditch Your Cotton Socks! Wear Merino Wool Instead
Ditching cotton socks is easily one of the best things I’ve ever done. Merino wool socks are by far the best option for backpackers. They can be pricey, but you can immediately feel the difference once you switch over. They’re warm in cold weather and cool in hot weather so you can wear the same pair of socks all year round.
There’s a reason why sailors would always wear wool sweaters on their ships. Wool can be warn regardless of the weather, it’s hard to get wet, dries fast, and it’s extremely durable. That’s exactly what I’m looking for when picking out camping/backpacking gear.
I highly recommend purchasing a pair of Smartwool or Darn Tough Socks. Both are great options, but personally I prefer Smartwool. Darn Tough socks seem to be more durable, but Smartwool socks tend to feel more comfortable. I think it has something to do with the cushioning they use in the soles. It feels like there’s more padding down there for some reason.
Why should I switch over to merino wool socks?
Merino wool dries fast and can absorb up to 35% of its weight in water without feeling wet. So it’s really hard for sweat or rain to get your socks wet. Stream crossings are the only time they might get wet and they dry fast so that’s not an issue. Plus they’re still comfortable even if they do get wet, so you don’t have to worry about blisters.
I like to take a quick break whenever my socks get wet. Take your shoes/socks off and set them out to dry. It shouldn’t take longer than 15 minutes for your socks to dry on a sunny day. Hiking boots might take a while, but trail runners dry out fast. It really doesn’t matter since merino wool handles water so well, but you don’t want your shoes to stink from moisture buildup.
Merino wool has antimicrobial properties so bacteria and fungus can’t grow. You can hike in the same pair of merino wool socks for days on end and they shouldn’t smell. I still recommend rotating your socks so you always have a fresh pair, but that’s not entirely necessary.
I like to carry one pair of socks to hike in, a pair to wear around camp, and an extra pair in case something happens to the first two. That might be overkill, but I’m willing to carry an extra oz or two so I always have fresh socks.
Synthetic socks are a better choice than cotton, but they still have problems. Synthetic socks dry fast and wick away sweat, but they still end up smelling after a day or two. It doesn’t matter how you rotate and try to clean them. They always end up getting nasty and smelling on long trips. Plus they’re not designed to be worn over long distances, so you may end up with holes (lead to blisters).
How To Wash Your Socks
Washing your socks on long backpacking trips isn’t all that complicated, but it’s one more chore you have to take on before settling down for the night. All you need is fresh water and biodegradable soap. I carry a separate bottle of scented campsuds to wash my clothes.
Scented campsuds contains citronella, lavender, and peppermint oil so you can’t use it with dishes, but it helps keep mosquitos, chiggers, ticks, and other insects away. It will also get rid of the funky sweat smell bringing you one step closer to feeling at home. Regular Campsuds is a better idea bear country, because you don’t want to attract them to your clothes.
Washing your clothes on the trail is easy! Just prerinse your clothes with water at least 200ft away from any water source. Put a pea-sized dab of biodegradable soap on your palm and work it through the clothes. Try not to use lots of soap, because that will make it harder to rinse. Rinse out all the soap using filtered water (removes algae/sediment) and lay them out to dry.
Merino wool and synthetic socks will take 15-30 minutes to dry in the sun and cotton can take a long time. On cloudy days, I’ve had cotton clothes hanging up on a tree branch for hours and it was still damp to the touch. That’s one of the main reasons why you should completely remove cotton from your backpacking wardrobe.