My sock systems for backpacking in 3-season conditions

In normal 3-season conditions, I carry just two pairs of socks on my backpacking trips. In wet climates I carry a “daytime” pair and a “sleeping” pair, whereas in dry climates I carry two “daytime” pairs. But there’s slightly more to it than that.

This is the first of what I hope will become a more regular feature here, especially now that I have this slick new blog feature.

The format is simple: short tips on specific equipment, supplies or skills.

If you’d like me to address a particular subject in the next installment, leave a comment for me. If you’d like to read more content like this, you can find much more in my book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide.

In dry environments, I wash each pair of socks daily and dry them in my pack’s compression straps.

My Three-Season Sock Systems

Unless it’s the winter or the deep shoulder season (early Spring or late Fall, for northern states), I carry just two pairs of socks with me.

In dry environments, when my feet rarely (if ever) get wet, I alternate between two identical “daytime” pairs. I wear Pair A for the first half of the day, then swap into Pair B for the second half of the day. After taking off Pair A mid-day, I wash them and loop them through my backpack’s compression straps to dry. They are dry and clean when I pull into camp, at which time I put them back on and sleep in them. Before going to bed or first thing in the morning (depending on nighttime temperatures and water access), I wash Pair B, which are dry and clean when I put them on mid-day.

In wet environments, I have a “daytime” pair and a “sleeping” pair. The daytime pair gets wet and stays wet: I put them on wet in the morning and take them off wet at night. The sleeping pair always stays dry, so that my feet get at least eight hours of dry and warm bliss each night. Without this recovery time, plus a few other tricks, my feet wouldn’t be able to withstand the daily abuse that they do.

Why not carry more than two pairs of socks in wet environments, so that at least occasionally I could hike in dry socks? Because in prolonged wet conditions, I’ve learned that trying to keep my feet dry is futile: water comes in through the ankle opening, drips down my legs, or soaks through “waterproof-breathable” liners; or I simply get wet from the inside, through trapped perspiration. Instead, it’s more productive to focus on my efforts on attainable results: negating the effects of having wet feet. See the sample page, “Tried & True: How to care for your feet,” for that information.


Posted in , on January 17, 2012


  1. Dave V on January 17, 2012 at 2:39 am

    Looking forward to reading more regular blog posts! Can you explain your glove/mitt system for the Alaska/Yukon trip. I’ve spent over $100 on liner gloves and mitts but I can’t keep my hands reliably warm in temps below 20 degrees, unless I’m really exerting myself. Snowshoeing quickly in deep snow might be enough to keep my hands (and the rest of me) warm but not road walking for example.


  2. Andrew on January 17, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    What is “deep shoulder season”? Is that like late fall, early spring? Also, I don’t know if this is really something you’d cover in this section, but what do you do to keep your mind engaged on these long trips? This summer I tried hiking the AT, and eventually pulled off because of the sheer monotony, boredom etc. What are your techniques for dealing with this?

  3. Dana on January 17, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    As for future topics, here’s a thought. Like you, much of my trips are either solo or with competent friends I barely need to tend to. However, on recent group outings I have “led”, I march onward naively thinking others will be fine, then find a hotspot has turned to blister, a snowshoe binding crapped out, a few stragglers got tired and turned back, etc. I need the forethought to head off these problems before they start. What tips can you share in group travel to help ensure a successful outing? You mentioned “insisting” others are diligent on footcare. -good. I learned to be sure I have a competent “sweeper” to tend to anyone at the back of the pack., etc. Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Henry BlaKE on January 18, 2012 at 10:40 am

    Do you wash out your socks just by rinsing them out in clean water, or do you use a little soap before rinsing such as Dr. Bronner’s?

  5. Luke Schmidt on January 20, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    Great post. Feature post, love to here more about your thoughts on packs. You haven’t posted anything that I’ve seen since you were using old Golite Jam2 packs for most of your trips. These packs have evolved and I see you’ve used new packs on your Alaskan trips. Love to hear your thoughts on them.

  6. Christy-Lynn on January 20, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    Mr. Skurka,

    I’ve been trying to make the transition from hiking boots to trail runners. Do you have any advice on what to look for in a shoe? Finding one that fits seems harder than I had predicted. What I think fits in the store doesn’t work on the trail. Can you suggest any techniques for testing a shoe fit before damaging it too much? How important is the grip of the shoe? My last shoe felt nice but was really slippery on anything icy, wet or even flat rock surfaces but it was great in mud and gravel. It also didn’t have much wiggle room if my feet decided to swell. What kind of sole should I be looking for or which ones should I avoid? I am hoping to hike in the Grand Canyon come Spring time.


  7. Dave Cutherell on January 22, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    Great advice! Pretty much what I do now, but I have been packing that third pair of socks a little too often. I agree that two should be enough and will be trying that on my next trip, no matter what the conditions.

  8. David on January 29, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    Andrew, on your earlier website or some other discussion on line you had explained your choice of going with Silnylon instead of Cuben fiber on your shelter. I can’t find what you said here and wonder if you could repost or put up a discussion on the comparisons and your view of those materials.

  9. James Richardson on July 3, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    You’ve worked out a good system. In reading this (your book is enroute to me at the moment) it occurred to me that the US Navy Seals have to be trained in sock and wet feet management extensively. They cannot put up with one person on a team in any and all environments losing their ability to walk long and hard with heavy packs. Are there any retired or current SEALS reading this who can share their knowledge?.

  10. Craig on October 9, 2012 at 8:02 am

    Andrew, what type of sock system have you used in wet/humid environments like the Appalachian mountains during winter? Do you bring more than two pairs of socks (one for daytime and one for sleeping)? I’m curious because I frequent the mountains of north Georgia, east Tennessee, and western North Carolina during the colder months in the southeast. It can be suprising how chilly things get in the southeast when at higher elevations. Thanks for your thoughts! (Your book is on its way at the moment, so I’m sure you cover more in there.)

    • Andrew Skurka on October 9, 2012 at 12:01 pm

      In wet/humid environments, I stick with just two pairs, even in chillier temperatures: one pair for hiking, the other for sleeping. You could try carrying two pairs of hiking socks plus one pair of sleeping socks, but you will probably end up with two pairs of wet hiking socks, which is no better than having just one.

  11. John on February 26, 2014 at 3:21 pm


    I have read your book at least three times, as well as gone back for this or that, and every time I find something new. You inspired me to make my own tarp and try using that as my shelter, as well as to make a bivy (making it myself helps me to feel that I am saving money).
    All that aside, I was curious as to your take on compression socks and sleeves. Conventional wisdom has it that they help circulate blood after a long day, so I assume you sleep in them. Could they also be worn while hiking, or are they best as in camp/sleeping?

    • Andrew Skurka on February 26, 2014 at 4:33 pm

      I don’t have much experience with compression sleeves or socks, sorry. I’ve tried them after big running efforts in order to reduce inflammation, but I have no evidence to support their performance one way or another.

  12. Ken on April 29, 2015 at 3:53 am


    Just curious what you recommend for sock material (polyester, cotton,?…) I know cotton takes longer to dry, but if the sock is going to be wet anyway…

  13. Gordon A. on May 11, 2015 at 6:14 pm

    Love your post. Agree heartily on footcare being most important. So sad to read PCT hiker blogs from people in unnecessary pain. I am also a two sets of socks guy while backpacking.

    So, my question: I saw that GI’s in Viet Nam used to coat their feet with petroeum jelly. Under wet hiking conditions, that might work to barrier the feet from the moisture, have you tried it?

    • Andrew Skurka on May 12, 2015 at 9:56 am

      Petroleum jelly does not work as well as other balms and salves: Bag Balm, Aquaphor, my favorite, Bonnie’s Balm, plus a few others. The big difference is the viscosity and the skin absorption — the more it stays put, the better.

      But the exact same idea.

  14. Matthew Rangel on October 26, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    Andrew, is there a specific soap that you wash socks with while in the backcountry?

    • Andrew Skurka on October 26, 2015 at 2:24 pm

      I don’t use soap to wash my socks, just water.

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