The importance of high quality socks cannot be stressed enough. When your feet hurt, are sore, fatigued or aching, the rest of your body (legs, back, shoulders and even your brain seem) to feel the resonating impact of each footfall! More than just the physical pain, you also experience mental and psychological discomfort, and as most any service member, current or former, can attest, your feet can make or break even the most physically fit.

When I was in the military, I experienced several cold and hot weather injuries. Generally, the feet, and other extremities are likened to cold weather; not hot weather injuries. This article will touch on both.

Like most cold weather injuries, my extremities—hands and feet—were primarily affected and to this day, moderately cold weather still turns my hands and fingers numb, typically requiring a good hour or so before feeling returns.

While deployed in the Balkans, I tried countless socks in an attempt to first keep my feet from going numb, turning blue and losing circulation.  Unfortunately the cold weather and my steel-toed Danner boots combined with my previous cold weather injury history made this more than little challenging.

Fast forward to my current station, as founder and chief instructor at District Combatives in Washington, DC, and well lets just say pissing on my hands and feet when I’ve lost feeling is not as acceptable. Not that I wouldn’t do it in a pinch.

While my typical workday does not require me to consistently spend hour’s outdoors carrying a heavy load in the mountains, it does require that I maintain the mobility, speed, and functionality to consistently perform at a high level. My ability to do this is predicated on my feet. Are my feet warm enough? Dry enough? Mobile enough? And stable enough to bike to/from work and then to/from class to teach? All of these questions, and more, can be summed up by two overarching questions. Do these socks fit? What are the socks intended function?

Let’s answer the first question. Do these socks fit? Fit is related to your unique needs and include what type of shoe will you be wearing? Do you have previous injuries? Do you wear orthotics? And so on.

Now the second question. What are the socks intended function? Are these hiking socks? Are they designed for cold weather? Are they running socks? Skiing? And so on.

Darn Tough –v- Smartwool

Darn Tough vs Smartwool | Which sock is best?

These two questions, fit and function are inextricably linked. Let’s take a look with a comparison of two of the most popular brands, Darn Tough and Smartwool.

I’ve tried countless types of socks in an effort to identify the right sock for the right environment. Like most, I find Darn Tough and Smartwool to be two of the best. While many would argue Darn Tough’s Lifetime Warranty makes it a superior product to Smartwool, which has no lifetime warranty, I would disagree. Here is why.

Smartwool socks are more versatile. Less absorbent. Possess a lower profile thickness and density, resulting in a more stable, secure foot lock inside your shoe. I have found these qualities offset the significant drawback of durability.  The security of Smartwool comes from the design (function) of the sock. Smartwool socks are designed with an arch hugging/forming weave, which contours the sock to your arch, thereby preventing excess material buildup, which can lead to hotspots in the balls and heels of the foot, blisters, and generally an uncomfortable experience.

Photo courtesy of smartwool.com

Darn Tough, on the other hand, are designed with a uniform construction, i.e., there is not arch hugging, which results in a more mobile sock, especially when temperatures rise. Note:  you will not experience the slippage, to the same degree, if you are wearing Darn Tough hiking socks or socks that wrap securely around the calf, as this helps secure the sock to your foot.

photo courtesy of darntough.com

On the Trail

Ultra-endurance trail races are one of my many passions. This past June, I participated in one of my favorite races the OSS/CIA 50-mile nighttime trail race held at Prince William Forest near Quantico, Virginia. Prince William Forest is one of the original OSS training grounds prior to WWII.

Being June in Virginia, the weather is hot and humid. Typically a nighttime race is cooler, and generally a trail race is cooler still. This year was atypical. The temperatures were near record highs for this time of year and so, was the humidity.

Prior to the race, I decided to wear Darn Tough socks wrapped with my Salomon S-Lab thinking the extra cushioning would offset any discomfort from my not training for the race. While I generally do not train for specific races, I do prefer to maintain a level of fitness that enables me to enter races on short notice, as was the case with the OSS/CIA 50-miler. My level of conditioning was 3-4 runs of about 30-45 minutes for 3-4 weeks leading up to the race.

The decision to wear the Darn Tough socks was a terrible lapse in judgment. For the first 10 miles, I was cruising along the single track at just under a 7-minute mile. My feet were feeling great. No slippage, i.e. friction in the shoe. No debris in the shoe. And no noticeable sweat collection in the socks.

By mile 12 all this had changed. At the previous aid-station, the volunteer who had filled up my Camelback failed to properly secure the top, which resulted in my leaking out more than half my water. Little more than 30 minutes from the aid station my water was empty.

For better or worse, the water, mixed with my sweat from the hot and humid conditions had collected in my now water-logged shoes. I stopped off the to the side and wrung out my socks into my camelback in an attempt to maintain some degree of hydration.

Of course, after removing my socks to wring them out, my socks were difficult to put back on and worse, my socks now slid inside my shoes, creating hot spots and creating blisters on my Achilles and balls of my feet.

The next few hours resulted in continuous stopping every hour to wring out my socks. Unfortunately, wringing out socks does not eliminate or reduce the water that was collecting in my shoes.

By the end of the race, my feet were waterlogged, covered in popped blisters and were bleeding.

This brings me back to the density/thickness of Darn Tough socks, which in my opinion makes them inferior to Smartwool, which offers a greater variety of thicknesses and densities. I am especially partial to Smartwools PhDs, which I have worn for countless marathons, ultra-marathons, multi-day races, and adventure races. Throughout all these various races, held in all types of climates, not once have I experienced blisters or waterlogged shoes. This is a testament to the utility of Smartwool socks. Remember, whether it’s hot or cold, foot moisture is an enemy. If your feet get wet when the temperature drops that’s bad. The same when the temperature climbs.

The most important considerations for any gear, equipment, or clothing should be first and foremost, intended use.

What is the purpose of the gear, equipment, or clothing?

What are your unique physical needs/attributes?

What are the environmental element conditions?

Where will you be performing this activity (geography)?

For what duration?

And of course, cost is always a consideration.

Once you have identified those criteria, you can then begin building a profile to determine what type of equipment meets your needs and objectives.  Other criteria may apply, but generally answers to these questions will fall under your unique physical needs/attributes. Some of which include cut/sock height and color, which are interrelated with versatility. The more versatile the sock, the better, in my opinion. As will additional criteria, such as shoe selection/matching and inserts/orthotics.

Before your next sock purchase, answer the questions: How do these socks fit? What are these socks intended function? When you start thinking of a socks fit and function, you’ll quickly identify the correct sock for each activity, and dramatically increase your enjoyment while reducing the likelihood of an injury.


Author – Benjamin Drader is Founder and Chief Instructor at District Combatives in Washington, DC. He served 8 years in the U.S. Army and has worked directly for two National Security Advisors, a Director of CIA, a Secretary of State, and a Prince. He enjoys ultra-marathons, off-road triathlons, and spending time outdoors with his German Shorthaired Pointer, Derby.