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Emergency Underwear and Socks – More Important Than You May Realize

I remember my mom telling me a story about grandma's underwear. Grandma was walking across the street in our small hometown of Weyerhaeuser when the elastic gave out at the top of her bloomers and they dropped around her ankles (she was wearing a dress). Grandma, being the practical person that she was, stepped out of the garment, tucked it in her purse to be repaired later, and kept on walking.

What does this have to do with preparedness? Underwear is one of those things that most people take for granted – until you don't have clean dry ones available. The same goes for socks.

In case of emergency, spare pairs of each will go a long way towards keeping you healthy and comfortable. In this post we're going to do a quick overview of health risks associated with wet and dirty underwear and socks, and recommendations for the best underwear and socks for health, durability and comfort.

Emergency Underwear and Socks - the right underwear and socks (and having spares) will help keep you safe, comfortable and infection free in emergencies.

When the Power Goes Out, the Water Goes Out – So No Clean Laundry

I remember reading about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with people being stuck in the Superdome with overflowing toilets and no showers. For most major natural disasters, power is out for an extended period, which usually means no running water because you have no pumps.

Couple this with high heat and humidity (typical during prime tornado and hurricane season), and you've got guaranteed sweaty, musty crevices that are perfect breeding grounds for yeasts and bacteria that can lead to conditions such as jock itch, yeast infections and urinary tract infections. They also smell bad.

Having a change of cotton tighty-whities and some corn starch “baby powder” on hand can go a long way towards reducing health risks and increasing comfort. Going commando (without underwear) can sometimes be appropriate, but when exterior clothes are wet or damp can also lead to chaffing.

Look for Underwear that Breathe

Basic cotton underwear that breathe and absorb excess moisture are better than non-breathable nylon/rayon/lace products. Another option that has recently become available (but tends to be more expensive) is wicking underwear specifically designed to draw sweat away from the body.

Wicking underwear can be synthetic or natural – look for “wicking” in the description. Here's one example of wicking underwear for women – ExOfficio Women's Give-N-Go Bikini Briefs. I haven't tried these personally, but they received good reviews.

Check your favorite local store or online retailer and do some label reading. I tend to be a plain cotton sort of gal, with a non-dyed panel in the crotch area. Organic bamboo cloth is another option that's recently become available. Chemical dyes can be pretty nasty, and you do not want them being absorbed by some of your most sensitive areas.

Wool is another great option if you can tolerate it. Wool wicks moisture and keeps you warm even if it is wet.

Watch Out for Chemical Exposure via your Clothes

I'd like to also note that a good pair of underwear is your final line of defense again some of the nasty chemicals currently being used in the clothing industry, which include formaldehyde, brominated flame retardants and a cocktail of other nasty things. The post “Toxic dyes, lethal logos, cotton drenched in formaldehyde… How your clothes could poison you” shares:

Dr Brian Clement, who co-authored the book Killer Clothes, agrees: ‘Over the past 60 years there has been a significant increase in health problems that may be associated with wearing synthetics.’

He says synthetic clothes contain toxins including brominated flame retardants and perfluorinated chemicals which are classified as cancer-causing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Trichloroethylene, another chemical commonly used by manufacturers, is also classified as a carcinogen.

These toxins have been linked to dermatitis, allergic reactions and can even contribute to infertility, he says.

This is yet another reason to buy used when you can, so residue on clothing has worn off. (Not necessary used underwear and socks, but used garments.) Look for natural cloth, organic fabrics and “Made in the USA” labels. (Our environmental laws are significantly tougher than many countries where clothing is manufactured.)

Socks – Keeping Your Feet Warm and Protected

I don't know if anyone else remembers the scene from Forrest Gump where Lieutenant Dan instructs Forrest and Bubba on the finer points of keeping your feet dry, but dry feet are critical for the health of soldiers and could be critical for your health in an emergency situation, too.

There's a condition called trench foot that is caused by exposure to cold, wet conditions (like those experienced in the trenches of WWI). It can lead to tissue damage and secondary infections, and even loss of all or part of your foot. Remember to pack your “emergency socks” as a backup.

The Survival Doctor discusses prevention and treatment in “Trench Foot: How to Save Your Feet in a Flood”:

If you have no choice but to go long periods with wet feet, the following helps prevent trench foot:

  • Clean, then air dry your feet for eight out of twenty-four hours (preferably eight hours straight). This means no socks. Lying down helps with circulation.
  • Wipe your shoes or boots out, and allow them to dry.
  • Change into dry socks a minimum of three times a day.
  • Keep the rest of your body warm.
  • Move your legs around, walk, work your toes, raise up and down on your toes—anything to get the blood flowing.

Early Symptoms of Trench Foot

  • Blanching or mottled skin
  • Swelling
  • Cramping
  • Numbness

Treatment of Trench Foot

Gently warm the feet. Five minutes of soaking in warm, not hot, water may help. Or just air warm.

Which Socks are the Warmest?

In cold weather, the right pair of socks will help protect you from frostbite, which can cause similar damage. Wool, especially alpaca wool, traps heat even when wet. It was the most recommended “keep your feet warm” sock option in a survey of Common Sense Home readers.

Men's socks tend to be roomier than women's (no surprise there). My husband likes the “darn tough” wool socks. You want a not-too-snug sock to avoid restricting circulation. A good first layer is polypropylene socks and then wool socks.

Bob D., long time CSH reader, said, “I have a few years of teaching wilderness survival behind me. With that said, you want/need a synthetic base layer against your skin, then a wool, or wool blend, or synthetic for warmth. The cotton socks? Use them as rags to wash the car…” (Editor's note – or save them for warmer weather.)

As with underwear, there are wicking varieties of socks to draw moisture away from the skin (check the label). This is the “synthetic base layer” that Bob talks about. Fox River Military Wick Dry Maximum Mid Calf Boot Socks appear to be one of the most recommend socks of this type on Amazon. You're also likely to find items like this in sporting goods stores, hunting stores or possibly military surplus stores.

Yes, I'm a Sock and Underwear Hoarder…

We've invested in a couple pairs of good quality wool socks for all family members, and I watch for sales on socks and underwear so each of us has a stash. Teenage boys tend to be tough on clothes…

My sock and underwear hoarding came in handy this week, as our clothes washer died. It'll be about a week until the replacement arrives, but we should have enough undergarments to see everyone through. (If it gets delayed anymore, there's always the large utility sink, since we don't yet have a manual washer.)

Make sure to prepare to keep those feet and personal areas comfortable and dry, and Pin and Share this post. I suspect no one will find it via search engine, but I felt it was still important information to share.

Emergency Underwear and Socks - the right underwear and socks (and having spares) will help keep you safe, comfortable and infection free in emergencies.

Pack Extra Underwear

Keep extra socks and underwear around the house. Buy them on sale so you have about a week extra “just in case”. Also consider keeping some in emergency kits. We keep extra socks in our car emergency bags or get home bags. We also pack a few extra pairs of underwear on trips, just in case.

You may also find useful:

Originally published in 2013, updated in 2022.

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20 Comments

  1. I had my shoulder rewired in the mid-1960s and I had to use baby powder frequently to keep my skin from being too damaged by the very strong solvent called ‘human perspiration’. Almost a half century later, the cornstarch-based baby powder is still in use. I did find Anti-Monkey Butt powder that was designed for people who sit on saddles for long periods–motor cyclists and equestrians. It has calamine and talc along with a slight scent–comes in a yellow can. They added a female scent for women, and packaged it in a pink can. The children’s version, which I have never seen, has cornstarch instead of the talc. I use either baby powder or Anti-Monkey Butt powder every day. I have had to use the powder in shoes, or the socks, when I had blisters or rash-like conditions on my feet.

    Even when you cannot get a shower, changing into clean underwear just feels so right.

    Thanks for the article.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. A number of people were put off by the article content (one mustn’t talk about such things in polite company), but it’s a very real and practical issue.

  2. Hi! Linking up for the first time. I’ll be adding your button to the bottom of my blog in the section of Link Parties I attend! 🙂

    A bit about me: I’m currently living in town in an apartment, but my hubby & I are making plans to move to the country, plant a garden, and harvest fruit trees. We also want chickens. This is something we’ve been looking into for awhile now, but are actually (hopefully) really close to seeing this become a reality. I’m very excited about it. I’ve started stockpiling ideas and tips from bloggers on this pinterest board (http://pinterest.com/helenstafford/farmhomesteading/). We’ll see how things go! I know it takes time, but I’m still really excited.

    Helen
    Blue Eyed Beauty Blog
    Exercise Encouragement GROUP Blog

  3. I read once that extra wool socks are a requirement for bug out bags. My favorite socks are made by SmartWool. I keep 3 pair in my bug out bag, however, I never did think about more than one pair of extra underwear. You made me think and now, I’ll be adding more to my bag. Thanks!

  4. Trench warfare was predominantly in WW1, not WW2. The term trench foot was coined in WW1. As Yoda from Star Wars would say: “wrong war you have”.

  5. Corn starch only feeds a yeast problem already getting worse. I recommend Caldesene. ( http://www.caldesene.com/ ) My wife has a terrible time with yeast and this works better than corn starch. (She uses the Pink container of Caldesene).

  6. So glad to read your post, it reminded Me of how my grandma would always say ” if you can’t shower, change your undies & socks”,

  7. what a great article! I, too, am an underwear/sock hoarder, for everyone in my family. My girls are both grown and I keep a basket in the linen closet, just in case they come to stay and need them…I remind them that times may be getting hard and these are two things they don’t want to ever be without!

  8. I can definitely relate to your grandma! I played first clarinet in the school band in high school and sat in the first row on the stage. My pantie elastic broke when we stood up for a bow and fell down around my ankles – so embarrassing! I kicked it aside, scooped it into my clarinet case and carried on…

    I wear nothing but wool socks. If you can knit your own, they are the absolute best. Merino wool is best for socks. I find a synthetic layer near the skin can lead to chafing and they never wick as well as wool. Since I live in the northern Manitoba Interlake, keeping warm here is a serious consideration!

    1. Thanks for the chuckle, Christine, and for sharing your story.

      I have rather large feet and have yet to find a pair of wool socks that fits well. (Even men’s – do they make these for pygmies?) Maybe sometime down the road I can take up knitting and get a proper pair.

  9. Great article! It makes sense that zones where we sweat profusely and tend not to ventilate well are the biggest hazards in long term frozen temps.
    Keeping warm in a cold climate has been a long learning experience for me. We spent our first three Winters on our homestead planning and building our cottage. During Spring, Summer and Fall we lived in a lightly insulated camper that was in good condition but had done some settling, leaving it less than tightly sealed. It had a propane heating system, but we could tell it would be a budget blaster. We slept in the semi-enclosed store room in our new steel, un-insulated storage building. We cut a hole in the wall for the chimney of our wood stove, and relied on our band new Lehman’s non-electric washer for clothes cleaning.
    We hung our clothes in the heat and slightly smoky store room. Maybe it is just me, but I had already figured out that hand washing my socks did not leave them really clean feeling. The sensation is hard to describe, maybe something like a slight static charge. They were very thoroughly washed, rinsed and dried, but something about a powered washer and dryer feels a lot better to my feet. Pumping and hauling 30 gallons of washing and rinsing water in freezing weather was also a big job. Any tips you have here would be very welcome. Our water has a lot of mineral in it, and since the cottage was finished we have splurged on our local laundromat. We are not zoned for a pressurized well or plumbing and hope civilization holds out on the laundromat issue.
    I bought some alpaca socks around 2009. They were marketed as sport socks, and were soft, warm and comfortable in a fairly wide range of temperatures. They appeared to have been spun with something stretchy like elastane. The wool in one pair wore away quite rapidly at the heels. The other pair have held up better, but I decided just to use the alpacas in bed.
    Smartwools have also impressed me very favorably. I bought my first pair in 1999 from Sierra Trading Post. They are long, thin ski socks, and for as lightweight as they seem, are warm and still in great shape. The next Smartwools I got were from REI Coop. They stocked light wool hikers blended with cotton and a little nylon, and medium hikers with no cotton and a higher wool content with a modest amount of nylon. In recent years, Smartwool has been moving away from socks with a wool content, and I haven’t tried those.
    The warmest wool hiking socks I have were advertised as 100% wool. I got them from Cabela’s, and they are great! I got a pair for myself in 2011 and bought a couple more pairs for myself and for my husband the next Winter. They have a further attractive quality of staying in place once we put them on, never slipping down around our ankles despite how hard and long we walk. They look like ragg wool socks, but have never shrunk the way ragg wool tends to. After 10 years of steady wear in deep Winter, they show very little wear. Unfortunately, Cabela’s no longer stocks those.
    My husband’s favorite pair of wool socks were purchased at a farmers market from Rainbow Fleece Farm n Dane County. We got them from a sheep farmer who had a steady customer who processed the wool and crafted them into various garments. She knit the socks on a knitting machine. I bought them as a gift for my husband’s birthday in 2007. He is tall and sturdily built, has trouble finding socks in his size, and loves having such a great pair of warm “dress up” socks. He has found that his feet sweat in the commercial socks blended with synthetics that are all we can find locally.
    Regarding keeping damp feet dry in bed, what has worked best for me is to sit cross legged with my feet tucked under me for a little while until they warm up. If that fails, laying on my back and alternately clenchng and then stretching my toes as wide as possible gets warmer blood circulating faster. On a really cold night, I might shove them in a warm sweater or the hood of a down jacket.
    The kind of mattress can influence blood circulation to our feet. I slept on an extra firm spring mattress for years and had difficulty keeping my feet warm all night long. I recently switched to a foam mattress with a layer of memory foam and my feet now stay naturally warm.
    When I lived in a more urban area, the best way to go to sleep warm in Winter was to take a vigorous walk before bed.
    Where we live now, there is too much probability of encountering wolves or spooking the neighbors and their dogs, so my alternate activity is shoveling snow or splitting logs. Maybe the fresh air also improves the quality of sleep, too.
    Regarding underpants, damp has not been a problem for me. My husband favored woven cotton boxers for years. They have become hard to find within our budget, and he recently switched to knit boxers, which he says are less bulky, breathe great and seem to be more durable.
    A thought for those who might be sleeping with less heat than usual this year: We lose 85% of our body heat through our heads. Going to sleep with a knit cap on, or a scarf wrapped around my head or both has always been more comfortable and drier than covering my head with my blankets or totally sealing of the top of my sleeping bag.
    May we walk with the stride of the Mighty, and dream in the sleep of the Blessed!

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