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Emergency Underwear and Socks – More Important Than You May Realize

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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.

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. 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.

Please visit his site for additional information on symptoms that occur with extended exposure and after treatment. (You can also read my review of his e-books on treating wounds and burns, which are very good preparedness items.)

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). 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.

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

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.

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Originally published in 2013, updated in 2017.

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  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.

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  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. ( ) 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.

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