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.
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
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.
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:
- 4 Layers of Cold Weather Clothing Everyone Should Know
- DIY Portable Toilet, Plus Tips to Get Rid of Smells
- 20 Things I Wish I Had Before the Flash Flood Emergency
Originally published in 2013, updated in 2022.