Product Review : The Merino Wool Sock the Multi-Tool for Your Feet…

PThis guest post by Michael R and entry in our non-fiction writing contest.

Merino wool socks are to a survival wardrobe what a multi-tool is to a bug-out bag. They are easy to care for, have a multitude of possible uses beside covering your foot, and can be had for bargain-basement prices. But why “Merino” wool?

These ain’t your grandfather’s wool socks . . .

Growing up in the warm South, I had no need for wool clothing. Good thing. Soft Merino wool had not appeared on the US clothes market. My first introduction to wool was the itchy socks issued to me in the military. I hated them so much that I decided to wear cotton socks on a long day’s walk covering rough terrain. Bad idea. I learned the meaning of the hiking motto, “cotton kills.” Cotton fibers collapse when wet, losing cushioning and becoming a real blister-maker. I learned to suffer the itch of wool to save my feet.

But wool doesn’t have to itch anymore. Soft Merino wool can be worn next to the most sensitive skin. Merino wool is usually found in high-end athletic products, such as trekking, hiking and ski clothing, hats, and socks. Merino wool comes from the wool of Merino sheep, a breed that originated on the Eurasian continent. Australia is the greatest exporter of Merino wool which has been improved even more by selective breeding of the sheep.

Modern Merino wool excels in the regulation of temperature, summer or winter. Even better, Merino wool socks don’t feel wet even after heavy perspiration. Merino wool fibers attract water molecules on one end and repel them from the other end. This gives them the ability to wick moisture away from the skin far better than cotton or other forms of wool. I have worn Merino wool for 10 hours in 950F of heat and never felt the need for a pair of dry socks. I can have wet areas on my leather boots (indicative of the Merino wool doing a great job) and have foot comfort and cushioning.

And how about performance in the winter? Hypothermia is a real survival concern in temperatures below 600F. Merino wool helps the body retain warmth even when wet. And wool contains lanolin, produced by the oil glands of the sheep, which is comforting to the skin and has antibacterial properties.

Caring for Merino wool socks

Washing Merino wool socks is a cinch and requires very little water, a precious resource in survival mode. If your socks are lighter in weight, fill a cup or mug halfway with water. Push a dirty sock in to get it wet. Then rub with bar soap or add a few drops of shampoo to the water. Heavier socks may require a taller container. Squish the sock into the soapy water repeatedly. Squeeze out the soapy water. Rinse the same way with clear water. Squeeze out and hang to dry.

Socks as a multi-tool

If the performance and properties of Merino wool socks are not enough to sell you, then consider some creative uses they can provide in a survival situation. Don’t throw your worn socks away, as they can be perfect for other uses. When no longer protective of the foot, they have another life.

  1. Surviving in dry heat? Cool the water in your drinking bottle by stretching a wet wool sock over it and then hanging it in the shade. The evaporation and shade will cool your water and make it much more refreshing. Even better in a breeze.
  2. Collect food. Some of the best survival foods in my area are acorns, berries and small greens. Large wool socks can make a great bag for them while foraging. Tie full socks on the ends of a short length of paracord and sling to carry..
  3. Filter water. Wool socks of any fiber make an initial filter for muddy water or for leeching astringent wild foods like acorns or the horse chestnut, or buckeye. These are the most plentiful food in season at my retreat site. Native Indians turned to the buckeye for nourishment when acorns were not plentiful. Buckeyes are mildly poisonous unless properly leeched. Leeching requires repeated rinsing of smashed nuts with fresh water. The Indians used baskets, an item not in my BOB. The wool sock becomes a workable substitute to rinse the crushed nuts without loosing smaller bits of nut meat in the process.1
  4. Long Merino wool socks can become mittens in cold weather. If long enough, use a safety pin to make a neck scarf for small children or infants.
  5. Wool socks are great insulators. They can be used around the cooking fire. Wear one or two heavy ones as an oven mitt, or fold and use to grab a hot pot and pan handle.
  6. Survivalists anticipate shortages of most things, including soap. Those little slivers of soap left at the end of a soap bar’s life can find more life. Insert them into the toe of a sock, and tie closed. Wet and massage the sock until full of suds to wash or bathe. A small bit of soap will go a long way.
  7. My good socks pay their own rent in my contingency bags. They are great protectors of the more fragile items, and great organizers of small loose items.
  8. In my gear bag, a pair of heavy socks provides two layers of thick protection to the muzzle of my .22 rifle. Traveling after a TEOTWAWKI incident will likely subject bags to rough handling. Most shooters are more concerned about protecting the finish of the gun, not realizing that the machining at the very end of the barrel is critical to accuracy and that accuracy is critical to feeding yourself. An inch off at fifty yards and I may not enjoy a small rabbit or squirrel for dinner. Perfectionist? Concerning survival eating, yes. Socks on!

9. Caught without a hat to protect your ears in cold weather? Insert paracord through both ends of a long sock and wrap it around the back of your head, over your ears, and tie at the forehead to make a ski wrap. Or wet and squeeze dry, wrap it over you mouth and nose and tie the ends together at the back of your head to make a breathing filter for dust and smoke.

10. Summer survival without shade protection? Over-the-calf length socks are long enough to protect from sunburn up to the elbow. Cut the toe open to cover more of the arm, or the exposed leg of a child in shorts.

Where to buy Merino wool socks cheaply . . .

Merino wool socks are usually expensive. I have found the best prices at Sierra Trading Post, an internet and catalogue discounter of close-outs and seconds. A $20 retail pair of wool socks sells for $12 or less. Get on their email list and receive two or three discount codes each week to get those $20 socks for as low as $6 a pair. If you don’t care about color, some discount codes have gotten me that neon green pair for less than $5. Good brands of Merino wool socks that I prefer include Lorpen, Smartwool, Goodhew, Point 6, and Bridgedale.

A little bit of synthetic fiber helps durability . . .

The first socks I bought had the highest percentage of Merino wool that I could find. If Merino wool is good, then more must be better. I avoided the blends, thinking them inferior. My wife, who studied textiles in college, advised me to buy socks with a blend of wool and synthetic fibers and experiment with durability. I have tried socks with up to 30% synthetic fibers. They do seem last longer. Your mileage may vary.

In summary . . .

Durable, comfortable and so versatile, Merino wool socks are a must in my prepper storage and contingency bags. And to be sure that I am wearing wool socks the first day of TEOTWAWKI, the only socks I now wear are Merino wool socks, although I really don’t like wearing the neon green pair.

Footnote

1 Fill the sock with finely-smushed nuts and submerge it in a creek or stream. Hold the top down with a heavy rock or hang like a tea bag. When it no longer tastes astringent, squeeze dry in the sock. Spread in the sun to dry. Add to flour as a source of protein, cook like cereal grain, or cook Indian-style patties.

This contest will end on February 16 2013  – prizes include:

Comments

  1. Ewww! I never thought of those things; PLUS directions on where to find these resources. Thanks!

  2. A most excellent and timely article on merino wool. I am an avid fan of wool, merino wool specifically. I first discovered the true vale of merino wool over other wool in some socks I found at a local discount store in New England. (under $5/pair) I was traveling to central Maine to visit my brother during the Christmas Holiday and found myself in a blizzard with temps hovering just under zero. I was wearing leather boots, but the merino wool kept my feet as warm as toast for most of the day spent outdoors. A lesson well learned. I wear Merino wool mostly now when wearing boots and am going to be outdoors.
    On another note, at the same time I discovered merino wool socks, at the same store I found a 100 % Alpaca Wool Blanket for under $20. I was so impressed by it’s quality, loft and heat retention abilities, i went back to the same discount store and bought 3 more…. all they had.
    TinMan

  3. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Merino wool socks!

    The only thing I buy during Black Friday is 40 pair of Merino Wool Socks at a local feed store. This is the max they will let me buy. I get them 2 pr for 4.99.
    I would almost bet that no one is harder on socks than my family is. My husband (oil field) wears out THREE pairs of steel toe Redwing boots a year. My son (plumber) two pair of Redwings and a one set of Sorel snow boots, at least one pair of tennies. Gone. Toast.
    I wear out at least two pair of Crocs (yep, I wear them with socks in the winter, lol) and can make a good pair of Cabelas hiking boots make it a little over a year. We won’t count the flip flops that don’t survive.

    Merino socks will last a year. I wash them with the rest of the clothes, like normal. They are warm when they need to be, cool in the summer. The heels wear out while the rest of the socks stays in great shape. If they could figure out how to make the heels stay, they would last years.

    Hanes and Fruit of the Loom jump out of my basket at the store and go live at someone elses house.

    • Millie in KY says:

      Is this a national brand of feed store? Can we please have the name if it is? Like Tractor Supply?

      • It is a locally owned feed store. Sorry Millie. I tried to send my husband in for 40 more pairs, but they know us too well! I will need to send in a covert agent next year.

    • Warmongerel says:

      Wow, Mama.

      I’ve worn nothing but Redwings since I was 16 years old. I’ve never had a pair last for less than 6 years – and I work in a pretty rough environment.

      Hate to see what your guys are working in.

      Rub them down with lots of mink oil. Seems to make mine last, at least.

  4. I have some heavy rag wool socks. Great for my feet this winter.

  5. Rickye Heffner says:

    Make friends with a sock knitter and get just the color you want and in a range of thicknesses for different weather. They will cost more but they will fit your foot exactly and you get to choose the color!

    • Millie in KY says:

      Rickye, this is a skill I am starting to learn myself and need to get in a supply of wool yarns to be able to supply these for trade, I hope! I have just taken up knitting again, am learning hats and scarves right now. Socks soon!

    • I’m so glad I learned how to make socks. I knit from the toe up, so you can try them on as you knit. I don’t know the fiber content of my sock yarn, I’ll have to look, but I’ve made myself a pair and I’m working on a pair for my 13 year old (almost as big as my husband where his feet are concerned). My husband is resisting, but I think I’ll show him this article. If I can tear the socks away from my son, it might be something we include in our bug out bag…

  6. Spinning Gramma says:

    It is easy to dye those neon green wool socks a duller color. Either soak them in leftover coffee or tea or get orange Kool-aid to turn the neon into a nice olive green. Put the wet sock in a pan or bowl of warm water with 1-2 packs of (sugarless!) koolaid thoroughly mixed in. Heat gently on the stove or in the microwave until the dye has been absorbed and the water is clear. Let cool in the water and rinse in clear water with a Tablespoon of vinegar. Roll in a towel and hang to dry. Use however many pkgs of dye you need to get the color you want. Have fun! http://www.straw.com/cpy/wisdom/koolaid.html

    • I’ve never heard of dying with Kool-aid. That sounds like the best use for the stuff I’ve ever heard.

      • Question – does it work with cotton?

        • Spinning Gramma says:

          No, Kool-aid does not work on plant fibers. Just on animal fibers, wool, mohair, silk, etc.

      • Warmongerel says:

        The early punk-rockers in the 70’s used to use Kool-aid to dye their hair different colors because it was cheap. Then they’d super-glue the spikes, etc. in place.

        Not sure why my brain retains stuff like this. If I could get rich off of useless information, I’d be a billionaire.

        • They also used Jell-o instead of glue. They still do and kids still dye their hair with Kool-aid now, according to my daughters.

  7. I’ve been buying SmartWool socks at Sam’s over the last couple of winters. The youngest DD has feet that are cold year round and she really likes having the woolies in the winter.

    • Yep, I have about 12 pairs of those Sam’s smart wool socks. I wear them all day every day and night from October until March (they are on right now). Then in spring/summer I switch to some small thin poly sports deals. It had been years since I had cotton on my feet when this summer I put a pair on. I couldn’t believe how clammy my feet felt in them.

      I recommend anyone who lives anywhere up north to buy them from Sams. Its been three years now and they are all holding up great. As gross as it sounds I often wear them 2 or three days before washing. But, wool doesn’t hold as much BO or foot odor as poly. But I don’t (or have never been told I do) have foot odor problems.

      2 years ago I was at bag day at the local thrift shop – fill a paper bag for $4 and they happened to have a bunch of brand new Merino wool thin sweaters there. I bought about 8 of them for $4. So far I’ve only worn one as a mid layer for weekends I know I’ll be outdoors. I even bought the sweaters that weren’t in my size knowing I could use that great material in lots of ways.

      If someone finds themselves falling in love with merino or smart wool, but can’t afford sporting goods store prices I recommend looking at thrift stores for shirts and sweaters made of merino, and even cashmere and silk. You might think of these as fancy luxuries but they originally got their value for their great utility. They feel great, breath great, insulate great, and smell better then their high tech polyester counterparts. And when you can get them for $3 or $4 at the goodwill so much the better.

      • If you knit, learning how to rip out a sweater is something worth learning. You could buy a wool sweater in something NOT your size, rip it out and knit something that IS in your size, including socks.

      • Encourager says:

        You can make mittens out of the wool sweaters. Make a pattern by putting your hand on paper with the thumb stuck out. Being generous, trace around your hand and allow enough to go up your arm by at least 4 inches. Lay the pattern on the sweater with the cuff of the pattern on the cuff of the sleeve and/or the bottom edge of the sweater. Using a marker, trace onto the sweater. Before cutting out, stitch next to the outside of the marked line on a sewing machine. Cut out then sew either on the sewing machine or by hand. You can reverse the pattern for the other hand but that is usually not necessary. You can get many mittens out of a sweater.

        If you want, wash the sweater in hot water to shrink it and felt it up BEFORE using it to make mittens. This will make a heavy mitten.

      • Thanks for the tips. Haven’t done any knitting yet, but have looked into it. Is there a cheap place to get one of those “mushroom dealies” for darning socks and sweaters?

        I especially liked knowing that washing the wool to “felt” it might be preferable.

        I moved just about as far north as you can get in the continental US. Seems the traditions here are to get handmade wool mittens from your older relatives for Christmas. Everybody around me jokes about them and I always wish I had and mother/grandmother/ great-aunt that found set me up. Maybe I’ll have to make them for myself.

  8. In a former career I spent 90% of my time outdoors or in and out all day in all kinds of weather. I did not like wearing long underwear bottoms because they could get to hot if I had to spend more time indoors. So I settled on knee high merino wool sock liners, (kind of like a half thickness sock) under my regular cotton boot socks . They work great , breath well , keep my legs warm from the knee down with out being really bulky and tight. I believe I got mine were , wig-wam brand from eith REI or Campmor. or Cabelas.

  9. riverrider says:

    smartwool is da bomb! and a youtube guy uses two wool army blankets,a hatchet, a steel cup and some 55o cord as his ultimate bug out gear. i can’t argue with him.

  10. Tactical G-Ma says:

    Michael R.,
    You wrote an incredible article about something so incredibly important.

    I am one who perspires heavily through my feet. So, merino wool is worth every penny. I knew they make great 1st stage water filters but never realized how versatile they can be when needed.

    Thanks for the useful and awesome tips.

  11. The Last American says:

    I have a pair on as I write. They only sock I wear in the winter here on the northern plains. Couple with an insulated boot, they’ll take you down to
    -30. Great for ranch work or plowing snow banks.

  12. Great write-up! Thanks.

  13. I agree on the Merino wool–been buying them for the hubs for years. He’s diabetic and they are great for his feet, and survive being thrown in the washer and dryer with the rest of the stuff on hot cycles. He also wears his year round as he prefers mostly boots. Just got the ones on sail at mega mart and they last about three years. I’ve had his wool socks wear out in one when that was all we could get. I do have to wonder about the temperatures you gave, though. Where is it 950F or 600F? Maybe that came through my email wrong! I too hate wool and dreaded wearing them at boot camp. Fortunately, when I went Quiana socks were all the rage and I just wore mine under them. Just like our modern liner socks with the added advantage of no blisters out of my entire group. (Broken foot, but that’s another story!)

  14. There is another product called Sealskinz , they are 100% waterproof . A little on the pricy side but they work well .

  15. Look geeeeze! I just bought everyone crew socks in cotton! NOW I have to put socks back on my budget list”” good thing to know tho thanx I think…….

  16. I love my Merino wool socks. I bought my first pair last year for $6.97 and quickly bought 2 more, one to put in my survival backpack. My sister buys all the men in our family one pair for Christmas each year. She buys them at Costco and I saw they had women’s merino socks so I purchased a package of 3 pairs for $15. I do not like them and will only wear them if I don’t have any clean socks. Shockingly enough the wool socks I bought at Walmart (which are now $8) are much better quality than Costco. I prefer to go barefoot (or flipflops) and have only started wearing socks since moving to this really cold area, but I am purchasing more Merino wool socks at Walmart as soon as I go back to town. Oh, my favorite part, the ladies socks come in pink or sage green or purple. lol

  17. MountainSurvivor says:

    Seeing that they do such a good job at keeping the feet dry and cool/warm in hard weather, you’re proof that they do a good job, they’d make a nice addition to my current supply of wool/synthetic/antimicrobial socks. Thanks for all of the information and ideas, Michael R!

  18. The Grey Wolf says:

    Another great use for wool socks is they can be heated to dry out the insides of your boots when they get wet. The trick is to put some dry stones (not river stones)in a fire, let them heat, seperate them from coals to slighly cool, (optional) brush off with some green bows, put your sock over your hand and grab them with your sock covered hand. Then, turn the sock inside out and set your “hot sock” inside your boot and let sit overnight.

    Boots usually and wool socks often are made with synthetics that can melt so becareful and pay attention to doing this properly and know what you have. 100% wool socks wont melt from hot rocks and will magically turn your wet soggy boots into a heated furnace that dries wet boots out! Because the socks won’t melt, the insides of your boots won’t melt either.

    As an avid hiker, I won’t be without merino wool socks. I’ve gone winter hiking with breatheable, non-waterproof boots in snow for several day long hikes and even had great success. Moisture was allowed to gather but also leave my socks and boots while my feet generatedheat from hiking. I also wasn’t stopping much, which would have cooled off my feet and turned off my feet from radiating. If you anticipate any stop and go movement, I highly recommend goretex lined boots with merino socks.

    Another example of how wool socks work, is day hiking and getting into a river with the outside temp 63′, under shade the entire day. 1.5 hours of contstant movevement after submerging my boots from my final river crossing in my breatheable (Keen) boots and 100% merino wool socks (medium weight), the insides of my boots were almost completely dried! I was amazed. Great article and continue learning about the insulative, moisture absorption and breatheability principles of wool socks. Make the switch now if you haven’t already.

  19. Wool socks as a survival tool….that is why this site is the best!

  20. Warmongerel says:

    Here in MN, it’s all about trying to stay warm for 6 months out of the year. I’ve got wool blankets, wool hats, wool liners for my “choppers” and a box full of wool socks – even “electric” socks that take a 9V battery.

    Not sure if any of it is Merino, though. Other than Alpaca, I didn’t know there were other types. Thanks for the info. I could do with out the itchiness.

  21. Great article. I am jealous though because I can’t wear wool socks because I am allergic to wool. What would you consider for socks if you were not able to wear wool?

    • Encourager says:

      I, too, can’t wear wool socks or knit with wool. My hands itch and then break out. It is not the wool, it is the lanolin IN the wool. Some yarns are processed so the lanolin is either reduced or taken out. I can knit with those wools.

      Maybe it is the lanolin, Newg. Have you had any reactions to any hand lotions? Check the label as lanolin is used in many lotions. There is no lanolin in Alpaca or Llama wool but they are a stretchy, weaker wool so you need to blend it with other fibers for strength.

      • Unfortunately, I am allergic to the wool, not the lanolin. I have been tested numerous times and was actually on allergy shots for over 19 years of my life. In addition to wool, I am pretty much allergic to anything that lives, including but not limited to most pollens, molds, cats, dogs, feathers and horses. Yeah, that sucks.

  22. My Sam’s club has “Ultrawool” socks which are a merino wool blend. Super warm and comfy and no stink foot. They come in a 3 pack for about $12. A great deal.