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The Little Things That Mean So Much

The Joy of Sox Putting My Best Foot ForwardBy Tamia Nelson

December 24, 2013

Socks take center stage at this time of year, though they do so in the guise of Christmas stockings. But socks' real importance lies in their everyday utility. This truism was brought home to me with some force recently, when an injury left me struggling to pull my socks up. I'm on the mend now, happily, but it will be quite a while before I forget how it felt to wrestle with what had formerly been an unconscious — and nearly automatic — prelude to each day's activities.

And make no mistake: Life without socks would be nearly unbearable, especially in winter, when the temperature in my bedroom and bathroom is often in the 50s. (That's Fahrenheit, not Celsius.) Nor is my office much warmer — at least it isn't when an east wind is blowing. It's true that when I was younger I sometimes ventured out into the snow to retrieve letters from the roadside mailbox with no more than a pair of sandals on my otherwise bare feet. But that was a long time ago. Age has taken its toll, and as my recent temporary disability proved, no amount of cannily calibrated exercise can turn back the clock.

In any case, even when the pain was at its worst, I managed to get my socks on without having to ask Farwell's assistance, though the resulting gyrations wouldn't have looked out of place in one of the Three Stooges more frenetic sketches. It was worth it, though. And it wasn't such a bad thing to be reminded of …

The Vital Role of Socks

No one is sure when socks first appeared on the scene. For obvious reasons, they're not well represented in the archeological record. But people have been wrapping their feet in animal skins, felt, and leather since the earliest historical times, and these protosocks did for our ancestors what modern knitted socks do for us. How do socks serve us? Let me count the ways. Socks cushion our feet as we walk. They protect our ankles and heels from chafe. Absorb sweat and then transport it away from our skin. Insulate our lower extremities from the cold. They can even frustrate the efforts of biting flies and ticks to drain our life's blood.

Despite this, I took socks for granted for much of my early life. Then I started skiing, and I soon discovered just how much a good pair of socks added to the comfort of stiff, tightly laced boots. Since my parents' income didn't stretch to outfitting all their kids with wool socks, I saved money from babysitting jobs to buy my first pair of real ragg ski socks, only to have them scissored off my legs when I had the misfortune to ski into a tree at speed. I mourned the passing of those ragg socks for months, and when a friend gave me a replacement pair on the very day that my cast was removed, I was overjoyed.

Now I own many pairs of socks — as do most paddlers, I'd imagine. To judge from the outfitters' catalogs that arrive with every post around this time of year, …

Socks Are Big Business

And the variety of offerings is astronomic. This wasn't always the case, however. When I was growing up, socks were something you bought at the local general store. Most were knitted from cotton. They offered little in the way of cushioning, soaked up sweat like a sponge soaks up water (and took about as long to dry), and wore out at the heels in a month of easy walking. Wool socks were rare and curious things. Many were knitted by grandmothers and maiden aunts as Christmas gifts. These were usually impossibly scratchy, and to make matters worse, they seldom, if ever, fit the intended recipient, inviting comparison with the "balaclavas for victims of head‑shrinking tribes" that were immortalized in Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales." So my first pair of ragg socks came as something of a revelation. They fit perfectly. They were thick. They were warm. They were rugged.

I loved them.

Of course, there are many more types and descriptions of socks to love today. Too many, perhaps. At some point, too much choice is simply too much, and the would‑be purchaser can find herself paralyzed by ad‑copy‑induced indecision. Socks can now be had in any height from running‑shoe top to over‑the‑knee. You can even get them with individual compartments for each toe. But the wildest variety is found in the realm of materials. The choices were once limited to cotton, wool, and (for stockbrokers and Hollywood actors) silk. No longer. Most modern socks are knitted from a medley of fibers. Some are entirely synthetic. Others combine natural fibers with synthetics (usually nylon or polyester). And each maker has its own proprietary blend, all of which are touted as revolutionary improvements over anything that has come before.

What's a paddler to do? Good question. Perhaps the best advice is to …

Follow Your Toes

Farwell wears wool socks year round. (Actually, all‑wool socks are rather costly. Farwell's are wool‑nylon hybrids.) He swears by thick, cushiony, ankle‑length socks in summer, except when wading or paddling in freezing conditions, where neoprene wetsuit socks take their place. During the other three seasons, he dons knee socks. And he never complains. No, that's not quite true. He complains constantly. But not about his socks.

I, on the other hand, prefer a more eclectic approach when clothing my pedal extremities. Here's a selection from my sock box by way of illustration:

Sock It to Me!

No jokes about Imelda Marcos, please. Each sock in the photo stands in for a pair, and each pair represents a type that has its place and purpose in my outdoor wardrobe. Most are wool or cotton (usually with an admixture of nylon for durability and fit), though a few are predominately synthetic with some natural fiber thrown in for good measure, probably at the insistence of the advertising copywriters.

Pairs A and B are polyester cycling socks for summer temperatures. (Farwell likes to joke about my going off half‑socked. But then he sometimes wears knee socks in August, pulling them up to keep the afternoon sun from burning his calves.) Pair C is also for cycling, though they're somewhat higher, providing coverage for my ankles, as well. While I like to think that Pairs A and B help me keep my cool, all three pairs cushion my feet and move sweat away from the skin with commendable dispatch.

Not every sock succeeds, however. Pair D are thicker than the foregoing three pairs, and they rise almost to my calf. But the maker's much‑hyped cotton‑synthetic blend provides neither cushioning nor comfort. The socks are quickly soaked by sweat, and they stay wet forever. At least that's how it seems. (Farwell snorted knowingly on reading this. He has vivid memories of the 50/50 wool‑cotton blend socks that the Marine Corps thought ideally suited to hot, humid tropical climates. Their only virtue, he claims, was the speed with which they rotted away. And to this day, he refuses to wear any socks that contain cotton.) To add insult to injury, Pair D also have toe seams cunningly placed so as to raise painful blisters. The upshot? They're now relegated to light‑duty wear around the house, and soon they'll find themselves in the bag of rags I keep for cleaning bicycle chains and similar delicate work.

Pair E are simple cotton crew socks with a terry cloth footbed. They get sopping wet in a heavy dew. And they're cold whenever the temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. But I find them comfortable for day hikes in undemanding terrain and warm, fair weather. I never wear them paddling, though.

Now we're approaching the top of my lineup, and this is true in more ways than one. Pair F are my hands‑down (feet‑down?) favorites. These medium‑weight, wool‑nylon crew socks are my constant companions while paddling and climbing in the more temperate seasons. They stay up, they provide plenty of cushioning, and they somehow manage to be both cool in warm weather and warm in cool weather. They also dry quickly when washed in camp. I love them with the same fervor I felt for my first pair of ragg ski socks. But it's a doomed love. A parting of the ways is inevitable. In what seems to be a commercial corollary to Gresham's law, the objects of my affections have disappeared from the catalogs. Luckily, they're hard‑wearing. Some of my pairs are in their second decade, yet they're still going strong. I'm hoping they'll outlast me.

That said, they have a younger rival: Pair G. Knitted from wool and reinforced with nylon, they're nice and thick, with a well‑padded footbed and snug upper. They're also just high enough to clear the tops of my hiking boots, but not so high that they're uncomfortable when the temperature rises into the 90s. They keep my feet warm when worn inside overboots while wading, and they're still soft and cushiony after three days without washing. The bottom line? They're the socks I turn to for shoulder‑season paddling and amphibious treks. Happy ending? Not quite. These socks, too, have been dropped from the catalogs, and to make matters worse, it doesn't look like they'll prove as hard‑wearing as Pair F. A pity, that.

The remaining examples — Pairs H, I, and J — are hefty wool ragg socks. The shortest are calf height; the longest overtop my knees. These are the socks I choose for many flatwater trips, when I know I'll be wearing overboots or wellies all day long. I used to wear ragg socks (paired with high‑top Converse sneakers) in whitewater, too, but I found that the coarse ragg weave trapped every stray grain of silt and sand, defying even repeated washing. The result? By trip's end, my feet would feel as if they'd been sandpapered. Which is why I now wear neoprene socks or booties (with or without sandals) when wading in fast water. But wellies or overboots worn with ragg socks are still my first choice for lazy, low‑water streams and chains of placid ponds, where it's a good bet that I'll be in and out of the boat from dawn to dusk. I also wear ragg socks when snowshoeing or hillwalking in winter. They make wonderful camp wear, too. I've even been known to keep them on my feet in my sleeping bag on cold nights. Best of all, they're still being sold. Don't tell Gresham!

The Joy of Sox

Little things are often overlooked, and you won't find many items of clothing that are smaller than socks. But socks' diminutive size belies their considerable importance. Your choice of socks can make or break a trip. Good socks keep your feet warm, help guard against blisters, and cushion even the stoniest trail. Bad socks can cripple you. So before you relegate socks to the foot of your gear list, think back to that freezing October day when you got your last pair of clean, dry socks out of your pack and pulled them over your feet just before turning in. Felt good, didn't it? That's the joy of sox.



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