Where the Merino Meets the River
Whitewater SUP is all about the feet. The place where you and the board meet. If your feet are injured, sore, or otherwise malfunctioning – and mountain streams are full of foot hazards – your ability to SUP effectively is severely degraded. While sturdy river shoes are essential in most river environments I learned long ago the value of wearing socks to prevent bloody chaffing from the grit that gets into almost any river shoe or sandal. Guiding, fishing, and SUPing on rivers involves a surprising amount of walking in the riverbed stirring up sand and tiny rocks. A properly fitted no-show sock not only shields your foot from abrasive sand inside your shoe, it also reduces foot slippage, and fill gaps preventing most grit from entering the shoe at all.
Good river SUP socks need to do two things well:
Stay in place during aggressive weight shifting and twisting even when wet
Excellent river SUP socks bring extra features:
Durable materials and construction
Thermal protection even when wet
Greensboro Low – wool for the water
Over a year ago I bit the bullet and spent real money on a pair of Farm To Feet socks in my quest for the perfect footwear for whitewater SUP. FTF’s Greensboro Lows are wool in a ‘no-show’ design – two features I was looking for. Through my first year of whitewater SUP I’d put up with running socks that never really held up to the wet-foot demands of southern Appalachian creeks and rivers. The no-show style is essential when heavy water surges shin-deep across the deck. The wool was a guess in my quest for a water sock that would hold up better than my experience with nylon and cotton-nylon blends.
After my first outing with that pair they became an essential piece of my whitewater SUP gear. The only pair of socks I’ve not worn out or orphaned in less than a year. I watch them like a hawk on their way through the laundry. A year and dozens of river trips and washings later that first pair of Farm To Feet socks are still in great shape with nearly as much loft and cushion as the brand new pair I just picked up. They have never slipped off or bunched up inside my shoe. Paired with Hydroskin neoprene socks they increase the insulating factor significantly when paddling rivers with water below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. One big issue with wool sport socks – don’t put them in the dryer. In fact, handle them as you would neoprene. Mild detergent and air dry.
Farm To Feet – my neighborhood hosiery mill is awesome
I recently met a sales rep for Farm To Feet and was happy to share my customer testimonial with him. A week later a box with an assortment of their athletic and sporting socks arrived on my doorstep for evaluation and field testing. Farm To Feet is a brand developed by Nester Mills in Mount Airy, North Carolina, less than an hour of windy back roads from my home near Hanging Rock State Park. Marty Nester started his mill in 1993 focusing on high end hosiery work for brands like Patagonia. When deciding to make the leap to producing and marketing his own brand, Nester built it around the concept of a 100% USA sourced product. It’s nice that such a fine product has such a warm and fuzzy business success story.
Blacksburg water sock – quick dry
This year Farm To Feet added a new technical sock to it’s roster, the Blacksburg, designed specifically as a water sock. Made without its signature merino wool, this all nylon and spandex sock is an interesting alternative for the whitewater SUP paddler. It performs well as a liner and, like the wool Greensboro line, they stay in place even when wet. While they lack the cushion of wool they still seem to insulate just as well when paired with Hydroskin.
The nylon Blacksburgs definitely dry more quickly than the wool Greensboros although that’s not a huge deal for whitewater SUP where your feet are being repeatedly splashed and submerged. Reducing waterflow through the footwear system seems to be the best strategy for preventing numbness when paddling “wet-footed.” Fresh water circulating through your shoe with each step and foot compression makes it that much harder to keep them warm on cold days. The Greensboro’s wool really seems to hold rather than circulate water providing a thin but noticeable thermal protection layer. The Blacksburg water socks neither retain nor slow the transfer of frigid fresh water although they definitely help make Hydroskin socks more effective on cold days.
In the end, however, I think I prefer the wool blend of the Greensboro over the nylon blend of the Blacksburg – at least in February SUPing North Carolina and Virginia whitewater creeks.
Farm To Feet in Action
This old video demonstrates how I abuse these socks … and the brand new pair you can’t see inside the shoe and neoprene sock are still in my lineup almost 2 years later as shown in the image above.
Farm to Feet is not the only company making performance athletic socks suitable for whitewater SUP … but they may be the only company making premium, wool socks that are entirely US sourced and manufactured.
I’d love to hear other opinions on base-layer footwear for whitewater SUP.
When the weather warms up I’m looking forward to getting back in my Vibram 5-Fingers. I’m still looking for the ideal liner sock for those. All I can find are cotton-poly blends. Comment or message with recommendations.