Veteran skiers and riders know it well. That pervasive fragrance wafting from baseboards, radiators, heat ducts, or wherever warm air meets a drying boot liner. Eau du boot, that gross smell of socks, something only a seasoned lover of the mountains might find remotely nostalgic, evidence of a hard day spent on the hill.
Even for those who dedicate their lives to snow, there seems to be a limit to tolerating these fumes. When the scent reaches a certain ambient level in the interior airspace, and a previously-unknown threshold akin to a personal FAA flight limit is broached, it’s damn clear what needs to happen. Those boots have got to go, now.
Smells Like Teen Spirit
I should know. A former professional snowboarder, I started out riding before “wicking” was a term. My formative years were shaped by neon skier fashion, then skateboard-influenced baggy jeans and ice-crusted discount-store flannels. What went on my feet was of no import, compared to how much you could tweak out your grab, bonk that stump, or spin off the snowmaking mound.
When I pulled the post-high school ripcord, aiming a two-door Ford Bronco II with my brother and I inside toward the farthest destination away from Vermont (see, Vermont wasn’t “Vermont” back in the mid-90’s), I left garbed in whatever gear my sponsors at the time provided. Again, socks weren’t part of the math. But boots were.
Can You Freeze a Bad Smell?
At the time, it wasn’t uncommon to have linerless snowboard boots. Folks still didn’t need the added ankle support, even if tweaking had taken a backseat to more technical riding. But as far as that foot funk went, it was a disaster waiting to happen. There was no replacing the outer shell when you eventually fouled that built-in liner. No way to salvage that situation.
I found out the hard way in a hotel room, mid-way through some inaugural film shoot my first season “out there.” My boots got vetoed. Canceled. Axed. The olfactory airspace of the senior filmer had experienced a harsh fly-over, ala Top Gun, and out on the freezing cold balcony of the hotel room my boots went, liner and all.
My boots endured a frigid night. And my feet, a cold and unhappy morning. It wasn’t the last time those boots got banished, but at least the next few oustings were during early spring in Salt Lake City, not mid-winter in Montana. As I advanced through my snowboard career, I managed to avoid this fate again. Not on the account of proper moisture management. More likely a seasonal rotation of free gear, including socks, a perk of the trade.
"Well Knock My Tubes Off"
The above phrase was coined by a quirky Canadian snowboard friend of mine, who wasn’t so lucky in the gear department. I was wintering in Whistler at this point in my snowboard history, one season in particular subletting a condo dubbed “Man Camp” due to the heavy rotation of dudes shuffling through the hollow-core door. We had two to a room, one on the couch, someone in the closet under the stairwell, and Mike sleeping zipped up in his own board bag.
Mike possessed a truly rare style and personality, on and off his snowboard. But apparently that didn’t add up to his sponsors giving him socks. Instead — and maybe it was his Ontario heritage, or most likely the hockey in his genes, his big brother being an enforcer in the NHL minor leagues — Mike only wore tube socks. The white ones. His boots were, in a throwback way that completed his vibe, also linerless.
And they were so stinky. Awful, nasty, rendered odorous to the point that no amount of warmth was needed to set their vapors loose, leaving the entire population of Man Camp swooning like the RCMP had just raided with tear gas. That may be an accounting heavy on drama, but for sure his boots got sent to the penalty box out on the snow-covered deck. And, no, not in his board bag where he’d try and sneak them. We could whiff that trick, and it was played after the first time.
Better-Late-Than-Never Pro Tips
I know this is a personal narrative, but I couldn’t help wondering if the waft of ruined boots was shared beyond the limited scope of my days as professional rider. Expand the sample pool and all that.
I asked Jake Blauvelt, a fellow Vermonter who’s gone on to become a freeride legend, about his encounters with the stank side.
“Often times it’s your foot sweating that leads to moisture buildup and foot funk,” he sagely observed. “I’d say it only seems more important to keep those dogs breathing, so I can keep focused on getting gnar and not worry about swamp foot.”
True to Jake’s flawless form on even the trickiest descents, his personal record of boot banishment was squeaky clean. “Maybe it’s because I’ve worn Darn Tough most of my life?” he explained with a laugh. If only I’d been clued in a few decades earlier…
The Scent of Adulthood
Without that fresh breeze of hindsight, my own story continued when my snowboard career ended and the free gear ran out. I was finally faced with the first snowboard sock purchase of my adult life.
I knew about moisture wicking socks, a magic trick I’d been writing about in snowboard magazines for years by then. And I knew I wanted a thin, tight-fitting sock. Nothing like a sloppy fit between foot and boot to freak you out before dropping into a heavy line or a gap over a road. That mindset had stuck.
I opted for something I figured would fill the blanks for “fit,” sold on my own understanding of synthetic material “performance” that honestly, I’d never tested otherwise. I ran that pair until they were thread-bare to the skin and close to requiring a hazmat suit to deal with before each wash, my boot liners edging toward a smell that was dangerously close to replicating Mike’s, and my own, off gassing from years ago.
The next time I went sock shopping, I thought things through a little harder. I had just invested in a fresh pair of cross-country ski boots for that high-sweat pursuit. I still wanted the next-to-skin fit, but I needed to watch out for the creeping funk. There were no boot liners to be taken out, no separate shell to be dried. The whole deal had to be treated with respect and honest-to-gosh wicking dignity.
Wool for the First Time
But wool, on my feet? You have to understand, I’m one of those people for whom even the weave of synthetic snow socks lights up my fingertips like chalk scraping down a chalk board. The thick and chunky sweaters I’d been exposed to as a kid lead me to believe that wool snowboard socks would be scratchier and itchier than my synthetic ones.
Luckily I had already acquired a Merino Wool baselayer top, which reversed my childhood confusion about wool’s feel and function. That top was silky smooth and, compared to other layers, I could wear it ten times longer before it hit the laundry cycle. Turns out wool’s ability to keep you dry reduces the stinky build-up of sweat. Bonus: odors get locked up and stay dormant in wool’s fibers, only to be released upon washing. In short, wool is doing the dirty work.
After more than two decades, I finally caught up with Merino Wool— the RFL Ultra-Lightweight sock in particular. I know there are dedicated Nordic socks in the Darn Tough lineup, but I prefer the extra height and warmth. Some habits won’t quit. Luckily, my short-sighted view on wool and my penchant for wearing whatever was on hand did. My boots, along with the people that have to live with them, have never been happier.
About the Author
Jesse Huffman is a writer, video producer, and reformed boot stinker. A Vermont-based outdoors lover, he’s keen on gravel, snow, and all the elements in between. Read more at jessehuffman.com.