A comprehensive guide to the most common causes of chafing
while hiking and running, ways to prevent it and treat it after it occurs.
Related: Hiking Clothes 101
Chafing is the bane of any hiker who finds themselves on a long and sweaty hike. If you have never experienced chafing, count yourself lucky. Those who have dealt with it will tell you that it is an unpleasant experience you will never forget. Thankfully, there are ways to prevent chafing and also deal with it if you are unfortunate enough to develop it while deep in the backcountry.
Friction with skin or clothes
Humidity, warm weather or sweat
Chafing is caused by friction when your skin repeatedly rubs against clothing or even against other skin. This repetitive rubbing produces red, raised and eventually raw skin patches that will stop even the hardiest of backpackers in their tracks. Heavy sweating from warm weather and high humidity only makes it worse.
Chafing most often occurs in a handful of trouble areas. Knowing where it happens will give you a leg up on preventing it. The most common area for chafing is on the inner thigh where your legs touch together. The skin in this area has a double whammy -- not only does this part of your leg rub together extensively when hiking, but it also gets sweaty. Salty sweat and rubbing are a deadly combination. And trouble in this area impedes the most essential part of hiking -- walking. Don't take care of thigh chafing and you will leave the woods walking bowlegged like a real cowboy.
Chafing results from skin-to-skin contact; but that is not the only way it develops. Clothing and gear, especially those that are not fitted correctly, also produce skin-irritating friction. Ill-fitted backpacks that shift as you walk can cause sore spots around the shoulder straps and waist belt. Boots that are tied too loosely can rub your ankles raw. Shirts are a source of angst for men who are susceptible to "runner nipples," an uncomfortable condition that results when a shirt rubs against the chest. The nipple area is very sensitive and bleeds easily, leaving some men with telltale "red headlights" during long hours on the trail.
High sweat areas such as in between your butt cheeks and under your armpits are another common area for chafing. These areas don't rub together as much as your inner thighs, but they sweat and trap salty residue that can irritate your skin over time.
As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and preventing chafing is relatively easy. It may be difficult on the trail, but you need to focus on keeping yourself clean and dry.
1. Reduce Moisture with Powders. Use a good anti-fungal drying powder like Gold Bond to absorb moisture when breaking for the night. Gold Bond has the added benefit of containing menthol which can be cooling and soothing to the skin.
2. Reduce Friction with a Lubricant. It might sound counter intuitive to add moisture, but a thick lubricant can help grease up and eliminate friction in heat areas. There are simple products like vaseline as well as more complex formulas like Body Glide that reduce friction.
3. Wash or Clean the Area. Little amounts of dirt, sweat, dead skin, lent, etc can build up and act like sandpaper in susceptible regions like the inner thighs, butt cheeks, legs, armpits and nipples. Washing the area with soap and water will help eliminate the debris.
4. Wipe Down Frequently. If you cannot prevent yourself from sweating, then you should bathe or towel off with water as often as possible to remove the salty sweat and dirty grime that accumulates after time on the trail.
5. Add a Barrier Layer. Staying clean and dry is essential, but that may not be enough. In those problem areas mentioned above, you may need to take some extra steps to put a protective barrier between your skin and what rubs against it. For the inner thigh area, wearing a pair of wicking underwear that covers your upper legs will work wonders.
6. Whick Away Moisture. Wear clothing that wicks away moisture and breathes, so you don't sweat in the first place.
STEP 1: STOP. Just like a blister, chafing is best treated as soon as you feel it happening. Don't ignore it as it won't mysteriously improve without some intervention. First, you need to take a break and treat the rash.
STEP 2: WASH. Clean and dry the affected area by washing it with warm water and drying it gently. Don't rub the area when washing or drying as the pain will send you through the roof.
STEP 3: SOOTH. Once the area is clean, you can apply a soothing lotion like zinc oxide, coconut oil or even vaseline to soothe the area and stimulate healing. A layer of antibiotic or anti-fungal cream is helpful if you are concerned about infection. If you need a more industrial-strength solution, then bag balm, used on a cow's udder, also is a favorite remedy for most skin irritations.
STEP 4: REST. Give yourself time to recover. Take a zero day or two so you don't re-irritate the skin. If you cannot afford to take a break, do your best to keep the area clean, dry, and lubricated. When you are healed enough to hit the trail, you should take a moment to consider the cause of the chafing and take steps to prevent it. If your backpack doesn't fit quite right, take it off and adjust it. If you are sweating too much, then slow down your pace or wear more lightweight layers. Use powders to absorb any excess moisture and lubricants to keep any rubbing areas as friction-free as possible.
Chamois Butt'r Original Anti-Chafe Cream (see on Amazon)
Originally designed to treat saddle sores in bikers, Chamois Butt’r is great for preventing chafing in hikers. It's a chamois cream and meant to be applied to the padded crotch area of biker shorts. It may be a bit tacky feeling and messy to apply, but Chamois Butt’r is known for its longevity. Apply it liberally, and you'll be all set for the day ahead.
Body Glide Anti-Chafe Balm (see on Amazon)
Body Glide is a lightweight, non-greasy lubricant that'll stand up to whatever you throw at it. Apply it your troubled areas and you'll never even know you have it on. Body Glide comes in a variety of different forms -- from cream to a deoderant-style sitck so you can find the one that works best for you.
Blue Steel Anti-Chafe Cream (see on Amazon)
Great, tiny packets for easy stashing. Blue Steel anti-chafe cream is ideal for high friction areas that are susceptible to chafing. The silicone-based cream acts like a second skin that provides a barrier between your skin and what is rubbing against it. The addition of tea tree oil offers anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties so you won't get an infection along with the chafing.
Johnson's Baby Powder (see on Amazon)
It's hard to beat baby powder when you are trying to keep your nether regions dry. The absorbent and soothing talcum powder is most effective at night when you are done sweating and need to dry out for a while. Baby powder is lightweight and comes in small containers that are easy to throw into your pack.
Anti-Monkey Butt Powder (see on Amazon)
Anti-Monkey Butt Powder improves upon its talcum powder base by adding soothing calamine into its mixture. Calamine powder is mostly zinc oxide and leaves a smooth, silky layer on your skin that reduces irritation and wicks away moisture.
By Kelly Hodgkins and Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine and Bicycling Magazine to Fast Company and Science Alert. He recently wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe.
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