There is nothing as frustrating and distracting as feeling uncomfortable during a fun hike with friends. Itchy, sore or burning sensations caused by chafing can make you so uncomfortable that you want to terminate your walk prematurely. In this post, we’ll help you learn how to prevent chafing, so you get more fun out of your trekking.
What is Chafing?
Chafing is skin irritation caused by friction. That friction comes from two surfaces rubbing together, usually repetitively. The leading causes are skin against skin, e.g. inner thighs during running/walking; clothes rubbing on skin, e.g. runner’s nipple; or, gear to skin friction, such as between backpack straps and your shoulder.
When chafing begins, you may only feel slight itching or discomfort, but as you keep walking farther, the repeated rubbing of your skin increases its irritation and can eventually injure it.
Chafing injuries occur in varying degrees. At the milder end, we see red blemishes and rashes, but these can quickly give way to blisters, or raw, open skin wounds.
Where is Chafing Most Common?
Chafing can affect any part of the body where rubbing friction occurs. However, some parts of the body are more sensitive than others, making them more susceptible. You’ll also find that the way we walk and the equipment we use for hiking hit certain areas of the body more than others.
The most common parts of the body to experience chafing are the:
- Inner Thighs, especially rubbing together in ill-fitting clothing
- Waist, from poor fitting belts/pants
- Wrists, from a too-tightly worn watch
- Bottom of Leg & Ankles, often due to boot fit or excessive moisture
- Toes, also from boots with a poor fit
- Chest and back - caused by backpack rubbing/strap fitting
Although on different parts of the body, many of these symptoms share similar causes, which makes it simpler for us to prevent chafing discomfort when we hike.
Methods for Preventing Chafing
We have identified six simple ways for limiting (and eliminating) chafing from your hiking adventures in the wilderness.
A Thorough Body Clean Up
Clean skin is an essential must to reduce chafing. Dried sweat and the buildup of dead skin cells and bacteria all contribute to increasing friction on that skin’s surface.
Clean yourself thoroughly with soap and water and, as an extra level of prevention, use alcohol-free disinfecting wipes (product link) just before going on a hike.
Bacteria can build up surprisingly fast, depending on the environment you are in. So, make sure to shower just before you go out, don’t rely on an early morning shower if you’re not hiking until the afternoon.
If you have shopping to do for the hike, packing, and whatnot, finish up preparation first and then take a shower right before leaving, and make sure to dry yourself thoroughly before dressing (wet clothes can cause friction chafing too).
Start the hike as clean as a whistle.
Lubricate Your Body
After taking a shower, make sure you lubricate your body. If you regularly experience the pain of chafing, you already know what places get irritated quickly and more often.
If you’re new to hiking or planning to take on a severe increase in distance, be sure to lubricate more on the inner thighs, waist, and back. Hiking can also cause blisters on your feet so it would be a plus to apply the lubricant on your feet as well.
Wear the Right Materials
Poor fitting clothes of inappropriate material are a significant cause of chafing in walkers.
First off, don’t go wearing clothes that retain your sweat: avoid cotton items as much as possible. It doesn't matter how cold the weather is, hiking will squeeze sweat out of your body. Most clothes absorb body sweat, but ideally, you should wear wicking base layers (product link) that take sweat away from your skin.
Whatever you do though, avoid wearing cotton clothes, including jeans. Cotton clothing does a great job of holding onto that sweat and staying wet a long time. That damp layer is remarkably efficient at irritating your skin, so stay away from it!
And, just like your skin, clothes can also get dirty. Dirty garments increase chafing risks, so always put on clean clothes when you step onto the trail, especially the layers immediately next to your skin.
Wear Clothing that Fits Properly
As well as material, you need to focus on the fit of your clothing. Clothes that are too tight can chafe, as can clothes which are loose or baggy. You should choose clothes that comfortably form to the shape of your body, especially your underwear and top.
In fact, some walkers choose to go commando to reduce butt and crotch chafing. If that’s not your thing, don’t worry, it’s really not necessary. Choose some synthetic, sweat-wicking underwear that has a snug, but not tight, fit and you’ll be delighted with the comfort these provide. The video below explains more.
Most distance hikers opt to do so in shorts because looser pants also cause chafing after many miles of leg swinging. If that’s your preference, reduce thing-on-thigh chafing through the use of lubricants.
On the top half of your body, avoid tucking your walking shirt into your shorts or pants so as not to channel sweat from your torso into that area and avoid chafing around the waist. Make sure to layer up, so you can remove layers as you get warm and minimize sweating.
Avoid belts or tying waist packs too tight. Dress as comfortably as you can while also considering the weather. Wear shoes that fit but do not strap them too tight. If you’re prone to blisters on your feet, look at changing socks before boots.
Many long-distance hikers swear to use a wicking undersock combined with a walking sock. The friction in this set up occurs between the two socks and the boot, taking it away from your skin and reducing the likelihood of blisters.
With cleanliness, clothing and lubrication all considered, you’re ready to begin that hike in comfort. However, there are a few precautionary measures you can take during the trek that will help.
Keep Your Water Bottle Close
One of the best ways to prevent chafing is staying hydrated. Drink plenty of water before and during the hike to avoid dehydration.
This works because it is the salt in our sweat which causes chafing. Keeping hydrated dilutes the salt concentration in your sweat and reduces the friction it creates. Keep an eye on your pee - if it is straw-yellow, you are too dehydrated. Drink enough water to keep your urine light yellow or clear.
Take Regular, Brief Breaks
The continuous friction of clothes, gear, and skin causes chafing to occur more quickly. When you feel that slight itchiness or heat which is the first sign of rubbing, take a brief break, especially on a sunny day,
Stop the friction for a few minutes and give any sweat chance to dry out, this will help prevent extreme chafing. You should also take disinfecting swabs to towel down the area before applying anti-chafing powder and lubrication (product links) to dry out sweat and reduce friction.
If the irritation is from equipment, use a break to adjust it and lessen the rubbing. Don’t grin and bear it until you’re in real pain - deal with discomfort as soon as you notice it.
In Camp Chafing Prevention Measures
Once you decide to take a rest, whether ending the hike or setting up camp, be sure to measure the steps we outlined above as much as possible, i.e. wash the affected area thoroughly with soap (or clean with alcohol swabs), dry it thoroughly with a clean towel, and apply anti-chafing powder.
These simple measures will make a big difference in reducing the pain caused by chafing while you’re out hiking the open trail.
Chafing is, at best, uncomfortable and, at worst, downright painful.
Thankfully, there are many simple preventative measures we can take to minimize chafing while we hike. Follow these three simple rules:
- Keeping your skin and clothes clean
- Wear the right kind of materials with an appropriate fit
- Make good use of anti-chafing powders and lubricants
And you’ll find backpacking a much lower friction experience, and all the more enjoyable for it!