All About Chafing: Awkward but Necessary Advice

Content warning: This is a topic of sensitive matters that involves talking about delicate areas. If you are easily offended by anatomical discussions, you’ve been warned.

There you are in the middle of the backwoods, walking over the tops of mountains and feeling like quite the badass when you realize you’ve been feeling slight discomfort from in between your legs. When you stop to check it out, it’s already too late: Yup, you’re chafed. Chafing can lead to a multitude of issues when thru-hiking. While it seems like a small problem, it can become a crippling nightmare.

This is a conversation I feel like not many people have prior to the trail because it’s such an uncomfortable subject for some, especially if you’re new to backpacking. If you’re a seasoned hiker though, you’re relaxed and unfazed by this sort of topic.

What Is Chafing?

If you’ve never experienced it before, you’re lucky. However, you’re bound to find out if you’re planning a thru-hike. Chafing is a skin problem that’s generally caused by a combination of friction, moisture, fabric, or skin-on-skin contact. The rubbing of the skin can end up with you developing a stinging red rash, and if left untreated can cause swelling, bleeding, or crusting. A big cause of chafing is because of the salt in your sweat that’s left behind after the liquid part has evaporated; when the salt is left behind, it often intensifies the friction and will inflame the skin.

Nothing Will Totally Fix the Problem, But These Will Help

Desitin

Desitin is great for healing chafe and rash quickly, but it’s messy, smelly, and stays on your body until you can probably get in a shower to wipe it off. When I did use Desitin, it often would stay in/on my underwear and chunk up, creating new issues for the crease of my legs and my bits to deal with. It’s fine for using maybe the night before a town day or while you’re in town, but I wouldn’t use it on the trail.

Gold Bond

You would think this would be a lifesaver. And it is, but only for places that aren’t so sensitive. (Trust me. The burn!) I kept Gold Bond on hand for my feet and for when my shoulder straps would chaff me. You don’t need much, just a little.

A&D Ointment

My Dad recommended this to me while I was in Tennessee, and it worked well as a post-chafe healing ointment. I wasn’t too keen on it at first since I was fed up with Desitin at that point, but A&D wasn’t super messy and didn’t have a strong smell.

Baby Powder

To be completely honest, I felt like I took dust baths in baby powder constantly. I would put it in my hair, on my armpits, in my socks, and in places that generally needed to be dried out at night. It felt a bit gentler than Gold Bond because it isn’t as aggressive, so take that for what you will. I felt that baby powder was super useful for more than one or two things, so I recommend baby powder.

Vaseline

I didn’t end up using Vaseline until I was well into my attempted thru-hike. I began using it after one of the members in my trail family, Cobra, mentioned it after all of us had expressed our discomfort with butt chafe. The way he dealt with chafe was completely taking preventative measure by applying Vaseline first thing in the morning before hiking and getting sweaty.

 

Wear the Right Clothes

To prevent shoulder strap chafe, I wore two shirts. I would wear a long-sleeve, moisture-wicking base layer, with a nylon T-shirt I got from Walmart. Even in the summer, I wore this setup and it was great for preventing shoulder-strap and armpit chafe.

I wore ExOfficio underwear to prevent chafing for my bits. If you’re looking for a more budget-friendly option, a moisture-wicking brand called Balanced Tech also worked well for me. I suggest ExOfficio for men, as well.

I’m a plus-size woman, so I know my thighs chafe easily from rubbing together. I wore Torrid Leggings for my attempted thru-hike, and when I wasn’t wearing those, I wore an REI skort. I know many people had luck with knee-length gym shorts, as well as biker shorts that came down farther than regular shorts. Leslie Knope would often put her buff around her upper thigh if her shorts weren’t protecting her thighs from each other that day.

For women with larger breasts, a good, moisture-wicking bra is in order. Make sure it’s supportive and isn’t too tight. I ended up with chafe under my breasts because my sports bra was too tight at first. Try to avoid brand-new bras, as the dye will bleed off on you and could cause irritation. I knew some people to go without bras, but that causes a new issue: nipple chafe. Which plenty of men experience out there, as well. There are plenty of prevention tactics for nipple chafing. Try wearing a more form-fitting shirt, or you can also apply waterproof band aids over your nipples. TriSlide Anti-Chafe is a brand I saw men carrying a good bit, but these guys were trail runners and often dealt with nipple chafe. Another cheaper alternative is cow udder balms. Yes, cow udder calms, I’m serious.

Dry Yourself Out

We go many days and nights without a proper shower and often our clothes aren’t washed and dried as often as we’d like. This causes added complication to try to end the painful chafing. What I began doing at least once a day was lie there and allow my body and clothes to dry off, separately. Generally this was in the cover of my own tent, but sometimes I would find a secluded, sunny area and would take advantage of that.

I suggest bringing baby wipes if you can. My eventual method of defeating the chafing nightmare was wiping down with a baby wipe, drying off, and applying Vaseline first thing in the morning. When I would finish the day, I would wipe down again, allow my body to dry out, and apply baby powder and/or A&D ointment if needed.

When it comes down to it, everyone has their own personal way of preventing and dealing with chafe. Having too many trials and errors can become discouraging and aggravating. Hopefully, some of these tips have helped you discover what your way might be. Happy trails!

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Comments 8

  • Desirae : Mar 16th

    It’s really rubs me the wrong way, pun intended, that men have so many boxer short options and I have yet to find a version for a female fit with the same coverage. I have found some biker short styles that are similar to what I am looking for but usually have to wear them inside out because of seams on the inside that rub.

    Reply
    • Beth : Mar 31st

      I haven’t tried the boxers, but the underwear at TomboyX might be what you are looking for: https://tomboyx.com

      Reply
  • Detail : Mar 22nd

    Ouch. I had it bad last year; it happened right after I did laundry right before The Wildcats and I think I used too much Persil. SOOO painful. I used Gold Bond lotion and after a week or so and rinsing my clothes a few times, it got better. It almost took me off trail.

    Reply
  • Cosmo A Catalano : Mar 22nd

    Thanks for bringing this topic forward, Ashley. From the male perspective, a number of anti-friction products are available, Body Glide is possibly the most common. Also look for bike rider’s supplies as there are a number of products offered. Crotch/thighs, armpits and shoulders are common hot spots. Some products can be applied in powder form to your socks/shoes to reduce the opportunity for blisters to form.

    Don’t tough it out. If you are getting chafy, stop and treat it while it’s relatively minor–don’t postpone until the end of the day. Change out your clothes if you have an extra set–at least until you slim down and build up some resistance.

    You won’t really know what works best until you try it (like most hiking gear). In the warm months, I usually hike in a kilt–yes, I wear underwear too, mostly. The extra air circulation helps keep things from getting as sweaty, and reapplication/cleaning is easier. Do, as you suggest, put stuff on the area before you start your day, and reapply. Be consistent about cleaning problem areas at the end of the day–every day. I use a small chamois towel to rinse/wipe in nearby streams (downstream of the water source–please). Hands/fingers/applicator will be smelly after application–be consistent about hand cleaning/sanitizing afterwords.

    As a volunteer who has to manage human waste at campsites–please, if you use baby wipes, pack them out. They don’t biodegrade (despite manufacturer’s claims) and have to be packed out by people like me. Not the favorite volunteer job out there….

    Reply
  • Weasel : Mar 22nd

    I thought I was being clever one hot afternoon when I came across a patch of snow, and shoved a handful down my shirt where it sat around my belly, dammed by my hip belt. As it melted, it dripped right into my crotch, and I thought nothing of it as I hiked another 7 miles to camp. Now, I wear a hiking skirt and 10in running shorts, so I’ve got good coverage, but I managed to chafe that half-inch strip of exposed inner thigh right up there by my crotch. I chafed so bad that it was swollen and bloody, like holy shit. 7 miles! One afternoon! I slept that night as if my knees hated each other, and picked up some desitin at the next town. Super messy, heavy, but damn it works. I think I sweat it all off cuz I’ve never experienced it chunking up on me, hope I never do!

    Reply
  • Three Speed : Mar 23rd

    My routine includes petroleum jelly on my feet and inner thighs every morning and if I miss a day and get chafed I apply antibiotic ointment at night. Seems to work by morning.

    Reply
  • Pony : Mar 25th

    Miracle cure for chafing: Vagisil cream. I learned that from Yogi’s guide to the Colorado Trail, and MAN does it work.

    Not sure what is in Vagisil, but when I apply it to chafe, it stings for about 30 seconds, a minute tops, and then begins to numb the pain. On the AT — where, due to the heat and all those *&^%$!! PUDs (pointless ups and downs, not to mention pointed ones…), horse-like volumes of sweat — chafe is endemic, I made frequent use of Vagisil, sometimes during the day, but especially in camp. Overnight, the V-miracle would cure even the most painful patch of chafe up in my experience.

    Body Glide or Sportslick is good as a preventative measure, as is Leukotape for places like the small of your back. But Vagisil is a wonder …. I don’t leave home without it.

    This is not a joke, I promise.

    ~Pony (CT’15; AT’16; Foothills Trail, Alabama Pinhoti Trail’18)

    Reply
  • BobT : Apr 29th

    Good article, appreciate the tips.

    I tried the new thing of wearing running shorts with a liner and no underwear, and I’ve never chafed so bad in my life. I don’t know if I’m built different or what, but apparently my ‘boys’ need to be a little more secured than some.

    So now my layers are Gold Bond, Ex Officio boxer-briefs, then Patagonia Baggies with the liner intact. Seems like having good underwear on helps pull the moisture off my body and dissipate it better than going commando.

    Reply

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