How to Keep Yourself Safe from Chafe
It was a brutally hot, humid July day in Pennsylvania when Brandon “The Dude” Jacob walked past the halfway marker during his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru-hike.
“It was kind of a boring day,” recalls Jacob, 52, a Texas accountant. “But I was feeling pretty good, realizing it wasn’t too many miles from the state park.” That would be Pine Grove Furnace State Park. But by the time The Dude arrived, he wasn’t feeling so laid back. He was hot. Much too hot. “Sitting on the porch (at the Pine Grove Furnace General Store), it all caught up with me. All of a sudden, I felt sick,” he recalls.
Jacob had planned to eat at the store and hike on to the next shelter, but he knew he was done for the day. He walked a couple hundred yards back and checked in to the Ironmaster’s Mansion hostel.
“All I wanted to do was get in a shower. It was like I couldn’t even talk to anybody,” he says. “The hostel guy must have thought I looked bad. He said, ‘You know, a lot of people quit right here.’ ” When he peeled off his grimy shorts and shirt he was shocked to see that much of his skin was florid red and puffy. It couldn’t have been sunburn, because it was worse where his skin had been concealed by clothing. It stung like crazy.
“The shower only made it worse,” Jacob says.
The Dude staggered back into the bunkroom, looking like a boiled lobster, where a hiker offered a purported “miracle cure” for chafe: Vagisil, an over-the-counter cream intended to relieve “external vaginal itching and irritation.”
That was his first (and last) experience with an epic case of the long-distance hiker’s nemesis known as chafe (pronounced CHAYF).
Sanding Away Skin
“Chafing is due to friction of clothes on skin or skin against skin,” says Boulder, CO, dermatologist Diane Kallgren, M.D., an avid runner and hiker. “While not seemingly a traumatic event, this movement leads to a wearing away of the superficial skin cells over time. … If you make one pass over a piece of wood with a file, nothing seems to be happening. Do that a few thousand times and you really sand the wood down.”
The Dude is fortunate that he faced the scourge of chafe only once over nearly 2,200 miles. Many hikers suffer repeated bouts in chafe-prone areas such as the inner thighs, nipples, armpits, beneath shoulder and hip straps, and—let’s not mince words here—between the butt cheeks. Also the scrotum, if you happen to have one of those. But as The Dude learned, chafe can develop anywhere there is friction.
How to Prevent Chafe
Fortunately, it’s not inevitable. Here are a few precautions to help avoid the misery of chafe:
Bust the crust. Dried sweat can become a crusty, abrasive layer of salt crystals—think salty sandpaper—on your skin, so staying hydrated is important. Brandon surmises that his chafe that day was due to a combination of extraordinarily hot, humid weather and insufficient hydration.
Don’t hang loose. “Clothing should not be too loose nor ill fitting. Avoid wrinkles, seams and tags,” Kallgren advises.
Just don’t give a tuck. Not when it’s hot, anyway. When you tuck in your shirt it can serve as a conduit for sweat into your nether regions.
Cotton’s rotten. Cotton is a virtual sponge that soaks up sweat, rain, and any other liquid you can throw at it, takes forever to dry, and sweat-soaked cotton underwear tend to bunch up.
Snug or skin. Wear snug-fitting synthetic base layers. “Compression shorts are helpful for some people,” Kallgren says. “And if it is warm out, going shirtless can avoid chafing of nipples and armpits.”
Scrub-a-dub. Both body and clothes. Rinsing away dried sweat and grime reduces friction. In high summer on the AT, I swam as often as possible in creeks, ponds, and lakes, in my clothes. Once modestly concealed by water, I stripped off and dunked until my shirt and shorts dripped only clear water.
Stay dry. No problem, right? Then we’ll just fly to Mars, where it doesn’t rain. “Excessive moisture such as sweat or rain exacerbates the effects of chafing,” Kallgren says. “That is why long runs (or hikes) in hot, humid, or rainy conditions often result in chafing.” Staying completely dry all day, every day, is impossible on trail, but one can always aspire.
You lube. Take preventative action. “Reduce friction by making the skin more pliable with moisturizer. Lubricating with Aquaphor, Vaseline, BodyGlide, or Gold Bond Friction Defense are my recommended go-tos,” Kallgren says. There are countless options, including old-fashioned talcum powder, cornstarch, or coconut oil. And let’s not forget Fresh Breasts and Fresh Balls lotion.
If you do wind up with a case of chafe, here are a few tips on treatment:
Hit the showers. “You want to shower in lukewarm, not hot, water and gently cleanse the area,” Kallgren says. “Pat dry, don’t rub.”
Go for the goop. “Apply a barrier cream such as zinc oxide or Desitin,” Kallgren says. I swear by Vagisil, which not only protects and moisturizes the area, but also numbs the sting. “I was in misery until I used that Vagisil,” The Dude recalls.
Beware the bugs. Chafe can easily become infected, so you should thoroughly wash affected areas. When I developed an abscess where my pack had chafed the small of my back while walking the Colorado Trail, a topical antibiotic cleared it right up.
Free Willy. Or Wanda. Wear loose-fitting, non-clingy clothing (the less the better) after you’ve showered and treated the rash. “Let the skin breathe,” Kallgren says.
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