How to Prevent Chafing

When you’re pushing yourself to the limits, it’s all about you against your mind. You can’t afford distractions, and you definitely don’t need small things stopping you from achieving big goals. One of the often underlooked aspects of outdoor exploration is skin care, and how we can prevent little hotspots from becoming big problems.

What Causes Chafing

Before we delve into the specifics, it’s important to understand your enemies: friction and pressure. When these two team up, the repetitive movements required in marathons, hikes, or long marches slowly cause damage to the epidermis. Your skin reacts defensively by filling the space with fluid, which works as a cushion for a while, until it painfully bursts and you’re left with lots of young skin with exposed nerves.

How to Prevent Chafing

The best way to prevent chafing and blistering is to make sure your gear fits right. It doesn’t matter that you spent $300 on those new hiking boots if they’re a size too big (or a size too small). The same goes for your brand new backpack or BDUs. It’s a good idea to wear any new gear around the house for a bit to make sure you don’t have any areas of discomfort before you’re 100 miles from the car and realize you’re going to be miserable for the next 4 days.

The next thing to think about is eliminating friction. There are tons of products available for this, but a tried-and-true classic used by IronMan triathletes is the BodyGlide stick. This deodorant-shaped paste basically creates a thin barrier between you and whatever is trying to rip your skin off. It’s good for prevention and will also help a bit if it’s already too late.

The final step in your journey towards a chafe-less life lies in eliminating moisture. Areas under the breasts or in the inguinal region can get damp, which causes skin irritation. If you haven’t heard of Gold Bond, it is one of the key products out there that will keep your skin happy.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, we’ll move on to a few tips for specific problem areas.

  • Feet

    Your feet are easily the most important part of your body when it comes to hiking and rucking. Anyone who thinks differently has never lost a toenail due to poorly fitting shoes. As stated above, make sure you give your new shoes some time to be broken in before setting off on outdoor adventure.

    Another commonly overlooked piece of footwear is your socks. Make sure they provide a snug fit within your shoe, are capable of wicking moisture, and won’t wear out after a few uses. DarnTough has been making some of my favorite socks for years. A life-changing tip is to pack two pairs of socks per day of your journey and switch pairs at lunchtime, or when you’re feeling in need of some motivation. It’s amazing how big of a difference a pair of clean, dry socks can make on your mood, energy level, and tired feet!

  • Thighs/Groin/Arms
    The best advice here is to liberally apply Goldbond and/or BodyGlide before you even start your physical activity. Once you start to feel discomfort, it’s already too late!
  • Backpack Region
    As with all gear decisions, making sure you have a high-quality backpack can go a long way in making your trip more enjoyable. Think of it this way: Would you rather have some pain in your wallet one time, or major chafing in your neck, back, and shoulders every time you go for a hike until you break down and buy a new pack anyway? The most important thing is that the pack is an appropriate fit for your body type. Trying on a pack in person is the best way to achieve this. But once you’ve got your perfect pack, adjusting it properly is crucial to eliminating discomfort. Check the manufacturer’s website for your specific pack to make sure it’s fitting the way it should.
  • Nipple Chafing
    As much as we don’t like to talk about it, nipple chafe is a real, huge nuisance. For ladies, make sure you have a sports bra that fits well. Something without seams like the CW-X PerformX Running Bra will keep everything in place and pain-free. For the guys, think along the same lines—a well-fitting synthetic or merino base layer from a company like Smartwool will do basically the same thing, but with different hardware.

If it’s already too late…

Whenever I head out into the wild, I make sure I have some moleskin in my bag. This basically creates a protective barrier between a blister and whatever is causing it. In a pinch, duct tape works almost as well and can be used for prevention if necessary. Unfortunately, there aren’t many good treatments for chafing out there, so make sure you’re prepared ahead of time and start treatment at the first sign of discomfort!

Jeff Wayland

Jeff is a medical student in Louisiana pursuing a residency in Emergency Medicine. He has worked in both urban and wilderness medicine as an Emergency Medical Technician and currently puts his skills to work in the swamps and bayous with his two dogs Penny and Gin. For more wilderness medicine pearls, follow him on twitter @em_wayland.
Jeff Wayland

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