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Chafing occurs when skin rubs against something whether other skin, clothing, or gear.
Whether on the trail or walking around the next town on your itinerary, both women and men may have chafing issues. Common areas where chafing occurs are between legs, buttocks, groin, or along areas where hip belts or shoulder straps rub.
Physical structure can play a roll. If you're bow-legged, you're less likely to have chafing problems. If you're knock-kneed, you may be more likely to have chafing issues. Basically, if your legs brush against each other as you walk, they may chafe. The degree to which you sweat may also play a roll. Salt build-up as your sweat evaporates can be abrasive and contribute to chafing problems.
Staying clean, dry, and reducing friction are the ways to prevent chafing. These can be a tall order on the trail. Improving air circulation may help to reduce or eliminate sweat issues. For some, this is an ideal way to prevent chafing.
Additional air circulation can be achieved by wearing looser shorts, skirts, sarongs, dresses, or kilts. I've seen both men and women resorting to all of these options on the trail.
With most instances of chafing occurring in the groin and between legs, changing the types of clothing worn can make a big difference. I'm a bit knock-kneed and can't wear even "normal" shorts. I wear either bike shorts or some custom shorts (without liner) that fit like bike shorts. With shorts like these, my skin no longer rubs, but rather the shorts rub. When I trekked in Nepal, I wore a skirt to show respect for the culture but I had to wear my bike shorts underneath.
Underwear may help or hurt you. Underwear itself may chafe, especially at leg openings. For men, the support underwear provides may prevent chafing. If you wear underwear, make sure the seams under your hip belt don't cause pack sores. For others, it's the underwear itself that causes problems. For them, going "commando", that is, going without underwear, may solve the problem. The extra air that circulates without underwear may be enough to prevent chafing.
Chafing isn't limited to groin and thighs. I've had chafing issues on my arms where they brush against my shoulder straps as the straps go under my arms. Monkey Butt (chafing in your butt crack) is another common chafing problem on the trail.
The types of fabric you wear can also help or hurt you. In general, wicking fabrics are the way to go. They help keep you drier than natural fabrics. Natural fibers such as cotton, silk, and wool can be abrasive and promote chafing when wet with sweat or rain. Close fitting clothing that conforms to your skin and takes the rubbing against the fabric can be better than loose fitting clothing that just provides more material to rub.
Pay attention to your body. It's much easier to address chafing issues when they first start than after waiting until your skin is raw and painful. If you realize you're chafing, put on a shirt with longer sleeves, a pair of tights (if it's not too warm), try some powder. If you've never used Gold Bond, it can be almost painful at first but quickly cools and seems to help more than straight baby-type powder. That may just be because of the cooling action. An alternative to powder is Chafing Relief Powder-Gel. It goes on like a gel but immediately feels more like a powder. It's a lot less messy than powder.
Some people find relief using lubricants such as Vaseline or Body Glide.
If it gets bad, air is your friend. Take breaks where you can air out whatever areas are ailing you. That may mean spending a few hours alone in your hotel room, on your stomach giving your butt a chance to air out. If you're on the trail, get off the trail to take a private break. If you strip at a shelter, be prepared to cover up at a moment's notice.
Bad chafing with broken skin may mean more time off the trail, antibiotic ointments, and doctor's appointments. As always, prevention is key.
Last updated, January 24, 2014.
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