There’s nothing worse than chafing on a long hike. It’s easily one of the most painful experience you can have on a backpacking trip. All that friction buildup feels like your skins on fire. Luckily, chafing is easy to prevent with a few simple tips. How do you prevent chafing on long hikes?
Moisture buildup is the main cause of inner thigh and butt chafing. You start to sweat and your underwear gets wet leading to friction and heat rash. Ditch your cotton and start wear synthetic underwear, compression shorts, or lined running shorts that won’t absorb moisture. Then you need to lubricate your skin with a zinc oxide based anti-friction lubricant like bodyglide or desitin and keep your butt/thighs clean by rinsing off throughout the day and using baby wipes after using the restroom.
What Causes Chafing On Hikes?
Chafing is caused by 3 main problem areas: friction, moisture, and irritating fabrics. Prolonged rubbing on the skin wears your skin away causing a burning/stinging sensation. It usually leads to a mild red rash, but can cause swelling, bleeding and crusting in sever cases.
We all know that your body releases salt as you sweat and that’s why electrolytes are so important when you work out. All that salt in your sweat can cause serious chafing issues. I’m sure you’ve accidentally spilled salt on the dinner table at some point in your life. Think about how the salt felt rubbing against your arm (it’s ridiculously abrasive). Now imagine all the salt/sweat between your thighs as you hike. It’s no wonder you end up chafing over the course of a long hike.
How To Prevent and Cure Chafing On Hikes
Preventing and curing chafing can be a serious challenge on a long hike. Once you start chafing, it can get really painful fast. There’s a a serious learning curve when it comes to hiking and backpacking and unfortunately there’s not much you can do about chafing if you didn’t already think about it before the hike.
With that being said, there are lots of ways to prevent and cure chafing with a few minutes of pre-trip planning. It’s all about reducing the amount of friction, reducing moisture buildup, and eliminating irritating fabrics. Luckily, it’s really easy to prevent and cure chafing with anti-chafe and diaper rash products.
- Avoid Cotton: If there’s one thing you should learn from this post it’s this! Cotton is the cause of 99% of chafing problems so it needs to be taken out of your hiking wardrobe. Cotton shirts aren’t as big of a problem, but you want to get rid of your cotton underwear. Switch over to synthetic compression shorts (my favorite), or synthetic boxer briefs. Synthetic underwear wicks sweat away and clings to your body so there’s less movement as you walk.
- Preventative treatment: Try to get on top of chafing before it becomes a problem. Stay clean before/during the hike and use some kind of anti-chafing treatment. I really like BodyGlide, because it’s ridiculously easy to use. It’s like a stick of deodorant that you rub on your thighs, underarms, groin, and butt to prevent chafing. It works really well, but it will slowly wear off on long hikes. You can reapply it after a few hours on the trail or switch over to one of the curing products if you’ve already started to chafe.
- Chafing Cures: There are two main cures for chafing once it starts. You have zinc oxide based and petroleum products. I like to start off by using a zinc oxide based lotion (Desitin), which is basically just diaper rash cream. Zinc oxide soothes chafed skin, reduces moisture, and forms a protect barrier over the skin. I follow that up with a petroleum based product (HikeGoo), which lubricates the skin and keeps the zinc oxide from wearing off.
Chafing Is Different Than a Heat Rash
Understanding the difference between chafing and heat rash is really important. Chafing is caused by friction, moisture, and poorly fitted clothing. Heat rash is caused by excessive sweating where the sweat glands get clogged up. Since they’re not the result of friction, there’s not much you can do on hot sunny days. Deodorant might help a little, but cooling down and staying hydrated is the only real cure for a heat rash. Sit in the shade and try to wait for the area to cool down. I usually take off my shirt and wipe down the area with cool water.
Both chafing and heat rash are really common in hot weather and present as a red inflamed rash. So it can be hard to determine which type of rash you have. Chafing usually occurs in areas with excessive friction like the groin, inner thighs, butt, underarms, etc. A heat rash is caused by excessive sweating so it can appear anywhere on the body.
I usually get heat rashes on my back where the pack rests against my body. The pack causes my back to sweat and there’s nowhere for it to go. It goes away fast when I take off my shirt and cool down for a bit.
Avoid Cotton Underwear and Shirts
Cotton underwear is the #1 cause of chafing on long hikes. Cotton absorbs sweat while you hike and sticks to your skin. Then the seams rub against your skin and cotton starts sticking. Cotton underwear feels terrible once it starts to get wet.
Switching over to synthetic underwear or compression shorts should be your first step when battling chafing. Synthetic underwear wicks away moisture instead of absorbing it like cotton. This will eliminate chafing in 99% of cases. You should still use preventative lubricants like BodyGlide and carry at tube of Desitin/HikeGoo, but synthetic underwear will make a huge difference.
I prefer compression shorts over other synthetic boxer briefs. Compression shorts have longer legs to protect farther down your thigh and seem to be better at wicking away moisture. Synthetic boxer briefs will also work, but I recommend looking for a pair with a 6″ or longer inseam to protect your thighs. Neleus Compression Shorts are a budget option that feel just like expensive Nike and Under Armour shorts. You really can’t beat them at 1/3 of the price.
Lubricate Your Skin Before a Hike
Lubricating your skin before heading out for a hike is a great idea. You can either use a petroleum based product like HikeGoo or BodyGlide which is less greasy. I don’t like the way petroleum feels on my skin so I prefer bodyglide, which is a mixture of zinc-oxide and antiperspirant. Plus the deodorant style applicator is much easier to use. Just make sure you apply the BodyGlide before your skins rubbed raw, because it will burn like heck.
Vaseline is another inexpensive option that’s a real lifesaver when it comes to chafing. You can pick up the travel size containers cheap on Amazon. It doesn’t hold like HikeGoo and zinc oxide, but you can find it anywhere.
Protect and Soothe Your Skin Once Chafing Starts
Once you start to feel the burn it will quickly get worse if you don’t get on it fast. Preventative treatment is great, but you may still chafe on long hikes. Trying to catch the chafe early is crucial to preventing unnecessary pain. Delaying treatment and letting it get out of hand will lead to a bad rash that will last for days.
What if I’m already starting to chafe or get a painful heat rash? Don’t worry it’s easy to cure! Think about how new parents deal with diaper rash. This is the same thing you’ll want to do on the trail. They clean the area, dry it off, and apply diaper rash ointment, cream or lotion.
Zinc oxide based treatments are by far the best way to cure chafing. Zinc oxide is the main ingredient in most diaper rash creams and it’s basically a miracle cure. Clean off the area with a baby wipe and apply diaper rash cream.
I like to use Desitin to cure my rash, but try not to get it on your hands because it’s hard to wash off without access to running water. Use a baby wipe to wipe down the area and put a quarter-sized squirt of diaper rash cream on the wipe. Spread it evenly across the area and reapply throughout the day. This should help relieve the pain instantly and prevent further chafing throughout the hike.
I follow up the zinc oxide based cream with HikeGoo, which is a petroleum based product. Hike Goo works as a lubricant to prevent friction buildup. You can also use WalkGoo and RunGoo, which are made by the same company, but they’re less durable so need to be reapplied more frequently.
It feels weird on your skin so I like to use it as a last resort once chafing starts. A dab of Hike Good between the thighs/butt feels like you have a constant case of swamp butt without the pain. Not having to deal with the pain is well worth it, but it’s still a funny feeling.
BodyGlide uses a deodorant like applicator so it’s easier to apply, but it works better as a preventative treatment. It breathes better than zinc oxide and petroleum based creams, but it needs to be reapplied regularly once you start to sweat. I like to apply BodyGlide in the mornings, before my hike, and throughout the day, but switch over to Desitin and HikeGoo if I let the chafing get out of hand.
Try To Catch Chafing Early In The Hike
Try to deal with chafing as soon as you start feeling hot spots. Once your skin starts to get irritated it can get out of hand quickly. You go from feeling like you can bear through the pain one minute and 20 minutes later it’s like there’s a fire between your thighs.
Stopping to apply diaper rash cream on the side of the trail can feel awkward, but it’s way better than bearing through the pain. I used to feel embarrassed applying cream while hiking with other people. It’s like you’re announcing to the world that you have a sweaty butt, but now I look at it in another light.
Everybody has dealt with chafing at some point in their life so your hiking buddies understand how painful it can be. On hot days, they’re probably dealing with the same situation that you are. I can’t count how many times I’ve stopped to deal with chafing and everybody else in the group is dealing with exact same issue. We all deal with the problem and get back to the hike in a minute or two.
Apply BodyGlide and Chafing Cream On Your Breaks
As I mentioned above, catching chafing early is crucial to preventing further irritation. I like to apply BodyGlide throughout the day as I take my breaks. The deodorant like applicator is so easy to use that it takes less than a minute to run it over my thighs, butt, groin, under my arms, and around my waistline where my pants rub. Woman might need to apply it over their nipples and under their boobs where their bra rubs.
Zinc oxide based creams (Desitin) and petroleum products (HikeGoo) are harder to apply. I like to use BodyGlide as a preventative and switch over to Desitin/HikeGoo as chafing starts to buildup. Using a deodorant applicator is much faster/easier than applying cream to the affected area.
Stay Clean On The Trail
Try to start your hike on a good note. Starting off your day with swamp butt will quickly lead to irritation. Swamp Butt has 2 main causes. It can either be caused by sweat buildup or improper cleaning after using the restroom. Or a mixture of both.
Pay special attention to cleaning your inner thighs and butt before your hike. I switched over to a cold water bidet a few years ago and it made a huge difference. The cold water makes sure there’s no leftovers after using the bathroom. Toilet paper does a decent job cleaning off solid waste, but that’s not all that’s down there.
Bidets cleanup salt buildup from sweat, wash off bacteria, and clean off body oils that lead to chafing. A quick rinse off with the bidet makes sure everything’s clean down there. There’s also less irritations since you don’t have to rub with toilet paper. Just rinse off with the bidet and use a few squares of toilet paper to pat dry.
Sorry for pushing the bidet so hard, but they make a huge difference when it comes to chafing. I installed one of the cheap bidet seats that you find on Amazon (this one) and it completely changed my life. Now I flat out refuse to use the restroom outside my house (unless it’s an emergency). They cost less than $40 and take about 20 minutes to install. It’s so worth it!
Staying clean on the trail can be a serious problem on long backpacking trips. Sweat builds up as you hike, and soaks your underwear. Obviously, there’s moisture from the sweat, but there’s also salt and body oils. Cleaning all that off is crucial to preventing chafing on long hikes, but what can you do without access to a shower? I like to wipe myself down with baby wipes throughout the day and use a camp towel to pat dry.
You should also wipe down every night before bed on backpacking trips and switch into a clean pair of clothes to slip in at night. Rinse off your clothes regularly on long backpacking trips and never wear cotton clothing that soaks up sweat.
Try To Lose Weight
A few extra pounds in the belly and thigh can cause serious chafing problems. All the extra fat and skin pushing against each other is a recipe for chafing issues. To make matters worse, carrying around extra body weight will cause you to sweat more.
Losing 20-30 pounds will make a world of difference when it comes to chafing. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do in the short term to lose weight fast. You just have to deal with the situation and use preventative treatments to eliminate skin irritation.
Thankfully, I’ve lost over 60 lbs since I started hiking and eating better. I can’t even start to explain how big of a difference that’s made! There are ways to reduce chafing if you’re still on a weight loss journey. Start by ditching the cotton underwear and switching over to synthetic compression shorts. Compression shorts wick sweat away from your skin and they’re tight on your legs so there’s much less friction.
Every major sportswear company sells compression shorts. I’ve tried all the big names like Nike, Under Armour, Hanes, Champion, etc. and they’re all basically the same. They’re also ridiculously expensive. After years of wasting money on expensive compression shorts, I picked up a pack of Neleus Compression Shorts on Amazon. They’re 1/4 of the price of the major brands and feel exactly the same.
Buy a Ventilated Backpack With High Quality Shoulder Straps
Most of this post was focused on preventing chafing in the butt, thigh and groin area, but that’s not the only place that chafing can occur. Cheap backpacks with poor ventilation and low quality shoulder straps are notorious for causing shoulder chafing. Bodyglide on the top of your shoulders can help prevent this, but you should also take a look at your pack.
Find a backpack with a suspended mesh ventilation system to cut down the sweat dripping down your back. You will never be able to completely eliminate sweat, but good ventilation system will help.
Don’t Tuck In Your Shirt
You can undo every preventative measure to prevent chafing just by tucking in your shirt. Tucking in your shirt might not seem like a big deal, but it causes serious problems. Wearing a backpack all day can cause serious back sweat. It doesn’t matter how well your packs ventilated. There’s no way to avoid a sweaty back.
Tucking in your shirt will take all that back sweat and direct it down into your underwear. My butt/thighs are sweaty enough. I don’t need to add back sweat to the problem.