I was backpacking somewhere in that ephemeral never-neverland where the high desert melts into the southernmost Sierra pines when the feeling first appeared, something between an unusual warmth and a gentle irritation. I ignored it, because there were other, bigger body discomforts—the soles of my feet, the ache of my calves, the mosquito bite lodged beneath my bra strap. But my blissful ignorance would be my eventual undoing, for in the days to come I would fall victim to a veritable nightmare—that of the chafed butt.
Worse still, the problem wasn’t limited to that tender area. Because I am exactly the kind of genius who decides to wax their dainty bits two days before embarking on a two-month backpacking trip during a heatwave, so, too, did my bikini line suffer. When the pain became too much to bear, I banished my chonies and went commando, adopting a wide-legged gait that kept things airy, if awkward. Soon enough, after the compulsory period of healing and shame, my cheeks were back to gliding neatly in formation.
An ounce of cleanliness is worth a pound of crying while standing wide-legged in front of your air conditioner.
Consider this your warning: I narrowly avoided letting chafing ruin my adventure. Don’t let it ruin yours.
Let’s lay down the ground rules. All of you fine folks out there battling cabin fever with a brand new running habit might be wondering—what TF is chafe, anyway? Here’s the deal: It’s the unpleasant sum of repeated friction + moisture + skin. The algorithm runs a bit different for every body, but in short: You sweat like the freshly minted urban marathoner you are and when that sweat dries it forms salty crystals that act as tiny, angry sandpaper shaving your delicate epidermis.
In its mildest form, chafe manifests as a bit of redness and warmth—a “hot spot,” a warning shot of sort like the kind you receive before a blister erupts. If untreated, the skin becomes further abraded, more painful, and extremely sensitive. This can morph into a rash of sorts, or in extreme cases, blossom into an open wound, which is then susceptible to infection. But maybe don’t let it get that far, eh?
Luckily, there’s a lot of ground between tender buns and an emergency room visit:
Manage Your Follicles
As I learned, it’s important to be thoughtful in your hair removal. You can still shave, wax, pluck, or otherwise banish your curlies if that’s your jam, but give the area some time to heal before embarking on any sweaty undertakings where your extra-sensitive skin may experience high friction. Consider adopting a gentle exfoliation regime (I use a wet washcloth) to prevent ingrown hairs, which will only antagonize the situation.
Keep it Clean
Many of us enjoy rolling around in the elements like the good dirtbags we are, but an ounce of cleanliness is worth a pound of crying while standing wide-legged in front of your air conditioner. Especially the high friction areas: thighs, bikini line, beneath the armpits, and nips. Salt crust build-up just makes it easier for chafe to form. Showers are readily accessible while you’re kicking it at home, but once you head out to the backcountry, establish some personal protocols. I know one guy—trail name “Merman”—who makes a ritual out of dunking in every lake that he passes. Other folks use a portable shower or bidet (a small attachment that twists onto a screw-top bottle) to spray down. My typical M.O. is a wet bandanna swiped across high action regions, touched off with a wet wipe for my face and ladybits. If I’m feeling fancy, I incorporate a touch of Dr. Bronner’s for extra sparkle.
I teach a backpacking class and enjoy asking my students to repeat the following refrain: Cotton! Kills! Cotton Kills!, like the chorus of a fabric-themed ’90s hip-hop singalong. For our purposes, however, I’ll adapt it to: Cotton! Burns! Cotton! Burns! That’s because the fabric of our lives holds dampness, tipping the moisture-friction balance into the red zone. Instead, choose sweat-wicking wool or synthetic materials when possible, and don’t forget to rinse out your grubby garb if you’re on a long trip—grime build-up is the devil.
As far as personal items go, some people swear by thongs, which might work if you are not quite as blessed in the backside as I. Instead, I prefer a lightweight, flat-seamed brief under a skirt, which is great for natural ventilation, or a running short with a liner. My favorite for fit and breathability are Patagonia’s Nine Trail Shorts (women’s;men’s; and GoLite’s ReLite Shorts). Other folks swear by bike shorts, boxer briefs, cut-off pantyhose (keep ‘em longer than you think, since they’ll ride up), or, well, pants (the horror!) to minimize rub.
Just as you might pre-treat your hooves to prevent blister problems, you can be just as proactive with your other bits. Runners who don’t wear sports bras or other binding garments up top may want to tape their nips with band-aids or moleskine, but you can also just lube up. I’m partial to Body Glide, which looks a lot like deodorant, but have also slicked up with chamois cream (I love Chamois But’tr) both in and out of the saddle. I also know a lot of people who carry tubs or tubes of Vaseline or Vagisil to grease their parts—both are cheap ‘n slippery. But if you’re more into dusting off than lubing up, a sprinkle of baby powder, Gold Bond, or Anti Monkey Butt can keep the friction at least temporarily at bay.
Treat with Tenderness
And what to do if you do fall victim to the dreaded chafe monster? The goal is to obviously reduce pain, but also hopefully prevent it from getting far worse. So first, don’t be too proud to knock off whatever it is you’re doing that’s causing the friction—maybe it’s a too-tight pair of undies, maybe it’s running on a 90-degree day. Then clean the affected area (using nothing more intense than water with a mild soap), and air it out. Ice it if you have access to some cubes, or stick your flaming parts in a cold stream, which I have done many, many times. If you’re lucky enough to have a mild case of the rubs, you can apply something slippery from the topical column above. Aloe is also soothing, as are creams that include zinc oxide—so, load yourself up on diaper rash ointment like Boudreaux’s Butt Paste, a perennial fave of both athletes and baby shower guests. And by all means, if you neglect the warning signs to the point that an oozing crater forms on your bod, consider calling a medical professional for guidance.
Chafing truly sucks, so do your best to avoid falling victim. I once had to abandon a thru-hike because of the unique storm of an unusually hot spell, an extraordinarily dry landscape that required a heavy water carry, a long stretch between resupply points that meant I was carrying a lot of food, and thousands of feet of relentless uphill movement that caused the bottom of my pack to rub my lower back raw. It was a hard lesson learned as I hobbled down a remote dirt road, facing what would become a three-part hitch to return to my car many miles south of where I was. On the upside, I ate my body weight in green chile upon returning to civilization. So I suppose it wasn’t all bad.
The cool stuff we mentioned in this piece to keep ya cool
Photo: Ali Kazal