How to Prevent Chafing on the Trail
To get some anti-chafing tips, we sat down with Moona Page, senior apparel design manager for Columbia Sportswear. A lot of the solution comes down to high-quality hiking gear, she said, which you can use off the trail too.
“If you're somebody who’s prone to chafing when you hike, you're probably also prone to chafing when you walk around the city for long periods of time. Or when you’re traveling, taking urban tours, or even just running errands,” Page said. “That’s why it’s nice to have hiking gear that is technical and performance-based but can also be worn around town.”
Read on to learn what Page had to say about how to stop chafing.
What causes chafing?
The problem is made worse when there is moisture from sweating, combined with ill-fitting clothes and inferior materials that don’t breathe or flex.
Page sums it up easily by saying, “It’s the combination of sweat and friction—skin rubbing together. That can cause anything from irritation to red bumps to blisters. It is very uncomfortable when you're walking or hiking.”
Why is chafing common for hikers and trail runners?
What are the main types of chafing?
- Thigh chafing
- Underarm chafing
- Waist chafing
- Nipple chafing
“The number one thing we want to address is between the thighs,” said Page, noting that the type of hiking pants you wear makes a huge difference. “The fabric needs to be tight in those areas that are prone to chafing because if you have loose fabric, it can move, and then you have your thighs or parts of your skin touching together.”
The key to preventing underarm chafing is to pick the right shirt. The best option is a shirt with short or long sleeves so there's no skin making contact with the backpack straps. As a bonus, you get the added sun protection too.
If you do opt for a sleeveless hiking shirt, Page recommends choosing one with a higher armhole to avoid strap-to-skin contact.
It’s also important to make sure that your backpack fits right. If it’s too big or too far away from your body it can pull and drag, making it uncomfortable on your underarms.
Chafing at the waist
If you’re backpacking with a heavy load that puts pressure on the waist belt, consider opting for hiking pants or leggings without features like buckles, buttons, and zippers—known as “trim features.”
“Choosing hiking pants without any trim features helps prevent zippers from pushing against your skin or other items rubbing and chafing,” Page said. “Especially if you have a heavy backpack and you're hiking for several days, opting for pants that are pull-on styles will help avoid pressure from trim onto your skin.”
This isn’t as important for day hikers, she said, pointing out that if you’re not on an overnight trip, you might not have a waist belt anyway. But for longer adventures, consider leggings or trim-free hiking pants.
Sports bras often prevent this issue for women; however, men tend to be more susceptible to it because their skin often rubs directly against their shirt as they sweat.
Quality of fabric is important to preventing nipple chafing, Page explained. Some fabrics can have an interior texture, which you want to avoid if you're prone to nipple chafing.
Consider buying garments made of fabric that has a smooth underside or a surface that is almost silky.
Another trick to avoid nipple chafing is to use adhesive bandages or lubricants. Petroleum jelly works fine, and there are also anti-chafe balms on the market designed specifically for runners and hikers.
What should you wear to prevent chafing?
1. Moisture-wicking material
“You need to avoid moisture being trapped and make sure that it has a way of being released,” Page said. “The quick-drying, the wicking part, is a very important factor. If you're running and sweating, if you go swimming, if you're by a river, if you get into a downpour, if you're stuck in rain, whatever it is between storms, allowing your clothes to dry as fast as possible will help prevent chafing.”
2. Compression fabric
“The compression fabric that we use at Columbia typically has a higher elastic content. It can range anywhere from 7 to 18%, so that helps a lot with chafing. And then it also has to do with the construction, the knitting of the fabric, which can be loose or thick. You want a tighter construction.”
3. Performance fit
“I have learned the hard way to make sure that the fit and the fabric are both right for long hikes because I’ve shortened my hikes before due to chafing,” Page said. “I have been extremely uncomfortable and could not enjoy my time. So I'm very particular about the hiking clothes I wear, and that the fabric can wick away moisture.”
She says the options aren’t limited to just leggings—there are hiking pants that are form-fitting too. They just need to have stretchy material and not be too loose.
In addition to performance-fit pants, she said to look for form-fitting tank tops or sports bras made of compression fabric. Stay away from relaxed fits.
What else can you put on to prevent chafing?
“Balms can be helpful, but really, at the end of the day, it's the garment that's going to protect you,” Page said. “Anti-chafe balms do help temporarily, but after a short duration of time, they wear off.”
As far as your feet go, make sure to break in your hiking boots so you don’t get any chafing or blisters there.
Between proper clothing and a little knowledge of what causes chafing, you can avoid annoying friction rashes and get back to what really matters—your hike.