By a Thread: Rubbage
How to sweat the small stuff
In this substack, Andy Kirkpatrick looks at the importance and trip ending problem of chaffing.
General John J Pershing famously stated that “Infantry wins battles, logistics wins wars”, which may seem like an odd quote to choose from when it comes to performance clothing, but it’s highly appropriate when it comes to the business of getting shit done in the mountains, where heroics mean nothing once you run out of gas. Another bit of military wisdom is that you can win every battle, but still lose a war, that strategic thinking trumps tactical thinking. Neither of these points really have any relevance to this short essay, but rather act as stand-ins for a quote on how wars are not lost by armies, but by tiny details – perhaps from Sun Tzu – but all three reflect on the idea that you don’t get beat by the things you think will beat you.
When it comes to outdoor clothing and outdoor performance, when it comes to having the ability to get shit done, one of the biggest handicappers and debilitators is not something obvious, like a broken leg or bear attack, but the simple rub-rub of skin against fabric, or skin against skin. This would generally be categorised as chaffing, but chaffing also covers badly constructed rucksacks carry systems and poorly fitted boots, which can be painful but tend not to be show stoppers. Therefore the term rubbage focuses more on what’s going on at the finest of frictions, so ultra-fine 320 sandpaper, not super coarse 40.
The friction problem
Just as seasickness is the only sickness that can’t kill you, but you wish it could, skin abrasion caused by friction is the least terminal injury a climber, walker, or skier can suffer, and yet it can feel as if it’s one of the worst, with a level of suffering that feels like torture, pain that can easily end any journey in its tracks.
The biggest suffers from such a condition, which is generally of the inner thigh, but can also be of the armpits, butt cheeks, nipples, breasts, are polar skiers, who will repeat the same action again and again for hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles, trying to stay cool while doing something that will make them work hard and sweat. With each push on the ski, one leg will rub against the other, either skin on skin or skin on fabric, and rub, and rub, and rub, and repeat one million times, until - unless taken care of - one’s inner thighs ends up looking like raw meat.
Other suffers are runners and joggers, the long-distance variety getting the worst of it, but also runners who run in wet or hot weather or the amateur who over dresses, dressing for that initial snap of the cold as they leave their house, rather than the heat of the run. For the ultra runner, at mile fifty, the pain of rubbing thighs or bloody nipples may just be one more pain amongst many, and I know of people who’ve run on with blood running down their legs, but once they stop, they ain’t going to be moving again for a long time. For the amateur or newbie runner, such an injury may put them off running for life. Such running injuries might not be an issue on your once in a lifetime Iron man, but if you’re on day one of the PCT, it could well be dream over.
Other suffers include the military, with many tales of soldiers being rubbed raw by a mixture of having the wrong clothing layered under the wrong kind of packs or webbing, in the worst kind of weather (hot or wet), and being forced to do the worst thing you could do if avoiding skin damage, and doing it for hours, days or weeks. For the soldier, almost any part of the body is open to terrible skin damage, with the delicate skin of the torso and upper back being prime meat for rubbing.
So, if you’re interested in maintaining your ability to move, trudge, yomp, jog, glide, stagger, to generally get from A to B in a way that allows you to get to C the next day, then read on.
Rubbage, what is it?
Now, of course, rubbage – as my spell check reminds me – is not a real word, but one I’ve made up in my travels, describes friction and pressure related skin damage in which the outer layer of skin (epidermis) is first irritated, becomes inflamed in order to protect itself, and then slowly torn or worn away, leaving painful and raw subcutaneous layer, exposing nerves, which will eventually become so deep that the skin will bleed. The pain of such a wound is enhanced by the salt in one’s sweat, which, along with the moist environment, dirty clothing, can easily to infection if not kept clean. If you’ve never experienced such an injury, just imagine being skinned alive, well, at least a little bit.
Once the skin becomes irritated and inflamed, the abrasion and removal of the skin itself will not be far behind. Unlike a ‘hot spot’ on your foot, which feels like a blister but is generally not, a ‘hot spot’ on your inner thighs or arms pits or nipples will probably signal that damage is already being done, so once you feel it, the damage is underway. Added to this problem is that although a blister can be very painful, you can still walk hundreds of miles on it, the skin in your inner thighs is not the same as the skin on your feet, and is far more sensitive to pain, and far easier to damage.
This means that perhaps the best aid in avoiding chaffing is to have experienced it, that pain memory telegraphing when such a problem could arise, both the pre-injury feeling, as well as the undertaking the type of movement, as well as the right kind of clothing, for damage to occur. Often you’ll have to deal with such a problem when you become complacent, so you go out on a long run on a hot day, with a dirty body and dirty running shorts, or shorts that you know have caused you problems in the past.
Once you become aware that your skin is inflamed, it can be hard to deal with the problem when you’re far from home, and many people will just run or ski on, and hope they can get to the end before it’s too bad, while knowing that they won’t be able to train again tomorrow (unless the skin is undamaged). Sometimes you have no option but to keep on moving, and although walking bowlegged (like a man who could not stop a pig in a doorway), you will not be able to walk far and will either have to somehow come up with a makeshift solution or just suffer.
Once the damage is done, depending on the degree, it can take several days to recover to a point where it’s safe to move again without pain, by which I mean your movement will not re-abrading the yet to fully knitted new skin. To heal fully from a really bad case of abrasion can take weeks or even months, and repeated injury does not seem to make the skin ’tougher’, as is the case with the feet or hands, but rather, just more prone to damage, with the skin being weaker and paper-thin (this is also an issue with skin damage on your ankles and shins, and the thinner skin of your feet, which once badly damaged are damaged for life).
The time it takes to heal such sensitive skin is why we have some many tails of polar explorers being hounded for months with constant pain, neither being able to fully heal from it, but only carry out triage or remedial care, such as patching or bandaging skin (which can often only make the problem worse). Many tails of polar suffering tend to leave out the actual source of the pain, but beyond frostbite and malnutrition, the source of the pain is very often either skin damage or haemorrhoids (the latter is far too unheroic to be Boy’s Own stuff).
Further to the point about frostbite, the effect of constant pain from skin damage can have a debilitating effect on one’s morale, as well as the morale of the entire team, as the pain both slows you down, but also acts as a huge distraction, and draining of cognitive focus, which can lead to knock-on effects (you could be in so much pain that death might sound like a relief).
What are the causes of rubbage?
One of the primary causes of skin damage is that people generally misidentify the cause of the problem in the first place, as well as the problem being multi-faceted. They will focus on the idea that a seam on their clothing is doing the rubbing, which can be a contributing factor, but generally not the cause, and in trying to remedy the problem only make it worse.
In my experience, the cause is a built-up of both moisture (wet out of the next-to-skin fabric), and salt on both the skin, but more importantly on or in your clothing, both of which dramatically increase the friction between fabric and skin (a dirty body and dirty clothes are more prone to rubbage than a clean one). Now, sweat does act as a natural lubricant to some degree, at least at first, and has all sorts of amazing medicinal and proprieties – like saliva and urine - BUT its primary role is cooling, not acting as engine oil, and so was not intended to perform this duty within a pair of nylon Nike running shorts.
The steady build-up of salt can turn even a skin-friendly fabric, or seamless cut, into the finest sandpaper, with both the increasing abrasion by the salt and the way salt inflames the wound, compounding the problem. This of course depends on the type of fabric you’re using next-to-skin, and how well its ability to function effectively. Hydrophobic fabrics such as polypropylene, especially mesh fabrics, will always work best, but wool and silk can also be effective if they’re allowed to work to their advantage. Of course, the worst fabric is cotton, the infamously poor choice of jeans for outdoor apparel due both to the fabrics slowness of drying, and sponge-like qualities, but also how heavy and abrasive they become.
If you can remove the issue of sweat built up, then wetness from the outside can also be an issue, with once frictionless fabrics having their friction coherence altered by just adding water, often due to the fibres swelling and making the fabric surface rougher and stiffer.
Badly placed or overly large and obstructive seams can have an effect on the skin, which is why many running shorts often feature near-seamless inner shorts (or the Inter Net), and with any short, you need to check that the hem along the edge of the leg is not sitting where your inner thighs will pass.
The problem is that although the old school string or net style inner shorts worked pretty well in this regard, as they could not retain moisture and only minimal salt (although they were typically designed as ‘ball catchers’), the modern double layer short is far too overbuilt (because the net fabric is not trendy), and so is hot and sweaty, and so is counterproductive (it makes the problem worse). This is why you will often find that a very lightweight pair of short running shorts with no inner shorts, will be less chaffing than a heavy-duty pair of anti-chaffing shorts.
Fundamentally, the problem is not skin rubbing against skin, as the sweat will act as a lubricant, but rather the skin not being able to breathe properly, with the sweat getting trapped in the fabric (often due to overheating of the groin for example under double layer shorts), with the salt and seams doing the rest.
As any polar or arctic traveller knows, the key to staying warm is to not get hot, and the same applies to chaffing, I.e. If your balls are sweaty, you’re going to get chaffing (you can replace ‘balls’ with a non-gender specific body part if you like).
In sub-zero regions this generally entails dressing for your activity level, which will be constant and repetitive and beyond changes in the environment (weather conditions, angle of terrain etc), never changing. Such dress is generally a windproof layer over a base layer, ideally, a mesh base layer, which although would lead to hypothermia in minutes when static (hence the big duvet jacket always at hand for stops), this dress will lot lead the wearer to get hot, and a so sweaty, but always neither warm of cold. This windproof layer is generally Gore, but this is less than optimal for sub-zero temperatures, as here the water from your body is the primary issue, meaning non-waterproof fabrics such as untreated nylon (such as Pertex), cotton (Ventile), or non-membrane waterproofs (Paramo), are far superior in avoiding sweating.
In more varied and demanding activities, such as alpine climbing or general mountaineering, it’s much harder to achieve this equilibrium state, and you will often get too hot, and sweaty, and too cold, and chill, and so need a much higher degree of skill in both dressing, and how to best employ the clothes you have (taking them off before you’re hot, putting them back on before you’re hypothermic). The killer here is shell bottoms, or ‘waterproof’s, which no matter what the swing tag says, are going to give you sweaty ‘bits’, which is why you need to avoid wearing them until you either really need them, or your heat/sweat output is low (this is why ‘softshell’ pants are standard kit for alpine guides). If you are forced to wear them, layer them appropriately, which as with the arctic skier, means just go with a base layer, not heavy-duty fleece salopettes.
This is one reason why softshell type garments (Buffalo, Paramo, Montane), often work well in this department, as they act as both the weather-resistant layer and insulation, and deal with both heat and sweat very effectively.
Underwear choice is worth careful consideration as well, but be aware that it’s easy to make matters worse in the pursuit of making them better. For example, cheap lycra cycle style shorts, minus the padding, or full lycra leggings, can look appealing, and do create a very effective short term buffer against chaffing, but for long term use, nylon is not ideal, for how smelly they get being at least one negative. The same applies to long shorts made from wool, or polyester, as you might just be increasing the warmth around your groin, and it might be better to have just standard pant style pants.
But by far the best way to avoid the problem is to try and keep both your skin and your base - next to the skin - layers as clean and dry as possible, as this will reduce the build-up of salts. This means having a routine to clean your body regularly, as well as swapping out your shorts or pants (you can wash these in a pan, and dry them in your sleeping bag). You should also attempt and employ next to skin fabrics that cannot retain either salt or water.
The bottom line with bottoms especially is working up to a big trip or big run or ski trip is working out a system that works before you go. Build the system, try it out and break it in, and change it if it’s not working. Fundamentally stress test your kit and your body, and don’t undertake big adventures with brand new stuff.
Another factor to look at is anti-chaff creams, which tend to be a mixture of antiperspirant (to stop the sweat), lubricant (to reduce friction), and skincare cream (to reduce inflammation and aid healing). The old school standard of course was Vasaline, which sort of does the job as it acts as a barrier and lubricant, but on a very long trip you’re going to need a lot of it, plus it needs to be reapplied several times on a long day/run. In the past, I’ve also used bag balm (modern climbing hand cream would also work), as an anti chaff layer, as well as for healing, and was once so desperate on a very long walk out from Fitzroy that I used the oil from a tin of sardines!
If you’re forced to deal with bad skin damage what are your options? Well in the short term you can try and clean your skin and shorts of salt by just washing with water, from your own supply or via a river, or even using saliva. You might also be able to identify the source of the issue, like two seams overlapping, and might be able to wear your shorts at half-mast, or even put them on back to front! If you have a buff then this can be worn over one thigh as a sort of tubular bandage, with a hat or gloves shoved down as padding against the area under attack (yes, you will look very strange).
For long term solutions, say on a multi-week trip, make sure you’re skin is dry and clean each night (not helped when sleeping with wet socks between your legs), so your skin has a fighting chance. If things are bad then you might have to use sports tape on the wound, but this should be a last resort, and unless you just need it to get you through a few days, it needs to be changed as often as you can, ideally every night so your skin can dry and heal. If you fail to deal with such a wound it will 100% become infected, which can lead to effects far more painful and debilitating, even life-threatening.
Also, hydration plays a small part in the story, as this affects salt production, as well as general fitness, as the fitter you are (generally), the less hot and sweaty you’ll get when undertaking long-distance movements.
So, there you go, three thousand words on one of the smallest injuries you might suffer while doing what you do, but also one of the most common (after blisters), and most painful.