Sun Protection While Hiking: Protecting Your Skin


The sun beating down on you at the beginning of spring is one of the best feelings in the world. Flowers are blooming and that crisp spring air is something you just can’t describe. It’s mother natures way of saying winters over and it’s time to get out and play.

As beautiful as the sun is during the spring it can be a serious cause of pain if you aren’t prepared. It doesn’t matter if you’re hiking the desert, mountains, or your neighborhood park, sun protection is critical.

Throughout our lives we’ve been taught that slathering on sunscreen is all we need to protect ourselves from the sun. This might work if you’re spending 1hr at the pool, but it’s not enough on an overnight hiking trip.

Enjoying a little bit of sun just isn’t possible while in the wild. When you’re out on the trail you can’t just head inside for a little air conditioning. During the heat of summer you need to do a little planning if you want to be safe on the trail.

Sunscreen just isn’t meant for dirty outdoor environments. It tends to pick up dirt, clog pores and will require reapplication. Who wants to stop and put on sunscreen every hour. So what are the sun protection methods for hiking?

Why I Protect My Skin While Hiking

As a middle-aged Irishmen I’ve had to deal with sunburn/skincare my entire life. It wasn’t until my doctor had to remove a cancerous blemish that I decided to take sun protection seriously. Nowadays I try to never be outside without protecting my skin with either sunscreen or protective clothing.

When I get a little bit of sun my skin quickly breaks out into an itchy blistery rash. Unfortunately, I haven’t always been as vigilant as I currently am.

Throughout most of my young adult life I hiked in shorts and a short sleave t-shirt throughout most of the summer. Even though I applied sunscreen liberally I always ended up getting burnt. I put sunscreen on my entire body, my face, arms, neck, legs and it never seemed to work.

To fully protect your skin you need to wear long-sleeve shirts and pants. This is especially important when hiking in wide-open areas. I don’t like hats, but in my moderately old age, I’ve learned to live with them.

A Few Dangers to Your Skin

Prolonged exposure to the sun can be downright dangerous for your skin.

  • Sunburn: I don’t understand how anybody could go through their entire life without getting sunburn. Sunburn is caused by radiation literally burning the top layers of your skin. It can be extremely painful often causing first and second degree burns.
  • Skin Cancer: Extended exposure to the suns radiation is a major cause of skin cancer. Watch out for cancerous growths and unusual skin alterations.
  • Wrinkly Skin and Chapped Lips: Extended sun exposure will dry out your skin/lips and cause horrible leathery wrinkles.
  • Snow Blindness: Snow blindness doesn’t always occur during the winter. It’s just a sunburn of your eyes that occurs when radiation reflects back into your eyes. It can occur in the snow, desert, water or any other bright surface.

Sun Protection While Hiking

I won’t completely dismiss sunscreen. There’s a time and place for it and you can actually use it in conjunction with other methods of sun protection.

If you want to fully protect your skin on a hike you need to wear a long sleeved shirt, pants, hat and sunglasses. Wearing sunproof clothing is going to be much more effective and easier than constantly applying sunscreen. This is actually the method most doctors recommend to help fend off skin cancer.

Here are a few strategies to fend off the sun.

  • Long-Sleeved Shirts: A long-sleeved button-down shirt will completely protect your upper body. I’m not talking about wearing your grandfathers flannel. Modern-day hiking shirts are moisture-wicking, protect against uva/uvb rays, antimicrobial and have built to vents to promote airflow(Columbia’s Tamiami Shirt is the perfect example).
  • Long Pants: I’ve never been able to wear long pants while hiking(my legs sweat way too much), but they will definitely help prevent sunburn. Plus long pants will protect your legs against brush and brambles.
  • Hats: In an ideal world all hikers would wear a traditional wide-brimmed hiking hat(like these), but not everybody likes that style. If you don’t like hiking hats, cowboy hats, straw hats and baseball caps will all help prevent sunburn.
  • Buff: When the sun is really bad you might want to consider a lightweight buff(like this one). They are perfect for protecting the back of your neck.
  • Sunglasses: Every hiker/backpacker should have a pair of sunglasses in their pack. Protecting your eyes from the sun is just as important as protecting your skin. Look for sunglasses that have 100% UV protection and wrap around your face.

Using Sunscreen While Hiking

Personally, I don’t use sun screen. I have a hard time getting full coverage without help. Plus to use it properly you have to constantly reapply every couple hours.

If you decide to use sunscreen you can find small travel size bottles at any cvs(this is all that I use). One small travel sized bottle is all you really need for a weekend backpacking trip.

Make sure you apply the sunscreen anywhere clothes can’t cover. Don’t forget to cover up your neck, arms, ears, nose, face and legs. I always forget to get behind my ears.

Just remember that you need to apply your sunscreen at least one hour before you start hiking. You also need to reapply every couple hours. You have to be obsessive about reapplication if you want sunscreen to be effective.

Should You Wear Light Colored Clothes?

My entire life I was told not to wear light-colored clothing on sunny days. Everybody knows that black clothes absorb sunlight and white clothes reflect it. Anybody that has ever stepped barefoot on an asphalt driveway has felt this phenomenon first hand(you burn the crap out of your feet).

So should you actually avoid wearing dark clothing in the sun? In the past couple of decades, scientists have proven that dark colors do absorb more heat. However, they proved that the difference it actually made on the test subjects skin was negligible.

Since clothing works as an insulator rather than a heat conductor the additional heat is quickly lost.

A Few Extra Tips To Protect Yourself From The Sun

  • If you choose to wear sunscreen purchase SPF 30. Going over SPF 30 doesn’t make much of a difference under normal conditions.
  • Desert and High Altitude hiking will require special preparation to protect you against the sun. In these environments, you don’t have access to shade.
  • You can still get sunburn in cloudy and rainy weather. Clouds don’t effectively block the radiation caused by UVA/UVB rays.
  • Lip balm actually has SPF values to protect your skin. Don’t forget to use lip balms.
  • Don’t forget to protect the inside of your ears/nose and underneath your chin. The suns reflection off the ground/water can cause serious burns on unusual locations.

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