Sun protection is always an important consideration when hiking or for any outdoor activity where there’s the potential to get a sunburn. Thankfully, there are many good options when it comes to covering up and taking care of your skin.
How Much Sun Protection Do You Need?
There are a few factors to consider when determining how much sun protection you need and what to choose.
How Sensitive Are You to the Sun?
Do you tend to bronze like a statue or burn to a crisp? The amount of sun exposure we can each handle depends on individual skin tones and type, so it’s essential to pay attention to prevent sun damage. If you’re on the fair side, it may be best to look at more of my full coverage options below.
Where Will You Be Hiking?
If you plan to hike under the shaded tree cover found along the Appalachian Trail, for example, you might not need a full arsenal of sun protection. However, if you hike in the desert or above tree line, having more sun protection can be a sound idea. Do some research ahead of time so you can bring the right clothing and gear.
It’s worth noting that even in shade or on a cloudy day, the sun’s rays still shine and there’s potential for a sneaky sunburn to happen. So, it’s important to keep that in mind and not abandon the idea of covering up because it’s overcast and only 45 degrees.
Types of Sun Protection
Here’s a list of smart, proactive, and preventive measures based on my experience and what I’ve seen work for other hikers.
Sunscreen is usually the first thing that comes to mind when people think of sun protection. Just slather it up all over your body and you’re set, right? Sometimes this is all you need, but there are a few downsides to sunscreen as your only form of sun protection.
- Re-application – If you’re sweating up a storm, you have to remember to reapply often. If you’re on a long backpacking trip, you need to bring a lot, and those big tubes can add a lot of extra weight to your pack.
- Expensive – Sunscreen isn’t cheap and if you lube up your whole body, it can go fast.
- Chemicals – Most sunscreens on the market are filled with chemicals. On a positive note, there are natural sunscreens you can use, but these are even more costly than the chemical ones.
I’m not totally against sunscreen and I’ll cover the natural sunscreens below that I recommend and use. My intention here is to advocate for other types of sun protection that can offset the overuse of sunscreen, or thinking it’s the only and/or best option. I’m not here to judge you if sunscreen is what you choose to use. I will say though that anything with an ingredient list longer than a few items and with words you can’t pronounce may be a bit sketchy to put on your skin.
One valuable thing to add when choosing your sunscreen is to be wary of those labeled with super high SPF ratings. This is often misleading and can cause unsafe sun exposure. If you read a sunscreen has an SPF of 70, that must be better than SPF 30, right? Not necessarily. People assume that if it has a higher SPF, one can spend more time in the sun, which ends up causing sun damage.
If you’re interested in using a natural sunscreen to further protect your skin beyond the measures I list below, I recommend a mineral sunscreen. Mineral sunscreen utilizes physical blockers in the form of minerals like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are naturally broad spectrum.
Here are a few examples:
Don’t forget sun protection for your lips, too! I like:
Sun Protective Clothing and Gear
The most effective approach for preventing excess sun exposure is by covering up. Again, I’m not against sunscreen, but there are other, sometimes better options to maximize the amount of time you can be outside. You can enjoy hiking and other outdoor activities longer by using one, or all, of the gear suggestions provided below.
Starting from the top of your head, a sun hat is one of the best ways to protect your face. Depending on where you’re hiking and if the sun is strong, a sun hat with a wide brim is the bomb. I tend to hike with my Rainbow Unicorn trucker hat for nostalgic reasons, but when I was hiking the Camino de Santiago and Portugues in Europe, I had to pick up a floppy, wide-brimmed hat to get more coverage for my neck and the side of my face. And yes, I actually put the Rainbow Unicorn Hat on top of it so my signature fashion piece was still there as I protected my skin.
My boyfriend uses the Helios Sun Hat by Outdoor Research which I like better than mine because it retains its shape and pops back to full brim coverage even when you smoosh it in your pack. It’s UPF 50+ fabric
and the drawcord adjusts for when it gets windy.
If you want even more coverage, look for a hat with a cape-like component that fully shields your ears, face, and back of the neck. Check out Outdoor Research’s Sun Runner Cap if this is something you feel you’d need or a sun hoodie, like the Outdoor Research Echo Hoodie that Philip reviewed recently. I know he likes wearing it above treeline in the alpine.
Long-Sleeve Shirt and Pants
In terms of covering up, wearing a long-sleeve shirt and lightweight pants is the way to go. Not only can you skip the sunscreen on your arms and legs, you get the ultimate sun protection. I wear a women’s Columbia Silver Ridge Long Sleeve Shirt which is breathable, lightweight and has a UPF of 40. It has roll-up sleeves and a collar to protect my neck. The fabric feels good against my skin, even when hot and sticky with sweat.
I know many hikers who wear lightweight pants even when hiking in very hot temperatures, both for sun and insect protection. You might not need this if your legs tan easily and build up enough pigment to prevent sunburn, but it an option to consider.
Sun Gloves and Sun Sleeves
When I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, I saw tons of hikers with sun gloves and sun sleeves, especially in the southern section of the desert. Using sun gloves and sun sleeves is a super smart choice to protect your hands and arms, and you have the option to slip them off easily when the sun isn’t as strong. They’re light and not at all bulky, making it a minimal factor when adding to your overall pack weight.
The most common sun gloves I know hikers to buy are Outdoor Research’s ActiveIce Sun Gloves which are fingerless, meaning the ends of your fingers are exposed. They don’t go as far up your hand as another design they make, the ActiveIce Chroma Full Sun Gloves. Both models are wicking and with UPF 50+ sun protection. REI also has their version, the REI On-The-Trail Sun Gloves.
If you like wearing a short-sleeve shirt but need something for more coverage when the sun is intense, you may like sun sleeves. They give you the versatility to slip on and off with ease without having to carry another
long-sleeve hiking shirt. Consider Outdoor Research’s ActiveIce Sun Sleeves which have a bicep grip that holds prevents them from slipping down. Outdoor Research also makes ActiveIce Full Fingered Sun Sleeves which are sun gloves and sun sleeves in one!
A trekking umbrella one of my favorite pieces of backpacking gear these days, hands down. I started using
it on the Pacific Crest Trail and will never go back. I use the Gossamer Gear Liteflex Hiking Umbrella which comes in at only 8 ounces, although the newest model is only 6.6 ounces! It creates a halo of shade that can be up to 15 degrees cooler than the surrounding temperature.
I sweat less and I am much more comfortable when using it. The Liteflex provides a total shield of coverage above and around me and goes way beyond the brim of a sun hat. I also use it for making my own shade when I need a break, by propping it on the ground and tucking part of my body under it. I can’t recommend adding a sun umbrella to your gear kit enough if you hike in an area with powerful sun exposure.
If you’re wearing a sun hat, using a sun umbrella, or hiking in the shade, you may not find you need sunglasses. However, these can be important as sun protection when not doing the former. Sunglasses can protect your eyes by working as a barrier that reflects UV rays. This is especially useful when hiking in the snow to shield your eyes from the rays reflected back by the mirror-like snow. Sunglasses can help minimize winter glare, snow blindness, and the strain your eyes may experience.
I don’t spend tons of money on sunglasses, but I do look for polarized ones. Polarized lenses prevent light glare from directly hitting your eyes by using a vertical filter, which is helpful to reduce glare especially when near water and snow. I like Suncloud Sunglasses because they are reasonably priced and aren’t flimsy.
Hiking at the Right Time of Day
Another form of sun protection involves hiking at the right time of day depending on the intensity of sun exposure. Hiking in non-peak sun hours is an excellent type of sun protection and often isn’t mentioned. This isn’t really something you need to consider in the forest, but it’s essential when in the desert or above treeline.
When hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the southern desert section, I would start hiking before sunrise when it was cooler and the sun wasn’t blazing. Once it got hot and Mr. Sun was in full force, I would hide in the shade for a bit and take a break. Then I would start up again later in the day when the sun was waning, or use my sun hat, long-sleeve shirt, sun umbrella, and sunscreen as my armor.
It probably goes without saying that shade is your friend. If it’s hot and you’re cooking, look for shade to cool off, rest, and then continue. This is another reason I’m a big fan of using a sun umbrella, to create a bit of a cooler environment when you’re hiking.
Sun Protection FAQ Wrap-Up
Hiking sun protection comes in many different forms and they can all serve their place. Look at your unique needs based on your skin tone and where you’re hiking, then choose the appropriate gear and products for your adventures. The sun doesn’t have to be a foe as long as we take the right steps so we can enjoy the outdoors safely!
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