Since moving out West in 1999, I have discovered the importance of protection from the harsh UV radiation found at elevation.
Due to my gene pool, I tan very well (Thanks to distant ancestors who invaded southern Italy! 🙂 ). However, NO ONE truly tans well at 10,000+ feet.
The sun destroys the skin at best and can cause cancer at worst. Not good.
The solutions are simple: Slather yourself with sunscreen or wear the appropriate clothing.
I’m not too fond of sunscreen for extended trips except for my nose and cheekbones. On backpacking trips, the sunscreen clogs the pores, collects dirt, gives an “unclean” feeling, runs into your eyes, is extra to pack, and is just plain messy.
So my choice for sun protection is clothing — a wide-brimmed hat to cover the face and a long-sleeved shirt. The rolled-down sleeves cover the arms, and the collar protects the neck paired with the hat.
In the non-humid climates, I tend to hike in; the long sleeves keep me cooler by making a micro-climate. Naturally, long sleeves help with bug protection too. A button-down shirt lets you roll up the sleeves as needed and unbutton the shirt for added ventilation.
Now, you can buy plenty of long sleeve shirts made for hiking, travel, and sun protection. They are sharp-looking, of high quality, and make you look like you stepped out of a gear catalog or a safari. They can be $65+ each as well.
But on any extended backpacking trip, you are beating the crap out of your shirts. They get perma-stains between the combined forces of the pack straps, salt from sweat, and dirt.
A $65shirt may still be usable at the end of 4+ months of backpacking, but it will look like, to use a technical term, crap.
Being a self-proclaimed dirt bagger with a practical bent, I can’t see why I’d want to spend $65+ on a shirt that will look like a thrift store shirt at the end of the trip.
So what to do? Buy the hiking shirt from the thrift or a discount store!
My shirts of choice are the old polycotton blend dress shirts or Western snap shirts ubiquitous in any thrift store.
For the princely sum of $10, I achieved the desired sun and bug protection. Or I’ll raid my closet for old shirts!
Yes, there is cotton in these shirts, but the thin fabric does dry quickly. If it gets cold and rainy, I change into a thermal anyway, regardless of the shirt I wear.
I also find these shirts very comfortable, breathe better, and feel less clamm, than a “technical” shirt or a nylon button-down for three-season use. I’ve tried the so-called hiking or traveling shirts and prefer the cotton-blend ones. And many “real” hiking shirts make me look like a reject from an Indiana Jones cosplay convention.
What about longevity? Not only have these shirts lasted me the length of a thru-hike, but they were also serviceable enough to wear AFTER a thru-hike. The only reason why I discarded the shirts are that there is a fine line between being a dirt bagger and looking homeless. The shirt was structurally sound; they just seemed a little, ah, worn. The shirt only had to go after a while, even by my standards.
Now, there are times when it makes more sense to wear the more expensive shirts. It pays to be more presentable if the trip is more of a cultural journey and less backcountry-oriented—no reason to be a literal Ugly American.
If I represent a group or a person or earn pay for my services, perhaps the thrift store shirt is not the best choice.
Otherwise? I’ll buy a thrift store special. For $10, I can beat it up, make it dirty, have it full of sweat, and it will take a lickin’.
As mentioned, I will also recycle old “casual” dress shirts from my closet. These shirts look good enough to wear outside of hiking and meet the critical non-dirt-bagger approval.
And since 2015 or so?
The classic plaid Western snap style shirts of 65/35 polycotton blend are ones I’ve gravitated to in recent years. Even new, I’ve found them for $30 or less in “farm and ranch” type stores or Wally World.
And specifically, here’s a 60/40 polycotton blend for $30. In my experience, the 5% difference does not matter.
I’ll put the $75 I saved for more important things. Like a post-trip burger and beer!
Overall summary: A simple shirt that may already be in your closet works well for hiking—practical, durable, inexpensive, and perhaps preferable to a “real” hiking shirt.
EDIT DEC 2019: A very in-depth science-based post validates my experience in detail. Check it out.
But I have to say I’m with Paul on this one: for a measly $20 you can get a good-looking hiking shirt that’s lighter, more breathable, and dries faster (or just as fast) as the Kuhl or Montbell at a quarter of the price. Oh, and it won’t kill you.
EDIT MAY 2022 – I’ve long thought that a shirt used by ranchers in the hot sun all day works well enough for hiking and sun protection. It turns out that the cut, material, and even the dye help make a shirt that works well. This Stack Exchange thread links to an academic article that puts more numbers on why I like these shirts so much, along with another report from SkinCancer.org that mentions material and the tightness vs. looseness of clothing.
From Stack Exchange –
The short answer is, it varies. The three factors that most influence the UV transmission factor of clothing are kind of obvious:
Material: Some materials are better at absorbing UV than others; for example, the paper cited below suggests that polyester absorbs more UV light (particularly UVB) than cotton.
Weave: The thicker and more tightly woven a piece of fabric is, the less light it lets through.
Color: Dyes work by absorbing various frequencies of visible light, and many of them will absorb UV too. Of course, high light absorption at visible frequencies doesn’t necessarily imply high UV absorption, but as a general rule of thumb, white or lightly colored fabrics do tend to let more UV through than darker fabrics.
In addition, there are also “invisible dyes” that can absorb UV without darkening the visible color of the fabric. Some UV-absorbent laundry additives are sold specifically for that purpose, but many laundry detergents also contain fluorescent compounds called optical brighteners that absorb some UV light and re-emit it in the visible spectrum. Also, getting the fabric wet will change its UV transmittance, typically increasing it.
From SkinCancer.org –
Coverage: The more skin your outfit covers, the better your protection. Whenever possible, choose long-sleeved shirts and long pants or skirts.
Fit: Loose-fitting apparel is preferable. Tight clothing can stretch and reduce the level of protection offered, as the fibers pull away from each other and allow more UV light to pass through.
What doe all this mean? A loose-fitting shirt that breathes well with polyester, the right weave, and is reinforced in the shoulder and collar where it is against the skin vs. the rest of the garment makes a great shirt. Almost like those people out in the sun all day knew something ???? 😉
I should note that Joan, of northern European background and the blond hair/blue eyes associated with it, quickly turns red in the sun. She takes skin care *very* seriously and would not use something unless it works.
When we wear the Western snap, polycotton (65/35) shirts, neither has darkened or turned red underneath the clothing. It works!