Sun protection techniques

Living “out West” since 1999, I’ve found the need for sun protection. Be it in alpine environments or the High Desert, the constant sunshine and higher UV radiation at altitude means sun protection is a must.

From Nathan W. Pyle, “Stranger Planet”

I prefer clothing, when possible, over sunscreen. Sunscreen tends to clog the pores, trap dirt, and get messy when out for multiple days.

There’s no one perfect choice, and everyone has their preferences. So I could not tell you the “best” setup.

But I do know the following gear choices work for me.

After the Northern New Mexico Loop and wearing my standard hiking uniform.

On the hike out of a canyon when packrafting.

PCO Joan.

I have Wrangler short sleeve button-downs I wear for day hikes that are 50 UPF rated per the label, and I can’t tell the difference on my skin between the two shirt types. My skin underneath the fabric of both shirts still stays lighter than my arms or hands vs. where I roll up the sleeves on my Western snap shirt. I enjoy wearing short sleeves for quick hikes, but I miss the versatility of my long sleeved ones for extended hikes. I’ll often pair a ball cap with a short sleeve shirt.

On a day hike. PCO Joan.

I prefer a thermal top with a 1/4-length zipper for ventilation in colder weather. I’ll use the Paradox (from Costco) layers for cold weather and some inexpensive TSLA layers for cool weather.

Wearing my Paradox layer during a December trip in 2019. I use a different hat currently.

I found sun hoodies make me too hot due to the fabric, lack of ventilation options, and the hood trapping in the heat. And I’m not too fond of hoods. I grudgingly wear hoods in the rain and camp during frigid weather, but I do not like how they block my peripheral vision or trap heat when it is too hot.

For my legs, I prefer UBTech long pants. I frequently go off designated trails for hiking, and it helps with leg protection as much as anything. Various pairs of these pants have been my go-to pants for many years and many miles over the years. I will wear running shorts for well-maintained trails during the warmer months, esp. for day hikes.

In Dominguez Canyon. PCO Joan.

I also use a small glop of sunscreen on the cheeks and nose. Besides inheriting a classic Mediterranean olive complexion, I also inherited oily skin (sigh) that works out well in a dry climate. However, I noticed the skin dries up on my face a bit if I don’t put on sunscreen. High deserts and alpine environments tend to dry out the skin in addition to sun damage. The travel-size sunscreen tube lasts about a week of backpacking for me.

I don’t think my hands have ever burnt, and I never used sun gloves.

Finally, the Nemesis safety glasses wrap around, make a durable pair, wear light on the head, block out UVA/B rays, and cost less than $20 for three pairs. A long-time favorite of mine.

I am not a fan of couple selfies. But Joan is, and I like making her happy. 🙂

Joan’s ancestors came from northern Europe; we hike differently, I run hotter, and we have different preferences. Therefore, we have different sun protection strategies that work equally effectively.

We took this photo after Joan spent a summer on the PCT, and she told me about her tan. 😀

Joan will wear a Sunday Afternoons wide-brimmed hat, a variety of homemade hiking skirts, and long gaiters (also homemade). Depending on the conditions, she’ll swap in an umbrella, polycotton button-down, or sun hoody with a ball cap.

She quite likes her REI brand sun hoodie and even bought two.

The conditions that dictate the sun protection choices typically mean off-trail, trail, or alpine tundra. Joan will normally wear no sun hoodies when above 75F or so as she will overheat quicker than me and opt for a polycotton button-down, and she will often mix and match these combos. For most three-season hiking, especially with prolonged sun exposure, Joan will wear homemade sun gloves.

As with me, Joan will wear the appropriate amount of sunscreen.

Joan hikes colder than me overall and will often wear a fleece when hiking. For cool weather, she’ll wear a Decathlon grid fleece pullover; for colder weather, she’ll wear a homemade ~100 wt equivalent Melly-style fleece pullover. For cold weather baselayers, she’ll wear similar layers to me.

And just a cozy, all-around piece of clothing!

As you can see, there’s no one correct method of sun protection. But all wise hikers will agree that sun protection is a must.

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1 year ago

It’s interesting to see how you and Joan do things differently to account for your individual differences. The balance between sun protection and ventilation is an ongoing struggle for me in the hotter months. Many with your melanin seem to forgo precaution all together. A random thing I heard that always stuck with me is that when darker complected people get melanomas, it’s usually in weird places like in between fingers/toes, under finger/toenails, or even palms. Also that men tend to get it with alarming frequency on lips, eyelids, ear tops, back of necks and shoulders.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Wow. Not the most desirable contest to win––#1 in melanoma. Guides with Irish surnames (like the man pictured) should take special care. On the upside, no vitamin D supplementation needed.