Hiking Sun Protection Head to Toe

Hiking Sun Protection

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.

Mineral sunscreen utilizes physical blockers in the form of minerals like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are naturally broad spectrum.
Mineral sunscreens utilize physical blockers in the form of minerals like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are naturally broad spectrum.

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

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.

There are many natural sunscreens to choose from these days that are good for your skin
There are many natural sunscreens to choose from these days that are good for your skin.

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.

A wide-brimmed sun hat protects your ears, head and face.
A wide-brimmed sun hat protects your ears, head, and face.

Sun Hat

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 are a great choice for sun protection for your hands and arms
Sun gloves and sun sleeves are a great choice for sun protection for your hands and arms.

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!

Using a hiking sun umbrella was a game changer for me on the Pacific Crest Trail!
Using a hiking sun umbrella was a game changer for me on the Pacific Crest Trail!

Sun Umbrella

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.

Polarized sunglasses help protect your eyes form harmful glare.
Polarized sunglasses help protect your eyes from harmful glare.

Sunglasses

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.

Hiking later in the day when the sun is less intense is also a form of sun protection
Hiking later in the day when the sun is less intense is also a form of sun protection.

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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About the author

Heather Daya Rideout has been a life-long outdoorswoman. Her pursuits and passion for hiking and camping have taken her around the world for many long-distance trips; such as backpacking in Nepal, India, South America, Morocco, Europe, and North America. Heather has hiked the Appalachian Trail, 2,250 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, and a route of 1,500 miles combining several Camino routes through Spain and Portugal. On any given day she would rather be outdoors than anything else and her lifestyle is a direct reflection of that deep love affair with nature. Heather currently lives in Idaho and she’s having a wondrous time experiencing the beauty it offers. You can read some of her other writing at www.wanderyoga.com.

30 comments

  1. Living in Texas, I’m sunburn conscious on hot days, however my worst sunburns have come in very pleasant weather when I let my guard down. I got badly blistered last month on a section hike in the Grayson Highlands of Virginia because it was such a beautiful day and I was hiking without wearing my hat. I paid a big price for that one. I guess my point is to be conscious of sun exposure at all times–sunburns can sneak up on you.

    • Grandpa, I totally agree with you that we have to watch for the sneaky sun exposure so as not to burn. A hat is a great way/habit to prevent later misery, right?

  2. I tan easily, but as I’m getting older it’s not very flattering to see the skin on my arms and hands turning to wrinkled parchment paper. Enter the Fjallraven Abisko light hiking shirt (just 150 g), long trousers (that can be rolled up to just below the knee), hat and OR Active Ice gloves. Bomb proof sun protection!

    • Jan, I hear you on that. Now that I’m living in Boise where it’s super dry, I fell my skin isn’t as happy as when living in humid climates. I cover up more and moisturize – a lot!

    • Big fan of Active Ice gloves. Just ordered 5 more pairs. In addition to sun, I spray mine with permethrin for insect protection during bug season.

      • Try to avoid permithrin as it kills bees and other beneficial insects. Keep out of the sun to avoid BCC and other cancers. I just had surgery to cut out one. Paying the price for not being careful earlier in the outdoors. A very helpful article. I use the Colombia shirt but will get some OR sun gloves.

      • I understand but I don’t find ticks, black flies, and mosquitos particularly beneficial. Bees I leave alone if they leave me alone.

      • Reply to Dara about “Permethrin Killing Bees”.

        I’m sorry, Dara, that is inaccurate.

        Permethrin spraying in an area kills bees, but it absolutely does not harm bees when applied to your clothing, as it bonds to the fabric, and really, how many bees do you have crawling on your hands and shirt?

        Please don’t pass on inaccurate knowledge.

    • I am 68 now and have always been an outdoor gal. Sunblock was unheard of way back when so I am showing sun damage. My Derm checkups have been OK but I am more aware now especially living at high altitudes of Colorado. I slather on #30 Mineral sunblock and cover up more. Still need to be better about reapplying but my Dr mentioned a pill that can block the sun’s rays for a long time- available on Amazon. Helio something.

  3. The author does not properly explain the differences in SPF 30 and SPF 70 in the somewhat misleading statement below. SPF 70 blocks out ~98.5% of UVB while SPF 30 blocks out ~97% of UVB. Therefore, a higher SPF rating is more effective against UVB. What should be clearly stated is that regardless of SPF rating, the time that sunscreen is effective remains relatively the same. Additionally, the rating concerns UVB while UVA is also a concern that is not included in an SPF rating. TIO2 is less effective against UVA than ZnO, and there are multiple “chemicals” that can be included in chemical sunscreens that are specifically for UVA protection.

    “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.”

    • Thank you, Zachary for your additional information and input. My main intention was to convey that higher SPF ratings aren’t a ‘green light’ to spend infinite time in the sun. I personally believe covering up is the best protection again sun exposure. I’m not a fan of chemicals, so covering up can lessen the amount of sunscreen (natural or chemical) used, which is a win for me.

  4. Any information on the wash-in SPF products like Sun Guard or whatever it’s called? These are used in your washer to boost or add SPF protection in clothing.

  5. I’m currently in a “pants for sun protection” worm hole. I think I’ve landed on the OR Ferrosi’s as the most breathable / not so bad looking option.

    Would love to hear what others have landed for pants to wear under a hot sun.

    • Railriders Ecomesh pants. They have zippers down the sides that are backed by insect-proof mesh.

      • I’ll second the EcoMesh. They keep my pearly whites pearly and white, my legs aren’t bright, and the bugs don’t bite.
        Believe me, no one wants to see me in shorts!

  6. Several years ago I transitioned to a different approach in dealing with potential sunburn and dry skin on my face. At the recommendation of my dermatologist I started using CeraVe facial moisturizing lotion with sunscreen SPF 30. It was developed with dermatologists and is recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation. I use it every day year round and apply it like an after shave lotion in the morning. On day hikes above tree line in the NH White Mountains I haven’t found it necessary to reapply it during the day so I don’t carry it in my pack. While hiking the Maine 100 mile wilderness I just transferred some to a small squeeze bottle to reduce weight. I have several long sleeve sun shirts with UV protection I wear along with long pants. I also wear either a baseball cap or a broad brim hat depending on the hike.

  7. Wonder if compression tops and leggings offer sun/bug protection.

  8. A few years ago I had basal cell carcinoma on my face caused by decades of sun overexposure. It took 2 surgeries to get it all. I wish I had paid more attention to sun protection earlier. I now wear hat, sunglasses, long sleeve shirt, pants and slather on the sunscreen.

  9. I don’t do that much backpacking anymore but do a fair bit of high altitude climbing. Long pants and tops always (it can get hot on the glaciers, but the sun is very strong), I tend to wear 2 buffs 1 to protect the back of my neck and 1 as a helmet liner and when I can take the helmet off the wide rim hat goes on, I don’t understand why anyone wears a baseball cap they have no ear/side protection. Watch out for reflected light as well, had a friend who wore unlined running shorts on a glacier once and ended up with a burnt “bell end”

    • Nick, that’s a solid point about a ball cap versus more full coverage headwear for neck and ears. I love my rainbow unicorn trucker hat, but when I’m in full sun, I wear a wide brim for better cover up.

  10. I’m also more conscious of chemicals I use including for sun protection. Do we know what chemicals are used in clothing with sun protection? Is it the same set of concerns as sunscreen? Similar to odour and bug protection there can be risks with using these technologies. In the end, I do use sunscreen but do like your suggestions to mix it up a bit.

    • I was under the impression that chemicals are not used in clothing for sun protection. That it is mainly a function of material and weave.

    • Hi Dan, and thanks for your thought-provoking question! I just did a little research on the topic of chemicals added to UPF clothing.

      Overall, UPF is determined by the construction of the material of the fabric, whether it’s densely or loosely woven for example. Thicker fabrics reduce UV light coming through. Color also plays a factor, as darker colors absorb more rays. Also consider the fiber (polyester and nylon do a good job at blocking UV rays, but cotton doesn’t quite cut it as much).

      Finally, some manufacturers DO add in chemicals and dyes to enhance the UPF factor. However, not all do and some brands make a conscious choice not to for the reasons we care about. So, be sure to know the brand or look into that when shopping for your UPF clothing.

      Hope that helps! I definitely learned something :)

  11. These are great! Hiking in Utah requires a lot of sun protection – even in the northern mountains!

  12. There is a fair amount of misinformation in this article.

    Firstly, sun ‘sensitivity’ is not a thing. Unless you have substantial amount of melanin in your skin (such as an African American) the UV in sun will render you susceptible to skin cancer.
    Tanning easily is not a defence against skin cancer, premature aging or sunburn. People who tan easily get skin cancer.

    Secondly, sunscreen is safe. It’s greasy, sticky expensive and annoying to apply but it is safe. Even if there was a tiny risk of harm from sunscreen, this harm is far offset by the reduction in risk from UV damage. If you think sunscreen chemicals are bad, you should see what cytotoxic medication does to you (chemotherapy) if you need your melanoma metastases treated.

    Do I know what I am talking about? I am a RN and health researcher- I reside in Australia which has a high proportion of Caucasians and the highest rate of skin cancer in the world. I can also provide links to studies which show the efficacy and safety of sunscreen and a refutation of the fallacy that tanning may protect one from cancer.

  13. I used to hike in a hat with a very large brim (affectionately called “Comically Large Hat” or CLH) because I wanted something that actually covered my face and the back of my neck. But it wasn’t the greatest because the stiff brim would hit the top of my pack and I found that annoying. I was so pleased to discover a hat with a flexible brim (https://www.sundayafternoons.com/p/ultra-adventure-storm-hat/, a lot like the one your BF wears). I highly recommend these for hiking with large packs.

    I hiked in the SW desert recently (yay Grand Canyon!) and used a purple umbrella for sun protection on a few hikes. It was ok (better than nothing!) but of course a lot of light still got through the translucent material. I really want one of the GG umbrellas but they’re out of stock! Booooo. I hope they get more soon!

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