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Sun Protection is an Outdoor Essential Year Round

Sun protection is an outdoor essential year round, not just on a sunny hike or summer swim. 

Climbing higher? Ultraviolet (UV) radiation levels increase 10 percent with every 1,000 meters gained in altitude. Skiing or snowshoeing? Snow reflects up to 80 percent of UV rays, nearly doubling your exposure. Paddling? Water and sand reflect back 10 to 25 percent of UV rays.

Sun protection prevents more than a painful post-trip sunburn. The vast majority of skin cancers are associated with UV exposure from the sun. And while most skin cancers are preventable, rates are rising. Melanoma, the deadliest form, doubled in incidence in the United States from 1982 to 2011.

Effective sun protection entails more than slapping on some sunscreen once a day (which only 20 percent of people even do). So, as part of our Year of Essential Outdoor Gear, we're taking a look at Essential #2, sun protection.

Cover Up with Clothing

What you wear is your skin's first line of defense against sun damage. Of course, your outdoor apparel depends on the season, conditions, and activity. If skiing in winter, you'll likely cover a good portion of your skin anyway. But even in warm weather, consider wearing a long-sleeve shirt, pants, and hat with a wide brim.

Water reflects back UV rays and can wash away sunscreen. Reapply every two hours. (Photo by member Darin McQuoid)

Weave, color, and weight determine each clothing's level of sun protection, but it can be difficult to determine with a glance. Many warm-weather and water-specific pieces, like sun sleeves or rash guards, come with UPF ratings. 

Protect Eyes from Rays

Sunglasses, glacier glasses, and goggles offer your eyes year-round protection. This is extra important on snow, water, or sand where reflected rays can cause the temporary blindness and pain of a sunburned cornea.

Look for sunglasses that offer 99 to 100 percent UV protection. For additional indirect coverage, choose ones that wrap around or that come with removable side shields. 

Consider Shade and Time of Day

The time of day you travel and shade available significantly affect your UV exposure. While limiting time in the sun may not be practical when you're trying to make it to the next summit or campsite, keep in mind that UV rays are most intense 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from April to October. But, even on a cloudy day up to 80 percent of rays can pass through to your skin.

The U.S. National Weather Service forecasts local UV indexes for planning purposes.

Apply Sunscreen (then do it again)

Sunscreen usually comes first to mind for sun protection—and it is essential—but it's actually your last line of defense. The Food and Drug Administration recommends wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF value of 15 or higher for regular daily use. SPF 30 to 50 is recommended for extended exposure, like that hike or climb.

Sunscreens work by using either chemical ingredients (for ex. avobenzone or benzophenone) that absorb UVA and UVB rays or by using physical ingredients (for ex. titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) that reflect, scatter, and absorb UVA and UVB rays.

Wear sunscreen daily and a lip balm with SPF. Reapply liberally on all exposed skin every two hours, more often if you're working up a sweat or in the water.

For sunscreen recommendations, check out the Environmental Working Group's annual Sunscreen Guide.

What about all of those terms?

SPF, UPF, UV—It's easy to get overwhelmed by acronyms. The FDA (there's another!) overhauled sunscreen-labeling standards in 2011 for accuracy and effectiveness. 

Here's a primer on what those labels mean:

  • Broad-spectrum or full-spectrum sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Your sunscreen should be broad spectrum.
  • SPF (Sun Protection Factor) is the degree to which you are protected from sunburn and measures the amount of UVB protection. For example, SPF 15 blocks about 94 percent of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks about 97 percent, and SPF 50 blocks about 98 percent, but only if you use the full amount.
  • UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) ratings are used for clothing and indicate what fraction of the sun's UV rays can penetrate. For example, a shirt with a UPF of 50 lets 1/50th of the sun’s UV radiation pass through.
  • UVA is ultraviolet radiation that causes tanning, and contributes to aging of the skin and the development of skin cancers.
  • UVB is ultraviolet radiation responsible for sunburn, aging of the skin, and the development of skin cancers.

The more time you spend outdoors the more UV radiation you'll be exposed to, naturally. And if you're reading this, you probably like spending time outside, especially when the sun is shining.

You don't have to give up your backcountry adventures or limit yourself to nighttime trips to be sun safe though. Understanding how factors like altitude, snow, water, apparel, and sunscreen affect your UV exposure can help you lower the risks whenever you go out. Whether mountaineering in winter or trail running in summer, sun protection should be an essential part of your outdoor planning and gear anytime of year.

Stay tuned, as we'll take a look at more of the 10 Essentials throughout 2016.



For more sun safety info:


One of the smartest moves I've made in terms of changing my mind about gear and apparel was the purchase of a few long-sleeved, UPF shirts for summer hiking. I used to only wear short sleeves in the summer, but that inevitably led to the dreaded "farmer's tan."

Most of my long-sleeved summer shirts are light, airy, and do a great job protecting against the sun. I like the Ex Officio brand, but there are many others on the market and these types of shirts seem to be getting less and less expensive. 

If your local gear store doesn't carry any long-sleeve summer shirts, try your local fishing outfitter. Fishing folks have long worn long-sleeve shirts year-round for sun protection. 

Sun protection is absolutely essential. Those of us who grew up in the middle of the Sonora Desert, and have since spent a lot of time at high altitudes and on snow and ice believed what we were being told about the sunlight providing Vitamin D. So we were proud of our "healthy tans". A lot of us got severe sunburns along the way. We are now paying the price in many ways - literally in our regular visits to the dermatologist, and in getting sprayed regularly with liquid nitrogen to freeze the actinic keratosis (pre-cancerous), various creams that attack the developing lesions, and surgery to remove basal cell and squamous cell cancers. Some unfortunate people develop melanoma, which carries a high fatality risk. My father-in-law died from melanoma that had metastasized.

IT IS NOT JUST A COSMETIC PROBLEM! And it is cumulative. Tomorrow I go to my dermatologist for my quarterly treatment. My spouse, Barbara, who grew up in SoCal and spent lots of time on the beach and also spends lots of time in the wilderness, went for her quarterly dermatologist visit last week. It is worse for us blue-eyed, light-skinned descendants of Europeans. But I had a friend and colleague who got a fatal case of melanoma - he was African-American, lived in Mississippi most of his life.

Sunblock and covering up with clothing is needed for everyone.

This is a great article! I think we often over look this because it is so nice to finally have some sun on your face coming from a cold winter or a tree filled trail. Without the right protection as Bill S. mentioned, you can really accrue some long term issues! The sun is great in the moment, but is nothing short of dangerous without the proper respect! Thanks alicia 

This is an important topic, especially for outdoor people.  High elevation and being on the water, or snow and ice are the worst.

I learned to wear brimmed hats a long time ago. I wear long sleeves in the mountains and on the boat.  The face and the back of the hands have taken the worst beating.  I carry a buff now, and often use a large silk scarf under a baseball cap when backpacking, since a brimmed hat does not fit so well.  I am always looking for shade, and learned that from my dogs. I wear fingerless cotton gloves in summer for fishing and often for hiking.

Sun screen is your friend and it should be applied every day when you are outdoors.  I use it almost every day.

So far I have had 4 skin cancers removed from my back and shoulders.  When we were young, little was known about this subject and we started the year each spring with some burns to "build a tan."  Now many people are paying a price for being so casual about their skin.  Protect yourself and you will be much happier later.  I dread the next time I am on the table with local anaesthetic and hear the clank of a large diamond shaped piece of my hide hitting the stainless steel bowl.

I was told about this long ago by a Doctor in Texas when I was a patient getting a check up..He was very interested in what I did for fun and explained it to him..I grew up on the Jersey shore and we would tan like crazy..But being in Texas it seemed the heat and sun never ending.With his Urging and advice I used proper protection Sun Block highest I could find and clothing.. I have had no problems from my past and still following his advice about sun block, hats and clothing...Great article and reminder...

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