Essential Sun Protection for Hiking: Tips & Gear

Over years of hiking, I’ve learned that proper sun protection isn’t just about comfort—it’s about health. Ignoring it can mean a miserable hike filled with sunburn and, long-term, even skin damage. Finding the right gear and strategies for sun protection lets me stay out on the trails longer and safer. It really makes a difference. You know those long, satisfying days where you lose track of time because you’re fully immersed in the scenery?

Sun protection for hiking is about maximising that experience for me. It helps you avoid the unpleasant consequences of too much sun and keeps you focused on the adventure itself.

Sun Protection for Hiking: A Comprehensive Guide

Hitting the trail is one of the most rewarding things you can do physically and mentally for yourself. You get to enjoy breathtaking views, test your limits, and escape from the hustle of daily life. However, ignoring sun safety can seriously put a damper on your outdoor experience.

Choosing the Right Sunscreen: SPF and Beyond

When you choose sunscreen for hiking, go beyond grabbing the first bottle you see at the drugstore. SPF 30 or higher should be your go-to. SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor – a way to gauge how long UVB rays take to burn your skin compared to how long it takes to burn unprotected. It’s critical for keeping sunburn at bay, which is about both immediate discomfort and reducing long-term risk.

This is especially important in locations like Australia, which has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world. You can even download apps, such as the UV Index app, to take extra precautions and determine current UV levels and make sun protection choices.

I also go for paraben-free sunscreen because some chemical ingredients used in conventional sunscreens raise questions about their safety and environmental impact. You’ll find lots of brands offer versions now that skip the potentially harmful chemicals while still providing effective protection. Choosing a sunscreen with hyaluronic acid keeps skin from drying out and ensures a comfortable experience – nobody likes that dry, tight feeling after a day in the sun.

Don’t forget to reapply throughout the day, especially after sweating. I’ve made it a habit to reapply during breaks and always keep my sunscreen in my hip belt pocket for easy access.

Actually, this is the reason I founded an organic sunscreen company, and our hero product is a tinted face sunscreen with hyaluronic acid and kakadu plum for the antioidant boost. Skorcha is cracfted for endurance and adventure with a non greasy formula, no eye sting and absolutely no BS! (100% Organic) Check it out here

The Importance of UPF Clothing for Sun Protection for Hiking

Layering on the sunscreen is a great start, but you can’t rely on that alone. Sun-protective clothing takes things to the next level and is one thing I didn’t get until I got more serious about my health.

Now I’m a believer in these UV-resistant fabrics – they’ve made my hiking experience so much more comfortable and carefree. I don’t have to worry as much about reapplying or missing a spot, which means I can stay focused on what matters: enjoying the outdoors.

I often see hikers relying solely on tank tops, even during peak sun hours. Those tank tops aren’t giving you nearly enough coverage, and even if you lather on sunscreen, you’re bound to miss a spot or sweat it off.

UPF clothing, like this REI Sahara Shade Hoodie, blocks the sun’s UV rays from hitting your skin. UPF, or Ultraviolet Protection Factor, tells you how much of those damaging UV rays the fabric actually blocks.

Aim for a rating of 50+ – this means the garment keeps out 98% of the sun’s rays. I frequently go hiking with this sun hoody and it’s kept my skin safe in the desert and high altitudes – both places where sun intensity can be extreme.

There are all sorts of styles available. Besides shirts, you’ve got pants, hats, and even buffs that all provide effective UPF protection.

Sun Protection Hats: Wide Brims vs. Packability

When it comes to sun protection for hiking, picking the right hat can make all the difference. Trust me on this – your head, ears, and face are incredibly vulnerable. I’ve found wide-brimmed hats are unbeatable for keeping your face and neck shaded.

These offer excellent coverage. Just ensure you find a brim that offers a good shade without obstructing your vision or blowing off in the wind. They provide comprehensive protection, covering your face, neck, and ears from those scorching rays.

A bucket hat is a good option if you prefer something lighter and less cumbersome for hiking. Some bucket hat styles even provide a neck flap for even more protection. It strikes a nice balance between a baseball-style cap and a wide-brim hat, giving you enough protection and is easier to pack. Alternatively, a baseball-style cap is convenient for backpacking because there’s no back brim that will interfere with your pack.

You could even get one of the legionnaire hats that have been made popular for fishing in Australia and start a whole new hiking trend.

Shielding Your Eyes: The Power of UV-Blocking Sunglasses

Shielding Your Eyes
The Power of UV-Blocking Sunglasses

I’ll admit it: I’m guilty of hitting the trail without sunglasses, thinking, “I’ll be fine, the hike is only a few hours.” This, I learned the hard way, was a foolish oversight. I remember completely squinting against the glare when I was a metal roofer, which triggered the worst headache I’d experienced in months and left me debilitated. This is similar to the reflective nature of snow on alpine trails.

The right sunglasses protect you from more than just discomfort. I learned later that prolonged exposure to intense sunlight, particularly in alpine or snowy areas, can actually lead to conditions like photokeratitis, essentially a sunburn on the cornea. It’s similar to having sand in your eyes, but infinitely worse.

The next time you’re out hiking, remember this experience and reach for a pair of UV-blocking shades – I know I do now. It makes the scenery way more enjoyable and protects your eye health long-term. Invest in quality sunglasses that offer 100% UV protection to shield your eyes effectively. Go for ones with a good wrap-around shape that prevent rays from entering around the edges. I always go for polarised lenses. This helps a lot in bright environments because they eliminate glare that bounces off surfaces like water and snow.

The Neck Gaiter: Your Secret Weapon for Hiking

The humble neck gaiter – might not sound exciting, but hear me out. You know those areas that we so often neglect when it comes to sun protection? I’m talking about the sensitive back of the neck. I used to use bandanas, but this versatile little accessory is a total game-changer and way more effective because it’s designed to cover that specific area. Think of it like sunscreen that you never have to reapply.

You’ll often see athletes wearing them on dusty trails to keep their mouths and noses covered. For me though, a buff is first and foremost about protecting that back of the neck from sun damage, whether I’m under a cloudless sky, in humid weather or while enjoying some light backpacking.

Besides that, they have all sorts of added benefits too: protect your neck from windchill, wipe sweat off your brow, and can be soaked in cool water for some extra refreshment on a hot day. It can be hard to find neck protection in standard hiking clothing, so this handy little accessory offers more practical sun protection than almost anything else I bring with me on hikes.

Maximising Your Hiking Sun Protection Strategies

Maximising Your Hiking Sun Protection Strategies

The right gear goes a long way, but proper sun protection for hiking is about strategy, too. Choosing clothing in a dark or bright colour helps absorb and reflect rays. Think of it as maximising those little things. This can make a big difference on a hot, cloudless day.

Also, choosing long sleeves isn’t about restricting your movements. There are a ton of options now designed for movement. Lightweight hiking shirts, often built with synthetics like polyester or nylon, provide sun protection while staying comfortable in hot weather.

Some manufacturers have even taken this idea one step further by developing fabrics that are more resistant to heat build-up. You might think this is overkill, but remember this: UV protection decreases when fabrics are stretched and become thinner. The ability to resist heat build-up will ensure your protection remains consistent. Many hikers even embrace full UPF hiking pants instead of relying on shorts to further reduce sun damage and irritation.

Practical Steps for Minimising Sun Exposure while Hiking

It’s all about optimising when, where, and how you hike, along with simple routines.

  1. Plan your hikes during off-peak sun hours. You’ll avoid the hottest and strongest sun exposure of the day. For example, get an early morning start and take a long lunch break during midday. It can really make a big difference on hot summer hikes. Trust me, that break is extra enjoyable knowing you’ve already knocked out several miles. You might even see an incredible sunset or have trails completely to yourself.
  2. Look for shaded routes, like those in densely wooded areas. Consider a longer lunch break when you encounter sun-drenched terrain and even hike until sunset in these less-protected areas. I love finding maps with topographical shading – lets me visualise beforehand whether a route stays low or exposed on ridges.
  3. Bring portable shade if necessary. This might sound extreme but, you can find tons of options for tents and umbrellas now built specifically for UV protection. If you know you’re going to spend an extended amount of time under the sun – say at a lunch spot with zero coverage – bringing this shade is just as important as a good sun hoody. You wouldn’t hit the trail without snacks, would you? Pack portable shade.
  4. Carry electrolytes. Even a mildly sun-soaked hike makes me thirstier and, worse, saps my energy more. Those electrolyte drinks don’t just quench your thirst. They also restore critical electrolytes and help maintain fluid balance, something your body struggles with when it’s overheated.

Key Components for On-the-Trail Sun Safety

ComponentDescriptionBenefit
Sunscreen (SPF 30+)Apply generously to exposed skin. This should be reapplied throughout the day, especially after you sweat.Protection from UV rays, lowers sun burn risk and irritation, easier movement than thicker clothing, ensures comfort on warm days.
UPF ClothingProvides built-in sun protection. Aim for a 50+ rating and consider this as an additional layer if neededBlocks direct skin contact, breathable and less messy than applying sunscreen, more long-lasting protection throughout your day
Wide Brimmed HatsKeeps direct rays off the head and face and provides the greatest shade. Consider your hairstyle to make sure it works and won’t need constant adjustment on the trail.Consistent, effortless sun protection, keeps the head cool and adds comfort. It is essential if you prefer a tank top or lighter clothing on warmer days
UV-blocking sunglassesProtects the eyes and can prevent glare, especially with polarised lenses. Look for ones that also filter out UV. Some glasses, such as the ones designed for snow sports are also excellent for hiking.Reduces eye fatigue and prevents damage, offers visual clarity even in bright sun. You’ll love these when hiking along a sandy or snow-covered surface – they’ll help prevent that harsh sun glare bouncing off into your eyes
Neck Gaiter/ BuffCovers the sensitive back of the neck that so often goes neglected. They are also great for wicking sweat and maintaining hydration.Helps avoid burns, protects against the wind, helps keep you cool. You can even use it for sun protection around the head by turning it into a makeshift cap. They pack really easily too.

High Altitude and Other Surprises

High Altitude and Other Surprises

You’ve got your gear sorted and a great strategy, but things don’t always go as planned. Certain environments demand extra awareness, even with the best precautions.

Did you know that  UV intensity gets stronger the higher you go in altitude?

Those alpine areas mean you’re closer to the sun, so the UV exposure can feel pretty different, almost invisible compared to a sea-level hike. Remember to bring  a zinc-based natural sunscreen. This is crucial at higher elevations for the best protection and keeps the health of your skin at the forefront while you focus on more epic views.

Snowy or icy trails can feel deceptively pleasant even with brilliant sunshine. However,  up to 80% of UV rays can be reflected in snow. You are essentially doubling the dose of those harmful rays. Wrap-around shades are especially useful here – they’ll stop the sun’s rays from sneaking in around the edges. Be sure to reapply your sunscreen too.

Zinc Oxide: A Must for Hiking Sun Protection

I have tried many sunscreens over the years but my favorite for hiking, especially for these less expected scenarios is, one with zinc oxide. It seems counterintuitive, I get it. It used to be this thick, chalky white cream that’s practically impossible to blend, so why am I now championing zinc oxide as a must-have for your hiking pack?

Today, those formulas are a relic. The formulations are getting so much better and feel lighter and less sticky. Many brands now make organic and natural versions of zinc oxide sunscreen, ensuring protection and healing without harmful chemicals.

Around 75% of conventional sunscreens use ingredients that aren’t so great, both in terms of their UV protection or even more worryingly, due to harmful ingredients that can impact your health or even hurt the environment.

Here’s what makes zinc oxide stand out for hikers:

  • It acts as a physical barrier against both UVA and UVB rays, essentially forming a shield over your skin that reflects them away. I like to think of this physical protection as an added layer of insurance. You know how UV-blocking fabric works, forming a tight barrier? That’s zinc oxide doing its magic on your skin.
  • It’s incredibly gentle and hypoallergenic – essential for people with sensitive skin. It can help with things like preventing breakouts from sweating under a hot sun. Think about that – your skin will actually feel better at the end of your hike, even if you spent hours under intense rays.
  • Its protective qualities stick around even when you sweat. Those zinc oxide particles bind to your skin, staying put, unlike chemical filters that can wash away. On those hot summer days with epic ascents and sweaty faces, I am completely grateful for its staying power. I also get some added peace of mind knowing I can be less obsessed with constant reapplication, especially when scrambling along more technical terrain where I have to be more mindful of each step.

Conclusion

When I hit the trails now, Sun Protection for Hiking isn’t an afterthought. The right gear, a smart strategy, and paying attention to environmental surprises can mean the difference between a comfortable day and a painful experience, both in the moment and down the line.

Take it from me – don’t make those same mistakes. Invest in good gear, an organic, natural, zinc oxide-based sunscreen is at the top of my list now, a UPF hiking shirt with a UPF rating of 50+, sunglasses that offer full UV protection, and your versatile buff will all make your hikes better. Sun protection for hiking is essential for maximising your enjoyment of the outdoors while minimising health risks.

Guest Author

Mick Wadley

Mick Wadley is the founder of Skorcha Organic Suncare and B2B SEO Specialist at HarpoonB2B, who writes about everything related to suncare, organic goodness, and conservation. He launched Skorcha in 2023 after a decade of working outdoors and personal experience with skin cancer. His goal is to share what he has learned about skin health and safe ingredients, encouraging healthier lives and inspiring people to enjoy the outdoors. You can follow him on LinkedIn

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