by Diane Spicer
While hiking in my big backyard, the Pacific Northwest, sunburn avoidance isn't the first thing which leaps to mind.
After all, opportunities for hot sunny days between September and June are minimal (yup, that's 10 months of the year with cool, cloudy weather. Morning marine layers are common.)
Basking in those ultraviolet rays from our star the Sun is a luxury!
But that's exactly why northerners have to be extra-cautious when our sun-starved skin basks in solar rays - sunburn while hiking is a real "thing".
Actually, sunburn avoidance should be on any hiker's list of techniques, regardless of location, because burned skin is damaged skin.
And damaged skin sets you up for trouble later on in life.
And I don't just mean wrinkles! Keep reading.
So one of the best hiking tips I can give you is to be cautious with sun exposure, as it accumulates over your lifetime.
Let's quickly go over a few ground rules on minimizing sun exposure.
Then we'll cover 3 lines of defense against damaging your skin or eyes with excessive sun exposure:
As the largest organ of your body not only by weight but also by surface area, your skin is built of multiple layers.
Beneath those cells are other cell types in layers, one of which produces a dark pigment called melanin.
Damaging the genetic message (DNA) by excessive amounts of ultraviolet radiation (i.e. sun exposure or tanning beds) in any cell can lead to irreversible changes which, given enough time, could cause skin cancer.
That's why having a sunburn avoidance strategy should be on your "must do" list as a hiker, regardless of your skin tone.
It's one of the very best hiking tips I can share with you.
Now it's back to our lines of defense against skin damage.
First, be mindful of the choices you make for hiking clothing.
There are many brands of hiking clothing which promise extra UV blockage, in the form of UPF sun protection.
In truth, any long sleeved shirt or pair of pants is a great UV ray blocker, as long as you use them!
The white shirt in the photo below is my absolute favorite sun protective shirt, and you can find it either on me, or in my pack, 9 months of the year.
Any hiking clothing should be versatile and durable, and this shirt is a great example of that hiking mantra because it:
For more suggestions about UPF sun protective clothing for women hikers, read this.
Add a hat which shields your neck, ears, and face, and you're all set.
And don't forget about your eyes. You'll need a high quality pair of sunglasses.
Your eyes, especially if they're lightly pigmented blue or green, shouldn't be exposed to direct sunlight day after day, hike after hike, because of the risk of cataracts.
Next, sun avoidance behaviors (or behaviours, depending upon where you live).
This gets tricky.
So how can you avoid the worst part of the day for UV exposure (10 A til 2PM)?
Simple fact: You can't while you're hiking.
But you can do these things to minimize your skin exposure to direct UV rays:
Sunscreen is such a blessing. It makes sunburn avoidance so easy!
But here's one thing you absolutely must do: screen your sunscreen!
Don't assume that what you are smearing onto your skin is safe.
ingredients can be absorbed directly into the lower layers of your skin. That's where your blood vessels are, providing a direct route into your body's circulatory system.
So use only the best sunscreens (use my links above for some hints).
Then it becomes important to do your own due diligence with a patch test:
Don't spare the sunscreen and long sleeves on cloudy days, because UV light can damage your skin even when it's overcast.
It's prudent to cover up your lips, too.
Recent research has discovered that chemicals are found in the bloodstream after sunscreen application.
There is some controversy over the effects of the chemicals in sunscreens, particularly in connection with disruption of hormones in the body.
Common chemicals in sunscreen formulations:
Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are mineral or physical blockers, have been found to be safe to apply to the skin, as they are not absorbed through the skin.
Read all of the details, including the concern over inactive ingredients in sunscreens, here.
The best advice for hikers of every age:
Don't take your sun exposed skin for granted.
Skin is not an inert stretchy cover, but a living organ which absorbs what you put on it, is nourished or harmed by what you ingest, and will erupt with rashes, bumps, blisters, or worse when it's not feeling well.
Pay close attention to any changes in your moles or freckles, or the appearance of brand new ones, using the ABCDE mnemonic (memory aid) device:
For peace of mind, go to a dermatologist every year for a "mole check" and skin screening.
S/he can help you figure out if that weird spot on the back of your leg is something to be concerned about, or not.
Not even kidding!
Skin cancer shows up frequently behind the knees of sun exposed female hikers.
Alright, I've done my part :)
Now it's up to you to apply these strategies to your sun exposed trail time - and to your skin.
Take the time to put barriers between your skin and UV radiation, either through sunscreens, sun protective clothing for hikers, or both.
And if something looks weird on your skin, have it checked out sooner rather than later!
I want you around for a long, long time on the hiking trail of life :)
Avoid Sunburn On A Hike
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She's been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for 5+ decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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