On a chilly morning, the first rays of sun cascading down the mountain slope and hitting your cold skin is one of the best things about hiking. The sun warms us, lifts our spirits, and give us direction. But, it can also be one of the most brutal dangers in the wild for those unprepared.
Enjoying the sun in moderation can be a challenge while in the wild. We can't just go inside and enjoy the air conditioning during the hottest weather. We can't retreat under a picnic shelter to get out of the heat when we still have 10 more miles today. Appropriate gear, a little planning, and using a bit of sense keeps us safe from the sun.
The sun can cause problems any time of year and at any elevation. Heat may not be a problem at high altitudes or in winter, but damage to your body can still happen.
Prolonged or intense exposure to the sun can cause:
- Sun Burn - radiation from the sun causes first or second degree burns. Can be extemely painful, especially on shoulders where pack straps rub.
- Snow Blindness - a sunburn of the eyes. Can occur on snow, desert, water, or other bright ground cover.
- Chapped Lips
- Skin Cancer - extended exposure can destroy tissue and cause cancerous growths.
- Wrinkly Leathery Skin - extended exposure dries and wrinkles the skin.
Sun Protection and Prevention
There are many ways to protect your body from the sun and prevent discomfort, injury, and disease:
- Sunglasses - glasses with 100% UV protection and that wrap around to temples or include side blinders are best.
- Appropriate clothing:
- Wide-brimmed hat or hat with neck cape - protects head, face, and neck. If hiking on bright ground cover, reflected sunlight can still burn your face.
- Light-colored, light weight, long sleeve shirt - protects shoulders, arms, and back. Light color reflects back more heat and light weight allows perspiration to evaporate.
- Long nylon pants - protects legs.
- Use an Umbrella - upper body shade to reduce sun damage and heat. Also valuable as stationary shelter to rest under during the day.
- Sunscreen - lotions protect skin from sun rays. Must remember to reapply often during the day.
- Don't forget inside nose and ears and under chin can get sunburned on snow or bright ground
- High altitude hiking increases sun damage potential.
- Desert hiking requires special preparation for heat as well as sun.
- Wear zip-off pants. During early morning and late afternoon, wear as shorts. Just put the long pants on during the 10am to 3pm time.
- Consider adding small velcro tabs to the sleeves of a t-shirt and then attaching sun sleeves only when needed.
- Consider a detachable neckcape on your hat.
- Sunscreens offer SPF numbers - 30 is good, higher is wasteful. UVB and UVA rays hurt our bodies. Learn more about sunscreens.
- Clouds do not block UV rays from the sun.
- Don't forget lip balm with sun protection.
- Fair skinned folks burn more quickly than dark skinned.