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Sun Protection While Hiking: Sunscreen, UV Protective Clothing & More

Get some tips for staying safe in the sun and make a more informed decision before setting out on your next hike.

Let's talk about sun protection.It's an important (if not particularly thrilling) topic, but it's important for the health of hikers, who spend so much time outdoors over the years. You might be also be kind of picky about what you put on your skin, so this guide is meant to give you all the info you need to make an informed decision about staying safe in the sun.

Hiker with mountain in backdrop drinking water.
Picking the right sunscreen can do wonders for your skin. Photo by Laura Howard.

What are my options?

When considering sun protection the three big methods you have for staying clear of harmful rays the sun produces are sunscreen, UV blocking clothing, and ... well, staying out of the sun. Since the third option isn't often possible when hiking in the summer (find shady hikes in our Hiking Guide and resources), let's focus more on the first two.


Sunscreen is an excellent option to help block harmful UV rays from damaging your skin. The problem is, it can't really do the job alone, and there are some caveats and considerations when using it while hiking you might not have thought of.

Some tips things to be aware of with sunscreen on hikes:

  • Sunscreen can, and does, wear off both with time and as you sweat. Regularly reapplying it can help you stay protected throughout your hike.
  • If you plan to go swimming on your hike, be aware that sunscreen can be harmful to the flora and fauna of the area. If it washes off in the lake you jump into, that may have a larger impact than you realize. Get more tips for swimming here.
  • Try to avoid scented sunscreens, as they have the potential to attract curious critters of all kinds. Nobody wants to wake up to a chewed up backpack strap because it had smeared sunscreen on it. 
  • Sunscreen is not a one and done solution. The best way to stay protected is to use it with a combination of staying in the shade when possible and UV protective clothing.
  • There are 'dry' sunscreens available that feel less greasy and lighter on your skin. Take a look for those if you don't like the feeling of sunscreen.

UV Protective Clothing

The other big half of sun protection when hiking is UV blocking clothing. Truthfully, it's not anything miraculous or cutting edge beyond clothing that offers a tighter weave and solid coverage to keep the sun at bay. Fabric choice and color also go into making higher quality UV protective attire. But the best method to stay safe in the sun is to combine both sunscreen and clothing that fits well. Here are some tips to consider when picking out UV protective clothing:

  • Just like sunscreens, UV protective clothing carries ratings for how effective it blocks those harmful sun rays. Try to aim for something in the 15 UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) and up range to ensure you're getting effective coverage.
  • Certain fabric types will block the sun better than others. Cotton is generally not considered a good blocker, where as synthetics are generally more tightly woven.
  • A looser fit and darker colors will be better at blocking than bright and tight.
  • As with any hiking attire, consider its functionality and usefulness. If you're buying it solely for the UV blocking properties and it's uncomfortable to wear, it's probably not a good pick.
  • Keep in mind that even on cloudy days, UV rays are making their way down to us. Wear protective clothing even when it's not bright and sunny.

Sunrise over mountain ridge.
Getting an earlier start on your hike can help you avoid the sun at its peak. Photo by Marc Radke.

General sun protection tips

Here are a few more ways to protect your when hiking in the summer:

  • Try to limit your exposure to the brightest points of the day. Starting your hike earlier before the sun is high in the sky is a good way to mitigate that, as well as taking breaks in the shade when the sun is at its peak.
  • Wear sunglasses, especially when hiking in or near snow on bright days.
  • Remember that snow is reflective and can bounce those UV rays right back at us. If you're hiking or snowshoeing in bright conditions remember to cover all exposed skin, since you'll be getting rays from the sky and snow.
  • Hats with a wider brim are a great way to keep your head and face out of the sun in combination with sunscreen.

Hopefully this has been a helpful guide to making a more informed decision on your next hike. We also have a great resource about staying cool in hot summer hiking months that can help when temperatures heat up. Sorry, we don't have any tips on acting cool, that's on you. Happy hiking!