Ten Essentials: Always Use (Sun) Protection!

By Hester Lam, Girls Who Hike Texas Ambassador

When going to the backcountry, it is a good idea to always be prepared for the worst. When going on day trips, I always have items from REI’s Ten Essential Systems. If lost, having the Ten Essentials might be the difference between making it out of the hike relatively unscathed or much, much worse.

Over the course of the next 8 months, I will continue talking more about the Ten Essentials and what my current systems look like. The first in this series was navigation systems, and today, I would like to discuss sun protection as part of the second blog post of the series.

As someone who burns easily (yes, Asians can get sunburnt too! In a super short science lesson for the day, races historically from more tropical/equatorial locations tend to have more eumelanin pigments and those further from the equator tend to have more pheomelanin. More information can be found here. That said, we can still get tanned/ burnt/ exposed to ultraviolet rays that are ultimately bad for you). Sunburns are miserable: my family and I went to Utah during our national park tour one brutally hot summer. My face was in so much pain (even after hospital- prescribed pain killers) that I literally could not sleep. Now, I will literally bring everything sun- proof related but the kitchen sink, and you should too!

Reasons why you should ALWAYS have sun protection:

  1. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US. Your skin is the biggest organ. Ergo, take care of your skin. Prevention is easy, and so much cheaper than treatment.
  2. Sun damage causes wrinkles. While the study linked only researched Caucasian females, the results were staggering: UV exposure was responsible for approximately 80% of visible facial aging! If good skin in old age is important to you, prevention is always better (and cheaper) than treatment!

So what exactly does sun protection entail?

Here are some sun protection items (from head to toe, not by order of importance…they’re all important!) that I like and use (note: none of these are affiliate links except for the GWH hats, and just suggestions for what I personally use). Look for ingredients that you love and value. The best sun protection is sun protection you’ll actually use!).

1. Sun hat: Hats are an essential part of your sun protection system. While they may be hot, and make you feel sweaty, they provide shade for your face and help protect your face from burning. When I visited Saguaro National Park this past summer (it was 106 degrees), I was literally wearing my sun hat the entire drive. Personally, I like the bucket hats that Columbia makes (and you can purchase from their outlet for about $15 dollars), but a GWH hat is even more stylish and works super well too (these are links to our store)! REI also tends to have a bunch of hats on sale and you can find some decent hats for quite cheap.

No sunburns on the Camino thanks to this hat!

No sunburns on the Camino thanks to this hat!

2. Sunglasses: When buying sunglasses, make sure you get pairs with polarized lenses. Without the polarization, they are essentially doing nothing to protect your eyes. And as much as modern medicine has come, I’m still slightly creeped out about getting eye surgery, so protect your eyes! Nectar has some great outdoor ones too (they’re lightweight and supposedly shatterproof, but have a great free- replacement warranty if they aren’t!), but if you’re looking for something a little cheaper, Amazon has some polarized sunglasses for about $12 (I cannot attest to the quality of these). I’m personally blind, so I just wear my prescription sunglasses with polarization. 

3. Facial sunscreen: Use sunscreen daily. Even when it’s cloudy and/ or rainy, UV rays can still be harmful. I typically have my sunscreen in my purse and reapply every 4 hours, but if I’m hiking, I will try to reapply at least every 2 hours. I like DHC’s pure white (which appears to have been discontinued) and Murad’s City Skin Age Defense Broad Spectrum SPF 50 PA++ because they don’t burn my eyes when I sweat. For my face, I like to have at minimum an SPF 30 rating, but SPF ratings don’t mean much (see below).

4. Facial Treatment: When I lived in LA, I had a long commute to work every day (1-1.5 hours each way), and I quickly noticed that the left side of my face was becoming more tanned and coarse. Hydroquinone is GREAT for helping with sun spots and treating areas that have already been exposed. I use Murad’s serum, but anything with hydroquinone is great. Just be careful to ONLY use it at night, because it helps exfoliate your skin so it may cause you to burn even easier from skin thinning.

5. Body sunscreen: I am extremely lazy, so I’m a huge fan of spray- on sunscreens. For best results, make sure you rub in the sunscreen after you spray it on, and try to avoid applying when your skin is wet. I carry a super small packing towel with me all the time that I use to mop up sweat/ water/ excess humidity (cause Texas is hot and humid like no other and I refuse to believe that that is all my sweat!) prior to application. I like the Bare Republic spray on sunscreen because it is reef- safe and feels light, but there are many options on the market and lots of options to experiment with!

6. Sun shirts: hate farmer’s tans? Have weird sports bra tans? Burn your shoulders? You need a sun shirt. I prefer the long sleeve ones, because those are the ones that truly keep away those weird tan lines, but sometimes anything moisture wicking will do! I like Columbia’s PFG (I think this stands for Performance Fishing Gear, but don’t quote me) line and they have one with cooling material in the women’s sizes. They’re also reasonably cheap at the outlets (the purple one I’m wearing above in the sun hat picture was $20 out of the kids’ section, but the women’s version is about $30, I think. The cool one is a little pricier, but it keeps me VERY cool). You can also keep an eye out for these at REI in their sale section (like this one) or their garage


7. Sun pants: A good pair of hiking pants should have sun protective material. I personally do not own any (because I’m short and hemming the fabric is a pain… if anyone has any suggestions for VERY petite hiking pants, let me know), but I’ve heard great things about Kuhl’s and REI’s pants. I normally wear black leggings, because while they’re hotter, the sun doesn’t penetrate black fabric as well.

As mentioned above, SPF ratings can get confusing quickly and the scale isn’t exactly linear. A sunscreen with an SPF rating of 15 is not half as effective as a sunscreen with an SPF 30. Is higher SPF better? It can be, if you are doing everything else correctly. For more information and the science of SPF ratings, this is a great (and somewhat depressing) resource.

Ultimately, the best sun protection is sun protection that you are actually using. Find things that you love and want to wear (yes, I purchased my SPF shirt because it’s teal) and actually use it! It took me a very long time to find sunscreen that I didn’t hate wearing, and while it’s on the pricier side, I love the way it feels and actually apply it often… which is so much cheaper than buying something and letting it sit in my cabinet until it expires (true story – I threw away 8 bottles of expired sunscreen when I moved).

Hester is the Ambassador for our Texas chapter. You can join her local meetups and discussions through the Texas chapter by clicking here.

To become a member of Girls Who Hike, click here.