When we’re out and about in the mountains, we’re continuously exposed to the elements for days or weeks at a time. While many people prepare for the harshness of the cold, wind, and rain, many avid hikers forget that they also need to protect themselves from the sun when we’re in the backcountry.
The answer? A quality trekking sunscreen. With a good selection of sunscreen, you prevent the miserable experience of having a sunburn when outdoors. But, with so many different sunscreens out there today, how could you possibly choose just one to bring on your adventures?
Thankfully, we’re here to help. Coming up, we’ve got our reviews of the best trekking sunscreens, complete with a guide to choosing the sunblock that’s right for your needs. Let’s get to it!
Why you need sunscreen for trekking
As kids, our parents and guardians probably lathered us up with that smelly white cream to protect our skin from the sun before a trip to the beach or a soccer game. While we probably protested as children, our parents were doing us a huge favor by protecting us from the harmful effects of the sun’s rays.
Although many people know that they should use sunscreen, they don’t necessarily know why. According to Cancer Research, a UK-based non-profit, the sun’s warm rays contain UV light, which can damage the delicate DNA in our skin cells. Since our DNA is responsible for the proper reproduction of our cells, any damage to this DNA can cause uncontrollable cell mutation, also known as cancer.
Just how dangerous is exposure to UV radiation? Cancer Research estimates that “getting sunburnt just once every two years can triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer.” With statistics like that, you ought to pay attention.
The answer? Sunscreen. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, everyone should use sunscreen. Since anyone can get skin cancer, regardless of their age, race, or gender, it’s imperative that we take steps to protect ourselves from these harmful UV rays.
Especially for those of us who spend a lot of time outdoors, it’s important that we find a high-quality sunscreen that can protect our skin after days and weeks in the mountains. That’s why we’ve put together this list of our favorite trekking sunscreens:
The 5 Best Sunscreens for Trekking:
Here are our reviews of the best trekking sunscreens around…
1. Blue Lizard Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen
Blue Lizard Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen is a zinc oxide-based sunblock with no chemical active ingredients. Blue Lizard protects our skin using their proprietary broad-spectrum zinc that offers SPF 30 UVA/UVB protection. The Blue Lizard tube cap even turns blue when exposed to harmful UV light, providing you with a useful indicator for when it’s time to reapply!
Both paraben and fragrance-free, Blue Lizard is great for people with sensitive skin. Plus, Blue Lizard is tested to have 40 minutes of water-resistant protection, so you can be confident in this sunscreen on longer hikes. Oh, and it contains no oxybenzone or octinoxate, so it’s coral reef-friendly for a happier environment.
2. Thinksport Safe Sunscreen (Top Pick)
Thinksport Safe Sunscreen is specifically designed with active lifestyles in mind. As the first sunscreen to pass Whole Foods’ Premium Care requirements, Thinksport is a chemical-free mineral sunscreen with SPF 50 protection.
Built with the highest level of FDA certified water-resistance (a staggering 80 minutes of protection), Thinksport is ready for any adventure. Plus, Thinksport is free of coral reef damaging chemicals and is Leaping Bunny certified cruelty free.
3. Badger Balm Sport
Badger Balm Sport is a natural, organic sunscreen SPF 35 made with just 5 ingredients. This fragrance-free sunscreen is water and sweat-resistant for 80 minutes and protects your skin from UVA and UVB rays with zinc oxide.
Oxybenzone and octinoxate-free, Badger Balm Sport is reef-friendly and BPA and phthalate-free. This means Badger Balm Sport is environmentally and health-friendly. What’s not to love?
4. Baby Bum Mineral Sunscreen Face Stick
The only stick-style sunscreen in our review, Baby Bum Mineral Sunscreen is a child-specific sunblock that’s popular among outdoor enthusiasts thanks to its moisturizing properties. Made with zinc oxide, coconut oil, and shea butter, Baby Bum is a pediatrician and dermatologist-tested sunscreen for any active lifestyle.
Both hypoallergenic and paraben-free, the SPF 50 Baby Bum sunscreen is easy to apply thanks to its stick-style packaging. Plus, it’s rated with a water-resistance of 80 minutes, so you can spend less time worrying about your sun protection and more time enjoying the great outdoors.
5. Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch
With an SPF rating of 100, the Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch is one of the most protective out there. This broad-spectrum sunscreen offers 80 minutes of water-resistant protection from UVA and UVB rays for any outdoor enthusiast.
Paraben-free, Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch is a dermatologist-recommended sunscreen that applies easily without that icky greasy feel. It’s even available in tube, stick, and spray forms, you can find the sunscreen that’s best for your needs.
How to choose a sunscreen for all-day hiking and trekking:
With so many different sunscreens out there, it can be tricky to find the one that’s perfect for all of your hiking needs. So, here are the top things to look out for when shopping for that next tube of sunblock for trekking:
Perhaps the least understood part of any sunscreen, SPF ratings are a useful metric for expressing the protective abilities of any particular sunblock. Basically, SPF ratings tell you how well a sunscreen can protect your skin from UV damage, particularly from skin-cancer-inducing UVB rays.
While this all sounds fine and dandy, it’s important to note that this scale isn’t at all intuitive. For example:
- SPF 15 sunscreen can protect you from 93% of UVB rays
- SPF 30 sunscreen can protect you from 97% of UVB rays
- SPF 50 sunscreen can protect you from 98% of UVB rays
- SPF 100 sunscreen can protect you from 99% of UVB rays
So, what you can see is that, while no sunscreen can protect you from everything, the higher the SPF rating, the more protective the sunscreen. However, dermatologists recommend sunscreens only with a minimum rating of SPF 15, so you should probably ignore anything less than that number.
Finally, it’s important to understand that a higher SPF rating doesn’t mean that you can wait longer to reapply your sunscreen while hiking. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration recommends that you reapply sunscreen every two hours, at a minimum, regardless of the sunblock’s SPF rating.
Therefore, while SPF ratings should influence your decision making when purchasing a sunscreen, it shouldn’t affect how you use the sunscreen in real life.
These days, you probably see a lot of sunscreens labeled as “broad-spectrum,” and for good reason. While UVB rays are the most likely to cause skin cancer, UVA rays also promote premature skin aging and can contribute to cancer growth.
Thus, many modern sunscreens will be labeled as “broad-spectrum,” which means they protect you from both UVA and UVB rays for a higher level of protection from the sun.
Just how much protection do broad-spectrum sunscreens provide? Generally, a sunscreen’s UVB protection rating is roughly equal to that of its UVA protection, so you can use the SPF rating as a guide.
Sunscreens, like many other creams and medications, contain a whole host of ingredients, some of which can be harmful to your health. Therefore, when you buy sunscreen, you should be aware of the different kinds of ingredients you might be putting onto your skin. Here are some of the most common:
Zinc Oxide is found in “mineral sunscreens” which physically block UVA and UVB from your skin. These sunscreens tend to be a bit more expensive than their chemical-based alternatives, but tend to be more effective, especially in harsh, active environments, at protecting your skin in the long term. Plus, they’re often organic, which is a plus for the environment and your health.
In fact, many mountaineers swear by zinc as the only way to protect their skin. Although this kind of sunscreen goes on thick and can leave your face looking a little paler than usual, it tends to stay on longer, even on sweaty, active people.
Oxybenzone and Octinoxate
Oxybenzone and octinoxate are frequently used chemicals in sunscreens. However, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate in them because these chemicals have been linked to damage in coral reefs around the world.
The state of Hawaii actually banned sunscreen containing these chemicals due to their negative impacts on coral reefs and human health. Many companies are now marketing their oxybenzone and octinoxate-free sunscreens as “reef-friendly” or “reef-safe,’ though there currently isn’t any globally agreed-upon standard for what this means.
Water and sweat resistance
Since we often wear sunscreen when we’re hiking or swimming, it’s important that it doesn’t rub off easily during this kind of activity. These days, many sunscreens are labeled “water-resistant” or “sweat-resistant” since they are specifically formulated to hold up well even in the presence of water or sweat.
While no sunscreen is truly waterproof, you will find that “water-resistant” sunscreens will be labeled as wither “water-resistant for 40 minutes” or “water-resistant for 80 minutes,” which is a good indicator of how resilient the sunblock actually is. Regardless, you should still reapply every two hours, at a minimum, and after every time you dry off with a towel.
High altitude considerations
Although many people think to apply sunscreen at the beach, few realize that your sun exposure is actually the largest at higher elevations. Why, you might ask?
Well, simply put, at higher altitudes, there is less atmosphere between you and the sun to protect you from those harmful UVA and UVB rays. So, for every 1000ft (300m) of elevation gain, your UV exposure increases by about four percent.
Therefore, even on a cloudy day, you should still be concerned about getting sunburnt at higher elevations in the mountains. This is, of course, most important for anyone going to the Himalaya or other high-altitude places, but is a good thing to keep in mind for any mountain pursuit.
Stick v. Tube
Many modern sunscreens now come in both tube and stick form, which leads many hikers to question which kind is better. For the most part, this comes down to personal preference, though there are some advantages and disadvantages to each style.
Tube-style sunscreens are the most popular since they tend to be more affordable. Plus, tube-style sunscreens often come in larger packages, which reduces the amount of plastic you’re consuming.
However, many people find that it’s much easier to apply sunscreen in stick form as you can simply rub the sunblock directly onto your face and body without getting it on your hands. This can be ideal for children who spend too much time with their hands in their mouths, though can also be helpful for adults on-the-go.
Plus, stick-style sunscreen is less likely to explode in your checked bags when traveling by air for longer trips. Ultimately, though, this all comes down to personal preference, so we can’t tell you that one kind is truly “better” than another.
Additional ways to get sun protection
While you should always plan to use sunscreen to protect your skin from UVA and UVB rays, there are additional ways to get sun protection in particularly harsh environments. Here are some of our favorites:
- Sun shirts. A good sun shirt is a lightweight, highly breathable material with built-in UPF 50 (or higher) protection. With a sun shirt, you can spend lots of time in the sun without having to worry about reapplying sunscreen to your arms and shoulders every two hours. Plus, the best sun shirts have a hood, which means you can cover up your ears to avoid that dreaded upper ear sunburn.
- Sun gloves. Anyone who spends enough time outside knows what it’s like to have well-worn hands. It turns out that your hands are very susceptible to the sun’s rays because they’re constantly being sued to hold trekking poles or scramble up rocks, so sunscreen easily rubs off of them. The answer? Lightweight sun gloves that can protect your hands from the sun in the harshest environments.
- Sunbrella. It may sound ridiculous, but a lightweight carbon fiber umbrella can be the perfect way to protect yourself from the sun while in camp on or the trail. These purpose-built umbrellas are made with high-quality reflective materials that keep you out of the sun’s harmful rays. Plus, they can keep you cool on hot days and dry in the rain, making them a super-versatile piece of gear to take with you in the backcountry.
Up Next In Trekking:
David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.