Proper sun protection is important for everyone, but it is vital for anyone who enjoys outdoor activities like hiking. There is a lot to be said for spending time outdoors and reconnecting with nature. Activities like hiking and mountaineering are a great way to soak up some rays, see some absolutely beautiful sights, and stay fit all at the same time. If you have the time, many people find that backpacking trips offer opportunities for introspection and can be healthy for the spirit in addition to the body.
With all these fantastic benefits, you don’t want to sell yourself short by not protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. Sunrises are beautiful… melanoma is not. A great first step for any outdoorsman is to invest in UV-rated clothing which can add an extra barrier between your skin and UVA/UVB radiation.
Other precautions such as wearing a wide-brimmed hat, staying in the shade when possible, and avoiding exposure to sunlight during the brightest part of the day (10am-2pm) are also extremely helpful. This guide aims to help you with the biggest weapon in your sun-protection arsenal: the right sunscreen.
After thorough research into requirements for sunscreen to be effective for hiking, SimplySunSafe recommends BurnOut Ocean Tested Physical SPF 30 as the best sunscreen for hiking. Read on for a detailed buyer’s guide, comparison table, and in-depth reviews of the top 5 sunscreens for hiking.
When choosing a sunscreen that will give you the dependable protection you rely on as a hiker, there are a few key features to pay attention to.
Broad spectrum protection
Most people know that the reason the sun’s rays can be harmful is ultraviolet (UV) radiation. There are two types of UV radiation: UVA and UVB. UVB radiation is the type that is responsible for burning the surface of your skin. UVA radiation is the culprit behind accelerated signs of aging such as sagging and wrinkles, as well as the damage to the DNA of your skin cells that can cause cancer.
The difference is easy to remember if you only pay attention to the last letter: A is for aging, and B is for burning.
Any sunscreen worth its salt is going to protect you from both types of UV radiation – this is called broad spectrum protection. When shopping for sunscreen you’re definitely going to want this comprehensive level of sun protection. Check the packaging, looking for labels that say ‘broad spectrum’ or ‘UVA/UVB’.
If you don’t see this type of language on the packaging then the sunscreen will only protect you from UVB radiation. Not only is this no good because UVA is actually the more dangerous type, but I personally wouldn’t want to spend my money on a product that only gets half the job done. As such you can rest assured that every sunscreen I recommend on SimplySunSafe is going to provide broad spectrum protection.
Best SPF for Hiking
Interestingly, many sunscreen user are unclear about the meaning behind SPF labels on sunscreen packaging. It is usually a big part of your purchasing decision, so it is important to understand exactly what that number means.
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. Think of it as a multiplication problem. The SPF rating indicates how much longer you’ll be protected from the sun than if you went outside with bare skin. If you usually burn in 10 minutes, then an SPF 15 sunscreen will protect you for 150 minutes. If you are particularly fair skinned or photosensitive, however, then that same SPF sunscreen may only protect you for 75 minutes.
Unfortunately, there’s still a catch. While SPF is a good guidepost to start from, it’s important to remember that regardless of strength, when a sunscreen encounters the real world environment it usually doesn’t last for more than two hours due to light intensity and sweat. This is why it is so important to reapply regularly.
Additionally, SPF ratings only refer to protection from UVB radiation rather than UVA/UVB. When you take into account environmental factors such as sweat, amount of light you expose yourself to, and whether you’re in the water, it is harder to know how long you’re protected for.
So it would make sense to simply get SPF 100 sunscreen, right? Wrong. This is why the FDA has changed sunscreen label regulations and capped SPF labels at 50+. SPF 30 does not offer double the protection of SPF 15, and SPF 100 doesn’t even come close to doubling the protection offered by SPF 50.
As you can see, this whole notion of Sun Protection Factor can be quite confusing. To help clear the air a little bit, I’ve included a table that explains the protection you can expect from different SPF rating in terms of the percentage of UVB radiation stopped.
|SPF Rating||UVB Protection|
After you reach an SPF rating of 30, the differences in protection are minutes. The FDA’s recommendation is that SPF 30 is generally sufficient protection for everyone. I would agree with this and recommend upgrading to SPF 50 only if you have very fair skin or are doing an activity that exposes you to such risk of skin damage from the sun that the extra percentage point of protection will make a difference for you.
Physical is better than chemical
The ingredients used to make a sunscreen are important as well. Essentially there are two types of sunscreen, depending upon what they are made with and how they work. These are referred to as physical sunscreens or chemical sunscreens.
Physical sunscreens sit on the surface of your skin and reflect light (UV radiation) away from your skin, similar to how mirrored sunglasses sit in front of your eyes and help reflect away light. Chemical sunscreens are just that: chemicals that are meant to soak into your skin and absorb the light before it can actually reach your skin cells.
When you look at the facts of how they work, physical sunscreen becomes the clear choice. Chemical sunscreens require a wait time (usually about 20 minutes or so) to become effective because you need to wait for them to soak in. Physical sunscreens are simply a barrier and so are effective immediately.
Chemical sunscreens often contain ingredients known as endocrine disruptors, that can act like estrogen in the body and disrupt your hormone balance. Physical sunscreens are made with minerals and are a more natural option that will not affect sensitive skin.
Most physical sunscreens will say ‘physical’ or ‘mineral’ on the label, but if the language isn’t clear you can double check by looking at the active ingredients. Physical sunscreens use either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the main ingredient.
Zinc oxide is slightly better at protecting against UVA radiation than titanium dioxide, but both can be good choices. Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients like oxybenzone which has been specifically warned against by the FDA and is essentially blacklisted by EWG. SimplySunSafe does not recommend sunscreens containing it (which often rules out a lot of major brands).
Choosing a sunscreen that gives you a period of water resistance is important for more than just beach days. Whether you’re hiking a trail to a breath-taking summit or breaking out your ice axe for some serious glacier adventuring, the going can get tough. You need to make sure your sunscreen is as tough as you are and won’t fail when you start sweating.
Luckily, when the FDA changed the regulations regarding the SPF ratings on sunscreen packaging, they also made changes that prevented companies from touting hours and hours of waterproof wear. The fact is, the best sunscreen in the world isn’t going to protect you for more than a couple of hours – and even that generous estimate doesn’t account for limiting factors like proper application and degree of water/sweat exposure.
Nowadays, water or sweat resistant sunscreens are rated as either 40 or 80 minutes of resistance. All of the sunscreens listed in this guide feature 80 minutes of water resistance to keep up with even the most ambitious down and dirty hiker.
Lotion not spray
When choosing a sunscreen, SimplySunSafe recommends looking exclusively at lotions rather than spray sunscreen options. The FDA has been looking into spray sunscreen since 2011, specifically regarding claims that spray sunscreens pose a greater health risk due to the chance of inhalation of harmful ingredients.
When inhaled these ingredients are more directly exposed to the body than when applied to skin, and can cause damage to the lungs. I share the FDA’s concerns, and so while these spray options are still legal they will not be recommended on this site.
Additionally, spray options can make it hard for you too be sure you’ve actually covered all exposed skin. Everyone who has tried a spray sunscreen has a story about odd, streaky sunburns from uneven application. It happened to me before I had my skin cancer scare and read up on the facts, and it might have happened to you too.
The bottom line is, lotions or creams are safer than sprays and easier to apply properly, so they should be your focus when buying sunscreen.
Best Sunscreen for Hiking Comparison
|BurnOut Ocean Tested||thinksport Sunscreen||Raw Elements Eco Stick||Vanicream Sunscreen||EltaMD UV Pure|
|Active ingredients||Zinc Oxide (20%)||Zinc Oxide (20%)||Zinc Oxide (22.75%)||Zinc Oxide (6%) & Titanium Dioxide (3.4%)||Zinc Oxide (10%) & Titanium Dioxide (5.5%)|
|Water resistance||80 minutes||80 minutes||80 minutes||80 minutes||80 minutes|
5 Best Sunscreens for Hiking
After thorough research that combined discussing issues with customers, reviewing customer feedback, examining manufacturer specifications, and participating in skincare forums, SimplySunSafe has chosen the 5 best sunscreens for hiking. All of these sunscreens provide broad spectrum, physical protection of SPF 30 or greater, do not contain oxybenzone, are water resistant, and are considered ideal for everyday use.
BurnOut Ocean Tested sunscreen offers users broad spectrum protection with an SPF rating of 30 through one active ingredient – zinc oxide (at a concentration of 20%). This sunscreen is also rated as water resistant for 80 minutes, meaning it’s tough enough to outlast sweating on the trail and any surprise dips in a hidden lake!
BurnOut is also one of those companies you enjoy buying from because they make an effort to provide quality products. Looking at their ingredients list you see a ton of natural ingredients like aloe vera and tocopherols (a type of Vitamin E that helps condition skin), and what you don’t see is even more important.
This product does not contain PABA, chemicals, or parabens – all ingredients that health-conscious users typically want to avoid. As an added bonus, BurnOut Ocean Tested is a vegan product, perfect for all my tree-hugging hikers out there!
This product has a wonderful smooth consistency, part of the reason it sits at the top of the list. However, due to its high concentration of active ingredients it can take a bit of persistence to rub in completely and may leave a bit of a white cast on darker skin tones. The white cast fades with use and makes a handy reminder to reapply.
NOTE: There are some concerning reviews about this product’s ingredients and effectiveness to be found online. I looked into these claims and they all seem to be related to a formula change that happened a few years ago. BurnOut listened to its upset customers, though, and fixed the issue. This allowed it to retain EWG’s highest ranking and allowed customers to fall in love again with this great product.
- High concentration of active ingredient
- Hydrating ingredients
- 80-minute water resistance
- Takes time to rub in
ThinkSport’s SPF 50+ formula is a great option for anyone who loves the sun but has very fair or photosensitive skin. The higher SPF lends an extra bit of protection with a concentration of zinc oxide that matches our first place winner (20%).
The reason ThinkSport was just barely edged out by BurnOut is because ThinkSport contains hydrogenated castor oil, which makes for a residue on the skin that some users find unpleasant or that they need to get used to.
Definitely still a great product with friendly ingredients, ThinkSport doesn’t contain any PABA, phthalates, or paraben. In fact, it was the first company to have a product pass the Whole Foods premium care requirements. The company is dedicated to producing quality, reliable products and follows FDA recommendations very strictly.
While this guide is mainly about traditional hiking, a few of these options lend themselves to specific hiking-related outdoor activities. Thinksport may be the best sunscreen for mountaineering, because unlike hiking trails you have a much lower chance of finding shade when you mountaineer and make your own path. The extra boost of protection given by the higher SPF may be the difference between enjoying your day and harming your skin.
The version of this thinksport Sunscreen linked above is a 3 ounce version. However, you can get the same sunscreen in a 6 ounce tube that gives a someone who’s always out and about even more value for money.
- High SPF
- Great value
- Reliable water resistance
- Thick formula
- Likely white cast
Raw Elements EcoStick is a really interesting option, because as the name implies it comes as a stick, similar to deodorant, rather than a traditional cream formula. It contain the highest concentration of active ingredients on the list, utilizing 22.75% zinc oxide.
However, it is relatively expensive for its size, which is why it fell to third on the list despite the high concentration of active ingredient and the convenience factor of the stick packaging.
The formula does apply thick and leave a white cast on all but the fairest skin tones, so while you’ll be protected you won’t be winning any beauty awards. If the white cast is a total deal breaker for you, Raw Elements does offer a tinted version that has the same EWG rating.
This option sticks (haha, get it?) out to me as a possible best sunscreen for backpackers. It’s biggest negative review is that it is only good for about 15 uses due to it’s small size (.6oz).
However, this makes it an ideal pack item for the backpacker who’s going to spend 8 or 10 days on the trail and wants the lightest pack possible. Plus, the stick formulation means you can easily reapply without having to taking off your pack, and when you stow it you can be sure it won’t accidentally open and make a mess inside your pack.
- Convenient packaging
- High concentration of active ingredient
- Reliable water resistance
- Likely white cast
Vanicream is a relatively inexpensive option that still offers a fair amount of protection. It has an SPF rating of 30, provided via a mixture of zinc oxide (6%) and titanium dioxide (3.4%). While this may be a relatively low concentration of active ingredient compared to the top 3 picks, you still get 80 minutes of protection from water/sweat.
What’s more, this formula specifically prides itself on being non-comedogenic. This means it won’t clog your pores, so can be a good choice for daily use.
This formula of free of parabens, as well as any dye or fragrance. That means if you have ultra-sensitive skin that may react to some fragrances, you’re good to go with Vanicream. There is also a great little lip balm companion product that offers the same SPF rating.
Regardless of what over-all body sunscreen you use, Vanicream may be an option as the best sunscreen for high altitude mountaineering or any other outdoor activity with thin atmosphere. You see, the thinner the atmosphere, the more UV radiation you’re exposed to.
This could put you at greater risks for burning of your most sensitive areas, including lips. Having a high SPF lip balm with you can help protect ALL of your skin, and choosing a non-comedogenic option for your face can mean that you’ll be less tempted to continually rub at it as it sits on your skin (which makes it less effective when you need it most).
- 80-minute water resistance
- Formula is a little heavy
EltaMD’s UV Pure sunscreen offers broad spectrum protection with an SPF rating of 47. It does this through a blend of the active ingredients zinc oxide (10%) and titanium dioxide (5.5%). This product is rated water resistant for 80 minutes and is free of fragrance, dyes, and other skin-sensitizing ingredient.
While this product is labelled as non-comedogenic, some users have report that it is not particularly pleasant to wear on the face as it can feel heavy and oily on that ultra-sensitive skin. This increases the chances that you’ll unconsciously rub it away after application, which is why it fell behind Vanicream to 5th place despite its higher concentration of active ingredients.
This sunscreen is certainly tough enough to get you through the day, and you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck for a 4oz tube. If you know you dislike sunscreens that feels thick on the face as described above, it might help your sun protection dollars go farther to purchase this as a body sunscreen and maybe spend a little more on another option with a more pleasing texture for your face.
Afterall, you won’t notice a thick formula nearly as much on your knees, and EltaMD will certainly protect them from the sun without breaking the bank.
- High SPF
- 80-minute water resistance
- Lower levels of active ingredients
I hope this guide has helped you find the best sunscreen for your hiking needs. If not, at least your next sunscreen purchase will be made with a lot more understanding and knowledge about what you’re buying and using.
To all the hikers out there, SimplySunSafe recommends BurnOut Ocean Tested Physical SPF 30 as the number one sunscreen for hikers and mountaineers. That said, all 5 of the sunscreens I included here will provide all of the protection you need while you adventure through the great outdoors.
If the first sunscreen you try doesn’t quite work out, come back and test one of the others as one of these sunscreens is bound to be the perfect fit for all of your outdoor activities.
If you’re a hiker who already uses a great sunscreen that isn’t in this guide, please let me know in the comments. I’m always on the lookout for amazing sunscreens and if it meets all of the criteria, I might just add it to this list!