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It's summer, and for most of us that means clear skies, warm weather, sunshine, and a plethora of outdoor activities. However, as with any other season, the summer weather brings certain risks we must prepare for. Exposure to the sun can lead to heat exhaustion, dehydration, and painful sunburns if you don't take steps to protect yourself. On short excursions these can be problematic enough, but in a long-term survival situation where your mind is occupied with other urgent tasks, they can easily turn life-threatening.
Anyone who has gotten a particularly bad sunburn knows just how debilitating it can be. Even a moderate burn can lead to stinging, pain moving, and blisters that can open your skin to infections. More severe burns can lead to sun poisoning. This condition causes swelling, large blisters, headache, fever, nausea, dizziness, and dehydration, among other symptoms. Needless to say, this isn't something you want to deal with on a camping or backpacking trip, much less in a challenging disaster situation.
There's also the long-term cumulative danger of skin cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF), more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the U.S. than all other cancers combined, and one person dies of melanoma every hour. Additionally, men age 49 and under have a higher probability of developing melanoma than any other cancer.
Genetics and ethnicity can affect your sensitivity to sun exposure — those of us with very fair skin undoubtedly need to take extra precautions. However, don't think that these factors make you immune to the danger of sun exposure. While incidence of skin cancer is higher among Caucasians, the American Academy of Dermatology showed it is more deadly in people of color. No matter your skin tone or race, you should take precautions against sun exposure if you're spending time outdoors.
Before we start discussing protective gear, we should first touch on the mindset and techniques that go hand-in-hand with that gear.
Obviously, staying inside or underneath a shelter is the easiest easy way to avoid over-exposure to sunlight. Your shelter might consist of a store-bought tent, a simple tarp on a ridgeline, or even an improvised shelter such as an A-frame or lean-to. However, the purpose of this article isn't to discuss shelters at length — that's a topic for a different day.
Another factor to consider is time. When are you most active? In a survival situation — especially one in a hot and sunny climate — it's often wise to minimize your activity during peak daylight hours. By staying in your shelter most of the day and venturing outdoors in the morning and evening, you'll avoid prolonged sun exposure.
Weather is also a factor. Clear, hot, and humid days increase the risks of sunburn and heat stroke. These risks are reduced slightly on cool and cloudy days, but the potential for sunburn is still there — UVA rays will penetrate clouds and can still harm you. If you're at a high altitude, the danger is amplified since there's less atmosphere protecting you from the sun.
However, there are many situations in which moving only during ideal weather, staying in a shelter most of the day, or building a shelter in the first place may not be feasible. You might be on a hike and need to move all day to reach your destination by nightfall, or you might be in a survival situation where stopping to rest and seek shelter during the day is impossible. In these and many other cases, gear can protect you while you're on the move.
The first line of defense while you're on the move is the gear you bring with you. The items in your pack or on your person should be purpose-built to block the sun, and they'll offer superior protection to anything you can improvise.
This is the default choice for short-term sun protection, and one of the few that can block harmful UV rays while leaving your skin exposed. For outdoor sports, day hikes, backpacking trips, and the like, bringing along sunscreen and applying it regularly is a must. Ensure you choose a “broad spectrum” sunscreen that's rated for UVA and UVB and has a SPF rating of at least 30. Apply a substantial amount — about a shot glass full to cover your exposed skin — and reapply every few hours.
For more tips about sunscreen, refer to our previous article on Sunburn, Sunscreen, and SPF.
You might think wearing any long-sleeved shirt and long pants is all the protection you need, but that's not necessarily the case. As mentioned above regarding clouds, ultraviolet light can pass easily through many natural materials. Clothing with a Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) is specifically designed to protect your skin from the UV light that can penetrate normal fabrics. It uses denser weaves, thicker fabrics, and/or special dyes that block these rays, and is rated on a scale of 1 to 50.
You can read all about UPF fabrics and check out several reviews of sun-blocking apparel in our UPF Shirt Buyer's Guide article.
Hats & Headwear
If you're wearing UV-blocking clothing that covers your arms and legs, a hat or other head covering complements it to protect your face and neck. Most outdoor-oriented hats from reputable brands will be made from UV-blocking fabrics, but you should double-check this for maximum protection. Wide-brim hats that cast a 360-degree shadow across your entire face and neck are ideal — refer to our recent Wide-Brim Hat Buyer's Guide for more details.
Speaking of your eyes, sunglasses also fall into this headwear category. Look for ANSI-rated glasses that block at least 99% of UV rays. Dark tint and polarization can also improve comfort by reducing eye strain, but UV blocking performance is independent of these features.
If you don't have access to purpose-built sun protection gear, it's possible to improvise from other items you may be carrying.
Head Wrap or Neck Scarf
We mentioned headwear earlier, but that's not restricted solely to hats. A simple bandanna or shemagh (or even a spare shirt) can be wrapped around your neck or head to protect your skin. Think Lawrence of Arabia and cover your forehead and entire neck — depending on the climate and how much light is reflecting off the terrain, you might want to cover everything but your eyes. Multiple layers of loose light-colored fabric will create an area of higher humidity around your skin to conserve sweat and keep you cooler longer.
If you left your shades at home or lost them at some point during the journey, you can cut a scrap of fabric or leather to make slit goggles. These have been used by native cultures and arctic explorers to prevent snow blindness in the winter, but they'll be equally useful in bright summer sunlight. Various military survival manuals recommend their use in adverse conditions.
Now, let's say things have really gone downhill and you lost every bit of gear except the clothes on your back — what should you do as a last-ditch effort to avoid sunburn? There are some natural solutions, though they won't be as comfortable or durable as man-made gear.
Ever wonder why pigs, elephants, and other animals love wallowing in mud? Scientists have found that the wet mud helps them to regulate body temperature, and once it dries, it serves as camouflage, bug repellent, and sunscreen. You, too, can use the mud to your advantage. Spread it on exposed skin and let it dry to form a natural barrier. It might be smelly and not-so-fashionable, but it's better than getting sunburns day after day.
If you find yourself in a forested area where aspen trees are present, you're in luck. The chalky white powder found on aspen bark has long been used as an improvised sunblock, although there isn't adequate scientific research to show exactly how effective it is. You might double-up on natural sun protection by rubbing this powder onto a layer of mud and applying it to your exposed skin.
With some combination of the above techniques and store-bought, improvised, and natural sun protection, you should be able to stay sunburn-free all summer. And more importantly, you'll avoid sun poisoning and other severe exposure-related health consequences.