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As someone who loves the crisp air and the crunch of snow underfoot, I really started enjoying winter hiking with my little boys the past few years. With frozen waterfalls and quiet trails, winter shows the serene beauty of the mountains and has unique offerings for all kinds of adventurers to enjoy. 

But amidst the peaceful white landscapes, many overlook a hidden danger: the sun. 

Unfortunately, I learned this lesson the hard way during a winter hike in Banff National Park.  I was quick to put away our family supply of sunscreen with our summer gear on the first day the temperatures dropped. Despite bundling up, areas where my skin was exposed were left vulnerable. The snow acted as a mirror, amplifying the effect of the sun’s harsh rays. Soon, I found my face unusually warm despite the chilly winds. Later, to my surprise, I discovered my rosy cheeks were not from the cold, but from a winter sunburn.

Don't let the cool temperatures fool you; the sun can be a fierce companion on your adventures, even in the winter. 

By including sunscreen in your winter hiking packing list, you're not only preventing uncomfortable sunburns but also protecting yourself from long-term skin damage. 

Factors that Affect Vulnerability to the Sun

Extended or Unprotected Exposure - Keep in mind that a soaked cotton shirt yields protection equivalent to only a SPF of 4 to 8 only and therefore you may need to wear a sunscreen below the shirt if exposed to water or sweat.

Snow cover - When heading out for a snowy adventure, remember that snow reflects up to 80% of UV radiation and can nearly double your exposure.

Elevation - At high elevations, the air is cleaner and thinner. The atmosphere absorbs less UV radiation, making it more intense on exposed skin. For every 1,000 meters you climb up a mountain, UV levels increase by up to 12%. This means at high altitudes, your skin is at a higher risk of damage from UV rays.

There doesn’t have to be snow or winter weather present for this to be relevant information for your future adventures. For example, if you visit Bryce Canyon National on a clear day, the sun will be much stronger than on a clear day in New York City. Bryce Canyon is a high-altitude park with elevations averaging around 8,000 feet, while New York City is nearly at sea level.

What’s Important to Know When Selecting Sunscreen?

From my experiences adventuring with my family, I can't stress enough the importance of wearing sunscreen during winter activities

Everyone should use sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Make sure your sunscreen has a SPF of 30 or more, as this stops about 97% of bad sun rays. I recommend a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, applied liberally to all exposed skin. Don't forget areas like the underside of your chin and nose, where the snow reflects UV rays most intensely.

While most sunscreens hold their lotions in the top two layers of skin, Sawyer’s stay-Put SPF 30 sunscreen uses a special technology to bond the sun ray absorbing agents deeper into the skin.

Final Thoughts

The combination of high altitudes, snow reflection, and extended exposure times makes sunscreen an essential item in any winter pack. 

It's not just hiking; all winter sports enthusiasts need to be wary of the circumstances that can increase their chances of a gnarly winter sunburn. 

So next time you're gearing up for a winter adventure, remember to pack that sunscreen – your skin will thank you.


December 1, 2023

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Emilie Brillon

Emilie is the founder of Love Life Abroad. She helps moms plan epic road trips and outdoor adventures with their families. She’s based in the Canadian Rockies and shares her love for the region and other unique places in Canada & USA. She works with tourism boards and outdoor brands to inspire families to experience new, unique destinations and outdoor activities.

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