Sunglasses are often perceived as more of a fashion accessory, but wearing sunglasses on a regular basis is actually crucial for the health of your eyes – not least if you spend a lot of time outside, whether hiking, mountaineering or climbing. Most of us know the feeling of tired and overly sensitive eyes after having spent a long time in the sun without sunglasses and your eyes are indeed harmed by overexposure to ultraviolet radiation. Talking long-term, UV-rays are a contributing factor in the development of eye issues like cataracts (leading to blindness), macular degeneration and eye-surface problems like pterygia and pingueculae.
As the potency of the UV rays from the sun increases with altitude (4% for every 305 meters/1000 feet), hikers and mountaineers are more at risk than other people when they spend hours at high altitudes. Another factor can be the reflection of sunrays from landscapes more or less covered with snow, ice or water. Remember that UV light is also present on grey and cloudy days since at least 40-50% of the sunrays penetrate through the cloud cover, which means that your eyes can easily get tired and irritated during hiking trips conducted in not so sunny weather. Besides UV light, sunglasses can also protect your eyes from strong winds which can dry out and irritate your eyes.
Buying Hiking Sunglasses – What is important?
The shape of a pair of sunglasses might seem insignificant compared to the quality of the lenses etc., but it is crucial that your sunglasses are shaped to let in as little sunrays to the eye area as possible. The worst possible shape in this regard might be John Lennon’s iconic teashades which permit sunrays to enter from every angle except immediately in front of the eye. A much better option is to choose a model with wide rims and a frame that has a U-like shape rather than rectangular angles, so that it wraps around your face rather than protruding from it. If your sunglasses do not wrap all around to your temples, it is very important that the sidepieces are wide enough to block out most of the sun rays coming from the side. For this list we have only selected sunglasses which have a U-shaped frame and/or wide sidepieces.
As you probably remember from physics in primary school, there are different types of light rays such as ultraviolet, infrared etc. The most important feature of the lenses in a pair of sunglasses is that they block out 99% or 100% of the ultraviolet (UV) light. Some manufacturers (especially European) write “UV400” or “UV absorption up to 400nm” – this means that they block out 100% of the UV rays. Another way to distinguish between levels of protection is the so-called Visible Light Transmission (VLT) categories 0-4. Sunglasses in categories 0-1 are for fashion use rather than sun protection as they allow more than 50% of the visible light to enter your eye while category 2 sunglasses are the most common type which can be used for all general purposes. However, when it comes to hiking and mountaineering in open mountain ranges as well as water sports we would recommend category 3 sunglasses which allow less than 20% of the visible light to come through to your eyes. Category 4 sunglasses are only meant for activities in the brightest conditions imaginable, such as glacier walking or high altitude hiking as they block out more than 90% of the visible light. This also makes them unsuitable for driving (unlike category 2-3 sunglasses). All sunglasses on this list have category 3 lenses, but some also have category 2 and 4 lenses as options. Polarized lenses, which some of the sunglasses on this list have, are indeed helpful in reducing glare from shimmering surfaces such as water, snow and wet surfaces, but as polarization has nothing to do with UV-protection it is not a requirement for sunglasses used for hiking, climbing and mountaineering.
The color of the lenses is also not an indicator of the level of UV protection a pair of sunglasses can offer; rather, the tint of the lenses affects how you see your surroundings. Grey lenses give the most natural rendering of the colors around you while brownish lenses increase contrast – it is up to you what you prefer for hiking.
Price and quality:
Plenty of cheap sunglasses have lenses which block out 100% of all UV light and thus it is a fallacy that you have to buy expensive sunglasses to get adequate protection. However, more expensive sunglasses are usually made of better and more durable materials, which mean that they do not break as easily as cheap sunglasses. This is obviously an advantage for hikers and mountaineers. For this list we have chosen only top-quality sunglasses with fair prices and steered clear of overpriced designer sunglasses, where you pay for the name tag (and the marketing machinery behind it) rather than the quality of the materials used.
Sunglasses are meant to be used, so be sure to choose a pair that fits your style so you will use them day in and day out. For this list we made an effort to find topnotch hiking sunglasses which will also appear stylish in everyday-life rather than looking overly sporty. Those of you who are looking for sunglasses with a more sporty design might be happy to know that we are planning to include such on an upcoming list of the best hiking sunglasses for men.