How To: Protect from Sun on the Snow

Learn how to protect yourself from harmful UV rays while adventuring on the snow.
Kristina Ciari Kristina Ciari
Director of Membership, Backcountry Ski Enthusiast
May 25, 2017

This is my friend Casey. She's a rockstar, and summitted Mt. Baker via the Squak Glacier in a single day last June. We spent 13 hours on our feet to summit and get down, with 7-8 of those hours under direct sunlight.

Casey stoked to be on the summit of Mt. Baker!


As you can tell from the photo, Casey is of the pale-skin variety. Prone to burning, Casey put on sunscreen no fewer than 6 times that I personally witnessed, and probably more. Some might call that overkill, but not this fair lady! She knows the secret to staying young and avoiding the dreaded "leather face" is to take care of yourself.

Even though she was highly diligent, she missed a few spots and ended up with second-degree burns in her nose. Yes.... in her nose. It's actually more common than you might think. As you travel over snow,  UV rays from the sun are reflected off of the snow and back onto every available surface, often infiltrating places you didn't think to put sunscreen.

This can happen in the sun or under cloud cover, so you still need sunscreen even when it's cloudy. I've seen backcountry travelers with bad sunburns on the roof of their mouths, back of their knee, under their arms, and I have personally experienced my fair share of lip-sunburns.

The dreaded lip sunburn (not to mention the notable racoon eyes) results in big white blisters on your lips in addition to some uncomfortable swelling. Avoid this at all costs.

Protect Yourself

When you want to get outside and staying out of the sun isn't an option, use these five items to protect your beautiful skin from sun damage:

  • Sunscreen: You want something that goes on and stays on, and doesn't run as you start to sweat. Apply liberally every two-ish hours (or more frequently if you are like Casey), and be sure to get it in those sunburn-prone areas, especially up your nose and on the underside of your arms and chin. The nose can be especially tricky, as it gets snotty in cold weather, so you'll be wiping it a lot thus removing the sunscreen. For sunscreen, I really like this soothe mineral sunscreen or the REVERSE broad spectrum coverage that Casey just got me hooked on. But really any sweat-resistant stuff will work. 
  • Sunscreen chapstick: This may seem redundant, but you'll need sunscreen for your lips in the form of chapstick. Put this on when you put on sunscreen. You can also use the chapstick on/in your nose, which does the trick for me to prevent sunburns. I've had a few kinds, but recently discovered this and really like it, and Casey recommends this one.
  • Eye Protection: Eyes can sunburn just like anything else. Snow blindness is a real danger in the backcountry. To protect yourself, buy sunnies that wrap around your face to prevent any sunlight from infiltrating your eyes. A lot of my friends wear Julbo's, and I like Tifosi myself, but the brand doesn't matter as long as you have good face coverage. I also like photochromic lenses, meaning the lenses change tint depending on ambient light, which is a nice feature for extra protection against the late-day sun (and bugs, which like to fly into your eyeballs). Bonus: Do not bring goggles with the intention of climbing in them, they should be used almost exclusively for descent. They do not breathe well, and if you wear them while you're sweating they'll fog up and become unusable.
  • Hat: Hats come in all shapes and sizes, and you should grab one that works for you. Try to get something with some mesh built in, and a brim big enough to cover your face when the sun is directly overhead. You can go classic ballcap or even-more-classic Gramma-gardener hat. The important thing is that you are comfortable wearing and carrying it. Pro-tip: bring a bandana to put under it to cover the side of your face/back of your neck.
  • Buff: I have a hard time wearing buffs because I have this weird face claustrophobia thing, but as David is demonstrating in the photo above, wearing a buff is an extremely effective way to keep the sun out. This will protect your neck and chin from burning, and can be pulled up to cover your lips and nose as well. 

Protect your pooch

For those of you with four-legged pals, remember they are prone to these same sun dangers, so be sure to pick up a pair of doggles to protect your pooch's eyes! Happy Adventuring!