The Sun. Giver of life, warmth and heat. And first degree burns.
Like any ultimate power the Sun bestows its gifts sparingly. One moment you’re out on the trail, shivering in a grey landscape, the next you’re bathing beneath blue skies, heat electrifying your senses as the world comes to life around you.
Then you start sweating. Your eyes start stinging from the glare. Your trailmates become tetchy and irritable.
Sunlight is the ultimate mixed blessing. You’d be dead without it but it will kill you just as happily. Sunstroke, skin cancer and agonising burns are just a few of the dangers - and hikers are one of the groups most at risk.
No less a source than the World Health Organisation confirm that at “higher altitudes, a thinner atmosphere filters less UV radiation. With every 1000 metres increase in altitude, UV levels increase by 10% to 12%.”
Hikers love the heights but need to make sure they’re protected. Heads are particularly vulnerable. After all, they’re at the highest altitude!
Hats are a must on the trail so let’s take a look at the best men’s sun hats currently available.
Features to Look Out For
It’s tempting to assume that if you plonk anything resembling a hat on your head you’ll be protected from the sun. There’s an easy way and a hard way to find out if this is true.
The hard way is to head out on a full day’s summer trekking in a flimsy hat you picked out of a bargain bin. The easier way - presuming reading is easier for you than applying after-sun to agonizing burns that make you look like “a lobster that's been left in the pot too long” (1) - is to learn a little about the most important features.
Protection & Risk
To protect ourselves from the sun we first have to understand exactly how it damages us. Ultraviolet light is the star’s main weapon. It emits UV on two wavelengths that reach the Earth’s surface: UVA and UVB.
UVB confines its attention to the top layer of skin and is “the chief cause of skin reddening and sunburn,” according to skincancer.org. It has also, historically, been seen as the most dangerous of the two rays, with countless studies linking it to the development of skin cancers - though UVA is now beginning to be considered every bit as problematic.
UVA reaches the Earth in far higher quantities than UVB - particularly since it is the wavelength that causes tans and has many of us flocking to tanning salons. It has long been understood that too much UVA prematurely ages the skin, but the fact that sunbed users can be up to 2.5 times more likely to develop skin cancers suggests that it carries even higher risks than this (2).
It should be noted that both UVA and UVB are capable of damaging the DNA in cells. In which case “the cell with the messed-up DNA usually then commits suicide, a process called apoptosis” (3).
A process which sounds more than a little scary...
It’s clear that any hat worth its salt will need to offer you protection from both UVA and UVB rays. The UPF rating for a hat provides an indication of just how effective it is at blocking harmful rays.
Rei.com break down the UPF rating system as follows:
Clothing with a UPF rating of 15 or 20 limits UV exposure to between 6.7 and 4.2%
Clothing with a UPF rating of 25, 30 or 35 limits UV exposure to between 4.1 and 2.6%
Clothing with a UPF rating of 40, 45, 50 or 50+ limits UV exposure to less than 2.5%
Since hiking is an activity that will expose you to the sun for prolonged periods and can take you to high elevations, hikers should look for them with a UPF rating of 40 or above - and the higher the better (for example, 50+ provides more protection than 50).
They can achieve a high UPF rating in a number of ways. The main factor is the type of fabric used. Synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon are extremely good at interrupting UV rays and outperform natural materials like wool and cotton. Fabrics can also be coated with a variety of dyes and chemicals that absorb UV, while darker colours are more effective at absorbing rays than lighter ones. Of course, as anyone who’s ever dressed all in black on a summer’s day will tell you there can be a downside to dark colours in the sun, too!
Let’s face up to the smelly truth. Men sweat. A lot.
Breathability is, therefore, a vital factor in all men’s hiking gear. Picking one thats adept at wicking moisture away from your skin and with a ventilation system that will cool you down can make a massive difference to your comfort on the trail.
The synthetic materials mentioned in the previous section - polyester and nylon - provide good breathability. Perhaps these are the kind of materials we should be looking for in a summer hat rather than cotton which, when it gets wet, stays wet.
Hats take a battering. When they’re not on your head absorbing copious amounts of sweat and all the radiation the sun can throw at them they’re crushed unceremoniously into a pack and bent out of shape for prolonged periods.
Since “as a fabric becomes worn or faded, it also becomes less effective at blocking UV light,” (4) it is vital that your summer hat of choice can take the pain. It’s suggested you check that it's “crushable,” meaning that it will spring back to shape after being crushed, and that it can be hand or machine washed before you purchase.
Another advantage of washable hats is that they prove they have resistance to water - you wouldn’t want your hat to be ruined by a freak downpour!
Size and Style
Some are marketed as one-size-fits-all but, if you have the choice, this size guide will help you find the best fit for you.
Wearing an ill-fitting hat is not only uncomfortable and impractical, it is also likely to make you look foolish - a common danger. It might be rated sunproof, waterproof, bullet-proof and breathable, but will you wear it on the trail if everyone who sees you falls down laughing?
If the answer to this is “no” then make sure you pick a design you’re comfortable wearing.
Last but not least let’s take a look at the specialist features that can separate the best hats from the merely competent.
A chin strap will come in handy in the wind. Nothing worse than having to hold onto your hat!
Some hats also come with a neck cape that offers cover to the back of your neck, an area traditionally vulnerable to sunburn and tough to protect. Capes aren’t just for superheroes!
Five Sun Hats
Now that you have an idea of the kind of features you’re looking for let’s get down to business. You’ve got cash in hand and are planning a summer hiking trek. “Show me some of the best men’s sun hats, salesman!”
An “ultra adventure” sounds like exciting stuff and a quick glance at the specs of this sunhat indicate it will provide plenty of protection to explorers. Comprised of 88% nylon and 12% polyester, the hat offers the sun protection and breathability associated with these materials.
To be precise, it has a UPF rating of 50+ (as high as it gets) and with a three-inch brim and a six-inch neck cape provides plenty of bonus coverage. A sweatband helps to wick moisture away from the head in conjunction with crown ventilation. A chin strap and sunglass lock are also present, to keep the hat and glasses in place. Have I mentioned that the hat is also water and stain resistant? Do we have a winner already? View more details about it here.
- Meets all the key requirements - strong UV protection, breathability and good added coverage from the brim and neck cape
- Useful added features such as a chin strap and sunglass lock
- Water resistant
- Not the cheapest available option - mid-price
The Outdoor Research Sun Runner Cap takes capes to a whole new level! The basic design of the hat is similar to a baseball cap but, with the removable cape attached, the hat offers protection over the ears and cheeks as well as the back of the neck.
The SPF rating of 30 indicates that it will block all but 2.6-4.1% of UV light - not the highest protection available - while the hat is also ventilated and breathable. This hat is surely an option for those, like me, who suffer from peeling ears in the summer - the number one place we forget to apply suncream! Also a good option for those seeking adjustability. A cap one moment, a sun protection hat the next!
- Huge cape offers comprehensive coverage
- Excellent adjustability - could be seen as two hats in one
- Low-to-mid price
- SPF rating of 30 does not offer maximum protection
- The design is a little “out there” and won’t be for everyone
A more conventional design than the previous two entries on this list, the Outdoor Research Sombriolet has the classic full-circle brim of traditional hats but plenty of modern features, too.
A UPF rating of 50 provides plentiful UV protection, while piping along the brim helps it stay firm in the event of gusting wind and the presence of foam helps to ensure the hat “won't disappear if you drop it in the water” - not a problem as far-fetched as you might think! The hat is breathable, wicks moisture and contains a chin-strap to help hold it in place. Another one that ticks plenty of boxes!
- Classic look
- Good level of UV protection courtesy of the high UPF rating and wide brim
- Retains shape well in wet conditions and recovers from compression
- Despite the piping the wide brim still catches the wind and causes problems in gusty conditions
- Absence of a neck cape limits coverage of a vulnerable area
The Columbia Sportswear Bora Bora Booney II resembles a conventional hat with its circular design and full brim but contains one key innovation - a mesh wrapping that goes round the entire upper portion of the hat to provide a level of breathability unrivalled by most sun hats.
The hat also offers strong sun protection, with a UPF rating of 50 approved by the Skin Cancer Foundation. The hat is one-size-fits-all, though a toggle helps customise the fit, while a chin strap helps to hold it in place. If you’re a heavy head and facial sweater - as many men are - this could be the hat for you.
- Stylish design that builds on the classic look
- Innovative mesh wraparound provides exceptional breathability
- Absence of a neck cape limits level of protection
- One-size-fits-all hats can cause problems for individuals at the extremes of the sizing spectrum
The Henschel 5310 Packable Mesh Breezer Hat has some striking similarities with the Bora Bora Booney II - not least the presence of wraparound mesh for breathability. If anything, the Henschel hat exaggerates this feature even more, with everything except the lid and brim of the hat constructed of breathable mesh.
A high SPF rating ensures excellent sun protection. With the hat specifically designed to be packable (as per the name) and sturdy, this could be the weapon of choice for those who like to plunge head-on into wilderness adventures and need a hat that can take everything they throw at it.
- Excellent breathability and a high SPF rating
- Stylish look that blends classic design with innovation
- Designed to be packed without damage
- Where is the protection for the back of the neck?
- Full brim design could cause problems in high winds
The best sun hat for hiking is...the Sunday Afternoons Ultra Adventure Hat! There was plenty of competition - indeed, every hat on this list has something to offer - but the Sunday Afternoons hat ticked every box on the list and, when a product’s sole drawback is a reasonable rather than breathtakingly cheap price, that’s a pretty good sign that you’re onto a winner.
The Ultra Adventure Hat has the highest possible SPF rating for UV protection, a neck cape to provide protection to the back of the neck, breathability, moisture-wicking and is sturdy enough to deal with water, compression and the various hardships of the trail.
The Outdoor Research Sun Runner Cap deserves a mention for an innovative design that provides protection to the ears and cheeks - so may be an option for those who feel themselves vulnerable in those areas - while the final two options on the list, the Columbia Sportswear Bora Bora Booney II and the Henschel 5310 Packable Mesh Breezer Hat, may catch the eye of heavy sweaters thanks to their excellent breathability.
The best all round option, however, is undoubtedly the Sunday Afternoons Ultra Adventure Hat. Hat’s off to it!