I mentioned last week that last weekend I was going on my first challenge hike or challenge walk as they’re popularly known as. It was in the Maamturks in Connemara in the West of Ireland, see a shot from the day below, and I have to say it was the toughest hike I have ever done.
Stunningly beautiful mountains but very rocky and steep. Loads of sharp up and down. I made it round successfully though so all in all it was a great experience.
The weather was all in all pretty good on the day. The sun was shining a lot of the time and the views were spectacular. However, it was cloudy at times and there was also a strong wind blowing throughout which, generally, I quite enjoyed as it kept me cool.
Anyway, as we were walking round a fellow hiking friend in our party happened to notice my neck was getting very red and told me to cover up as I was getting windburn.
That put the idea into my head to do a short post on windburn as it is something I have experienced many times, and most hikers will likely come across it at some point.
What is Windburn?
While this is not the main driver of this article, when looking into it, it was quite interesting, as it may not be as straightforward as it at first seems. So I thought some background on it, to provide context, could be useful.
Most people have experienced being out on a cold windy morning, doing some kind of activity, and felt their skin burning up, especially people who ski, hike, etc. However, most people have likely also stood out on a stormy day in the wind, and not had their skin ‘burn’.
The definition of windburn provided by the Oxford English Dictionary is:
Reddening and soreness of the skin caused by prolonged exposure to the wind.
It’s interesting, as in that definition while there is reference to soreness and redness, there is no reference to ‘burning’. That could be neither here nor there though, aka irrelevant.
However, according to Wikipedia, windburn is a misnomer and a popular misconception. In actual fact, windburn is sunburn caused by exposure to UV radiation from the sun.
They reference experiments done in 1936 by English skin specialist Howard White of Cambridge and an American Physicist called William Henry Crew. I found a fun video on what these gentlemen got up to with regards to investigating this way back in the day.
First off, the skin has things called lipids in it. Without getting too ‘sciency’ about it, lipids perform a barrier function for your skin, to protect it.
When skin is dried out or damaged, say by cold heavy wind, this layer of protection is weakened. While that in and of itself can lead to inflammation and soreness, things like UV can also get through to burn the skin much easier as the protective layer is weakened.
The wind also has a cooling effect on the skin and so, especially when hiking, can lead to an incorrect perception of the temperature to be cooler than it really is.
As your skin feels cool, you are less likely to notice that there might be a problem, and so you don’t take any action to protect yourself.
‘Windburn’, or sunburn, can also be acquired during cool and cloudy conditions. People don’t expect to get sunburn when it’s cloudy and windy, so it’s easy to see how it could be wrongly attributed to the wind rather than the sun.
UV levels can also increase by up to 10-12% with every 1000 meters increase in altitude, especially as you get higher up and the air gets even thinner. So there is more chance of you getting more exposed if you are hiking up to a high peak.
Anyway, as mentioned, I thought a brief summary of the background of what windburn is would be interesting.
However, whatever the exact scientific background is, windburn still hurts, and our primary aim in this article is to look at prevention and treatment, so let’s get on to that!
How do I Prevent and Treat WindBurn?
Well, in short, you take very similar precautions as you would to protect yourself from the sun.
Similar to sunburn, the best way to protect your skin from the wind, and prevent windburn, is to cover up with adequate protective clothing. A suitable hat and sunglasses can be important too if required.
Using sun screen and UV lip balm and so on are also recommended. That will help protect the aforementioned lipid skin barrier by keeping it moist and protecting it from the sun.
Failing that, try and keep your skins moisture at a good level by utilizing skin moisturizer. However, be careful with that approach as moisturizer alone won't protect you from the sun.
After the fact, if sunburn has played a role, after sun can be used to treat the skin. If you don't think you have been burnt, again use moisturizer on your skin to help get its protective balance back.
In summary, windburn is something that is very easily prevented. You just need to be aware that in the right conditions, even when it feels cool in the wind an even if the sun isn't shining, you may still need to cover up and / or put on adequate protection, clothing and sunscreen, before heading out on the trail.
It’s one that can easily be forgotten which I have done myself on many an occasion and ended up with quite a red face, arms, etc.
If you’re heading out on a day hike or a longer trek soon, be sure to add sunscreen to your hiking checklist anyway. I always have a small tube tucked away in my day pack so I will never be without it should the need arise, and it often does.
I hope you found this short post on how to prevent and treat windburn useful. As always, a bit of good preparation goes a long way to ensuring you have as enjoyable a hiking experience as possible while you’re out on the trail!