Earlier this year I set out to find an alternative way of hiking in the hot sunny weather of Southern California. Something that did not involve me getting sunburned or carrying the heavy 8.11 ounce GoLite Umbrella that I and many other long distance hikers have used for years. Granted I turn a rather nice shade of golden brown when I get a nice bit of sun on me, but living under the Redwood forest canopy of Northern California for the better part of two decades has not allowed me to keep that nice suntan that I always had while growing up in the Mojave desert. Recently I have been hiking different sections of the PCT in SoCal, and spending time in Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley, trying to find the best route for my Highest to Lowest trail/hike I am planning.
I was able to find a number of different companies claiming that they provided SPF clothing that was in the 15-30 range, but the real stand-out in the sun clothing world was a product line called “Solumbra” from a company called Sun Precaution. This is a company that designs and makes all of their clothing in Seattle Washington USA.
What really makes their clothing stand out from the rest is that their clothing is 100+ SPF.
As most of my longtime readers know, I rarely write reviews on pieces of gear (clothing, shelters, backpacks, whatever) that I have not tested a lot and for a long time. I will typically spend an entire hiking season (or sometimes three or four) before I contemplate writing a review for a piece of gear – this is what makes me stand apart from other authors and gear reviewers in the outdoor community, along with the fact that I traditionally only focus on SUL/XUL hiking. There have only been a few rare exceptions when I have broken that rule of mine, and I think with this clothing from Sun Precaution it is going to be one of those times — the reason being: sometimes a product just proves itself from the very get-go, and this clothing proved itself to me within the first two weeks of me using it. Truthfully, it proved itself within a matter of hours, but I gave it a good three or four days before I allowed myself to whisper to myself “wow, this stuff actually works!”
Sun Precaution makes a number of different shirts that are viable for long distance hikers. Their top of the line garments are the Ultra Athlete Shirt their Ultra Athlete Full Zip Shirt, which as the name implies is a full zip shirt, and their Ultra Athlete Pants. I went with the non-zip because I thought that the Indigo Piping (which is sadly only available on the non-zip version) looked a bit nicer. I am seriously considering buying the full zip shirt though, I just have to work up the willpower to drop a hundred bucks for it.
What makes the “Ultra Athlete” stand apart from the rest of their mens shirts is the venting system. The Ultra Athlete shirts have amazing pit ventilation, and both front and back ventilation. I was reading one of the reviews on their website and it said something about the guy feeling cooler when he was running in Death Valley than when he was standing still, and I thought to myself “uhh,yeah, right”. Well dang it if that is just not true. I have worn my fair share of shirts that had “ventilation systems” on them and they were all pretty much a joke and just a PR thing to try to sell products. That is simply not the cause with these Ultra Athlete shirts with their amazingly well thought out and designed venting system. They are what make up a fair amount of the weight of the shirts, as it requires at least double the amount of material, but as I have been saying for many years, sometimes a few extra ounces in exchange for benefits from those extra ounces… totally justifies themselves.
They make a Safari shirt that looks pretty similar to a shirt that a lot of long distance hikers really love, and it would be awesome if they would list the weights of their shirts on their websites, but even without knowing how much extra weight I might save by going with the Safari shirt – which uses the same exact material as the Ultra Athlete shirts – I would still choose the heavier Ultra Athlete shirts because of the ventilation system, it really is that impressive to me.
Exceptional – really, these garments have made me totally rethink how I approach my clothing systems for hiking. That is something I did not think I would be saying anytime soon. It took me many years to find the perfect garment setup for my style of hiking, and I have been using it for at least years. I honestly have to say I have spent a great deal of time while hiking down the road giving serious thought to switching things up – both for hiking down in the deserts and while hiking up here in the Redwoods of Northern California.
What I think my plan is at this point is to stick with the shirt as a full time top garment, and keep using my Montbell Dynamo Wind Pants – they really are amazing and so lightweight I find it hard to wear anything else – even most shorts feel heavy to me after three years of wearing the Montbell Dynamo pants. However, I think I have decided to make the switch to using the Ultra Athlete Shirt as my full time top garment.
The Ultra Athlete Shirt has handled everything I have been able to throw at it so far. Death Valley. Joshua Tree. Big Bear. Walking through, up and down, rivers here in the Redwoods – while I do not carry a scale with me when I hike, the material did not seem to feel heavier when I slipped crossing a river and went all the way under. Sometimes you know how some clothing just turns into a wet brick of dead weight – that really did not seem to be the case with the Ultra Athlete Shirt. It dried very quickly in the sun, temperatures were around 70f / 21c, and it actually felt rather nice having them be wet for the few minute that they were. They also did not turn into a piece of stiff cardboard when they dried off – you know how sometimes clothing can get all stiff on you when they dry, not the case with whatever this material is. The material dried out faster than the Wigwam socks I was wearing – and that is impressive!
Ok, so all the petty little issues out of the way… let us talk about the real issue here… dealing with the sun.
The first day that I had them on I was on the PCT near Big Big Lake. It was a hot and full sun day. Somewhere in the 80’s which is getting on the hot side for Big Bear – ridge line hiking which meant full sun from both above and the ground. I was wearing both the Ultra Athlete Shirt and the Ultra Athlete Pants. After initial proving that they actually were keeping me cool and not having my skin burning, I rolled up the sleeve on one of my arms and remove the Sun Precautions Handguards on my right arm and hand, and proceeded on down the trail. Immediately I noticed that my arm was getting hot and my hand was almost instantly hot – as I was using my one hiking pole with the hand without the handguard. Within an hour my arm was pink and my hand was red. Within two hours both my arm and my hand were bright red. At that point I felt it best to put both the handguard back on and roll down my sleeve. Later that night I started getting blisters on the back of my hand and the next day my arm was suffering pretty bad too. Obviously the Redwood canopy has turned me into a woosie when it comes to the sun. But, in just that short period of time these clothing garments proved themselves to me. The entire rest of my body never suffered any redness or sun burning of any kind.
I could continue to tell you stories of other times when I have performed the same test, but the results have all been the same, so I will just leave it at that.
One of the aspects of these garments I wanted to test was how they would perform in colder weather keeping me warm at night. As my long time readers know, I enjoy going hiking during the summer without a sleeping bag, it is a great way to shave off two or so pounds of weight, and instead just take slightly heavier clothing garments. On a recent trip I decided to try sleeping in these, as I normally would sleep in my Icebreaker midweight tops, and it just did not work out. The amount of ventilation on them caused me to keep getting chilled anytime there was even a slight breeze. After a few hours of trying to sleep in them I found myself pulling them off and putting on my Icebreaker Long Sleeve Chase Zip Multisport 200 midlayer shirt that I always carry with me, even in the summer season, as it is what I sleep in rather than use a sleeping bag. So, it was a great thing to test, and an interesting test to try, but the shirt is just not viable sleepwear. I did spend all night wearing the pants, but I think I have lost nerve endings in my legs, because I rarely care if my legs are wet or cold.
When it comes to doing the job that they have been designed to do, the Ultra Athlete Shirt and the Ultra Athlete Pants and the handguards have absolutely proven themselves to me. A huge check-mark in the “performance” box.
Second, this clothing is not inexpensive – you can expect to spend $200 USD (€150 Euro) for just the pants and shirt if you buy their top of the line products. Realistically, this is not overtly expensive compared to my typical desert clothing and the cost of a GoLite Chrome umbrella (especially after shipping for the umbrella) but it is still an expensive outfit.
We all must individually calculate the purchases that we make when it comes to hiking. I invested the money into this outfit because I was hoping to find something that would work and I was willing to drop as much money as it would take to find a good setup- so that in future hikes in and through Death Valley and the Mojave Desert I could have viable clothing.
One might say I could just as easily get away wearing a 2 dollar pair of shorts and no shirt. Completely true and that is how I did it 20 years ago when I live in the desert, you will not get an argument out of me on that one.
That said, there are some really good reasons for going with high SPF clothing, those of you that understand why, know why – for everybody else it (and this entire article/gear review) probably does not matter.
These are far from the lightest clothing I have ever bought. In fact the shirt is one of the heaviest shirts I have ever purchased and while the pants weigh less than a lot of the cargo pants so many hikers seem to have a thing for, they are far heavier than the Montbell Dynamo Wind Pants that I have now been using for over three years.
To give you an idea, my beloved Icebreaker Long Sleeve Chase Zip Multisport 200 hits the scale at 226 grams (7.97 oz) and it is a second, sometimes third, layer piece of clothing.
The Sun Precautions Handguards are 21 grams (0.74 oz) and totally worth their weight!! I have seen a lot of hikers wondering about these over the years and I can hereby declare that they work! I do wish they were a bit wider, sometimes they did not cover my pinky when hiking with a hiking pole, there needs to be just a little bit more material on the pinky side of these, at least for my larger sized hands. The handguards use two pieces of folded over material to keep them attached and in-place.
I also bought their Ultra Athlete Shade Hat which is 87 grams (3.06oz). I am loving the extra-extra-wide brim that it has for full-on sun protection. However, the CoolMax material of the Headsweats Long Bill has me sticking with it for now, even though it means less bill protection – if you have ever used a cap made with CoolMax fabric you know what it is I am talking about and why I am sticking with it.
I first tried wearing the shirt without an undershirt on and I just did not care for doing so. I spent a good two days while hiking pondering on what would be a perfect undershirt for the Sun Precautions Ultra Athlete Shirt, and on the second day I remembered a shirt I bought a year or so back and ended up not liking because of the sewing points on the shoulders. The shirt performed amazingly well, it was just an issue of having a sewn point at the very top of the shoulders, which really sucks when you are a hiker with shoulder straps on for hours and hours every day. So I pulled up the companies website when I got an internet connection and discovered that they had a Tank design that did not seem to have the issue with a seam weld at the top. The Tank shirt would also be nice for helping with ventilation.
This shirt is called the Mountain Hardware Way2Cool Tank (amazon affiliate link) and it ended up being the perfect undershirt for the Sun Precautions Ultra Athlete Shirt. The Way2Cool has the little dot technology that Columbia Sportswear Company bought the rights to a number of years ago – and allowed it to be used in both Columbia and Mountain Hardwear divisions. It really does work and when combined together with the venting system of the Sun Precautions Ultra Athlete Shirt it is a pretty nice match-made-in-heaven for me.
While I have not yet used these garments long enough to know how their durability will perform from hundreds of days out on the trail, from a purely performance perspective, I can at this point in time say that I am extremely happy with their performance and continue to use them, especially the shirt, throughout the rest of the 2013 hiking season and into the 2014 hiking season and potentially beyond. I will of course report back any issues that I have with them in regards to durability.
Keeping them white I expect is going to be a near impossibility. The blue color shirt might be a more ideal color, but I just am not a fan of blue colored clothing, so I will be stuck with the white until they/if they release the garments in more hiker-friendly colors.
I will say that I wish I had bought the “tall version” of the shirt. When I buy the Ultra Athlete Full Zip Shirt I fully intend to buy it in a tall size. It will likely take it over the ten ounce mark for the shirt, but I just find it to be a bit on the short side for me. It would be really awesome if they made the Full Zip shirt in size tall and in Desert Khaki… and the Ultra Athlete Pants in Desert Khaki too. If they did that I would absolutely drop another two hundred bucks to order them.
My final thoughts are this: The Sun Precautions Ultra Athlete Shirt and the Ultra Athlete Pants are not going to make you a fashion model out on the trail – and you are going to get a lot of odd looks from other hikers – but if you are anybody that follows my articles you are probably (hopefully) a hiker that has reached a point in their hiking life where fashion does not matter. If you are concerned about what you look like out on the trail, stay home. If you dig a hole to take a dump, and you are worried about what your clothing looks like, just stay home. For the rest of out there banging out the miles on the trail, it is about performance and functionality and these garments do exactly that.
If you are somebody looking for a pair of clothing to handle the sun, I highly recommend these.
Post Publication Updates:
August 19, 2013 — I received some information from Sun Precautions regarding the weights of some of their products that I mentioned. Thank you to Sun Precautions for contacting me with this information!
These are weights provided by them, all size large, and are not my own scale.
Regarding the size of the Hand Guards, the med/large (which I ordered) are 8 1/4 inches in width, and the width of the extra large are 8 3/4 inches.
So based upon data from my own scale regarding the Ultra Athlete Pants (at 303 grams / 10.68 ounces) and the data they provided regarding the Unisex Active Pants (227 grams / 8.0 oz) the extra ventilation results in 76 grams (2.68 oz) of additional weight.
Additionally, based upon data from my own scale regarding the Ultra Athlete Shirt (at 269 grams / 9.48 ounces) and the data they provided regarding the Ultra Athlete Full Zip Shirt (249 grams / 8.78 oz) the zipper results in a shirt that is 20 grams (0.7 oz) less weight, so, I am thinking there is some slight difference in their weights and my own, as a zippered shirt is usually (but not always) heavier (case in point: the 2013 Montbell Dynamo wind shirt that has a full zipper). Regardless of this issue, the really interesting bit of info in all of this is their listed weight for the Ultra Athlete Full Zip Shirt. An eight ounce safari shirt that is 100+ SPF is pretty sweet. One of the shirts that has been at the very top of my list of shirts to try out is the Rail Riderds Eco-Mesh Shirt – it is 7oz and only 30+ UPF so this does make it an extra 1.7 ounces heavier than the Sun Precautions Safari Shirt but the Safari Shirt is 100+ SPF, versus just 30+ UPF of the Rail Riders.
Anyway, I do want to again thank Heather from Sun Precautions for sending me this additional information – very helpful, I think a Full Zip shirt is soon going to be purchased!
In accordance of USA Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR, Part 255: I hereby declare that as of the day of publication of this article I am a sponsored hiker of Montbell America, Gossamer Gear, Black Rock Gear, Suluk46.