Winter Sunburn and Snow Blindness

Winter sunburn and snow blindness are common but overlooked backcountry injuries. While these conditions can be serious, they are simple to prevent.

Winter Sunburn

What is it?

In the winter, you’ll be getting a double dose of sun as it hits you directly and bounces off the surrounding area. Snow and ice reflect 80 percent of UV light! So, it’s important to continue wearing sunscreen in the winter months.

Prevention

To prevent sunburn, cover up and apply sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher. Wearing a brimmed hat offers some protection, but the sun will still bounce off the snow and onto your shaded face.

Care

Most cases of sunburn are easy to care for. Simply, avoid further sun exposure, apply a soothing burn lotion, and drink lots of water. If your skin has blistered or is swollen, this is a sign of a second-degree burn and it should be seen by a medical professional.

Snow Blindness

What is it?

Snow blindness happens when you sunburn your eyes. It’s a painful condition, but the pain doesn’t set in immediately. Unfortunately, the delayed onset of pain means that people continue to damage their eyes long after the burn.

Snow blindness can cause pain, headache, blurred vision, and temporary blindness. Early symptoms to watch for include red watery eyes and sensitivity to light.

Prevention

To prevent snow blindness wear wrap around sunglasses or goggles. Note that not all sunglasses are equally made. Look for sunglasses or goggles with 100 percent UV protection. A hat will offer some protection, but light bouncing off the snow can still damage your eyes.

If you find yourself outside with no sunglasses, you can craft your own. The Inuit and Yupik used to craft snow goggles from various materials. Check out this video from Howcast demonstrating construction of snow goggles from birch bark.

Care

If you experience snow blindness, stay indoors and rest your eyes. The condition will usually resolve itself within 48 hours. You may apply a cold compress to help soothe the pain. Pain medication may reduce soreness, but consult your doctor first.

High Altitudes and UV Exposure

Sunburn and snow blindness are more likely to occur at higher altitudes where the air is thinner. According to the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) “UV exposure increases by 4% for every 300 metre climb.”

Other Articles

I hope this article gave you some tips for preventing and caring for winter sunburn and snow blindness. Here are some other articles that may interest you:

The Ten Essentials: What to Bring on a Day Trip

Where to Learn Outdoor Skills in Canada

How to Safely Cross a River

Resources

UIAA. Dealing with Eye Problems in Expeditions.

Healthline. Everything you need to know about snow blindness.

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