Pale person success story:
I went camping in Africa for two weeks and didn't get sunburned!

Please see the main page of my African camping/safari adventure for some background on this trip.

I'm extremely pale, and I get sunburned very easily, and it seems like no matter how careful I am I end up getting burned every time I spent time outdoors — whether it's camping, hiking, going to the beach, or even just having a drink at a sidewalk cafe. I knew from experience that when you're close to the equator the sun is even stronger and can burn you much faster, so before this trip I vowed to be hyper-vigilant and do everything I could to avoid getting sunburned. To my great surprise and delight, I was completely successful! Here are some of the methods I used...

This hat saved my life.

1. Hat!

After tons of searching and comparing, I ordered this wide-brimmed Dorfman Pacific men's outback hat. It's super comfortable and has a soft wire inside the brim so you can adjust it however you want. I kept the hat with me at all times during our trip and got into the following habits with it to help my avoid getting sunburned. The hat has a few tiny holes in it to keep your head relatively cool even in direct sunlight.

This was critical: I made a rule in my head to bring the hat with me every single time I got out of the car. This proved to be really helpful! A dozen times at least, we'd stop at a border crossing or a gas station or whatever, and we thought we were getting out of the car for no more than a minute or two, and then due to unforeseen circumstances we ended up standing around for half an hour or more in direct sunlight. The very first time this happened, I was able to run back to the car for my hat, but at other times like at border crossings this might not be possible. So keeping my hat with me every time I stepped out of the car was crucial.

The second most important use of the hat was actually not for my head! Almost every day of the trip we had to drive for several hours, and this meant my hands and forearms were sometimes in direct sunlight for hours each day — often we'd drive for three or four hours in a perfectly straight line, and if I was on the wrong side of the car the sun was on my lap that whole time. Since my hat was always on the seat next to me, it was easy to grab it and put it over my hands/arms in my lap whenever the sun was on me. It sounds silly but this was a huge help!

Of course, for any outdoorsy-type excursions where I knew we'd be walking around under an open sky, I always made sure to wear the hat. See rule number one: bring the hat every time you get out of the vehicle.

2. Scarf!

Before my trip, I ordered two lightweight Jeelow cotton scarves, one in light gray with white stripes and one in beige with white stripes. These proved to be really helpful when I couldn't avoid the sun. A few times we found ourselves standing in direct sunlight for a while, like at a border crossing where you're stuck standing in line and facing the same direction for a long time. In these situations I could drape the scarf over whatever side of my neck was facing the sun.

I also used the scarf sometimes to protect my hands and forearms from sun during long drives, just like I did with my hat, as I mentioned above.

If we were on a long drive and the sun was coming at me directly from the side, threatening to burn my face and neck, I figured out ways to rig up the scarf over the window to act as a shade. One way to do this is to fold the scarf up once or twice, roll the window down a bit, and then stick a little bit of the fabric out the window and close the windows on it. Voilà! Instant curtain.

(Two uses for the scarves that were unrelated to combatting sunburn: 1. When you're in the desert/bush and the wind kicks up lots of dust, you can just it around your face like a kerchief. 2. We had one night where the mosquitos were really bad, so I put on my heaviest shirt and trousers and wore my hat and a scarf, thus leaving the minumum amount of my skin exposed and bite-able.)

The temperature reached 43°C (109.4°F) on our way to Kubu Island.

3. Long sleeves and pants

For the entire two-week trip, no matter how hot it got, I wore long sleeves and long pants during the daytime. I brought shirts and pants in a few different kinds of materials and colors and wore them strategically depending on the weather and whatever activities we were doing that day.

The main shirts I wore during the trip were two cotton button-downs, and two synthetic button-downs. I wore the cotton shirts on days when it was cooler and/or for slightly-rugged work like setting up/breaking down the camper. I wore the lightweight synthetic-material shirts when I knew we'd mostly be in the shade and/or getting wet, like for boat rides or visiting Victoria Falls. Of course I wore the lightest colors when I knew we'd be in direct sunlight.

Similarly, the main pants I wore during the trip were two pairs of thick cotton cargo pants, and two pairs of lightweight synthetic-material pants. I wore the heavier cargo pants when we were doing anything physical like hiking, setting up the Cheetah, collecting firewood, etc, and I wore the lightweight synthetic-material pants when I knew we'd be getting wet.

It was always a relief to switch to short sleeves as soon as the sun went down! But it was really worth it to put up with long sleeves during the daylight hours.

Note: In the past I've experimented with buying shirts that are advertised has having a high level of UV protection built-in, and I've worn these when I know I'm going to be in direct sunlight for hours with no escape; a good example here is white water rafting. I've read various things about how regular clothing has different levels of built-in SPF depending on the color and material — a white t-shirt being the typical example that's cited, although I've seen numbers ranging from 7 SPF to 15 SPF for a plain white t-shirt (and they usually point out that the SPF is reuced if the material is wet). Anyway, in shopping for this trip I looked at some shirts with UV protection, but I didn't find anything remotely like the styles/colors that I wanted, so in the end I gave up on the extra UV protection and just bought regular stuff — of course, all clothing protects you from the sun to some degree! And it was totally fine; obviously it worked out and I never got burned. The one tiny bit of strategy I employed was this: I had one lightweight long-sleeve white cotton shirt, and I made sure to not wear that one when I knew I'd be in the sun for a long time, since it (presumably) had the least UV protection of all my clothes. Anyway, I'd consider this Africa trip a very good experiment in testing out clothes for UV protection; my conclusion is that regular clothes are fine.

4. Sunblock

Of course! I brought two bottles of Neutrogena Ultra Sheer dry-touch sunscreen, SPF 45 and applied it about twice a day. Most of our days started with breakfast outside but in the shade, so I didn't worry about sunscreen then. But as soon as we were in the car for that morning's drive I'd put sunscreen on my face, neck, hands, and forearms — these were basically the only parts of me that the sun could touch during the whole trip.

The first tube of sunscreen lasted almost the whole trip, but I was glad to have the second one ready when the first one finally ran out. If I weren't wearing long sleeves and long pants every day I'd definitely need a lot more bottles of sunscreen to cover all the exposed areas.

All of that stuff did the trick! I could barely believe it when the last day of the trip rolled around and I realized all that concentration paid off. My colleagues back in New York couldn't believe that I came back from two weeks in Africa with no color at all!

Next: FAQ: Frequently asked questions about my camping/safari trip...

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