The world of sunglasses is almost as diverse as the people who wear them. Sunny summertime is probably the season you most frequently reach for a pair, with whatever styles you wear often being picked solely based on aesthetics, since you’re wearing them practically every time you step outside. But everyone knows sunglasses are a year-round accessory, and although trendy shapes and lens colors serve their purpose when you’re grabbing your morning latte at Ground Support or sitting out in Central Park, they can actually get in the way if you’re wearing them during more physical outdoor pursuits.
Like their more fashionable cousins, the best sunglasses for active wear protect your eyes from sun damage, cut glare to keep your vision sharp (very important for any sporting activity), and generally make you more comfortable, whether you’re kayaking through open water, hiking above the timberline, or skiing down a powder-white slope. But, unlike their more fashionable cousins, active-wear sunglasses should not have nose pads like those on wire-framed aviators or other sleek shades (an accidental tumble on a run or hike could lead to a serious eye injury), nor should frames be so oversize that they partially block your field of vision, so undersized that they don’t fully protect your eyes from the sun, or have lenses tinted so dark that they make it harder to see clearly.
Over the past dozen or so years, I’ve worn almost a dozen different pairs of sunglasses for hikes, climbs, paddling trips, trail runs, and other outdoor activities. Below are the five styles I swear by, all of which I wear often — and some of which could even pass as stylish.
For canoeing, kayaking, or rowing
I live about a mile from a bay that opens onto the Long Island Sound, and it’s a great place for kayaking and canoeing, both activities I enjoy regularly in all seasons. And, no matter the season, I need a good pair of sunglasses to cut the glare of the sun reflecting off the water. I used to wear a pair of Ray-Ban aviators when paddling, and while I loved the coverage the large lenses provided, ultimately the nose pads were just too uncomfortable — especially once the sweat and sunblock started to run. So I replaced those with Sunskis, and although I used to wear its rounder Dipsea style on the water, I’ve moved to the Topeka, which has a slightly wider lens, blocking that much more sun. Plus, no matter how much water (or sweat from my brow) splashes on it, its lenses rarely streak. It also doesn’t have nose pads like my old aviators, and is generally a solid pair — after my many trips out on the salt water, neither the lenses nor durable plastic frames show signs of corrosion.
All Sunski sunglasses are polarized, meaning they filter out horizontally oriented light waves to reduce glare. As a result, they offer excellent visibility and eye protection even on the brightest of days. Most Sunski glasses also look nice, too, which is just an added bonus. The only consistent complaint I have about Sunski sunglasses is that they make it difficult to read screens, which is rarely an issue while paddling, but can be problematic when I check my GPS while driving to a new spot to get into the water.
For high-altitude hiking
Hiking at higher altitudes means more potential for sun damage, as the thinner air scatters less light. That’s why you need sunblock when mountaineering in all seasons, and it’s why UV protection is especially important when choosing the best sunglasses for hiking. The Roka Oslo sunglasses block 100 percent of the sun’s UV light, a claim few others can make (even most polarized lenses don’t block 100 percent of UV light). A pair also weighs less than an ounce, so it adds almost nothing to your gear’s weight — a big plus on any distance hike or high alpine ascent (and, for the record, they function just as well on lower altitude hikes, too).
Oslos have hydrophobic lenses that stay clear even as you sweat or as the rains set in, and come with three different nose pads that sit flush against your nose (instead of perching on it like those of wire-rimmed glasses), ensuring you get a nice, snug fit that’ll keep them in place during sweaty or rainy treks. They’re not cheap, but I think these are worth it for all their technical design elements, especially the grip — because if your sunglasses slip off your face as you head up a vertical pitch on El Capitan, you’re not going to climb back down for them. Also, for performance sunglasses, the Oslos are actually pretty stylish; you could easily wear them every day, no matter the altitude.
I have never been a fan of Oakley sunglasses for their style (though this pair’s wraparound shape does seem like a distant elder cousin to some newer fashion shades). But I’ve always sworn by the brand in terms of performance. You can rely on all Oakley sunglasses to stay in place (even when moving fast), stay clear (even when you’re body is hot and sweaty), and block glare and UV light. But what makes the EV Path shades particularly ideal for cycling is their shape, which creates a good windbreak and keeps the breeze out of your eyes even when you’re careening downhill at full speed, and their large, single-piece lens, which preserves almost your entire field of view (both very helpful things when you need to keep your eyes on the road, or mountain trail, ahead of you). And because the UV-blocking lens is actually not polarized, your clarity of view is perfect whether you’re looking straight ahead or checking a screen. Plus, when worn beneath a helmet, the straight arms on these sunglasses are much more comfortable than the kinds that go behind your ears found on many other sunglasses.
Truth be told, unless I’m going for a longer run on a particularly sunny day, I prefer not to wear sunglasses. But when I do wear them, I’ll put on another pair of Oakleys — specifically, the oddly named but overall excellent Jawbreaker Shield sunglasses. They make ideal running sunnies for several reasons: First, they stay snugly in place even as you bounce up and down along the street or trail. Second, they have multiple vents cut between the lens and frame that let in air, keep your face cooler, and reduce fogging (a big reason why I don’t always wear sunglasses when running). The EV Path sunglasses I wear for biking have a few vents, too, but the ones on this pair are slightly bigger, letting more air in — which is fine when running, as you’re never moving that fast, but less fine when biking, when you are speeding along and want minimum wind in the eyes. Third, the lenses block 100 percent of UV light but are not polarized, so you can more easily spot slick patches of ice, water, or other gunk, and read a screen when you glance down to change songs or reject a call because this is your me time. Lastly, like the EV Paths, these glasses’ large, wraparound lens gives you almost unobstructed vision, so you can see the way ahead and also keep an eye out for cars, bikes, or other runners.
For skiing or mountain climbing
If you’re not wearing a decent pair of ski goggles when out on the slopes, you’d better be wearing a fine pair of sunglasses, because snow blindness is no laughing matter. I’ve never been blinded, but I have had to shield my eyes while crossing snowfields and glaciers, and it’s never a good feeling when you can’t fully make out the crevasse right ahead of you. Thankfully, the Julbo Explorer 2.0 sunglasses are a very fine pair indeed. Designed specifically for mountaineering, climbing, and skiing, they offer superlative protection against harsh high-altitude sun. And because they come with removable side shields that clip onto the frames by your temples, this blocks sunlight that would otherwise seep in from the sides of the frame.
Just as conditions out on the slopes can change fast, so, too, can these sunglasses quickly adapt. Their photochromic lenses (which you may know as “transition lenses”) adjust to block out more or less light as needed, so the same shades will serve you just as well when the sun slashes through the trees at sunrise, bounces off the snow at midday, hides behind some afternoon clouds that roll in, and slashes back through the trees at sunset. Like some other pairs on this list, these are not inexpensive, but if you’re spending the money to go skiing (or climbing or cycling or hiking), I always think it’s a good idea to invest in gear that you won’t have to think twice about once in action — if for nothing else because it allows you to focus on the (sometimes dangerous) task at hand. And you can’t put a price on safety.