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How To Choose the Right Sunglasses for Paddling

The right pair of sunglasses will enhance your vision and protect your eyes so you can paddle just the way you want.

Your eyes are one of the most important organs in your body—protect them like you’d protect your brain with a helmet, your skin with sunscreen, or your extremities with proper shoes or gloves. And paddling on any body of water, where the surface reflects light, it’s extra important to keep that amplified brightness at bay—and to see everything ahead, plus sometimes below you as well. From the glare bouncing off a lake to the spray of salty ocean foam, the right pair of sunglasses will enhance your vision and protect your eyes so you can paddle just the way you want: without a worry in the world.

Features To Look For

For on-water activities, there are a few standout features to factor:

Floating Frames

Instead of watching your favorite shades sink into the abyss below, invest in a pair of floating frames that will bob on the surface. Materials matter here—the best floating sunglasses are typically constructed from plastics, composites, polycarbonate, or bamboo, which all naturally stay afloat and will keep your glasses on the surface of the water.

Lenses That Shed Water

Keep your lenses clear even while out on the water with a hydrophobic coating on the lenses. This weakens the surface tension on the lenses, which allows excess water to drain away while the leftover water becomes tiny droplets, easily brushed away. If your sunglasses don’t come with a hydrophobic coating, you can buy a spray to apply yourself. 

Anti-Fog

Protecting against humidity and fogging that occurs in low temperatures (especially when wearing sunglasses with a paddling helmet that traps heat), anti-fog coatings keep moisture from accumulating on your lenses. If your glasses don’t come with an anti-fog coating, you can also purchase a spray to apply yourself.  

Anti-Scratch

Look for oleophobic and hydrophobic coatings that’ll protect your lenses against saltwater crystals and fingerprints—two things you might not suspect that can scratch your lenses. After using sunglasses in or around saltwater, rinse them with fresh water before wiping the lenses down.

Polarization

Lenses that are polarized contain a laminated filter that only allows vertically oriented light to pass through. This helps primarily with glare, as the filter blocks horizontally oriented light, like what might bounce off the water’s surface.

Visible Light Transmission (VLT)

The VLT percentage measures the amount of light that’s transmitted through a lens. Low VLTs offer a darker tint and are more suitable for sunny environments; higher VLTs offer a lighter tint and work best in overcast or low-light environments.

Abbe Value

This metric identifies how well the lens material disperses light, or its clarity. The higher the number, the clearer the lens. The lower the abbe value, the more likelihood of unwanted optical distortions (blurriness).

Photo: Ubi17

Paddling Specifics

Narrow the features that matter most according to your paddling needs. 

Open-Water Paddling

The bigger the water, the more that glare becomes a factor as the sun hits the water’s surface and reflects light back in multiple directions. Look for polarized lenses so you eliminate any horizontal lightwaves, and consider anti-fog coatings if you’re paddling enough to break a sweat or taking off early in the morning when your breath might fog up the lenses. If you’re out on a large lake or heading for the ocean, make sure your lenses are wide and tall enough to cover a full horizon of water.

Kayak Fishing

Salt vs. Fresh Water. A polarized lens that cuts glare and reduces eye strain will immediately help spot fish underneath the water surface. Lens color also makes a difference based on the type of water or conditions that you’re fishing. For freshwater situations, blue and gray lenses are best. In saltwater, green gives anglers more of an advantage. In low-light conditions, whether in fresh or saltwater, amber lenses are preferred.

Distance Paddling

Spending a full day (or season) on the water means comfort and durability reign. Focus on the fit of the frames—try them on if you can, minding the points of contact with your face, likely the nose pads and temples. Materials matter here, too, as you want your glasses to last (more details below). Both plastic and metal sunglasses can last for years if you care for them properly.

Wearing a Helmet

Your paddling lid can interfere with how sunglasses fit and sit atop of your ears or across your brow. In general, look for sunglasses with flexible and/or thin temples. Slender and less rigid materials that can curve with your skull will help alleviate the pressure points that snug-fitting helmets sometimes create. Also, make sure your sunglass rims aren’t so big that they hit up against the brow of your helmet. Pro tip: Bring your helmet if you plan to try on sunglasses inside a retailer—that way you’ll know how the whole system feels on your head and face.

Lens Materials 

The two biggest differences between glass and plastic lenses: how heavy each feels on your face; and their ability to resist scuff marks. 

Plastic 

Pros: Lighter, more affordable, more durable 

Cons: Will scratch more easily

Glass 

Pros: Clearer vision; can be made with thinner materials; less likely to scratch

Cons: Heavier; expensive; more prone to break on impact

Lens Colors

The color of a lens helps determine how well the sunglasses will perform in different light conditions.

Gray

Suitable for both cloudy and sunny days; overall protection from glare—especially glare shining off water and wet roads; true color perception; great for variable weather that changes between sunny and overcast.

Brown/Amber

Great for sunny conditions; the red hue improves depth perception (ideal for activities where distance needs to be judged) and heightens contrast against green landscapes and blue skies or water.

Green

Ideal for both sunny and low-light environments; provides better contrast than gray lenses and transmits color accuracy better than brown lenses; dims glare while brightening shadows; great for foggy and cloudy conditions, or bright, sunshine-filled days.

Blue

Good in misty, foggy, and snowy conditions; enhances contours around objects and improves color perception; can have a calming effect on the eyes; reduces glare; helps to see contours and improves color perception.

Mirrored Coating

Balances a high-fashion look with function—these lenses reduce glare and can help prevent eye fatigue.

Accessories

Retainers, or Sunglass Straps

If you’re not in the market for floating sunglasses but still want to keep your pair from drowning, use retainers: a simple strap system that attaches at the end of each temple piece and joins together at the base of your neck. You can then dangle your sunglasses on your chest when you’re not using them, or in the event the sunglasses get knocked off your face, you know they aren’t going far. Think of them as a leash for your sunglasses.

Cases

After you’ve invested in a pair of sunglasses for paddling, you want to protect them off the water. If a pair doesn’t come with a case, or you’re looking to upgrade, consider hardshell cases with quality hinges and room to store a cleaning cloth.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.