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Not perfect, but OR's Sombriolet Sun hat is very close
on July 3, 2013
I've been working as a marine and terrestrial "field biologist," mostly outdoors in South Florida, since 1979. Exposure to this much sun is an issue, and the sooner you recognize and take measures to deal with that, the longer you'll be able to enjoy working and playing outdoors. A hat like this may seem pretty expensive to the young or inexperienced, but after the dermatologists start cutting bits and pieces off of you, you may realize a hat like this is very inexpensive health insurance. Below are some observations about the Sombriolet and competing "sun hats," based on experience in hot and humid coastal South Florida.
Ball caps are very popular, but they don't shade the back of your neck or sides of your face, and can actually pull hair back that might otherwise cover and protect your ears. There are a host of broad-brimmed solutions, but they each have their drawbacks.
Straw hats, "lifeguard" hats, and Panama hats are woven from a variety of "unprocessed" plant materials (various grass stems, palms fronds and similar plant leaves). Made from renewable resources, light-colored, lightweight, and naturally well-ventilated, straw hats are terrific... while they last. But, there's the rub: longevity. Don't get me wrong, straw hats protect the wearer from summer sun and heat just fine. But, if I may paraphrase the great Yogi Berra's malaprop ("It ain't the heat, it's the humility"); I'd say, with straw hats, "it ain't the heat, it's the humidity." Exposed to sweat or rain, straw hats quickly lose their shape. Add some abrasion from branches passed during a hike, and the hat most exposed edges get ragged looking in a hurry. When I wear straw hats, it is seldom more than a week or three before the hat resembles a shapeless "hillbilly hat," rather than something Bogart might have worn with class in Tangiers.
Another note on straw hats... real "Panamas" start near $50, but can cost hundreds of dollars. "Panamas" are the hats that made famous faces look cool in the heat: think of Edward G Robinson in "Key Largo," Sidney Greenstreet in "Casablanca," Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird," Sean Connery in "The Man Who Would Be King," and of course, Teddy Roosevelt in... well, in Panama! I haven't tried the expensive versions, but as I said, similar hats I have worn quickly lost their shape. Even if you manage to keep your Panama (or any "straw" hat) out of the rain, I have never figured out how to remove sweat and dirty fingerprints from the brim... without damaging the fibers.
One of my two favorite sun hats is Henschel Hat Company's "Breezer." Available with a 3" or 4 " brim, the Breezer provides great protection of everything below the brim. Just three caveats: shrinkage, sweat (salt) stains, and compromised sun protection on sides of of the cylindrical portion of the hat's crown. Watch out if your Breezer gets soaked, the rugged cotton duck or twill material can shrink as it dries - especially if you allow it to dry while you are not wearing it. Carelessly leave a wet "Breezer" in the heat, say... under a car's windshield, and significant shrinkage is guaranteed.
As mentioned, Breezer hats can also soak up sweat. If you provide enough of it (and I do), it eventually wicks its way out to the brim. As it dries, white salt stains become visible (especially on darker fabric brims). Fortunately, the salt can be removed: soaking the hat in warm freshwater, especially rainwater or distilled water, removes salt stains pretty well. Add a little mild detergent (like Woolite), scrub with a soft brush and rinse, and some of the dirt will come away, too. Just "block" and shape the hat's crown with a bunched-up wad of newspaper, and protect the rim's shape... before allowing it to dry somewhere with good airflow but no heat, or it will shrink. Some of my formerly "extra extra large" (XXL) Henschel hats are now worn by friends with "medium" heads. Eventually even the rugged Breezer can lose its shape but, in my experience (with some care), that can be put off for two or three years. Above the brim, the Breezer's mesh compromises some UV protection to get air flow... okay if you still have a head full of hair, but not so good if your hair is very short, thinning or simply gone. My dermatologist was not impressed.
Finally, using modern materials and combining traditional with innovative design features, Outdoor Research has produced their Sombriolet, a sun hat that shades everything, from the top of your head down to the collar of your t-shirt. The synthetic fabric is tough and the colors seem to hold up to the sun. It even withstands gentle scrubbing with detergent in hot water, and there is NO shrinkage (none!). The crown has a better venting than anything else I've seen with this much UV protection, and the fit is nice... and the crown rides loosely enough over your scalp that bugs cannot bite you through the hat.
In the rain, the Sombriolet gets wet... and so do you. Some water will get into the crown and brim, but most of the rain runs off, collecting on the 4" wide brim, and is routed downhill... to the back of the hat. In steady rain, this creates a "Niagra Falls" of water streaming down your back (OR also makes a waterproof Seattle Sombrero, but either requires a raincoat or umbrella if you don't want a soaked back and seat.
After the weather (and your hat) dries up, this hat is ready to go and still fits like new. In fact, with the Sombriolet's tough but lightweight fabric, this hat dries faster than any other hat I wear. Another unusual plus... the fit is adjustable, with a drawstring hidden in the hatband. And, "XL" really means "XL." I had to tighten it a bit, and my hat size is 7 and 3/4.
There must be some (stainless steel leader?) wire inside the outer brim, as the edge is mold-able. When the hat gets folded the wrong way, it can usually be returned to its original shape, or pretty darn close. The brim is as wide or wider than almost any other "practical" hat I have owned, lined below with dark (glare reducing) material, and stiffened with a foam insert that adds buoyancy if the hat goes overboard. There is an adjustable and comfortable chinstrap, necessary because this hat becomes a sail if the breeze stiffens above ten knots.
Downsides? First: if you are walking or paddling into a stiff breeze, the brim collapses, either down over your eyes... or up over your forehead. In the latter case, at least it's out of the way... but no longer providing any sun protection. So, if going out in a stiff breeze, I'll usually wear my Henschel Hat's "Breezer," which has a very stiff brim and, fits so snugly, I seldom need the chin strap. But, most days, I wear the OR Sombriolet, with it's chinstrap tucked up into the crown of the hat or removed entirely. I learned (the hard way) not to loop the chinstrap up behind the crown, and over the back brim, as I like to do with my Breezer hats. Do that with OR's Sombriolet, and the constant tension-gradually reshapes the brim, permanently pulling the sides into an upward arc ("Aussie-style"). Unfortunately, this exposes the sides of your face and neck to more sunlight. I have never been able to get that first (khaki) Sombriolet's brim back to its original (and preferable) flat shape, but I've come to prefer my white Sombriolet, which I find a bit cooler when worn under the South Florida sun.
Another key bit of experience to share: in the heat of summer, I often spray DEET insect-repellent on the underside of the broad brims of my OR Sombriolet, and my Henschel Breezer hats. This means less chemical exposure for the skin of my face and neck, no DEET running into and stinging my eyes when I sweat, and the protection DEET provides is not wiped away if I do happen to wipe sweat off my face or neck. I find this system keeps mosquitoes, midges and deer flies out of a zone extending approximately 12 inches under the hat brim, protection that seems to last longer than if I spray repellent directly onto my skin. The DEET does react with the stiffening material (foam?) inside the OR Sombriolet's brim, which creates some minor distortion from the perfectly flat form it starts with. But, the effect is minor, and the benefit is outstanding.
Finally, don't forget, whichever hat you choose, you should still be wearing good sunblock or UVA/UVB sunscreen in south Florida where white limestone, water and boat decks all reflect a lot of sunlight back up at you.