Johnie Gall || DirtbagDarling.com
Over the past few years, “fear” has become something of a challenge in my vocabulary. I went from someone who was scared to try surfing to someone who lives out of a revamped Dodge Sprinter van traveling the country in search of adventure. I’ve been fortunate enough to surf in Hawaii, to hike the highest peaks in Colorado, to snorkel with sharks in the Florida Keys, and to free rappel 200 feet from an arch in the middle of the Utah desert.
That’s not to say I’m fearless—there are many things that still frighten me about spending so much time in the outdoors. Bears. Falling. Broken limbs. Getting lost. Melanoma.
Yes, melanoma is a very real consideration of everything I do—though you might not believe me judging my criss-cross lattice of tan lines and premature wrinkles. Tan happens, especially when you spend the majority of your day outdoors (all the sunscreen in the world won’t change that), but so does melanoma, and I’ve chosen not to be so bold as to think it won’t happen to me. That’s why protecting my skin has become as much a part of my adventure prep as loading up my backpack and buying spare fuel.
Don’t get me wrong—I wasn’t always so cautious about skin cancer. Flashback to high school and you’d find me in a tanning booth prepping for prom and roasting at the beach with my friends. I thought hiking was synonymous with sports bras and fishing meant donning nothing more than a bikini. I actually shake my head thinking of the damage I did, but like they always say, hindsight is 20/20.
That lifestyle came to screeching halt when I took my first trip to the dermatologist in my late teens—I had a mole that looked suspicious, and my doctor wanted it off. After the biopsy, he told me it was benign. The danger was over, but the shock that something I’d always (foolishly) thought could never happen to me was actually happening was still there. It was a huge wake-up call, but I was lucky.
After my initial scare, I know that skin cancer prevention begins long before the threat becomes deadly and these days, when being outside is part of my job, I know that shielding my skin doesn’t have to mean sacrificing my active lifestyle—it just means getting creative. Here’s what I do to stay protected:
Sunscreen: Because I spend a lot of time in the water, I need a screen that won’t harm the coral reefs or marine animals when it washes off. I never leave the house without at least coating my hands, feet and face with SPF 30, and follow up with a water resistant one all over my body as soon as we start any activity.
UPF Clothing: How genius is sun protective clothing? It’s one of the first things I look for in my outdoor clothing—the good companies always make their sweat-wicking shirts and pants with UPF 15 or more. When in doubt, I slather on a layer of sunscreen under my clothing, too.
In the water: I rarely go swimming in the ocean without a rash guard—but long gone are the days when donning a quick-drying shirt meant a men’s style tee or neon monstrosity. I’m lucky enough to have a few friends who are at the helm of swimwear companies aimed at protecting skin, so surf leggings and rash guards are always in my bag or stashed in the trunk of my car.
Giant. Hats: Here’s the great thing about wearing hats—you never have to worry about what your hair looks like. I can go without a shower for a week (something I often have to do living out of a van) and no one is any the wiser. I stock up on lifeguard-style straw hats at the flea market for summer and keep a collection of wool beanies, baseball caps and floppy felt hats in my closet for the colder months.
And if there’s one thing everyone should buy, it’s a white fishing shirt (yes, even if you hate fishing). They are light, airy, and dry like lightening. Dunk them in the water to cool off on boat rides, or wear them over your hiking clothes on hot days.
Most importantly, I’ve learned to find ways to stay out of the sun. My philosophy is this: being outside is part of my life. It always has been. It always will be. Tan will happen, but as long as I’m making every effort I can to stay safe, then I won’t have any regrets (and hopefully a healthy and happy skin suit!).
About the Author: Johnie Gall is the founder of DirtbagDarling.com, an online magazine for women that aims at inspiring and educating women of all skill levels on how to make the most of their outdoor experience. She’s a writer and a creative consultant who calls Pennsylvania home base (but you’re more likely to find her traveling the country in her Dodge Sprinter turned RV).