Introduction to Prescription Vision in the Backcountry
It’s important to be able to see in the mountains. For safety and for enjoyment, many of us need prescription glasses or contacts to be able to see! For good reason, newer adventurers are often nervous to take fragile glasses & contacts into the mountains. This nervousness is compounded when considering longer trips where weeks of careful care can seem daunting. However, there are a few great options available for making sure you’re seeing 20/20 in the backcountry. In this article, I’ll answer the most common questions and offer some tips & tricks from years of glasses & contacts usage.
1. Bring your glasses with you.
First, it’s important to mention that you should always bring your normal prescription glasses with you if you require them to see well. Whether for near-sighted tasks like cooking food and reading maps, medium-distance tasks like avoiding weak snow bridges, or for far-sighted tasks like assessing route conditions- it’s critical to be able to see comfortably. Bring a hard-sided case for your glasses- it’s bulky and heavier than a soft case, but will offer significant peace of mind when it’s being tightly packed into your backpack.
2. Consider contact lenses.
For most mountain professionals, contacts are the clear choice. They allow for good vision regardless of your configuration- glacier glasses, goggles, or naked eye- and allow you to seamlessly transition between various eyewear configurations. Recent refinement of contact lens technology has offered disposable, daily-wear contacts that come in individual blister packages. I highly recommend Dailies Total 1 Contacts– these are ‘water gradient’ contacts that are far more breathable and comfortable, especially in conditions which pose a challenge to overall eye comfort- like sun, wind, or driving precipitation.
Daily contacts are “fool-proof” in that you can simply bring spare contacts with you at a minimal weight penalty! This is a far simpler system than attempting to clean two-week or month-long contacts in the field. Finally, I would offer two tips for maximum comfort. Never use hand sanitizer immediately before putting in or taking out your contacts- a good rinse post-sanitizer is a requirement or your eyes will regret it! Always remember to stash a pair of contacts in your sleeping bag pocket at night. Cold temps can freeze contact solution, making it not just uncomfortable but impossible to get ready quickly in the morning.
3. Alternatively, opt for prescription eyewear.
If you are unable to use contact lenses in the backcountry, you’ll probably want prescription glacier glasses and prescription goggles. For those with a standard prescription, Julbo makes prescription glacier glasses in a variety of styles. For those who need a more specialized or non-standard prescription, Colorado-based Opticus also makes excellent prescription glacier glasses, both in their own proprietary styles and in many of Julbo’s frame styles. Regardless of which vendor you choose, be sure to ask for dark lenses. Those with more sensitive eyes can pick glasses with around a 5% VLT (visible light transmission). Lastly, less sensitive eyes allow for transition-style lenses with a variable VLT of 5-20%.
In addition to prescription glacier glasses, you’ll want prescription goggles. The upside to using prescription goggles instead of eyeglasses + non-prescription goggles is comfort- there’s less bulk around your ears and temples. If you opt for prescription goggles, be sure to choose a low-to-middle VLT lens option- 10-30% VLT is appropriate, depending on your eye sensitivity and intended climbing location. See our previous article about selecting goggles to learn more.
4. Over-glasses options.
At the expense of comfort, a full ‘over the glasses’ system can be used. OTG systems are generally much cheaper than prescription options. For sunny, warm, and/or windless conditions, OTG sunglasses like these Cocoons can work. They are designed to sit over top of your glasses. While this is not the most comfortable setup, it will protect your eyes from harsh sunlight in snowy or high-altitude environments.
Goggles are easier to find in an over-the-glasses option- simply look for frames designed with a bit of extra room and a foam cut-out (most manufacturers will specify this), like the Zeal Slate Goggles. Don’t forget to check that the model you choose fits well over your glasses!
If you are able, use daily-wear contact lenses with non-prescription glacier glasses and goggles! It is more comfortable, and even in the long run, cheaper than the expense of purchasing prescription outdoor eyewear. Through maintaining clean hands (sanitized, then thoroughly rinsed in water!), changing into eyeglasses as early as the sun allows each evening, and a patient, careful approach to putting in new contacts I have mostly avoided eye infections over 10+ years of multi-sport adventure in and around the mountains. Seeing 20/20 in the mountains is not only important, but also a matter of improving your experience. Nothing beats seeing craggy contours in the light of sunset from a high alpine camp!
Matt Miller – Ops Manager