Let’s start with this little nugget: Sunglasses are NOT an optional piece of gear. When you’re playing in the great outdoors—whether you’re a runner, a skier, a cyclist, a climber or a paddler—consider your shades the most important piece of gear you own. You navigate with your eyes, after all, which means they’re almost always exposed; exposed to harmful UV rays, dust and dirt, not to mention exposed to snow, wind and blowing sand. Getting crud in your eyes can, at the least, hurt your performance and make you uncomfortable and, at worst, end your day.
There are a million sports sunglasses out there and, for a first-timer, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what attributes matter for his or her given sport. Some important factors to weigh when choosing sunglasses are:
Frame Material: Nylon is inexpensive, lightweight, durable and often impact-resistant. Metal is easy to customize for fit, less obstructive to your field of vision, more expensive than Nylon, but less durable. Harder plastics like Acetate and Zyl are more expensive and less durable than Nylon, but are prettier. If you’re going hard, you’ll want flexible, durable, lightweight frames. Some frames actually float.
Sweat-Proofing: Most sports sunglasses worth their salt have some sort of textured, grippy nose and temple pads that keep them from sliding off your face during intense activities and rigorous workouts. Some of those pads now have hydrophilic qualities—they soak up liquid—that cause them to better grip your face when you sweat.
Lens Materials: What your lenses are made of affects your sunglasses’ durability, clarity, weight and cost. Polycarbonate is the most common among sports sunglasses. It’s lightweight, impact-resistant, has good clarity and is cheap. Glass has the best clarity of any lens material (no shocker there), but it’s pricey, relatively heavy and definitely not impact-resistant. NXT polyurethane is the toughest material, has better clarity than polycarbonate and is also lightweight, but it’s also costly.
Lens Color: Lens tint affects the amount of light that’s transmitted to your eyes, as well as light contrast and the way certain colors appear. Gray, green and brown are color-true lenses that cut down brightness and are intended for bright conditions. Red provides great low-light visibility, and vastly increases contrast for snow sports. It also makes objects more visible against green backdrops, which makes it great for mountain biking and trail running in the woods. Yellow, too, is good for contrast, providing much-needed depth perception on cloudy, flat-light conditions on the slopes. It’s the best for low light, but offers the least protection from the sun.
Lens Attributes: Modern lenses go far beyond just blocking sunlight and UV from your eyes. Polarization filters reduce horizontal glare, particularly reflections from shiny surfaces like water. Photochromic lenses lighten and darken in reaction to sunlight intensity (think: Transitions). Hydrophobic coatings make your lenses slough off water—super useful if you’re a surfer or paddler, or if you live somewhere soggy like the Pacific Northwest.
We’ve picked 12 high-performance sports sunglasses that cover everything from spring ski tours to triathlons to fly-fishing and the surf. Since more and more people are participating in sports year-round—we’re no longer just mountain bikers, skiers, surfers, and runners, but a combination of a few—we specifically chose versatile sunglasses that easily transition between sports. With a nod to style, they all balance the trail-to-town ethos that’s becoming more prominent everyday. After all, high-performance sunglasses don’t have to make you look like the Terminator (though quite a few do). We then ranked these top-tier sunglasses according to cross-sport versatility, price and overall value. The bottom line, though, is that these are some of the best sports shades available and, in our opinion, you can't go wrong with any of them.