After cycling, running, trail running, hiking, or snowshoeing daily over the course of two months, constantly swapping out and comparing more than a dozen brands and some 40 models of sunglasses, we believe that the Ryders Seventh with photochromic yellow lenses represents the best choice for eye protection in a wide range of activities, and at a great price. The Seventh deftly changes the amount of light it allows to pass through depending on light conditions, while always providing windshield-like protection and sharp contrast. We found this model to be extraordinarily versatile.
We wore these glasses for foggy-morning bike rides and a mountain peak climb that entailed equal parts sunny exposure and forest shade. They have photochromic lenses—which means they get lighter or darker depending on how much sun they’re exposed to. It’s one of the features that makes this model such a good value. Not only is their price extremely reasonable for this technology, but they can also handle any variety of sports scenarios you throw at them, so you won’t have to buy several pairs. The yellow tint provides a high amount of contrast, so you can see rocks and slick patches as you roll down the trail at high speed.
The Seventh is not currently available in a prescription model. Ryders offers a three-year warranty against material or manufacturing defects, and a generous crash-replacement policy—a 50 percent discount to replace sunglasses should you face-plant with them, sit on them, or subject them to any other destructive horror.
The Aero lens is made from Trivex—a superstrong material developed for helicopter windshields—and it provides better optical quality than our top pick. Like the Seventh, the Julbo Aero has a photochromic lens, but with an even broader VLT (visible light transmission) range, so it can adjust to a wider range of light and dark scenarios. The rose base tint of this lens pumps up contrast, plus it has an antifog treatment on the inside that our top pick doesn’t—and it works very, very well.
The Aero is a shield, meaning it has a single lens, but the way it has been designed gives it a more traditional sunglass look versus the goggle-like guise of other shields. This one also comes in an Asian fit model to suit anyone with a bridgeless nose. The lens itself is not available in a prescription version (no shield is), but Julbo sells Rx inserts that fit behind the main lens. Julbo offers a lifetime warranty against manufacturing defects.
Why you should trust us
I have been reviewing sunglasses for more than 20 years, first for Outside magazine and later for the Outside Buyer’s Guide, where I was the editor for eight years. I also ran an independent review website called the Sunglasses Buyers Guide for several years. I am a Southern California–based active athlete and traveler who enjoys mountain and road cycling, hiking, and trail running.
I also interviewed several experts in the field, including Dr. Cheryl J Reed, an Akron, Ohio, optometrist who specializes in low-vision conditions, Rob Tavakoli, an optician and VP of SportRx, a company that produces prescription lenses for a number of manufacturers, and John Seegers, optician and founder of OpticianWorks, who is also a recreational cyclist and mountain climber.
What are sport sunglasses?
If you do anything active outside during daylight hours, you should wear sport sunglasses. Good ones wrap around the eyes, acting like a car windshield or motorcycle fairing to protect your eyes from wind, dust, mud, flying objects, and ultraviolet radiation. The latter is extremely important. “UV light exposure can increase the risk of developing lid malignancies, cataracts, and age-related macular degeneration,” said Dr. Cheryl J. Reed, an Akron, Ohio, optometrist who specializes in low-vision conditions. It also contributes to snow blindness and an eye condition called pinguecula. Fortunately, sunglasses sold in the US are legally bound by the FDA to offer 100 percent protection against ultraviolet radiation.
What differentiates sport shades from the ones you wear for driving or around town? The degree of protectiveness is the short answer. Chances are, your around-town sunglasses (like eyeglasses, if you wear them) are almost flat. They don’t hug your face. They permit a fair amount of stray wind and light to reach your eyes. They may have glass lenses, which can shatter in an impact situation (a stray pebble that kicks up, or a header while you’re mountain biking). Glass lenses have awesome clarity and are highly scratch-resistant, but they’re not practical for really active pursuits.
Your townie shades almost certainly lack nonslip nosepieces and easily adjustable temples, meaning they might be prone to fall off at inopportune moments. If they have metal frames (e.g., aviators), they’re prone to bend or break. Also, the lens tints are generally not well suited to outdoor sports.
Sport sunglasses stay on your face where they belong, protect your eyes, and, with good lenses, help you see scenery and details in ways you’d miss with bad lenses or the naked eye.
Where we tested
Over the course of two months, we tried all of the sunglasses we decided to test in a wide variety of Southern California settings, including:
– The Marvin Braude LA Beach Bike Path between Pacific Palisades and Redondo Beach—great for bright, sunny afternoons with glare off the Pacific, as well as for cloudy early mornings that yielded to brighter light.
– Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook State Park for trail running on uneven surfaces, and for admiring city views.
– San Gabriel Mountains: Stone Canyon Trail up Mount Lukens, the highest point in the city of Los Angeles, for hiking in changing light conditions—in and out of forests, beneath passing clouds, and in the changing light from mid-morning to late afternoon. Also Mount Baldy in another region of the San Gabriels for performance in snow on a bright, sunny winter day.
– High Mojave Desert for performance in intense sunshine on uneven trails and scrambling on rocks.
How we picked
For this review, we focused on shades that work well for hiking, biking, and running, since almost every active person engages in one or more of these pastimes, and all of them place clear demands on eyewear. But the need for outdoor eye protection applies to any outdoor activity, including cross-country skiing, golf, tennis, and softball. Around-water activities like fishing or SUPing have slightly different requirements.
Versatility was our top criterion. We sought sunglasses that suit a wide variety of outdoor pastimes in a wide variety of light conditions, ranging from cloudy early mornings to bright, sunshiny afternoons to the fading light of dusk. Assuming that few people want to purchase an array of sunglasses, we sought out single models that would suit all these conditions.
We checked a number of online reviews, though most of those were for sport-specific sunglasses. We also asked reputable manufacturers to nominate what they consider to be their most versatile sunglasses. At the same time, we consulted experts for advice on such matters as lens tints, contrast, and visible light transmission, as well as what to look for in good sunglasses.
What else did we look for? Sharp optical quality; that is, no eyestrain. Obviously, the ability to see details sharply while in motion. The right amount of lens darkness to suit a range of light conditions. Most sport sunglasses lenses are made of polycarbonate, an extremely strong plastic that’s highly resistant to shattering. Yes, it can scratch, but the best ones have coatings that can minimize fine scratches.
We also looked for frames that are lightweight and comfortable, and that have the ability to stay in place and adjust to ensure they they will. Frames, typically made from plasticlike compounds such as Grilamid TR-90 (a type of nylon) are extremely strong, lightweight, and resilient. Their temples grip your mastoids—the bones behind your ears—to ensure that they stay in place, and let you fine-tune the degree of grip. Nosepieces are usually adjustable and should provide nonslip grip––the best ones actually get grippier when you sweat. Because the frames on sport sunglasses are so resilient and so readily adjustable, fit is rarely a concern. Manufacturers generally spec their designs to suit the vast majority of faces of either sex and as such, sex-specific sport sunglasses are rare.
We put them through their paces by wearing them while running, trail running, bicycling, hiking, walking, and even snowshoeing. We typically carried four or five models on our daily workouts and weekend adventures, stopping frequently to swap models and compare. Differences in functionality and quality became apparent, though we will say this: Every model we tested, other than a couple of cheap (sub-$20) sunglasses we bought from Amazon, was well made and had decent-quality lenses, if not superb ones. Frames were uniformly strong and adjustable. A few were amazingly lightweight, but in general we found lens quality to be more relevant than weight. Several testers swapped sunglasses around and gave feedback on fit and performance, without knowing any information about prices or brand reputation.
Finally, we went with choices that have a prominent presence online and in stores. Nearly all of them share details about their light transmission and lens features on their websites, and offer warranties at least against defects. Some have even more generous warranties and return policies.
What lenses (and tints) are best?
As mentioned, most sunglass lenses are made of polycarbonate, and it’s a fine choice. The material is extremely strong and resistant to shattering, and can be formed to provide excellent optical clarity. But not all polycarbonate lenses are equal. Better lenses—including all of the lenses in this review—are injection-molded in a form that is preshaped. For wrapped lenses, this is critical for ensuring optical quality. The mold pre-establishes the degree of wrap and allows the maker to make them “decentered,” a process that adjusts the thickness of the lenses toward the edges to compensate for the light-bending effect of wrap. You don’t have to understand the process to appreciate it. Better lenses don’t strain the eyes. They’re a pleasure to wear.
Cheap lenses are simply produced in sheets, cut as with a cookie cutter, and then bent into shape. The result is optical distortion. Cheap lenses, worn for more than a short period, are almost certain to cause eyestrain. You get the sense that something isn’t quite right. “They might seem fuzzy, dirty, or foggy, but they’re not,” said SportRx’s Rob Tavakoli. “They’re just not good lenses.”
At the high end is an alternative to polycarbonate called Trivex, also known by trade names such as NXT and SR-91. Trivex is even stronger than polycarbonate (it was developed for helicopter windshields) and can provide even sharper optical quality—nearly on a par with glass lenses. But there’s no need to sweat lens material too much. Tints and the amount of light the sunglasses permit to pass through to your eyes are more important.
When we speak of tint, we mean base tint—what you see from the inside of the lens. Coatings and mirrors can alter the exterior look of a lens, but it’s the inside that counts. Gray and green base tints offer the most neutral view. Colors are true, and these tints are the most restful to the eye.
Other base-tint choices deliver stronger contrast: copper, brown, orange, amber, rose, and yellow. You get a sense of dazzle when you don these tints, and at first you might think the whole world looks a bit rose-hued, or coppery. But you’ll still recognize colors for what they are, and you’ll definitely notice the enhanced contrast.
So which tints are best for outdoor activities? “Contrast, contrast, contrast,” said Rob Tavakoli, an optician and athlete who is a vice president at SportRx, a company that produces prescription lenses for a number of manufacturers. “More pop, less stop,” Tavakoli added. “Don’t be afraid of non-neutral. Go for copper, orange, amber, or yellow. You want as much contrast as you can get.”
The reason is clear, and the advantage is noticeable, when you compare different tints in different conditions. When you’re moving at any speed, especially on rocky trails or dirt roads or paths, you want to see details. You want to know where to place your feet or steer your bike. If you’re moving fast, or moving from sunlight into shadow, it becomes critical. High-contrast lenses are the best choice for the most active athletes.
If you’re more casual, if you enjoy slow rides on a bike path or simply going for walks or jogs on predictable surfaces, the more neutral tints will serve you fine.
How dark should they be?
The next consideration is the darkness of the lens. Darker is definitely not necessarily better, for much the same reason that contrast is a good thing. You need to be able to see details that you can easily miss if your shades are too dark.
Sunglass manufacturers list the darkness of their lenses as VLT—visible light transmission—the percentage of light they permit to pass through. A low VLT such as 4 percent is what you’d want for traveling on a high-altitude glacier in bright sunshine. A high VLT such as 80 percent is what you’d want for an early morning bike ride on a cloudy day. This chart explains VLT’s importance in the context of popular sporting activities.
Lenses in the 8 percent to 17 percent range, known as Category 3, are generally considered best for bright sunshine. But do we only go outdoors in bright sunshine? What if we start out early, or it’s a cloudy day, and then the sun breaks through? What if we’re hiking or mountain biking and we enter a forest? Dark lenses can virtually render us blind.
“Don’t be afraid of a lens that’s a little too light,” Rob Tavakoli said. As with the need for contrast, we need to be able to see details that dark lenses can obscure. Fortunately, we have lots of great options, including lenses with middle-of-the-road VLT, interchangeable lenses, and photochromic lenses that darken or lighten according to light conditions. All reputable sunglass makers list VLT on their websites, though you won’t always find that information on Amazon. You might need to dig a bit.
Not every sport sunglass is prescription ready. Sport sunglasses, by definition, use wrapped lenses, and it’s challenging (though not impossible) to build a prescription into such lenses. “A heavy wrap in even a low Rx is going to cause some problems,” said John Seegers, optician and founder of OpticianWorks, who is also a recreational cyclist and mountain climber. “As the Rx power goes up, so will the distortion.”
With that in mind, here are the pros and cons of a few options you might encounter if you need an Rx in the field:
You can opt for lenses from the specialists at SportRx, a company that has been making prescription sport sunglasses for more than 20 years. The specialists build prescriptions into sport models from a number of manufacturers, including most of the brands represented here, if not the specific models.
The company offers a wide range of choices of tints and VLT and will even build progressive lenses or magnifying readers at the bottom of lenses. They also have a return policy: free return or replacement within 45 days, and if your Rx changes within 60 days, a one-time replacement option. The only drawback to this option, where the prescription is baked into the lenses (such as with conventional prescription eyeglasses), is that you’re stuck with the tint and VLT of your choice. If you ever want to change either, you have to buy another set.
You could also get an Rx insert. It’s a set of prescription lenses that rests behind the main lenses. This kind of insert makes it possible to imbue a single-lens sport shield with a prescription. The downsides: You’re looking through an extra set of lenses that may not be as sharp as the sunglasses themselves, plus they add weight. Worse, if the insert lenses rest well behind the main lens, the inserts often fog up or get sweaty and can be difficult or impossible to clean easily. Still, this option works if you want the versatility of interchangeable lenses—you swap out the main lens while the insert lenses stay in place. A number of manufacturers offer this option, including Bollé.
Another option is an embedded or “implanted” insert, which places the prescription lenses into a cutout in the stock lenses, so the Rx lenses are right up against the main ones—a technique that Oakley uses for a number of models, and Bollé offers a few like this, too. Similarly, Rudy Project’s Freeform Sport option places a prescription backing to the Rudy Project lens of your choice. These approaches eliminate the disadvantages of double lenses as described above.
Rudy Project also offers a proprietary Optical Dock—essentially an Rx clip that replaces the stock lenses on certain models.
Of course, another option is simply to wear contact lenses with nonprescription sunglasses. A potential downside is the possibility of getting dust in the eyes, which can be painful for contact-lens wearers. But that, of course, is why it’s important to choose good protective eyewear in the first place.
Why cheap sunglasses aren’t worth it
Although some sunglass purchasers pride themselves on sussing out bargains from gas stations or boardwalk vendors, those two-bit shades won’t do your eyes any favors. The top concern is optical distortion that’s the inevitable result of inexpensive manufacturing. Wearing cheap shades for more than a few minutes is likely to result in eyestrain and a headache. You’ll think your sunglasses are dirty or smudged, even when they aren’t. And you simply won’t enjoy your outdoors experiences as you will wearing quality sunglasses.
Many cheap sunglasses claim that they are polarized, and they may well be. But cheapies simply slap on a polarizing film to the exterior of the lenses, and that film is guaranteed to peel away after a while. The good models embed a high-quality polarizing filter into the lens, and then carefully coat the lens—a virtual lens sandwich.
Another concern is the degree of light transmission. We tried two sub-$20 shades from Amazon that looked like good sport shades. And we had no quibble with their frames, which were plenty sturdy. But the lenses were too dark for any active pastime short of high-altitude glacier travel in full sunshine, and no figures for visible light transmission were offered on Amazon, or anywhere else for those particular models.
Also, cheap shades are supposed to provide 100 percent protection from UV rays, but can you ascertain that for sure when you’re dropping eight bucks at the local Fill & Go? Major manufacturers state and stand behind their quality standards. Cheapos don’t. We don’t think it’s worth risking the health of your eyes or your enjoyment of the outdoors to save a few bucks on sunglasses.
What about polarization?
Many sunglass purchasers mistakenly assume that better sunglasses are by definition polarized. Not so. Some are, many aren’t. In fact, polarization is generally not desirable for action sports on land. Here’s why: Polarized sunglasses utilize an embedded filter—it works like a built-in venetian blind—to filter out horizontal rays, thereby subduing the piercing glare of sunlight off water or ice. That’s fine if you’re a sailor or a glacier traveler. But for, say, a mountain biker or trail runner, that glare transmits important information: Don’t step here. Or: Avoid this icy patch. Polarization also tends to flatten your field of view a bit, affecting depth perception when you’re picking your way across rocky terrain. And, if you’ve ever worn polarized sunglasses, you know that they can make it difficult to read sportwatch or smartphone screens.
There’s no question that polarized sunglasses are brilliant for water sports. Otherwise, they’re a matter of personal preference, but beware of the caveats before you opt for polarized shades.
After cycling, running, trail running, hiking, or snowshoeing daily over the course of two months, constantly swapping out and comparing more than a dozen brands and some 40 models of sunglasses, we believe that the Ryders Seventh with photochromic yellow lenses represents the best choice for eye protection in a wide range of activities, and at a great price. A photochromic lens changes the amount of light it allows to pass through depending on light conditions, and Ryders’s windshield-like lens provides protection and sharp contrast. We found it to be extraordinarily versatile.
We wore the Seventh for foggy-morning bike rides and a mountain peak climb that entailed equal parts sunny exposure and forest shade. The lenses, with a visible light transmission range of 74 percent to 25 percent, adapted beautifully. Almost unnoticeably, in fact. That kind of light-transmission range (quite light to medium-dark) means you can wear the Seventh sunglasses while you’re getting ready for your activity—prepping a bike in the garage, for instance—and simply keep them on as you emerge into the day. The lenses then darken to suit the circumstance.
The Seventh has tall (top to bottom) polycarbonate lenses that provide plenty of coverage for any activity, including road cycling, and the semi-rim configuration (rimless bottoms) still manages to keep them light. The look of this sunglass is less overtly sporty than most sport models. It has a bit of a hipster bookworm look, meaning you could unabashedly wear it around town—a style some in the industry are coining “trail to tavern.” In the case of the Ryders Seventh, you could even wear it inside the tavern. The temple ends bend easily to assure a good mastoid grip, and the nosepiece is one of our favorites. The soft material is grippy from the get-go and gets even more so when you work up a sweat. It’s so easy to adjust that you can set it to narrow, put it on your face, and settle it onto your nose bridge, using your nose, rather than your fingers, to adjust it perfectly.
The yellow tint provides excellent detail enhancement, which we appreciated while trail running, and when we hiked into a forest after a long stretch of exposed trail. If you don’t need the high contrast, the gray photochromic option is also excellent.
The Seventh is not currently available in a prescription model. Ryders offers a three-year warranty against material or manufacturing defects and a generous crash-replacement policy—a 50 percent discount to replace sunglasses should you face-plant with them, sit on them, or subject them to any other destructive horror.