As someone who had his first bout with skin cancer at the age of 18, I’m uniquely qualified to write about the necessity of sun protection.
Which largely begins with a hat.
Over the years, I’ve mucked around with a lot of different warm-weather hats (including a brief flirtation with a French Foreign Legion desert hat that guaranteed a bare minimum of interaction with the opposite sex), and I’ve come to some surprising conclusions about the state of fly fishing headgear.
Which is that it basically sucks.
First: Baseball Hats Are For Losers
I’ll be blunt. The Ultimate Fly Fishing Hat is not a baseball hat.
In the solar radiation department, baseball hats qualify only as Poseur Headwear – a pathetic attempt at man-portable shade that leaves fully 3/4 of your head, neck and shoulders vulnerable to the sun.
Their only saving grace is their stickiness in the wind and – for those reluctant to experience the outdoors without advertising somebody’s product – they feature logos.
Frankly, when Sage is willing to pay my dermatology bills, I’ll consider a Sage baseball hat.
Otherwise, I’m sticking with the sun hat that offers the best possible combination of protection, cost and function – and advising the Undergrounders to throw off the inadequate sun protection of their baseball hat oppressors.
And The Winner Is…
So which hat delivers real protection, but doesn’t require delicate treatment – or bring tears to your eyes if lost?
What is fly fishing’s Ultimate Warm-Weather Hat?
Ladies, gentlemen and Undergrounders, we give you:
I can almost hear the puzzled looks.
The Boonie? The floppy-brimmed hot weather hat of the US military?
It’s the Right Size & Shape
At the Underground, we’re all about sun protection, and the Boonie offers the perfect brim – not so big that you’re constantly whacking it against something (or threatening to enter Sombrero territory, with all its attendant fashion risks), but more coverage than a bucket hat.
Since the military realizes it’s bad form to be seen when someone’s trying to shoot you, Boonie hats also offer a low visual profile.
That’s good on the detection front, but also means your $10 investment is less likely to disappear into the teeth of a strong wind (most Boonies come with a chinstrap in case things really blow up).
And frankly, they’re comfortable. Mine are 100% cotton, and once they’re on, I forget they exist.
They’re also washable, and – despite being cotton – dry surprisingly quickly.
In other words, there’s a good reason the US armed forces have kept Boonie hats around since Vietnam; the damned things work.
Of course, modern, high-tech versions of the Boonie are available at pretty much any outdoor store, but frankly, they just aren’t the same.
They’re expensive and made from synthetics, and I don’t like the feel or the cost.
Since the “real” thing lasts forever and costs 1/4 to 1/6 the modern variants, I’m going with the original.
There’s nothing worse than a fishing hat that demands babying; if you can’t wad it up and jam it in your vest, it’s not a fishing hat, it’s a pain in the ass.
And yes, personal experience tells me you can wad up a Boonie hat and stuff it in your vest, and even forget it for a couple weeks (try that with a straw hat or Stetson).
Drive over it? Stuff it in a suitcase for that trip to the Bahamas? Wad it up and throw it at that charging Grizzly?
When you’re done, pick up the hat, dust it off, and you’re back in the solar protection business.
In the larger sense, the phrase “cheap, effective and rugged” has largely disappeared from the modern lexicon, so when I see something that fills that yawning void, I buy it.
Priced So Even an Undergrounder Can Afford One (or Several)
You can find Propper Boonie hats for as little as $10 each – far less than you’d pay for those pathetic, “I want skin cancer” baseball hats that litter fly fishing’s landscape.
If you’re cheap (and we are), you’re already a winner.
If you’re less cheap but still forgetful, you can buy several Boonie hats, stashing them as insurance against those little bouts of CRS (Can’t Remember Shit) that increasingly plague us as we age.
For example, for the price of one Simms wide-brim hat (embarrassingly named the Solar Sombrero), you could buy four rugged boonies, sticking one in your fishmobile, one in the back pocket of your best, one in your gear bag…
You get the picture.
As Josef Stalin noted, quantity has a quality all its own, and that’s as true for sun hats as it is for T-34 tanks.
Camo? Did You Say Camo?
Sure, khaki tan and olive drab hats will suit the majority of us, but for the real small-stream Rambos, Boonies come in a dozen different camo patterns, including the digital multicam now favored by the US Army.
Woodland Camo? Urban Camo (actually a good winter pattern)? Bright Orange (or Purple or Pink) Camo?
Solid navy blue? Black? Vintage tigerstripe camo?
For $10-$14, any of the above can be yours.
The Bad News
We’re not blind.
We realize the US Military style Boonie hat doesn’t actually flatter most people.
In fact, it only really looks good atop the chiseled features of highly trained Delta Force Commandos, and that’s because they’re carrying powerful automatic weapons and chunks of high explosive. (No, you tell them they look stupid.)
Still, once you’ve broken one in – faded it, dirtied it, added a few hard-won sweat stains – style considerations fade, and in fact, things start looking a lot better.
And don’t overlook the Potentially Violent Crazy Fisherman effect.
To another fisherman – contemplating crowding you off the only rising trout on the whole river – a faded Boonie hat suggests ownership of a sniper rifle and a certain familiarity with shallow graves.
Problem solved – thanks to your Underground-recommended sun hat. (Don’t forget us when the holidays roll around.)
My first Hard Earned Lesson? You gotta buy your Boonies to fit – they aren’t adjustable.
Buy one size bigger than you measure.
My head measured out exactly to a size 7 1/4 (a medium), but the 7 1/2 (large) fits a lot better in the long run (you’ll find a sizing chart here).
Not only are Boonie hats available in multiple colors and camo patterns, but they’re also made by a lot of different manufacturers and in slightly different styles.
Mine are 100% ripstop cotton, but many on the market are 60/40 nylon/cotton. I honestly can’t tell you if one performs better than another, though as I get older, I’ve developed a real appreciation for cotton in non-rainy environments.
(You can buy supposedly waterproof Boonie hats here.)
Most Boonie hats come with an adjustable chinstrap, screened side vents and even a sewn-on web loop (supposedly you can stuff branches in the loops for camo purposes, though that seems a little extreme for most fly fishing scenarios).
Naturally, an online search for “Boonie hat” produces thousands of entries. I bought several from The Command Post (disclosure: no financial interest whatsoever) and was happy with the service.
If anyone has any other bargain hat hunting tips, feel free to add them to the comments.
In the meantime, we recommend getting the hell out of the sun, and one of the best first steps in the solar radiation prevention department might just be a Boonie Hat – the Official Warm Weather Hat of The Trout Underground.
But Wait, There’s More
Coming down the pike is another odd Underground post about other useful military-surplus gear – our Salute To Good Cheap Stuff That Typically Comes In Olive Drab.
Like this post, it’s largely guaranteed not to bring tears of joy to the eyes of high-end outdoor headwear manufacturers, but frankly, that’s just a bonus.
In the meantime, feel free to thank me profusely for my informational largess.
At the Underground, we’re a lot like BP; we care about the small people.
See you in the shade, Tom Chandler.