Your eyes are important - that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone but sometimes it's easy to forget to take care of them. While traveling, this is especially important when visiting harsh environments that are extremely hot, dry and dusty such as the desert.
Last week, that's exactly where I went with three of my friends. I left the relative comfort of the California coast and passed into the desert where temperatures exceeded 110 degrees each day and at one point flirted with 115! On top of this, there were no clouds to block the sun and nothing to block the wind from blowing dust at high speeds. Even inside of our trucks, the managed to come in while following closely stuck in the cloud from the guy in front of me.
If you don't protect your eyes, it can lead to damage of the eye itself as well as surrounding tissue. This eye damage can include:
Pingueculas or ptergiums - raised white or yellow areas of vision
Photokeratitis - literally a sunburn of the eye which can be incredibly painful as well as ultimately lead to blindness and permanent cornea damage
Cataracts - unlike age-related cataracts though, these cataracts are damage to the retina and can not be removed through surgery.
While wearing sunglasses is a good start, a harsh environment like traveling in the desert requires a more comprehensive solution to protect your eyes!
Eye Drops to Reduce Dryness and Help Eyes Flush Irritants
The first step to protecting your eyes in the desert is to ensure that they don't dry out. By using drops, you can help your eyes to function optimally. This not only means being able to "feel better" but also allowing them to focus correct and flush irritants such as dust and pollen. Because of the extremely low humidity, you might not even realize how dry your eyes are and that can be dangerous.
Polarized lenses help protect your eyes by reducing glare caused by the sun reflecting off objects around you. In the desert, sand and rocks tend to be highly reflective due to high crystalline quartz content. Polarized lenses will actual direct some of that light away from your eyes while still allowing you to see clearly. Additionally, it will help to reduce the harmful UV rays. For ultimate protection, you will want to consider glasses with both UVA and UVB protection. This is often labeled as "UV 400" and includes UV rays with wavelengths up to 400 nanometers.
Wear a Wide Brimmed Hat
While sunglasses protect your eyes directly, a wide-brimmed hat will protect your face and the area around your eyes as well. In addition to reducing the likelihood of sunburns and skin fatigue it also helps block harmful rays that can sneak around the edge of your glasses.
Drink Plenty of Water and Eat Healthily
While eye drops can help with immediate relief, an arid desert can suck the water right out of your body without you even noticing. While most people consider 40% humidity to be comfortable, during our trip the humidity levels were in the teens! This means that mucus membranes in our eyes, nose, lips were all in danger and with each breath water was leaving our body. To survive in a harsh environment like this it is critical to drink more water than you think you need, eat healthy meals with plenty of protein as well as starches and consider sports drinks to replenish electrolytes lost through sweat. Even if you think you aren't sweating - you are. This extremely low humidity and high heat results in water evaporating right off your skin before you even realize that you are sweating.
While it is important to protect your eyes while traveling through harsh environments so you can avoid damage, there are other benefits too. Healthy eyes are able to adjust quickly to light and dark areas and maintain excellent depth perception despite shadows.
Simply put, eyes that are dehydrated or even simply "dry" can have issues with light sensitivity as well as blurred vision and even pain that can lead to concentration problems. While navigating this canyon at dusk it was critical that my eyes were in top condition. Not only was I trying to avoid obstacles directly in front of me, but also tracking the path of the trucks in front of me as they went in and out of shadows.