Maybe it’s the thought of not having to answer emails or phone calls for a week, or maybe the sound of crashing waves as I read a new book with my feet in the sand. There are very few things I look forward to more than vacation. And for many of us that vacation is a week-long trip to our favorite beach with our family and friends. A getaway from reality, a place where not much else matters, an escape from our concrete jungles; the beach is a special place. A philosopher once said of the beach ‘I got my toes in the water, butt in the sand, not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand, life is good today’. Oh wait. Never-the-less Zac Brown couldn’t have said it better. While he is correct in saying hydration is a key ingredient to a good time, the most important part of any beach trip is keeping our skin protected from the sun to ensure that it’s not a bad time. I did say not much matters at the beach, but I must expand on that and say there are a few things that we must think about. As research has improved over the past two decades, we’ve learned a lot about the effects that prolonged sun exposure can have on our skin. Let me give you a hint, it’s not good. Beach goers are particularly vulnerable to sunburn because they often forget to follow a few important precautions. Wearing a bathing suit exposes much more of our skin and bodies to the sun and beach goers often forget to wear or reapply sunscreens as often as they should. These are in addition to having to worry about sunscreen wearing off as we swim in the ocean, dry off with a towell, or sweat in the hot sun. All of these reasons are compounded by the fact that we’re typically at the beach for longer periods of time than we are in our backyards. According to skincancer.org, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of their lifetime and each year there are over 5.4 million cases of nonmelonoma skin cancer treated. These are scary statistics. But there are things that we can do to significantly mitigate these risks. In addition to sunscreen, we have found one of the best ways to offset these risks is to invest in some shade for the beach. We have a team scouring the internet and local sporting goods stores on a daily basis to find the best beach tents on the market because you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your time before an upcoming vacation. From compression hub systems, side pull hub systems, top pull hub systems, to bottom pull hub systems, who knew there were so many options of beach tents to choose from. It can be overwhelming trying to identify which one will be the best for you or your family. No need to worry - we know you’re busy with packing and prepping, so we’ve vetted the specs on all the sun shelters we could get our hands on to bring you a ‘best of’ list to help you keep your skin safe on vacation.
When many of us think beach shade we think of the 10’ x 10’ pop up canopy tent. Since the early 2000’s when the canopy tent started to be manufactured with a single piece frame and easy to use telescoping legs, we saw an immediate rise in beach goers setting up camp with these popular canopies. And for good reason. They are phenomenal products with well-engineered structures that are super easy to use and provide ample shade for family and friends. But starting around 2010, the 10’ x 10’ canopy tent’s little sibling “the sun shelter” has exploded in popularity. Beach tent, sun shelter; these names refer to the half dome style tent we are going to be referring to in this article. Perhaps a result of millennials making up the largest population of beachgoers, the trend is right in line with the overwhelmingly common ideologies of young people; convenience and affordability. The price tag on most of these tents is half the price of a typical 10’ x 10’ pop up canopy tent, and the convenience factor of these shelters is unmatched. And when it comes to beach travel we’re all about convenience.
When I walk from the car down to the beach, I have a bag on my back, my two year old son on my shoulders and a beach trolley (with the cool sand wheels) loaded to the top with toys, shovels, games, towels, chairs, and a thousand other things I probably won’t use. The bottom line is that I don’t have any extra hands or space to carry much else, and I’m certainly not making two trips. The average weight of the beach tents we reviewed is 7 lbs and the ability for these tents to fold into a bag that is no longer than 3 ft. and no wider than 3 inches is a remarkable feat. Every shelter on our Top 5 list comes with a carrying bag that is easily slung over a shoulder, and at just 7 lbs. it weighs less than the bag I’m already carrying and feels like a feather compared to the 40 lbs. child on top of my shoulders.
The first thing I do when I arrive at a good beach spot is set up my tent. One of my favorite things about these beach tents is how easy they are to set up. This is a result of the hub system. As I mentioned we’ve seen compression hub systems, side pull hub systems and top pull hub systems and bottom pull hub systems. The hub comprises of an ingenious frame design made of fiberglass rods that serve as the shell of the tent. I remember when I was a kid and we would go camping, the frame of the camping tent came with individual rods that needed to be inserted into one another to form the frame. Then threading the rods through a loop in the canopy material was next to impossible without the connection joints coming apart. I remember it often taking more than 20 minutes to set it up, and being frustrated and annoyed that is was so difficult once it was finally up. The hub system has completely reinvented this design. It allows the shelter to be stored in the carrying bag completely assembled with the fiberglass rods already integrated throughout the canopy, and with a quick pull of the hub system drawstring it allows for almost instant setup or teardown. Let’s break down the difference in the hub systems.
A bottom pull hub system is a very similar to how an umbrella is set up. Once the beach tent is removed from the bag, stand underneath the canopy and place one hand on the bottom of the hub system (similar to the top of an umbrella) and pull down on the pull string. A side pull hub system is a similar motion to what shooting a bow-and-arrow would feel like. Once the tent is removed from the bag, stand behind the canopy and place one hand on the hub, and with the other hand draw the pull string back toward your chest. A top pull hub system is typically found on smaller sun shelters because it would be difficult to reach on larger ones where the hub is higher. A top pull has two drawstrings on opposite sides of the hub and requires both hands pulling on the strings in opposite directions. Once the pulling motion is completed on all of these systems, the fiberglass rods flex into position and lock into place. It typically takes less than 30 seconds from the time of opening the bag until setup is complete. Conversely, teardown is just as simple for every hub design. Simply remove the connection with a pull of fiberglass rods nears the top, and the hub releases the tension on the rods and the beach tent collapses on itself with ease. I found that the side pull is most common on the best beach tents I would consider it my preferred hub system. The bottom pull might be more difficult due to having to climb underneath the canopy, which I understand might be challenging for some. I’m 6’2” so I prefer the larger and slightly taller beach tents, and the top pull hub system isn’t as common on a lot of the tents that I reviewed. Let me explain why I prefer the larger tents, other than because I’m tall.
Another thing I look for in a beach tent is the size and capacity of the shelter. Most of these beach tents are designed to hold 2 or 3 people; however there are 3 and 4 person tents available as well. I personally recommend the larger 3 and 4 person tents, even if there are only 1 or 2 people, because the increased dimensions do not greatly affect portability (weight and bag dimensions), and provide much more square footage and shade underneath the canopy when fully setup. Larger beach tents often come with a longer overhang on the front and will provide much more shade as the sun is directly overhead and reaches its highest peak in the sky. The larger 3-4 person shelters typically have dimensions around 5’ in height, 8’ in length, and 5’ in width when fully setup. The smaller 2-3 person shelters typically have dimensions around 4’ in height, 7’ in length, and 4’ in width. With all the stuff I have taking up valuable real estate in the shade – coolers, bags, chairs, towels; it doesn’t feel quite as overwhelming and crowded with the larger setup.
The next thing that I look for is the flooring of the tent. I was concerned when I was looking to purchase my first beach tent because I enjoy my chair and feet in the sand when I’m at the beach. I love that Pacific Breeze tents come equipped with an unzippable floor, giving you the option to put your chair or feet in the sand, or keep it zipped if you wish to keep your belongings less sandy. Not all brands have this capability, but I highly recommend you keep an eye out for this feature if it is something that is important to you as well. Windows and air circulation are also near the top of my list of things to check for. I personally want to have three windows in a beach tent, one on each side and one on the back to allow a breeze to come through the canopy from any direction. Two windows would still serve this purpose quite well and provide air circulation, but in general finding a beach tent with at least some removable or zipperable window covering is a must. Even though these tents are half dome and open facing, a hot sun at the beach with little-to-no breeze and insufficient air circulation can be quite uncomfortable, even in the shade. Lastly, with everything I talked about in our opening and needing to protect our skin, I want to make sure that the beach tent material provides sufficient UPF to keep us safe from the suns potentially harmful rays. UPF is the Ultraviolet Protection Factor, and some materials out there are better than others at reflecting these harmful rays. Every sun shelter on our list is engineered with 50+ UPF, which is as good as it gets. Without this rating, even a material you might think is blocking the sun could still penetrate and cause damage to our skin. If you happen to choose a tent not our on list, double check to ensure the UPF is 50+ to protect yourself. An added bonus is that most of these UPF material canopies are constructed with a polyester fabric which is resistant to water in case of some unexpected showers pop up.
Overall with everything we’ve talked about I hope you can understand why purchasing a lightweight beach tent is a great investment. I love being at the beach on a hot summer day, it’s one of my favorite things. But I’ve come to realize that I need to be safe and protect my skin, and teach my kids to be responsible about sun protection. Sunscreen will always remain one of the most important things for skin protection but having a place where we can get out of the sun, even for just a little bit, will make beach time and vacation that much more enjoyable. The convenience alone makes them worth it, and at a fraction of the cost of a traditional canopy tent it becomes a no brainer. The best beach tents we reviewed this summer come equipped with everything you will need for a fun and enjoyable vacation, so check out our in depth reviews and the benefits each one offers.