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Best beach shelters to keep you sun-safe this summer

The pros and cons of BYO shade, plus beach etiquette tips.

different types of beach shelters on an australian beach
Last updated: 01 October 2021
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Checked for accuracy by our qualified fact-checkers and verifiers. Find out more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Aussies and the beach go together like avocado and toast. But as much as we love a seaside frolic, our sun-seeking way of life has a downside: our rates of skin cancer are among the highest in the world. 

In fact, melanoma – the most dangerous form of the disease – is often referred to as our country's 'national cancer'. If you're determined to get your sand-and-sea fix while still staying sun-smart this summer, beach shelters and shades can be a good option.

Good-quality shade can reduce UV exposure by up to 75%

Heather Walker, chair, Cancer Council National Skin Cancer Committee

"Good-quality shade can reduce UV exposure by up to 75%," says Heather Walker, chair of the Cancer Council National Skin Cancer Committee. "It's one of the best and easiest ways to protect against UV radiation when used with other protective measures, such as sun-protective clothing, broad-brim hats, sunglasses and sunscreens." 

But with all the options out there, where do you start? We've got all the advice, plus some handy beach etiquette tips so you can keep the peace while keeping shaded.

What should I look for in a beach shelter?

Level of protection

Of course, you should always consider the level of sun protection it gives. "When shopping, look for products designed to offer maximum UV protection – and look for a 'most effective' UVE (ultraviolet effectiveness) rating," says Heather. 

UPF50+ is the highest protection rating for fabric in Australia.

Size

Start by working out how many people you intend to fit under your beach shade so you can look for the right size. Heather says beach shelters can be particularly good (when used correctly and with other sun-smart measures) for families with bubs in tow, since sunscreen isn't recommended for babies under six months. 

Weight and set-up

Weight can also be a deciding factor, plus ease of set-up. For instance, is it a one-person job or will you need extra help? The last thing you want is a sweaty struggle to put up or pack away a beach shelter while standing on scorching sand. 

Also, be mindful of the quality of the fabric and the shelter's overall durability – will it last? How sturdy will it be in those sea breezes? You may be looking for something that offers privacy when you're wriggling into or out of your swimmers. The last thing you want is the shelter blowing away in a gust of wind!

What types of beach shelter are there?

All shade-throwing devices aren't created equal. From umbrellas and tents to canopies and cabanas, each type of beach shelter has its pros and cons. As well as doing our research, we also asked CHOICE staff and members of CHOICE Community about their experiences.

family under a beach umbrella at the beach

Beach umbrella.

Beach umbrellas

Brands include: Bamboo Bungalow, Sunnylife, Shelta, Business & Pleasure, Basil Bangs.

What is it and what's it made from? Large umbrellas for use at the beach. The shade is made from fabric with a sun-protective coating, and there's a long pole to stake in the sand to keep it sturdy.  

$RRP: Prices can start from as little as $15, but expect to pay anything between $120 and $450 for some of the big-name brands.

UPF protection: Most of the brands we looked at offer UPF50+, although Sunnylife comes in at UPF30. 

Pros: Easy assembly, plus they come in a variety of colours and pretty prints. They're also lightweight, portable and don't cause too much of a visual block for other beach users. "When we went to the beach, we preferred – and also preferred others to use – umbrellas, or other shelters which don't have walls," wrote CHOICE Community member @phb. "They're cooler on a hot summer's day (they allow breeze to flow through and along the beach), are relatively easy to carry to the beach and quick to erect."

Cons: Heather says umbrellas "provide limited protection from UV radiation because UV reflects and scatters from surfaces/water" – plus they only provide shade from above, so you'll need to keep adjusting it. And, if you haven't secured your umbrella properly, they can be a flight risk if the wind picks up. "They either deform, blow inside out or, at worst, become flying projectiles," adds @phb. 

pop-up shelter on beach at sunset

Pop-up beach tent.

Pop-up beach tents

Brands include: Life, Kmart Anko, Caribee, OzTrail.

What is it and what's it made from? Usually lightweight polyester with inbuilt, flexible frames that take (most of) the faff out of tent installation: simply unclip and the whole structure springs into shape. Guy ropes, sand bags or pegs create extra staying power.

$RRP: We found models between $16 and $80.

UPF protection: Usually UPF50+, but always check. 

Pros: Widely available, light to carry and fairly inexpensive. Set-up takes just seconds ("Mine's easy to set up on my own, except on very windy days," says CHOICE designer Danny Wynne.) Zip-up walls give you some degree of privacy and a built-in floor means you don't get sand absolutely everywhere. 

Cons: "The pop-up was like an oven on hot sunny days, and turned into a lean-to on windy days," says @meltam. Packing it away can be tricky and usually involves an awkward 'figure of eight' arm movement – you may need to practise before you try it on the beach, especially if you don't use it regularly. 

Packing it away can be tricky… you may need to practise before you try it on the beach

"It took us quite a bit of head scratching the first few times, and if it's been a while since we used it there's always a bit of a muddle until we can remember what to do," says CHOICE engineering lead, Andrea James. The 'instant pop-down' feature to collapse the tent can also be a bit hazardous, says CHOICE writer Grace Smith: "Both my husband and I have got our fingers badly stuck in this mechanism when trying to pack it down."

father and son next to a non-pop-up beach shelter

Non-pop-up beach tent.

Non-pop-up beach tents/shelters

Brands include: Life, Caribee, Shelta, OzTrail.

What is it and what's it made from? These shelters typically have a mechanism to pull the frame into shape and the flexible fabric has a sun-protective coating. Sand pockets and pegs keep the shelter anchored, and you can usually open the back to boost ventilation. 

$RRP: Anything  between $50 and $249, depending on the size and brand. 

UPF protection: UPF50+

Pros: They're widely available and, since you can find them in physical stores, you may be able to 'try before you buy'. A floor helps keep most sand at bay and walls provide privacy for napping children or for changing your clothes. 

Cons: "The material can get hot to sit on, so you may need to put a towel over it," says Emily Williams, CHOICE product designer. "They're also quite big, so you can't quickly set up and pack away." Being more solid in structure means they're not as well ventilated, can be a bit of a heat trap and can also block the view of others on the beach behind you. 

CoolCabanas coolcabana 5 navy stripes

Image: CoolCabanas.

Cabanas

Brands include: CoolCabanas, Business & Pleasure, Sunnylife.

What is it and what's it made from? Imagine that a tent and an umbrella have a love child – that's essentially what a cabana is. It's a square-shaped shelter with four legs (which have sandbags to secure it to the ground), a central pole to stake into the sand and a roof. Judging by the number of them on Aussie shores last summer, they're the beach trend that's here to stay.

$RRP: Anything from $159 (Sunnylife) to a cool $399 (Business & Pleasure). Expect something in between for a CoolCabana. 

UPF protection: UPF50+, although Sunnylife only offers UPF30+.

Pros: Great for families because they're roomy (the large CoolCabana provides 5.8m2 of shade) and as they don't have a sloping roof there's no need to slouch to fit under it. If set up properly in safe conditions, cabanas are sturdy, as they're anchored in five spots. Manufacturers claim they're simple to put up and down. With no walls, they're well ventilated and don't block out views entirely. You can also buy accessories to use them on grass.

Cons: Not the cheapest option, so you'd need to be a committed beachgoer to get your money's worth. No privacy for getting out of your salty swimmers. They take up a lot of room on the sand. You can't tilt the top of the cabana to follow the sun, so the shade often ends up outside the cabana instead of under it.

Hollie and Harrie Moroccan Blue sombrilla canopy

Image: Hollie & Harrie.

Canopies

Brands include: Hollie & Harrie, Fatboy, Byron Bay Beach Life, Outdoor Connection, ZiggyShade.

What is it and what's it made from? Canopies consist of a coated fabric for UV protection, held up by aluminium poles and ropes. The result is an 'open-air tent' look.

$RRP: Anything between $135 and $300. 

UPF protection: Mostly UPF50+, but always check.

Pros: You won't block fellow beachgoers' views, so even if temperatures are soaring, frustration won't be. They can be very lightweight and easy to carry. Some styles can be set up in different ways, depending on what kind of shade you want. Lots of manufacturers are jumping on the canopy bandwagon, so there's a lot of choice. Once packed, a canopy doesn't take up too much room, so you can keep it in the car ready to go.

Cons: Once you've set up your canopy, it can take up a large area, so it's not ideal on a crowded beach. "The use of guy ropes to hold up canopies and some shades can also create a tripping hazard," says Heather. You may need to adjust its tautness as the day goes on, depending on how windy it is. Because a canopy is entirely open, it won't give you privacy either. 

Beach etiquette: dos and don'ts

Whichever beach shelter you choose, try to be considerate towards other beachgoers when staking your claim to a golden patch of sand. 

We chatted beach 'etiquette' with CHOICE staff and Community members and here's the general consensus:

Dos

  • Try to avoid setting up directly in front of other people.
  • Secure your beach shelter properly so it's safe.
  • Be careful when packing your things away, as lots of sand can blow off and go in people's eyes.
  • Watch out for extra-long tent ropes being a trip hazard.
  • Use a shelter that's the right size for your group.

Don'ts

  • Don't set up too close to somebody else's area – you want to distance yourself from others as much as possible. 
  • Don't block people's view of the water – or their kids – with your shelter. 
  • Don't be too noisy, either with your music or your conversation (and try to keep the chat PG-rated!).
  • Don't leave your rubbish behind – take your litter home with you or use the nearest bins. And always recycle whatever you can.
How much sunscreen do I need to apply?

Probably more than you think, is the short answer. Watch this video to find out.

It takes more than a shelter to be sun-safe

As good as beach shelters may be, you still need to have your sun smarts about you.

"While shade can protect from direct UV, UV can also be reflected and scattered," says Heather. "For best protection, even when in the shade, we recommend slipping on protective clothing, slopping on SPF30 or broad-spectrum water-resistant sunscreen, slapping on a broad-brim hat and sliding on sunglasses."  

Above all? Don't rely on sunscreen alone. "Sunscreen is not a suit of armour," warns Heather. "It can often be applied incorrectly, which leaves people unprotected but with a false sense of security."

How to put on sunscreen properly

To benefit fully from the sunscreen's stated protective barrier, make sure you put on a generous amount 20 minutes before heading out. 

According to Heather, a 'generous amount' means at least one teaspoon per limb – plus one for the front of the body, one for the back and one for the head (so seven teaspoons or 35mL in total for an adult). 

"SPF 30 or higher sunscreen should always be reapplied every two hours, irrespective of the water resistance of the sunscreen," she says. 

Swimming, sport, sweating and towel drying can all reduce the effectiveness of sunscreen, so make sure you reapply it after these activities.

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