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Family Beach Guide: Sanity-Saving Tips and Gear

family beach tips family beach tips

It’s Summah! And after a year of #pandemicparenting, you, me and everyone we ever met IRL and disagreed with online is hitting the beach in some way, shape or form.

Now, I’m what you’d call a pro beach goer. Not only am I a travel editor and frequent beach resort checker-outer in my professional life, but I’ve been a regular wash-ashore at the same Nantucket Sound strand of beach since I was two. And for the past five seasons, my twins have spent every sun-kissed afternoon splashing, swimming, Boogie boarding and sandcastle-building in that very same spot just beyond the postcard-perfect dunes. With all those endless days in the sun, I’ve gathered a bucket-load of tips to make beach outings with kids just a little easier.

1) Bag it.

“Where’s the sunscreen?” on repeat does not a relaxing day make. I stash like items in bright fabric pouches so that sunscreen, wipes, Band-Aids, Tylenol, and insect repellent are easy to locate.

2) Invest in a wagon.

Whether you hit the surf once a day or once a year, a foldable wagon with wide tires can be a wise buy. (They’re also awesome for city grocery shopping, birthday parties at the park, and tailgating.). Use it to haul the cooler, chairs, oversize floats and any non-walking children. I have the MacSports Collapsible Folding Outdoor Utility Wagon. The style by Jeep Wrangler with a sun canopy is a perfect perch for napping children.

3) Get sea shoes.

Weather patterns can affect the rockiness and seaweed-ness of a shoreline. It’s a bummer to hit the beach only to experience a barrier to entering the water. Tevas, Crocs, and shoes like those from PediPed also protect toes from snapping crabs, stinging jellyfish, and the hardshells of horseshoe crabs. They also come in handy for hopping across lava-like hot sand en route to the bathroom.

4) Invest in comfortable, lightweight chairs.

Beach chairs are a must. They make it easier to spy kids in the water. And they often come equipped with canopies and pockets. Plus, it makes it easier to enjoy snacks when you’re a bit elevated off the sand. Adjustable straps turn any chair into a no-hands toter. Nice chairs can cost, but, again, you’ll use them beyond the beach, so will get some bang for your buck.

Swimming test!

5) Send an Advance Team.

We’ve got a friend everyone calls The Chairman. He walks down to the beach early in the AM and sets up his two chairs for the day. Later in the day, he and his family come to enjoy their preferred spot. Note: Never leave an umbrella unattended. Even unopened, they can become dangerous flying weapons due to sudden wind changes.

6) Pitch a tent. 

Truth: I’m anti-umbrellas. I’ve seen too many transform into unruly javelins in sudden wind gusts. But I’m also anti-sunburn. A small beach tent is perfect for sand play, napping, and as a shady shelter from the sweltering sun. We use the Shade Shack Beach Tent. It’s got a small footprint and pockets to fill with sand to keep it steady. Bonus: There are no stakes or poles.

7) Pack a pool.

Wait, what— isn’t this a beach trip? Yep, but for real—an inflatable kiddie pool keeps toddlers close at hand. Blow it up upon arrival.  

8) Make like the TSA and pre-screen. 

Put on a broad-spectrum, waterproof sunscreen before you hit the beach. It alleviates the sand-stuck-in-the-cream situation and it ensures even application. Hot tip: Apply while your kids are strapped in the car seat and can’t make a run for it (chill it in the fridge first if it helps keep the peace). Project Sunscreen is a mineral roll-on that stands up to both squirms and sand. Set an SPF timer so you don’t forget to reapply.

9) Be a late comer. 

Shh…..the best light at the beach is after 2pm. By 4pm, most strands are empty because families are off to shower and dress for dinner. When friends are in town, we have lunch and a nap at home, then pack an evening meal and spend a quiet time together enveloped in the beauty of a summer evening on the beach.

beach tips kids
Sunset at the harbor

10) Silicone storage.

Single-use plastic bags aren’t beach friendly. I use silicone storage bags for sandwiches and pre-measured snacks. The larger ones can double as wet bags for swimsuits. And the medium ones are perfect for storing phones, keys, and cash.

11) Use a soft-sided cooler.

Hard-sided coolers are heavy and cumbersome. Yeti makes a cool carry-all that can hold all manner of food, or, to give you a sense of its size, more than two cases of ice-cold beer for those sunset viewing gatherings we love to host.

12) Cool it now. 

Speaking of ice-cold, no one likes a water bottle gone lukewarm at the beach. Keep bevs refreshing for up to 80 hours with the EcoVessel Aspen TriMax Vacuum Insulated Stainless Steel Water & Wine Bottle. My kids use theirs for school, too.

13) Skip the stroller. 

It’s great that your Uppababy was made to traverse sand, but unless you are using it to haul your cooler and other beach necessities, you should keep it in the car. Use a baby carrier or the aforementioned wagon to transport non-walkers.

14) Kids must carry.

At two, I had my twins carting their own sand toys; at five they’re also responsible for their towels and Boogie boards. They tote their toys in a mesh backpack similar to this. Hooded poncho-style towels free up hands for holding in the busy parking lot.

15) Don’t forget the repellent.

Depending on your location, sand fleas — AKA “no see ums” — and greenhead flies love to lurk in seaweed on the shore and tall sea grasses, respectively.

16) Designate a napping zone. 

The lull of the waves is an invitation to sleep. Set up a resting spot that won’t get blown around by using a weighted blanket from California Beach Co. and a weighted, inflatable pillow by Ballast. The latter has a pocket for ice packs. Both are also awesome for long days at the park, as well as those fantasies we moms have of lounging alone and reading a mystery novel.

17) Mind your neighbors.

Repeat after me: “I’m not the sun, the world doesn’t revolve around my family.” Sprawling all over the sand with an oversize tent that’s best suited for selling at a flea market, an army of strollers, a series of blankets, a pile of games, toys, and a stream of coolers is downright rude. If you’re part of a large group and taking up a big footprint on the beach, fan out in a semi-circle and have the children play in front of your chairs. Spread out towels for them to eat/rest when needed, and fold anything not in use. Similarly, leave your dog at home. Many beaches limit leashed dogs to early-morning and early evening hours in-season.

18) Buy a beach band. 

Fact: My husband has lost his wedding band three times while swimming. I keep all my fine jewelry at home—have you seen how seaweed can get caught on diamond rings!? When I’m at the beach I wear a hand-crafted band, purchased from a local maker.

19) Trash it. 

Litterbugs are losers. To make it extra easy to throw out all your trash, bring a double-lined bag with you to dispose of at home.

20) Stow extra towels in the car.

Why? Who knows, but you’ll be happy to see them at the end of the day and they’ll come in handy for wet bums or hair or something or other.

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Jenna Mahoney is a Brooklyn-based magazine editor and writer specializing in travel, weddings, beauty and healthy lifestyles. She's been on staff at Bridal Guide and Fitness magazines and her work has appeared in Shape, Self, Allure, Redbook and New York Magazine, among other places. She's the author of Small Apartment Hacks.