Sea breezes, sunshine, the gentle sound of waves—oh, yeah, and your toddler screaming because he just tried to eat sand.
I grew up near the beach and come from a long line of beachgoers, but when my own son entered the picture, I realized it’s hard with kids! We’ve weathered sunscreen-induced tantrums, swim-diaper disasters, and one terrifying near miss with a big wave. Along the way, we’ve learned to love going to the beach as a family.
From sun protection to the best types of towels to pack, here are the best tips I’ve found to avoid the no-good, very bad beach days—and have fun instead.
Either get up and at ’em (here’s to iced coffee and pastries in the car!) late morning, ending with early lunch at the beach, or head there postnap for late-afternoon seaside bonding. The point is, avoid spending a huge chunk of time at the beach in the middle of the day, when UV rays are strongest
The best way to apply SPF (for kids and adults) is to slather on a cream while totally naked at home, applying so much that you need to wait for it to sink in before you get dressed.
Set the timer for sunscreen application, says Audra Krieg, founder of the Outer Banks Mom blog about life by the sea with three kids.
You may have gotten by without a sun umbrella in your younger days, but now that you have kids, you need to build a shade fortress. My family’s setup has evolved to include an umbrella and a tent so we have enough room for everyone to be fully protected while they eat and play.
Despite my efforts, my kid hates wearing a hat, so I bring a big rain umbrella that I can hold over both of us while he digs in the sand outside the beach tent.
Leave water bottles filled with frozen water in the car. You’ll have cold drinks waiting for you at the end of the day, and you won’t resort to buying bottled water.
You may as well leave them at home when your kids are young and active.
“I haven’t sat down at the beach in six years!” says Ayn-Monique Klahre, a mom of two in Raleigh, North Carolina, who takes her daughters on at least two beach vacations each year.
Turkish towels are lightweight, flat-woven towels (sometimes called peshtemal, hammam, or fouta towels) that take up a lot less space in your beach bag than their terry-cloth counterparts. But trust us, they are still soft enough to make kids feel cozy after a dip.
A mesh beach bag is indispensable: Sand sifts right through, and you can see what’s inside. The Mesh Whale Bag has pockets for all your gear.
This handy tool will let you pound the umbrella or tentpoles into the sand so there’s less danger of your sun shelter’s blowing away.
We used a baby carrier at the shore long after we’d stopped using it in other places because sand is so hard for early walkers and strollers to navigate.
If you’re early in potty training, bring a travel potty and a swim diaper so you can enjoy the beach without worrying about number two.
Refer to the swim diaper as “beach pants” rather than telling your newly potty-trained kid you’re putting him in a diaper, suggests mom Jen L’Italien, an Oh Crap! Potty Training certified consultant.
Krieg prefers a soft-sided cooler bag to a hard-sided one. It’s easier to tote, and if you opt for an 18-can model like Krieg does, you’ve got room for lunch for the whole fam. Plus, with a soft cooler, you can use every inch, unlike rigid coolers.
Squeeze pouches of applesauce and yogurt are smart bets. Grapes and blueberries beat cut-up fruit because if they get sandy, you can still rinse them off. Cut sammies into small pieces so if one gets sandy, the whole sandwich isn’t wrecked.
Another way to avoid sandy snacks: “Pack them in small, individual bags instead of one big bag to keep little hands from ruining it all,” says Krieg. She recommends reusable snack bags or containers to prevent plastic bags from flying away.
Much of it is guaranteed to get sandy or wet no matter how careful you are. And kids get hungry when they’ve been active outside!
Know that kids need to be reminded to drink enough. On beach days I bring a water bottle filled with “juicy water,” a half-H20, half-juice combo, to entice our son to sip more.
Gabe Saglie, a Los Angeles dad of three and a senior editor at Travelzoo, swears by juice boxes, and Karen Cicero, Parents senior nutrition and travel editor, loves watermelon for its hydrating properties.
Don’t let treats be taken for granted.
“If you want your kids to do, or not do, something, like wear a hat or put on sunscreen, a stop at the ice-cream shop or the shaved-ice cart can be a powerful bribe,” says Saglie.
All the parents I spoke to agreed that you don’t need a huge arsenal of playthings. A bucket and a shovel for each child are enough. Two standout favorites: large, wood-handled shovels for digging big holes, and Melissa & Doug’s sand-ice-cream set.
“We had to buy it twice because other kids kept taking it,” says Meagan Ouderkirk, cofounder of the tennis- and golf-clothing brand Hedge, whose three daughters spend the summer at the beach each year.
For infants and young toddlers, a small inflatable pool positioned inside your beach tent is a great way to provide water play out of the sun. (Bring a bucket to fill it.)
I’d estimate my kid clocked more than 50 beach days by his third birthday, and he has napped at the beach a sum total of once. I’m not alone. None of the other parents I interviewed had a child who regularly naps at the beach.
“Low tide is our favorite time to visit the beach,” says Parents contributing stylist Annie Caruso, a mom from the beachside town of Leonardo, New Jersey.
Plan to arrive an hour before low tide for optimal tide-pool exploration, but be sure to park your gear far enough from the water’s edge that you won’t get wet as the tide comes in.
Bring a children’s novel, like Matilda or Charlotte’s Web, to read aloud when the kids are eating or need a break, suggests Ouderkirk.
Look for built-in entertainment, such as boogie-board rentals, boat rides, or food vendors, says mom and Airbnb host Saskia Conti, of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. Or figure out what is going on just off the beach. Maybe you can rent bikes, visit a shop or a restaurant, or hike a nature preserve.
“A beach that gives you extra activities extends the beach-day experience,” says Saglie.
Consider this your go-to beach checklist. Run through it before you pull out of the driveway: