We’ve spent more than a hundred hours over the past several years researching and testing the best umbrellas, chairs, clothes, and gear to make sure your next beach trip is as relaxing as possible. We’ve got your back. But only in the metaphorical sense. You’ll still need a buddy to rub in that sunscreen!
A canopy and an umbrella both block the sun’s rays, but an umbrella doesn’t separate you from the cool breezes and soft sand you came to the beach to enjoy. We spent 10 hours researching and six hours testing in our search of a strong, portable beach umbrella, but every one we looked at presented a series of compromises, whether in terms of weight and mobility or an abundance of cheap plastic parts. Though initially we were skeptical of the design and style, in the end the Sport-Brella was more effective than any traditional beach umbrella we found at that price point. If your heart is set on that iconic umbrella shape, however, the Coolibar Titanium Beach Umbrella comes with an eye-popping price tag but will withstand the rigors of sun and wind better than its cheaper competition.
If you are looking to spend less than $100, the Sport-Brella represents an improvement over traditional models in every detail. The difference in design isn’t too dramatic—part of the canopy rests on the sand instead of staying hoisted above you. But the difference in performance is significant. With three ground contacts and a lower center of gravity than our lofty umbrellas, the Sport-Brella stood firmly anchored during our testing in coastal winds, while our traditional umbrellas shifted and buckled. The canopy is vented, and windows on the sides zip open to aid with especially fierce gusts. And it doesn’t have a valence, sparing you the annoying sound of fabric flapping in steady wind.
Our other umbrellas, from anchor to ribs, were covered in cheap plastic bits that looked like they could snap or crack easily, but the Sport-Brella has only two plastic parts, and those are dense and sturdy. The ribs themselves are made of steel. The canopy is 8 feet wide, which gives it a 1-foot advantage over most beach umbrellas. There’s plenty of space for a party of two, with room to keep bags and coolers out of the sun.
You need to stake the Sport-Brella to the ground, which involves a few extra parts and takes time to set up. In our tests, though, the whole process was easier than driving in an umbrella anchor. When you’re done, the Sport-Brella has built-in pockets for storing all the pieces, and the whole thing fits into a sturdy shoulder bag for easy transport.
All that coverage and security comes at the cost of portability. At 9 pounds, it’s more than twice as heavy as the 4-pound Coolibar. It’s also 3 inches too long to fit into the trunk of my Jeep Cherokee. But the coverage and stability compared with that of a normal umbrella makes it all worthwhile. Amazon users agree: Across more than 2,000 reviews, the Sport-Brella averages a 4.5-star rating.
If you must have a normal umbrella without extra straps and flaps, we recommend the Coolibar beach umbrella. It weighs just 4 pounds and folds into a slim and compact nylon bag, making it effortlessly portable (and possibly less unwieldy than the shoulder bag I carry on a daily basis). It has a silver reflective layer on the outside plus a wind vent incorporated into the canopy, and the underside is finished with greater attention to detail than anything else we looked at.
The ribs in the canopy are made of fiberglass instead of the flimsy plastic found on cheaper models. As a result, in our tests the Coolibar held steady in high winds as our Tommy Bahama and Rio Brands umbrellas flopped around helplessly. Beyond the stronger rib, the shaft and tilt mechanism are made of metal instead of plastic, which is another big upgrade over cheaper models. And as with the Sport-Brella, the two remaining plastic parts—the latch that holds both sections of the pole together and the central housing for the ribs—are of higher quality than those used on other options. You could save $50 and go with the more popular Tommy Bahama or Rio Brands, which we also tested. But we wouldn’t count on those flimsy, plastic models to last a full summer, let alone multiple seasons. The Coolibar easily justifies its premium if you must have a traditional umbrella.
Unfortunately, the Coolibar has no built-in sand anchor. But our testing showed that built-in anchors are barely better than nothing, so you’ll be better off buying a separate one anyway (we have a pick below), or risk it flying away (which it did on us). However, the add-on pushes up the cost, which is why I consider this umbrella a $100-plus expense in spite of its $90 price tag. The canopy is 6 feet wide, which provides a small amount of shade for two people, no more. The height is not adjustable—once you lock the two halves of the pole together, the only way to adjust the height is to dig the pole deeper into the sand. But with all that in mind, Good Housekeeping still rates the Coolibar “the best beach umbrella out there.” And we agree. —Eve O’Neill
After spending eight hours to research and test the six top-rated beach canopies—with a toddler in tow—over the past two years, we’ve determined that the Lightspeed Outdoors Seaside Pop-Up Shelter Tent is the best beach canopy for most beach-going families. It is the easiest and fastest to assemble, comes in the most attractive colors, and is the most compact when stowed away.
Assembly of the Lightspeed involves just one step and just a few seconds. All poles and straps come attached, so all you need to do is simply locate the top, pull the side poles down, and tug on the string to pop up the tent. It’s almost like a giant umbrella that you open backwards. Once unfurled, it provides ample shade and shelter for two people to sit in or a baby to play in while at the beach. At 79 by 43.5 by 45 inches, it’s big enough to fit two reclining beach chairs under the awning. For windier days, there are four loops to stake down the corners, two adjustable cords to stabilize the top, and three additional sandbags for the base.
If you want something a bit larger, last year’s top pick, the Genji Sports One Step Hexagon Beach Tent is still great, but it costs about $40 more than the Lightspeed without doing much extra. It measures 94.5 by 59 by 56 inches, which means it’s a bit bigger than the Lightspeed in every dimension, which taller people will appreciate. That said, it’s still not big enough to squeeze in a third chair, so you’re really paying more for the luxury of a bit of extra elbow and head room.
We also tested the attractive, functional Coleman Hatteras Fast Pitch Shade, which can be fully sealed off from the elements, but its color-coded poles didn’t make up for the fact that the structure still had to be pitched like a traditional tent. Last year, we looked at the Kelty Cabana and Coleman Road Trip, but were unimpressed, considering that neither did anything better than the Genji, yet each took far longer to set up thanks to their more traditional tent-pole-and-clip support structures. —Abi Smigel Mullens
If you prefer to use a traditional beach umbrella rather than a shelter, we recommend using a sand anchor to prevent it from blowing away. We spent several hours researching options and tested five top models on a blustery 25-knot day. After witnessing the cheaper Mainstays Sand Grabber, Ostrich Shade Anchor Bag, and Rio Brands and Seasonal Industries anchors fail in spectacular (and sometimes dangerous) fashion, we recommend spending about $40 on Tremendous’s Heavy Duty Umbrella Stand. It was one of just two anchors that held its ground through the strongest gusts. It’s basically just a 2-foot-long steel stake with an umbrella holder welded onto it. But it works—unlike the design used in most umbrellas with built-in anchors.
If the Tremendous stand is ever unavailable, it’s worth spending more to get the AugHog Augbrella. Unlike the other, cheap plastic anchors, it feels sturdy, is backed by a three-year warranty, and is made in the USA. Thanks to its wide handle, I was able to screw the auger bit deep into the hard-packed sand of Folly Beach with no issue. Once it’s in, it’s in. —Chris Dixon
When it comes to beach towels, most of us just want something that works, isn’t emblazoned with My Little Ponies, and doesn’t cost much. But comfort, absorbency, durability, ability to repel sand, and style are certainly nice perks. With these features in mind, last summer we researched for about six hours, talked to fabric experts, and lounged around on seven highly recommended towels for far too many hours to count as work. This year, we spent a couple of hours checking to see if anything changed, and we’re still confident that the best beach towel you can buy at a reasonable price is the L.L.Bean Seaside Beach Towel.
Turkey is known for its towels the way France is known for its wine. The L.L.Bean Seaside is woven in this towel mecca from fluffy cotton that absorbs water better than any other we looked at. The L.L.Bean is also very soft (even after multiple washes), its edges are sewn so they won’t fray over time, and at 36 by 68 inches, it’s even big enough for you to sprawl out à la Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. And as long as you lay it down with the fluffy side up (like most beach towels), it sheds sand with ease when it’s time to pack up.
One downside of these huge beach towels is that they take up a lot of space in your bag. Also, they’re not as soft as organic cotton towels made by the cotton masters at Coyuchi. If you don’t mind a smaller beach towel, this Coyuchi Mediterranean Beach Towel is a luxury and perfect for travel. It’s “high-low” woven—like a basket—from the softest organic Turkish cotton. It dries faster than the above towels and is surprisingly absorbent given its light weight. It’s also the best looking.
Last year, we lamented that the organic Coyuchi was available only in bathroom sizes (which can also be nice to have if you want to use it for changing), but this year it comes in a 71- by 39-inch beach size. However, it’s still expensive, and colors, which are not fixed with dye-locking chemicals, will fade after prolonged use in the sun. —Jaimal Yogis
For those beachgoers looking for a comfortable spot in the shade, you can’t do better than the new Renetto Beach Bum 2.0, successor to the Renetto Original Canopy Chair, which was last year’s pick. But if you’d prefer a recliner for soaking up as much sun as possible, the Tommy Bahama Backpack Cooler Chair is the seat for you. In order to pick these two, we carried and sat in seven finalists over three weeks during the midday heat at beaches on Oahu. Tough work.
If you’re looking for a comfortable seat in the shade to guard against the sun, you can’t beat the new Renetto Beach Bum 2.0. Like the Renetto Original Canopy Chair, which was last year’s pick, the Beach Bum 2.0’s main draw is a cleverly designed canopy that provides ample shade when unfurled, and conveniently doubles as a built-in carrying case for the whole chair when you stow it. The chair even has built-in backpack straps for comfortable hands-free carrying. When the canopy is up, Velcro straps at the front let you adjust it so you stay in the shade as the sun moves. It’s a sturdier design compared with other top competitors like the Sport-Brella Recliner, which uses an umbrella attachment that shook in medium and heavy winds. The Renetto canopy also folds back down in seconds, letting you choose between sun and shade with ease.
The rest of the chair is solid as well. The chair’s polyester and mesh seating is both comfortable and breathable, and the powder-coated steel frame is strong enough to hold up to 325 pounds. Each armrest has a cup holder, and there are two Velcro pockets on the canopy.
Where the Beach Bum 2.0 differs from the Original Canopy is in the little touches. In addition to the aforementioned features, the new version has a side pocket with a zipper that can fit a tablet, a front pouch that can be filled with sand to weigh the chair down on windy days, and adjustable straps that allow you to control the height of the armrests. We think these justify the $10 premium over last year’s pick. But if the Beach Bum 2.0 is unavailable, or if you don’t care for the extra pocket, sand anchor, or adjustability, the Original Canopy Chair is still great. Our only complaint about the Renetto choices is that they don’t recline.
If you want to soak up the rays while reclining with a cold one, get the Tommy Bahama Backpack Cooler Chair. Its built-in padded backpack straps make it easy to carry down to the beach. You can adjust easily between five seated positions while in the chair. Just lift the handles, move them forward or back, and put them back down. Sturdy canvas backing makes the chair comfortable—and strong enough to hold 300 pounds. The chair also features a pillow, a large zippered pocket in the back, a cup holder next to the right armrest, and that cooler in the back—which fits up to seven 12-ounce cans.
The only slight complaint I had is that the frame bar running along the front of the seat can push uncomfortably against your hamstrings during a long session in the sun. However, the chair is low enough to the ground that even with your legs splayed out flat, the inconvenience of the bar is minor. Overall, the Tommy Bahama was much more comfortable—and had more important features, including a durable, rustproof aluminum frame—than any of the other chairs we tested.
If you prefer to pay a little less for fewer features, you’ve got plenty of good options. If you’re seeking shade, the Renetto Original Canopy Chair is still a solid deal. The Sport-Brella Recliner offers recline options and a footrest, but its umbrella didn’t offer as much sturdy sun protection as the Renetto, and without the integrated canopy, the folded chair also has to be tucked into a case with a strap to be carried to and from the beach. The REI Comfort Low is sturdy and offers a pillow that moved down for lumbar support or up for back support, but doesn’t have armrests or a recline option. The Therm-a-Rest Treo packs down to the size of a 1-liter water bottle, but the chair is cramped and not comfortable enough for relaxing on a hot beach. —Joe Spring
After six hours of research, extensive consultation with our lifelong beach-goers here on staff, and an afternoon hauling loads of towels and snacks around in our four top contenders, we think the L.L.Bean Boat and Tote is best for lugging all your stuff to and from the beach. It’s made in Maine of heavyweight 24-ounce canvas, fit to weather the elements and help the bag stand up like a bucket—even when empty. It’ll also keep prying eyes away from your valuables and protect them from sand and water. It features a reinforced bottom and overlapped, double-stitched seams made with nylon thread that will resist rot better than cheap cotton.
The Boat and Tote comes in two handle lengths. The large bag we tested shipped with the standard 8-inch handles, long enough to fit over your shoulder and essential for freeing up your hands for umbrellas and coolers. But it’s a tight fit; if you plan on stuffing your bag to the brim, opt for longer, 14-inch handles to accommodate the bulk. They’re also overbuilt to extend all the way around the bottom of the bag and are rated to 500 pounds.
There are no additional pockets and no zippers, but that’s not a bad thing. Pockets fill with sand, and as Brian Lam found after casting aside six different zippered bags, zippers—unless specifically designed for salt environments—oxidize and seize up quickly in ocean air. (But if you still demand closure, the Boat and Tote is available with a zippered top.) It ships for free, and should anything ever go wrong, it’s covered under L.L.Bean’s lifetime satisfaction guarantee.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $33.
While we think canvas is a better bag material for most beachgoers, a mesh bag is a great option for holding dirty and/or wet things. We like the mesh Whale Bag by Saltwater Canvas. Because it’s made of porous mesh and not canvas, filthy beach buckets and shovels won’t ruin it, sand shakes out easily so it won’t get stuck in crevices, and pool toys like snorkels and goggles and can be tossed in wet and left to dry. If it gets funky, just hose it down. It has eight exterior pockets to hold an assortment of flip-flops, sunglasses, and water bottles—the things children (and maybe you) tend to scatter around and forget. It’s worth noting that a small amount of sand can come in through the bottom, which means it’s not ideal for holding electronics, but should you need to secure a few valuables there is one interior zippered pocket plus a small carabiner key ring. It comes in a wide variety of colors and two additional sizes.
Lands’ End’s Natural Canvas Open Top Tote is made of the same sturdy materials as the L.L.Bean model and has comparable build quality, but we ultimately passed on it because its four interior pockets, while convenient for day-to-day organization, will trap sand at the beach. Its handles aren’t overbuilt either—extending only halfway down the bottom reinforcement, whereas the L.L.Bean’s handles go all the way around. While the price may be about the same as the cost of the L.L.Bean bag, that number doesn’t include free shipping, and it’s imported—if that matters to you.
If you’re on a very limited budget, knockoffs of both of our picks proliferate on Amazon. You might be tempted, for example, by the cheap prices and overwhelmingly positive user review scores of the Heavy Duty Deluxe canvas bag and the Getagadget Huge See-Thru mesh bag. But if you compare either against the real thing, there’s no contest. Quality suffers in all the places you might expect: The fabric is cheap, and little attention has been given to the design of the handles. They neither wrap around the underside of the bag (like on the L.L.Bean), nor are they sewn along the full height of the bag, all the way to the bottom (as on the Whale bag) for added strength and longevity. Stitching and thread quality are also inferior throughout. Furthermore, at a mere 4 inches wide, the bottom on the Getagadget bag is so narrow that there’s no hope it will remain upright on its own, so you risk spilling your food and clean clothes into the sand. —EO
A couple of years ago, my good friend Kirk and his wife, Pauline, amazed my wife and me when they showed up at the beach lugging what appeared to be a glorified laundry cart. The Rio Brands Wonder Wheeler—a 3-foot-tall upright wheeled basket with a big mesh bag—was stuffed to the gills with sand toys, towels, a bag of food, and an umbrella to keep their two young daughters out of the sun. It had four wheels, but the cart was actually made to be tilted like a luggage cart or dolly and hauled on the two skinny (but large-diameter) rear wheels. As a fellow beach-dwelling, gear-hauling parent of two youngsters, I was covetous.
After spending a couple of years envious of Kirk’s baseline Wonder Wheeler beach cart, taking time to check out the offerings at our local beachwear stores, and sandying plastic wheels for a week, we’re recommending the Tommy Bahama All Terrain Beach Cart. This souped-up Wonder Wheeler (made by Rio Brands) is a sturdy all-purpose sandcrawler that will haul a day’s worth of food and gear to the beach and then lug it—along with maybe even a tired kid—back to the car at day’s end. Now it’s Kirk’s turn to covet.
Unlike the basic Wonder Wheeler’s stroller wheels, this sturdier Humvee of the beach cart world sports a pair of wide, oversized rear plastic tires that roll even better up and down stairs and over sand, a perfect holder for umbrellas or a couple of fishing rods, and a bitchin’ removable cooler tote bag (this—and evidently better quality control—sets it apart from the Ultra Wide Wheels Wonder Wheeler, which just has a tote) with enough room for a six-pack and lunch for Mom, Dad, and two kids.
It also features an extension bar that can hold three—maybe even four—chairs, and can double as a mount for a strap-bound surfboard. The cart also folds flat and pops open with ridiculous ease and is super easy to rinse out. For parents, fisherfolk, or anyone who wants or needs to lug a lot of stuff to the beach, it simply can’t be beat.
There are a few caveats though. If you get one of these, you should rinse it after each use because even though it’s chromed and powdercoated on every surface, it’s still made of steel, which means rust will eventually find a way in if you don’t get the corrosive beach salt off. I’m also a little leery of the cooler’s zipper, which seems cheaply made (it’s not YKK) and will probably benefit from the occasional squirt of WD-40. You also need to check the locking front wheel nuts to make sure they’re tight enough, as one of ours worked its way off. Like every other cart I could find, this one has no hand brake. If you need to haul your gear down long or steep hills, you might consider doing what my wife and I did before we found this cart and load your stuff into a hand-brake-equipped jogging stroller.
Other brands make various iterations of beach carts, but their products all fail to measure up in one way or another. The Mac Sports All Terrain Collapsible Wagon can’t go down stairs without two people (or one strong one who can carry it). Just today, while bouncing my Wonder Wheeler down a flight of Folly Beach stairs, I watched a pair of dads struggling with their Mac Sports for exactly this reason. They were covetous, too. Mac Sports’s wheelbarrow type cart is expensive ($300 and up!), and the inflatable tires can be punctured. Genji’s pull-behind offering gets mediocre Amazon reviews and has little built-in storage. And others just try to do too much, like the Copa Cargo Table Cart, which has a built-in table but less-solid build quality. —CD
For smaller groups, a soft cooler is ideal for beach or poolside because it’s small enough to be carried by one person and insulated enough to keep drinks cold for a full day. The AO Canvas Series 24-Pack Soft Cooler performed well during testing in the brutal Southern California sunshine. In all the ways we measured performance—how cold it stayed, how easily it loaded, how durable it was against leaks, how comfortable it was to carry—this model stood shoulder-to-shoulder with coolers that cost twice as much.
We’ve been using the AO Cooler for several months now in California for everything from grocery runs, to days at the beach, to a multi-day road trip adventure without complaint. Packed on all sides with three-quarter-inch open cell foam and encased in 600-denier nylon, this cooler has stood up to all kinds of abuse and kept things colder longer than we thought possible. —Kit Dillon
After spending 25 hours on research and interviews, and many more wearing sunscreen on our bodies, we’ve determined that the best sunscreen for everyday use is the one you’ll use correctly. According to all seven dermatologists we interviewed, as well as the many scientific papers and lit reviews we read, if you’re outside, you should be applying a full shot glass’s worth of sunscreen to your near-naked body about once an hour for full protection from the sun. That’s a lot. And it’s more than most of us ever usually use.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $14.
Our top pick, NO-AD Sport SPF 50, is affordable, goes on easily, and feels good against your skin, which means you can use it as much as you need. NO-AD Sport SPF 50 is also rated as being water-resistant for 80 minutes, the maximum amount of time that a sunscreen can claim to be water-resistant, making it among the most water-resistant of all the sunscreens we considered. While you should apply it when you get out of the water or stop exercising, you will have as much protection as a sunscreen can afford you until then. Not everyone swims or exercises in their sunscreen, but most people do sweat, so maximum water resistance is an important factor even in general-purpose use.
We specifically did not choose a spray-on sunscreen. While they seem convenient, sprays can result in patchy application (especially in windy, outdoor conditions), you can’t measure how much you’ve applied, and they still need to be rubbed in.
As for all the controversial chemicals: No study has shown that they do harm to humans based on normal use of sunscreen. (NO-AD’s active ingredients are avobenzone, 2 percent; homosalate, 15 percent; octisalate, 5 percent; and oxybenzone, 5 percent.) You should be way more concerned about protecting your skin from the sun. That said, if you have anxiety about using oxybenzone—which has been shown to disrupt hormone systems in rats when fed an excessive amount of it—feel free to opt for a mineral-based sunscreen. Try the “baby” sunscreens at your local drugstore. There’s nothing that makes them special for babies—other than marketing—but they tend to be mineral-based and on the cheaper side. Mineral sunscreens do tend to be more expensive and go on whiter. But the best sunscreen is whatever you will use liberally—if you don’t mind the mineral look and feel, you can bypass chemical sunscreens.
If you live somewhere where there’s a lot of jellyfish and sea lice, such as Folly Beach, South Carolina, we recommend trying Safe Sea For Kids Jellyfish Sting Protective Lotion Sunscreen. Last year, the Dixons and Wirecutter founder Brian Lam, who lives in Honolulu, started using it to great success. “The stuff is incredible,” Chris Dixon said. “It makes your skin too slippery to activate jellyfish tentacle nematocysts. Sometimes you can literally feel a tentacle brush against you—but no sting.” —Shannon Palus
Since everyone might want something different out of their sandals, we started out by spending two hours on research, and then we tested 15 pairs: seven new pairs of men’s flip-flops, six new women’s models, plus our two top picks from last year. We wore them around town and to the beach, where we got them wet and scrambled over rocks and sand.
In the end, we came up with three great picks for men and women: The Havaianas Top (for men, women) is our budget recommendation for a sandal you won’t feel bad about leaving on the beach when you surf or swim; Chaco’s Z/Volv Flip for men and Ecotread for women give you a great rugged option built to handle water and rocks, and the OluKai Kikaha (for men) and Ono (for women) proved to be the most comfortable pairs our testers had ever worn.
If you just want sandals that you can wear to and from the beach or pool without worrying about them while you’re in the water (or losing them altogether), get a pair of Havaianas Top (for men, women). The Havaianas sandals are good deal more expensive than the Old Navy Classic flips that used to be our pick, but long-term testing revealed that they’re much better to live with—especially when water is involved. Whereas the Old Navy flips can get very squeaky when wet, the Havaianas Top flips stay silent (or at least as silent as you can expect flip-flops to be), and they’re grippier on wet surfaces, too. The Old Navy option is a great value for less than $5 a pair, but the inferior performance while wet makes it a poorer choice for water use.
The best men’s flip-flop for handling rugged and wet conditions is the new Chaco Z/Volv Flip. It has all of the features of last year’s overall winner, the Chaco Ecotread, with a more rugged outsole (made of 25 percent recycled rubber) that provides even better traction on rough and wet surfaces. It has exceptional durability and traction when wet, which makes it a favorite among white-water kayakers, but you don’t have to enjoy crashing into wet rocks to appreciate the Chaco design.
Last year, Brian Lam wrote that Chaco sandals “are firm enough that I never feel like I’ll twist my ankle and soft enough I can stomp my heel down on a sidewalk without fear of bruising my heel. They don’t slip on wet surfaces, and they don’t give me blisters. I’ve got some wear on the diamond-gridded pattern on the foot bed, but only because they’re the first pair I go to whenever I’m headed out of the house. I’ve walked miles with them with no problems.”
After testing them this year against a new crop of top contenders, I have to agree. No sandal performed better with water on it. The minimal design and materials meant the sandals dried out quickly after I wore them into the surf or after a shower at the beach. And unlike other brands we tested—Sperry, Old Navy, and OluKai—the Chacos didn’t squeak when wet. The Teva Original also performed well when wet and features a durable, minimalist design, but it lacks the arch support and rugged outsole of the Chaco sandals.
Our female tester, Darwina Griffin, liked the Chaco Ecotread better than the women’s version of the Chaco Z/Volv for wet and rugged conditions. While the Z/Volv had better traction on the outsole, the strap was thinner and stiffer than the one used on the Ecotread (this isn’t the case with the men’s version). That strap dug uncomfortably into the top of her feet due to the high arch support.
If maximum comfort is more important than wet performance, the OluKai Kikaha—the most comfortable sandal I’ve ever worn—is for you. These sandals have good arch support, and the soft, foamy midsole provides just enough cushioning to act as a shock absorber, while the detailing in the midsole helps with grip when the sandals get wet. The Kikaha doesn’t have a deeply lugged outsole like the Z/Volv, and the slightly thicker synthetic straps don’t dry out as quickly, so it can’t compete in rugged and wet conditions. But the Kikaha was a notch above every other flip-flop we tested for overall comfort—even when compared with models from other comfort-focused brands. The Sperry SON-R Pulse had a more involved strap with heavier stitching that didn’t feel as comfortable. The Sole Men’s Sport Flips and Sole Men’s Cork Flips had great midsole shape, but the straps were bulky.
The OluKai Ono won as the most comfortable women’s sandal by far. Our tester liked the feel of the thin neoprene-and-leather straps and nylon toe webbing far better than the bulkier straps on Sole’s Women’s Sport Flip and Women’s Cork Flip. Griffin also found the arch support was just right and liked the flexibility of the sole, while the soles on the Women’s Sperry Son-R Pulse were too flappy for her taste by comparison.
In 2014, the Wirecutter’s Brian Lam tested more than a dozen other pairs that didn’t make the cut as favorites for one reason or another. He found that slippers made of leather—the Rainbows Double Layer Leather, the Reef Smoothy, and the OluKai Ohana, for example—don’t feel great around water. On top of that, the Rainbows left dye on his feet when they were wet for a while (Chris Dixon has had the same complaint). Some sandals were designed with high-tech features meant for surfer dudes, like the Reef Fannings with built-in beer bottle openers, but Brian was philosophically opposed to those for both stylistic and hygienic reasons.
Some were so bent on comfort and cushioning that they wound up feeling too tall. The Reef Fanning has an air bubble in the heel more appropriate for a pair of basketball shoes, and the Teva Mush II felt, well, mushy and even soggy when wet. Others, like the Havaianas, had too little cushioning and would be uncomfortable to wear over long distances. (Nor did they offer enough support or durability for their cost.) Some, like the Locals, simply were not as comfortable or as cheap as the Old Navy, in either the bumpy foot-massaging or flat-sole versions. The Sanuk Fault Line and Slacker2 are good choices for the eco-conscious, as they’re made from recycled material, but they were too squishy for Brian’s taste. –JS
*At the time of publishing, the price was $11.
To find the best cheap sunglasses for the beach and pool, we spent three hours reading everything we could about great cheap sunglasses and examining every set of sub-$50, polarized sunglasses I could find across a variety of stores. We then called in seven top-rated finalists to test in person. After wearing each of them for at least a day ourselves over the course of a week and having an officemate try each one as well over the course of a day, we’ve determined that ZeroUV’s Large Horn Rimmed Style sunglasses (polarized) are the way to go.
They’re everything you could expect out of a good pair of cheap sunglasses. For the cost of a takeout lunch, you get a pair of matte-black, logo-less Wayfarer-style frames with polarized lenses, metal hinges, 100 percent protection from UVA and UVB radiation, a microfiber storage pouch, and build quality comparable to what you’d get from glasses two to four times as expensive. With unisex styling that fits securely on a variety of faces (they even stayed put on my bridge-free Asian nose), and weighing in at just 23 grams (about half as much as real Wayfarers), they’re comfortable enough to wear all day with minimal discomfort. They’re also available in a variety of lens and frame finishes—but for water use, we highly recommend sticking to the polarized options as opposed to the unpolarized lenses because polarization makes a big difference in combating glare. Keep in mind that polarization can cause weird rainbow effects and render some screens—like car dashboard displays—unreadable from certain angles. If this is the case for you, pick up a non-polarized version for the drive in.
If you have complaints about them, it’s probably because you were expecting too much for about 10 bucks. (Except for those who purchased the non-polarized white version only to find an unadvertised and humongous engraved logo on the side.) No, they’re not going to feel like $100 sunglasses, nor are the lenses going to be free from distortion. Side glare (that’s when light gets in behind the lenses and makes it so you see a faint reflection of your eyeball on the inside of the lens) is also an issue. They’re also not that durable—the lenses popped out at one point when I was cleaning them after our float test but they popped back in just as easily. That said, at least they use full-metal hinges, unlike $20 to $50 offerings from Knockaround and Suncloud. What they will do is effectively protect your eyes from harmful UV rays and cut down on glare for the cost of a deli lunch combo plus tip without making you look like a total dorkface.
We did come across a pair of sunglasses that were unequivocally better performers, and an even better deal—the Gamma Ray Cheaters. These frames have much higher build quality (they weigh 33 grams compared with the 23-gram ZeroUVs; beefier than most of the glasses we reviewed) and much smoother hinges, with no reduction in comfort. They’re even available in a three-pack for about $20. But there’s one huge dealbreaker: They’re called Cheaters and they’re proud of it—their metallic logo is embossed prominently on both temples. Reactions ranged from, I would never wear that as a happily married father of two, to, You mean, like, that weird reality TV show? If you can get around this fact or if you’re willing to file down the metallic logo, these are the best sunglasses you’ll get for less than $30, but only one out of the 12 Wirecutter staffers I asked said that they’d wear these in public. We also ended up buying the similar Gamma Ray Stealth glasses to see if they might be a less-gaudy option. These are designed with thin, flexible arms meant to promote comfort. In practice, they just felt loose. They were the only glasses that moved on my face when I shook my head vigorously, and they felt like they could fall off at any second.
Finally, we brought in the Sunski Classics, because the up-and-coming brand has been getting a lot of press recently. Unlike the similarly priced Sunclouds, these do have full-metal hinges that are smoother and more solidly built than those found on ZeroUV or even Gamma Ray glasses. The lenses are also a bit clearer—not quite Maui Jim clear, but there’s none of the haziness you’d expect from cheap sunglasses. However, the real attraction is the looks. With their clear frames, colored arms, and reflective lenses, these glasses turn heads. While no one gave me a second look while wearing the other glasses, several people asked me where I’d gotten these. Unfortunately, $50 is a bit too expensive to be truly “cheap” and the build quality doesn’t quite compare with what you’d get from designer brands in the $100+ range. Still, they make me smile when I wear them. In the year that I’ve had them, I broke them once by scratching the lenses beyond repair, but Sunski customer service sent me a new pair within two weeks of emailing them from my personal account. Overall, if they were $40, I’d recommend them without hesitation, but at this price, you gotta really like their looks to justify the premium.
As for the rest, last year’s pick, the Knockaround Fort Knocks, were pretty comfy due to their spring-loaded hinges (an unexpected touch at this low price point), but they’re also $25 and those hinges aren’t even all-metal. And the models with reflective lenses made everything look too dark—like wearing a welding mask. We’d expect higher build quality at that price. Similarly, the Knockaround Premiums also use plastic-on-plastic hinges and didn’t otherwise justify their premium over cheaper competitors. However, if you want a unique color scheme, Knockaround has more style options than anyone else—you can even build customized glasses. We bought Suncloud’s Mayor glasses for about $50 because they were named as Cheapism’s “best” cheap sunglasses brand. While build quality was a notch above that of the sub-$20 glasses, they still had plastic hinges. On the plus side, the more contoured design did reduce side glare—a consideration if you plan to use a pair of shades for long hours of open-water activity where side-glare can leave you with a headache—but it’s still not worth four times the price of our top pick. —Michael Zhao
The most ’80s way to hang sunglasses around your neck is with these neoprene neck straps. I tested both the Chums and the originals by Croakies, but the Croakies don’t slip over the earpieces of classic sunglasses like my favorite Oakley Frogskins or Ray-Ban Wayfarers (or Wayfarer knockoffs like the Knockarounds.)
So: I choose the Chums. Also, they float if you drop them in the water, meaning your sunglasses won’t sink to the bottom if you lose them. —Brian Lam
If you’re looking for the best sun hat, you may have to throw style out the window—the most important considerations are comfort, breathability, and coverage to protect your head and neck against the sun’s damaging rays. To find the best, we spent 200 hours field-testing the top contenders, trying them ourselves after spending 15 hours reviewing sun-hat guides and customer reviews, interviewing dermatologists, and reviewing scientific literature on sun exposure for outdoor athletes.
The Sunday Afternoons Ultra Adventure Hat provides breathability, venting, and packability yet is comfortable enough that you won’t mind wearing it. This new-for-2016 design combines the best features of the previous model and improves on them, offering lighter fabrics (that are still UPF 50+) and a slimmer silhouette. The Ultra Adventure stops just before the ear, balancing coverage with visibility. The brim also stays rigid in the wind—protecting your face from the sun even during gusts—and when the breeze picks up, you won’t lose it, thanks to adjustable sizing and a good chin strap. Designed with holes to hold sunglasses plus reflective tape for low-light situations, it packs down easily for travel and retains its shape afterward.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $24.
Our testers unanimously applauded the Columbia Bora Bora II Booney for its breathability, which makes sense as it has the most generous mesh venting of anything we tested. It kept our heads cooler than other hats, both in the field and in a controlled test. For a sun hat without an extended brim, it offers a good amount of coverage, including UPF 50 fabric. When the wind picked up, an adjustable neck strap and crown kept it on our heads without the extended neck protector.
The Tilley LTM6 AirFlo is constructed with UPF 50+ fabric designed to keep your face and neck protected, and is especially good-looking. This durable, Canadian-made hat has a higher quality of craftsmanship (evidenced by the hand-sewn lock-stitching) than other hats we tested, plus a firm brim that doesn’t lose its shape in wind or when compacted. However, that construction also means this hat is not as packable—folding it can cause creases that won’t go away. Tilley does offer a lifetime warranty, and even insurance against loss for two years. —Elizabeth Thomas
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