What to Buy

15 Beach Bag Essentials: Family Edition

Beach days are meant for fun in the sun, not for chasing down your kids to reapply SPF.

June  3, 2021
Photo by Rocky Luten

I am a beach person to my core. I grew up near the water where my family would spend entire days. In my early 20s living in New York, I took the A train all the way to the Rockaways just to catch some waves.

Luckily (or rather strategically) I married a beach person, so it was inevitable that we’d start a family that spends a lot of time together on the sand. However, I quickly learned that things get more complicated with little ones in the picture. Gone were the days of reading on the beach and packing light. As a mom, I had to worry about my son wandering off into the waves, eating sand, and making “soup” out of washed-up jellyfish.

Throughout the years, my husband and I have perfected how we pack for a day at the beach. Here’s what we swear by to make family beach days go smoothly.

1. Containers for all the snacks

Photo by Rocky Luten

When it comes to packing food, I avoid disposable bags and wraps at the beach because of the high likelihood of them blowing away. Instead, I like reusable, stainless steel containers like these—and lots of them. In fact, I would pack three individual containers of cut-up fruit instead of one bigger one so that there’s less likelihood of the whole batch getting sandy.

2. A tiny pool for the kids

When my son was younger, we packed a 34-inch swimming pool and used it at the beach filled with salt water. This may sound funny, but the baby-sized pool sat in our tent far away from the dangerous waves, meaning he could play safely and in the shade too. Pro tip: use your child’s toy bucket to fill it up!

3. An insulated water bottle for refreshing drinks

Photo by Amazon

Of course, lots of water is a must for any beach adventure, but I stash a couple of insulated water bottles with cold water in the car. When we inevitably find ourselves hot and thirsty in the parking lot at the end of a beach day, the icy water is a welcome refresh.

4. A beach tent to provide shade

Photo by Ty Mecham

I bought a canvas beach tent as a birthday present to myself nearly a decade ago, and it’s one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. The tent provides more shade than an umbrella and is less likely to blow away. Because it’s open at the bottom and sides, the breeze can still pass through. Mine is super old so it’s not around anymore, but this striped and fringed tent from Business and Pleasure is a gorgeous pick with major vintage vibes.

5. A pop-up tent for even more coverage

Photo by Rocky Luten

When we go to the beach with friends, we supplement the canvas tent with a pop-up version like this from Picnic Time to create a full-on shade fortress. With two shade structures, we have enough room for everyone to be fully protected.

6. A mallet to secure tent poles

A basic mallet is super useful inside and outside the house. At the beach, you can use it to pound the umbrella or tent poles into the sand, so there’s less danger of your shelter blowing away.

7. Simple, sturdy beach toys

Trust me when I say that you don’t need a big bag of beach toys. One sturdy bucket and a shovel will keep your kid occupied for hours, and these Playmobil Sand toys are great.

8. A good beach chair

In the early days of parenting, I never brought chairs to the beach because I rarely got to sit down (I was too busy chasing my kid). Now that our son is older, there’s an occasional chance to relax. We like Byer of Maine’s lounge chairs because they’re crafted from durable wood and canvas, but still light enough to carry.

9. A packable kite

We have two of these fabric kites that fold into a tiny bag. They’re a delight on windy beach days and once a parent gets the kite airborne, even a young child can fly it—just keep an eye on them in case of strong gusts.

10. A soft-sided cooler

Photo by Ty Mecham

I prefer a soft-sided cooler bag to a hard-sided plastic one because it’s so much easier to schlep—and on beach days, you schlep around a lot. Plus, you can fit more into a soft-sided cooler because it can mold around what you’ve packed unlike a traditional cooler. The 18-can models are big enough for drinks, snacks, and lunch for my family of three.

11. A big hat for SPF protection

I’m a big believer that less is more—except when it comes to beach hats. My sunny day hat from Coolibar is wide and decidedly not cool but it’s like wearing my own personal shade umbrella, so I don’t care if I look goofy. Look for one with a “stampede string” to help keep your hat on during windy days.

12. A space-saving Turkish beach towel

Photo by Rocky Luten

I’ve given up on terry cloth towels in favor of lightweight Turkish styles. They take up a lot less space in your beach bag (and in your washing machine!), yet they’re still soft enough to make kids feel cozy after a dip in the cold ocean.

13. A wetsuit for the shoulder season

The latest addition to our beach kit? Wet suits. I had one that sat unused for a decade, but when my husband decided to order suits for himself and my son to extend the boogie board season, I dusted off the old neoprene. Swimming in the Atlantic in early October was one of the highlights of 2020, and I can’t wait to start the season a little early this year too.

14. Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen

Photo by Neutrogena

Like many moms, I couldn’t get my kid to wear thick mineral-based sunscreens (and TBH, I didn’t like them either), so I figured that any sunscreen my kid will wear is better than anything he won’t. We’ve been using La Roche Posay’s kid sunscreen as our main family sunscreen. Pro tip: Apply your base layer of SPF at home while totally naked and wait for it to sink in before you get dressed.

For on-the-beach SPF, I’m a big fan of stick sunscreens because they’re way less likely to spill in my bag and I can easily apply to my squirmy kid. Neutrogena’s Ultra Sheer stick is a winner because the non-greasy formula works for face and body. I keep BeautyCounter’s CounterSun Mineral Sunscreen Stick in my purse year-round because you never know when you’ll find yourself stuck in the sun, but it's also great for the beach if you're a fan of mineral sunscreens—the formula isn't as thick or hard to rub in as the liquid version.

15. A waterproof pouch for first-aid items

Photo by Rocky Luten

In addition to the sunscreen, a few first-aid items can go a long way toward keeping your family happy. I like to pack bug spray, bandages, antibiotic cream, and hand sanitizer into a reusable and washable silicone bag, so they don’t get coated in sand.

What do you always bring to the beach? Tell us in the comments below!

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Laura Fenton is the No Space Too Small columnist at Food52. The author of The Little Book of Living Small, she covers home, design, and sustainability. Laura lives in Jackson Heights, Queens in a 690-square foot apartment with her husband and son. You can follow her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton or subscribe to her newsletter Living Small.


Betty H. July 23, 2021
Who will carry all of it?
Adventure H. June 21, 2021
Beach essentials are necessary to carry with you to protect yourself from skin burn
hezzie June 6, 2021
We bring baby powder to get the sand off our feet when we get back to the car.
Jada W. June 7, 2021
So smart!
Kit May 29, 2021
If you do an umbrella, get a sand screw! Recommend a metal one over plastic for durability. Bit bulky, but worth it for securing an umbrella, especially on breezy days.
Arati M. May 30, 2021
That's sound advice, Kit! (I've had umbrellas blow away!)