The Waves & Sand are Calling: What to Pack for a Beach Vacation
Water You Waiting For? Get Packing!
Has your ocean-scented wanderlust begun to kick into high gear yet? Dreams of venturing off to some far-flung turquoise beach (or even one nearby) will likely occupy your every thought until you can bring your desire for sun, sand and surf to fruition. But a trip to the beach requires thoughtful planning for maximum enjoyment.
While the weather will hopefully be sunny and hot, conditions near the water can change quickly, especially in popular beach destinations like Florida, the Caribbean and Hawaii. Always check the weather the week of your beach getaway, and again the day before and day of your trip.
It’s always better to over-prepare than under-prepare when you’re at the mercy of mother nature, not to mention limited food, drink and bathroom facilities. In addition to must-pack items you should bring on any trip, there are obviously very specific things you’ll need when you’re heading to expanses of sand and sun.
So, if you want to know how to have the best beach day (or week) ever, you’ll need to think about what things to bring to the beach. No matter how long you plan to have your toes in the sand, we’ve got you covered with the ultimate beach essentials for a successful seaside trip.
First thing’s first — you’re going to want to protect your skin from harmful UV rays at the beach. Sunlight reflects off the surface of the ocean, giving you a double whammy of exposure while swimming or engaging in water sports. Definitely pack a sunscreen and lip balm with at least SPF 30, reapplying every two hours or so.
If you or other family members have very fair skin, try one with SPF 50 or limit your sun exposure to prevent burning.
As for accessories, a good pair of polarized sunglasses will fight glare and protect your eyes from UV light. Everywhere from local dollar stores to your optometrist will carry some variety of polarized sunglasses, with the latter allowing you to even fit them with your prescription.
However, any manner of sunglasses will provide some protection, so make sure to include your favorite pair (or two) on your beach packing list.
Hats are also must-have items when it comes to what to bring to the beach, especially on very sunny days with no cloud cover. Guys can pack a simple baseball cap, safari hat or straw fedora, and ladies have endless variations of wide-brimmed straw hats, cowboy hats and visors to choose from.
Softer fabric hats can also be doused in water for additional cooling capabilities on particularly sunny days.
While guys can easily pull on a t-shirt and be good to go, ladies will usually want something a little more stylish for a cover-up. When you’re not tanning or in the water, protect your skin by wearing a sarong, romper, lightweight dress or pullover. Any manner of clothing can also double as shade from the sun while lying down in the sand.
And don’t forget to bring a pair of sandals, flip-flops or water shoes to protect your feet from hot sand and sharp rocks along the shore.
Then, of course, you need to think about what kind of shade is available at the beach you’re visiting. Are there trees around to provide natural cover or will you need to bring your own shade? It’s a good idea to err on the safe side and assume the latter.
Investing in a beach tent or large beach umbrella will allow you to get out of the sun quickly while also providing a cozy environment to relax under when you need a break. If you’re traveling a long distance or flying to your beach destination, a tent is preferable since they fit easily into luggage.
Water Toys & Equipment
For beach destinations near a reef or around tide pools, snorkeling gear will allow you and your family to explore the fascinating underwater world. Bring along a tropical fish guide and see how many species you can identify as you explore. Snorkeling masks can also help kids find the best shells as they get pushed inland towards the shore.
Boogie, Skim & Surfboards
Adventurous types with a love for the water may want to include one of the many types of boards frequently used at the beach on their beach vacation packing list. They can also usually be rented nearby if you’re traveling too far from home to bring your own.
Experienced surfers can bring along a surfboard if the surf is choppy and full of waves. Kids and older adults who like riding small waves can use boogie boards, which can also help them swim safely if they get too tired. Skim boards are great fun for teenage boys, allowing them to glide across incoming waves and perform skateboard-like tricks.
It used to be that you could only take underwater photos with either special housings for very expensive professional cameras or a simple disposable film camera. While these are still options, there are a number of other ways to take beautiful underwater photos these days.
Both the GoPro Hero 5 and 6 are waterproof up to 33 feet, which means you can take them swimming, surfing or snorkeling. Waterproof cases and housings for smartphones also allow you to record all the Instagrammable action as it happens on either land or sea.
Although they’re more often used in pools, floatables are a fun addition to any beach vacation. They can be easily folded into luggage, and a simple balloon pump or air mattress pump can blow them up in minutes.
Classic inner tubes and loungers are great for floating if you don’t feel like getting too wet. However, there are a huge variety of novelty shapes now to make your pool or beach-going experience even more memorable. Ride a unicorn or swan across the ocean, lounge on a giant ice cream cone, or use an over-sized tootsie roll as a flotation device.
Plus, there are floatable drink coasters and coolers too, in addition to floatable games like ring toss and tic-tac-toe to keep you occupied in the water.
If you have very small children or toddlers, a kiddie pool is another great item to include on your beach checklist. Fill it with a small amount of water for wading or pour in some sand for building tiny castles. You can also keep the water and sand out if you want to avoid the mess of it all and just toss in a few of their favorite (waterproof) toys.
Not only is it fun for them to play in, but since it’s a contained area, you can also watch them closely while keeping them safely away from powerful waves and rip currents.
Coolers are a must-have for pleasant summer picnics in the sand. No need to bring a heavy plastic or Styrofoam cooler. There are plenty of soft cooler bags and — even better — coolers on wheels, to make carrying them easier than ever. Pick one that reflects the size of your family or group to ensure it will fit enough food and drinks for everyone. Don’t forget the ice!
For less of a hassle, load it up with your food and drinks as close to the beach as possible to ensure the items stay colder longer.
For the best beach picnic experience possible, invest in a reliable picnic kit. Most kits will come in either a basket or backpack and include everything you need to have a successful picnic (minus the food and drink). You’ll find plastic or glass cups, utensils, plates, a mini cutting board, napkins and sometimes even a corkscrew/bottle opener.
If you go with the backpack style, your kit may even come with a blanket and built-in cooler or wine bag.
While you can certainly use any old blanket for your beach picnic, most won’t keep you free from sand, dirt and bugs. But, believe it or not, sand-proof blankets actually exist. Most are made from a lightweight nylon or PVC material that allows sand to just sift right through the material.
You’ll also definitely want to bring along a couple of beach and camping chairs, which will keep you comfortable if you can’t sit on the ground for too long. If you’re short on space, simple pillows or floor cushions will suffice to make things homier.
If the beach you’re visiting doesn’t have grill facilities, and you’re not flying to get there, there’s also the option of bringing along your own portable grill. You have the option of either propane or charcoal, with the former being preferable if it’s a windy day. Obviously, only bring food along that you’re going to consume as meats may not keep all day in a cooler.
Food & Drink
In terms of foods to pack for a day at the beach, a variety of portable, easy-to-eat items are best for picnicking on the sand. While it’s easy to want to just eat hot dogs, chips and soda — especially if you’re enjoying a beach day with kids — including nutritional options will ensure you stay hydrated and full.
Whole fruit makes a great beach snack, while also providing additional hydration. Bananas, apples, oranges, tangerines, grapes, strawberries and watermelon slices are essential when picnicking on your beach day.
You can’t go wrong with wraps and sandwiches, which are quick and easy to make or pick up on the way over. Most major chain grocery stores have a deli with pre-made choices, or you can get a custom sandwich at the sub counter. Chips, pretzels and crackers can also be combined with charcuterie for a fancier picnic setup.
Small containers of savory dips like hummus, salsa and ranch are convenient to bring along too because you can eat them with almost anything, including sliced veggies.
If you’re able to bring a grill, create veggie kabobs with things like cubed zucchini, artichoke and tomatoes or bite-sized chicken skewers with barbecue sauce. Even sandwiches can be grilled and made into paninis or, if you just have some bread and cheese, grilled cheese. Typical picnic staples like potato salad, coleslaw, pasta salad, and things like couscous and tabouli also make for tasty side dishes.
As for dessert, cookies and brownies are always crowd-pleasers, whether homemade or store-bought. However, as it’ll likely be hot outside at the beach, avoid anything that will melt in the heat like chocolate. Instead, aim for desserts that taste best chilled and are single serving. Go-Gurt, applesauce and freeze pops are refreshing and sweet.
Beach Gadgets & Hacks
Although they’re mostly used by tourists walking around theme parks in the summer, misting fans are also essential for a day or week at the beach. Part spray bottle, part fan, you fill the bottle with water, turn on the fan and then pull the trigger on the bottle. The result is a blast of cool water sprayed into a mist across your face or whatever other part of your body that needs to stay cool.
If you’re not able to grab one of these at home or near your destination, ice packs and chilled wet towels also provide a quick DIY way to stay cool.
One of the best parts of going to the beach is perusing the shoreline and shallow tides for shells, weathered pebbles and sea glass. Not all beaches are created equal when it comes to shell collecting, however. In general, you won’t find too many shells on the beaches of the west coast of the United States since most break up on the rocky coast before they hit the shore.
For prime specimens of banded tulips, conchs, scallop shells, turret shells and coquina clam shells, the west coast of Florida is your best bet.
If you’re serious about shell collecting — or “shelling” as it’s often referred to — you may want to bring along some shelling accessories. You can, of course, comb the shoreline manually, but if you don’t want to spend hours going through lots of tiny shell pieces, a sifter can make the process much more efficient.
Many DIY tutorials exist online for shell and fossil screens. Pieces of wood are nailed or screwed together into a frame with a mesh screen stapled to one side. Some variations also have foam pool noodles attached to allow the screen to float in water for sifting in the low tide.
Larger shells, rocks and driftwood can also be collected and carried in mesh bags normally used for laundry. As for smaller shells, shark teeth and sea glass, buckets, zip-lock bags, Tupperware and small glass bottles or mason jars can hold your findings.
To further set the scene for a memorable beach day, add a little music to the mix. Create a beach day playlist with essential tracks like “Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys and Bob Marley’s “One Love.”
Traditional boomboxes and the like used to be the norm, but since now everything is digital and wireless, there are plenty of portable speakers that are beach-friendly. In fact, waterproof Bluetooth speakers are all the rage, with many so small they can clip onto a bag or beach chair. You can find retro styles at places like Urban Outfitters or modern designs made by Bose, JBL and Sony.
Best of all, since they connect with your smartphone or other Bluetooth device, if you’ve waterproofed your phone you can take them both out onto the water with you while you lounge on your giant inflatable ice cream cone.
Beach Day Survival Kit
When traveling, it’s always a good idea to prepare as much as possible for worst case scenarios. Without the familiarity of home and routine, things can sometimes go wrong and throw a trip off course. Of course, it’s impossible to prepare for everything, but a little bit of extra effort can go a long way.
One way to prepare involves creating a DIY beach day survival kit. Take a plastic container with a handle, such those sold at craft stores for scrapbooking, and fill it with everything you can think of that you might need on a day at the beach.
Like a first aid kit, a beach day survival kit may have medical items in it such as band-aids, tweezers, alcohol pads, first aid ointment, personal medications and Tylenol, but not exclusively those things.
If you have babies or small children, you could also throw in some kid-specific products like baby powder (which does double duty as a sand remover), baby wipes and detangler. Travel-sized containers of sunscreen and aloe are also handy on the go since they’re often forgotten in the car or at home.
Antihistamines and baking soda can help deal with jellyfish stings or insect bites, while hand sanitizer and a Tide stick can help keep things clean. You could even throw in things like an extra pair of sunglasses, hair ties or tiny bottles of Tabasco sauce to ensure you stay comfortable and are not wanting for anything while you enjoy your time on the beach.
So the next time you have a beach day or head to an oceanfront location for a week-long stay, consider these beach essentials. The items you choose to bring may vary according to the part of the world you’re visiting, personal dietary restrictions and whether or not you’re bringing kids along, but the basics should remain the same.
Not everything may resonate with you, but consider this a loose guide to maximize fun, safety and relaxation.
Download a copy of our beach essentials checklist for your next beach vacation!