The Best Beach Umbrella Is Not Actually an Umbrella

A good sunshade provides consistent protection from the sun over a large area while maintaining a comfortable amount of headroom. It should be easy to carry, intuitive to set up, and sturdy in the wind without collapsing. Of the seven shades we tested, our two favorites, the Sun Ninja 4 Person Tent and the Shibumi Shade, meet all of those demands, but they suit different circumstances. The Sun Ninja requires plenty of beach space but tolerates variable wind conditions. While the Shibumi maximizes your shade without intruding on close neighbors, it requires a steady coastal wind to work—and it costs more. We also have recommendations for people who prefer more shelter from the wind.

Our pick

Sun Ninja 4 Person Tent

When you have plenty of space on the beach, this stretchable spandex canopy is easy to set up and offers great sun protection in variable winds. However, it commands a fairly large chunk of the beach, which might annoy your neighbors.

Remarkably consistent in a variety of wind conditions, the Sun Ninja 4 Person Tent is very pleasant to sit under—no matter how strong the sun—and packs away into a small carrying case that’s easy to throw over your shoulder (it weighs just over 7 pounds). The spandex canopy is dead simple to set up: Stretch the four arms of the fabric out across the beach, fill the large pouch at the end of each arm with plenty of sand, and then place the four collapsible aluminum rods under the canopy, raising and angling them into the top corners of the tent until you find the best balance of tensions. The whole process can take one or two people less than three minutes, once they know what they’re doing. Erected, the Sun Ninja provides plenty of shade for four people to comfortably lie down in. (The company also offers an 8-person model for even more space.) In low and moderate winds, the flexibility of the Sun Ninja allows it to shake off most gusts up to 15 mph without falling over. Sitting under the tent feels almost bedouin in nature—nomadic self-contentment. That said, the Sun Ninja’s stretched-out design means you unavoidably take up quite a bit of beach in relation to the 7-by-7-foot piece of shade you create, which might not be appreciated if you frequent crowded beaches.

Upgrade pick

Shibumi Shade

With a beguiling, minimal design, this shade is easy and quick for one person to set up. As long as a steady wind blows, the Shibumi fabric floats above you, providing enough sun coverage for six people without buckling or collapsing.

If your favorite beach features steady offshore breezes—or even umbrella-tumbling gusts—the Shibumi Shade is a natural choice. The Shibumi’s wonderfully simple design is made to work with the wind instead of against it, which makes sense, given that it was conceived on the blustery beaches of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The Shibumi has three components: a long arc of high-strength aluminum tubing (it folds up like a tent pole), a roughly 16-by-8-foot rectangle of parachute fabric, and a sand anchor, which doubles as the shade’s carrying case. One person can set it up in a minute or two. We tested the Shibumi in everything from barely perceptible ocean breezes to stiff 25 mph winds, and it worked admirably, providing about 10 by 15 feet of shade—enough for six adults—when the sun was high. However, high winds produce more noise than one might expect. (If you don’t need quite as much coverage, the similarly constructed Shibumi Shade Mini is designed for one or two people.) On most days, though, with a gentle onshore breeze, sitting under the Shibumi is like lying under a crisp sheet hanging on a clothesline in the summer sun. While this shade is more expensive than our other picks, the quality of materials—from the aluminum poles usually reserved for high-end camping tents to the parachute fabric—all but ensure this shade will be around for many more summers than your typical beach umbrella or tent.

Budget pick

Sport-Brella Premiere

The easy-to-set-up Sport-Brella features the basic design of a beach umbrella but adds tent flaps for more protection from both sun and (mild) wind. It also has a vent and comes with stakes and sandbags to help keep it from blowing away in stronger gusts.

Both the Sun Ninja and the Shibumi Shade work with the wind, not against it, to provide shelter from the sun. But if you prefer to also have at least some protection from the wind, you could try the Sport-Brella Premiere, our longtime recommendation for people looking for a beach umbrella. It looks like a typical umbrella tipped on its side, with flaps added to block more of the wind and sun. Two people fit easily underneath it, yet the footprint is moderate, making it a good choice for a crowded beach. You do need to anchor it with stakes and sandbags to keep it from pinwheeling away on a blustery day—it has vents you can open to help reduce some of the drag, though that will, of course, let in some wind. It’s also heavier (thanks to its steel pole) and bulkier than either the Sun Ninja or the Shibumi. (Even when folded up, the Sport-Brella was too long, at 40 inches, to fit in one tester’s trunk.)

Also great

Lightspeed Outdoors Bahia Quick Draw

This polyurethane canopy sets up in seconds to provide shade and a windscreen for two adults, and it packs up smaller than any other tent-style shelter we’ve tested.

Like the Sport-Brella Premiere, the Lightspeed Outdoors Bahia Quick Draw is meant to block wind and sun alike. And, as the name says, the Bahia is quick to set up—quicker than the Sport-Brella, at least in theory. You unfold and lay out the shelter’s floor, locate the top of the pole assembly, and pull the two cords; the poles pop out into place, followed by the attached water-resistant polyurethane shell. However, if wind is what you hope to hide from, you’ll want to also stake down the three corners, stabilize the overhang that juts out over the shelter’s opening, and weigh down the base with three sandbags—not quite as quick or easy as implied. Just don’t expect it to stand up to a windstorm.