Wear sunscreen, drink water, keep track of each other, don’t drown. As obvious as sounds, these are the basic rules for a successful day at the beach.
But if you want to be extra safe and well prepared, and perhaps save a little money in the process, is there more you need to know? Of course there is.
Facilities in and around beaches vary wildly, so take nothing for granted. For starters, pick a beach that provides restrooms within short walking distance, especially if you have small children, advises David McRee, beach and surf expert for VISIT FLORIDA. Also within close proximity should be a major source of shade for the whole family. “A shaded picnic table is a much coveted beach amenity,” McRee says, and during your beach’s high season, 9 a.m. is probably not too early to stake out a table. Adds author and mother of three Melissa Stoller, “look for a beach with umbrellas, trees, or huts. Using hats and other protective clothing works well, but you also need to have time out of the sun.”
Parking is perhaps the most annoying part of a trip to the shore, and McRee advises arriving before 11a.m. for the best chance of finding a spot, be it a free or metered space. Further, advises David Downing, deputy director of the St. Pete/Clearwater Convention & Visitors Bureau, bring plenty of change for the meters, and “be aware that in some less-than-above-board tourist towns, some parking meters are perpetually ‘broken.’ These are true tourist traps because you will receive a ticket for parking in a spot with a broken meter.”
Pack it in.
Many of us store our beach items together so we can save time while we pack each summer, but McRee also advises inspecting it all annually. "Does the umbrella still open properly? Are the straps on face masks and swim fins still strong and pliable? There's nothing more frustrating than lugging an umbrella out to the beach and having it fall apart in your hands. Nothing, that is, except having the strap on your mask snap just as you put it on in anticipation of a great day of snorkeling.” Also: Make sure your sunscreen hasn’t expired.
A dollar store can be your best friend for such basics as pails, shovels, and boogie boards, especially since you can opt to leave some of these things behind when you head home.
“I like to hand over our beach gear to a family that's arriving at the resort as [my family] is getting ready to leave,” says Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, mother of three and co-founder and editor-in-chief of family travel site WeJustGotBack.com. The give-away approach is especially useful if you’re flying versus driving to your beach destination. On the non-disposable side, McRee suggests a pair of binoculars for spying what’s in the ocean as well as a book that can help you and your kids identify shells and other non man-made beach items that might wash up during your visit.
Anything you buy at the beach will be more expensive than if you picked it up elsewhere, notes Downing, so consider all your needs before you go, including food, packing a lightweight cooler with water and high protein snacks. McRee adds that if you do want to dine out after your beach day, “pick a dinner restaurant away from the beach. Find out where the locals eat. Often, the busiest, most highly advertised beach restaurants do not have the best food, but command the highest prices.”
See and be seen.
Picking a stretch of sand with a lifeguard, especially if you have small children, should be your top priority, say the experts. Life-jackets for anyone who can’t swim is a close second. “We always bring a coast-guard certified life jacket for our 3 year old when we hit the beach,” Stoller says. “She puts it on in the morning and does not take it off until we head upstairs to our room.” If the surf ends up being too rough, Kelleher suggests that “it can be handy to have a very small, inflatable pool (and a pump) that you can fill with just a few inches of water and keep by your beach chair.”
According to Florida’s beach patrol, one of the most common problems is lost children, says McRee. “Small children should wear some item of distinctive clothing so if they wander off and get lost they can be easily located with the help of a lifeguard,” he says. The best prevention is a lecture in advance, says Kelleher. “It's easy for anyone, but especially little kids, to become disoriented or lost on a crowded beach where everyone's umbrellas and towels look similar. Try to set up your family's gear near a landmark that can be spotted from a distance, and make your kids repeat it back to you so that everyone knows that you're 'next to the jetty' or 'across the street from the ice cream shop', for example. Also, be sure to point out the lifeguard stations, and tell your kids to go find a lifeguard if they get separated from you.”
And since you've already hauled out the riot act, read it to the adults in your party, too. “It’s important to discuss which parent is watching which kids,” Stoller says. “That way we avoid the situation where we each think the other person is watching one of the kids and in reality nobody was really watching anyone.”
Don’t feel the burn.
Sunscreen is key. Apply it an hour before you get in the sun, Downing advises, and reapply as needed, factoring in how much you might swim or sweat. I would add that it’s worth spending a bit extra for the spray-on sunscreen, as it’s not only less time-consuming and aggravating to apply, but the fun "spray factor" will tempt your kids to reapply it on themselves and each other. Also, when it comes to protection, not all beach umbrellas are alike, Downing suggests.
“Most beach umbrellas available these days are made with meshed nylon and DO NOT provide total shade," he says." In fact, some are actually sold with UV rating stickers on them telling you how much protection to expect.” For additional protection, Downing says, “consider clothes-pinning an ordinary beach towel on top of the umbrella, which will provide much greater protection from the sun's rays.”
In the end, Downing says, keep it simple, bringing only what you’ll need for a few hours and only planning to stay at the beach for part of the day. “What makes a successful beach outing for anyone, regardless of age, is that it be a relaxing adventure. Some parents treat a beach outing like a paramilitary invasion, creating so much work for themselves and carrying so much gear that it becomes work for everyone.”