I love the beach but my skin burns very easily so I need shade. When we booked a 4-week vacation in Exuma, Bahamas, I quickly realized that there was not going to be a lot of shade where we were staying so I was going to have to bring my own. So, the hunt was on for the perfect fly-away vacation beach shelter.
My criteria was pretty clear:
- It had to be small enough to fit into my suitcase
- It should be light enough that it didn’t chew up too much of my suitcase’s weight allowance
- It should provide reasonable shade for two adults
- It must be stable even in windy conditions
- It has to be simple to set up
- The beach shelter has to be affordable
I looked at many different types of beach shelter and sun shades. After seeing some of them in action on beaches around the world, I immediately ruled-out the instant pop-up types. These didn’t seem to offer enough room and they looked like a real puzzle when it comes to getting them back into the tote bag.
The Kelty Noah’s Tarp
What I finally decided upon was the Kelty Noah’s Tarp. This product comes in sizes: 9′ X 9′, 12′ X 12′ and 16′ X 16′. It is a Catenary cut design so the sides curve into the center slightly. The Kelty Noah’s Tarp 9 foot version weighs 1.5 pounds (680 grams) and folds up to about the size of a pair of jeans so it packs very easily into any suitcase. It is made of 75D Polyester (450mm) so it offers approximately 50 UPF (ultraviolet protection factor). This mean that the tarp blocks up to 98% of UV rays*. Kelty ships the tarp with four lines and 6 metal ground stakes and unfortunately, no poles.
* Note: When I contacted Kelty to confirm the UPF rating, they declined to provide a number as the value may change over the life of the tarp.
Fortunately, I stumbled upon four MSR Adjustable Tarp poles at my local camping store. These are really nice aircraft aluminum poles. They break down into three sections that are shock-corded together. They come in two lengths 1.5 m or 2 m (6 feet) I purchased the 1.5 meter (5 foot) version. Their light weight and small size fit my criteria perfectly. Unfortunately, at $35 each, they did challenge my “affordable” criteria. After using them with the tarp, I can report that they were well worth the expense. Kelty makes their own tarp poles but they are a liitle too long and I could not find an affordable Canadian supplier.
Now that I had the tarp and poles sorted out, all I needed now was a way to keep the whole thing from flying away. There was no way that the tent pegs that came shipped with the tarp were going to be of any use on a beach so I opted for four 10 litre Sil stuff sacks. They are super light (30 or 40 grams), inexpensive, pack up very small and most of all, make great sandbags when filled with beach sand. Each 10 litre bag weighs around 16 kg or 35 pounds once filled. Even on the windiest days, these bags held the tarp in place with ease. I used some inexpensive plastic carabineers to attach the sand bags. This turned out to be very useful when I started adding other lines to tension the tarp.
I looked all over the Internet but I could not find anyone using the Noah’s tarp flat on four poles. I was worried about it sagging in the middle so I modified two poles with extra sections of aluminum rod so I could run a line corner-to-corner to create a center peak in the tarp. It worked very well and I am glad that I made the effort.
Originally, I had purchased an extra 6’X9′ tarp to use as a back wall for extra shade. When I tried to attach it, it didn’t line up very well so I abandoned it. My lovely wife had the clever idea that it would make a perfect floor to keep us off the sand. As the pictures show, we loved this too. Luckily I had extra 5 litre bags that I used to weigh the floor tarp down.
All of these pieces fit easily into a 20 litre mesh bag and when all was said and done, weighed around 4 kg or 8.8 pounds. This is a little less than 20% of most airline maximum weight allowance for a checked suitcase.
Not to be outdone by my tarp, Cristina had purchased two Coleman “Utopia Breeze” beach mat chairs. These were great and even have a built-in 6 can coolers – a feature that we made use of everyday.
We had a great time under this tarp (and no, I didn’t burn). After four weeks we got to be very fast setting it up – even in strong winds. We could usually have it set up in around 15 to 20 minutes. Fortunately, I had prepared several extra lines that came in handy for securing the tarp when the winds picked up. On most days of our vacation, the winds were 30 to 50 kmph (20 to 30 mph). Although the sandbags held firm, I plan on buying an extra 4 of the 10 litre sandbags as backup in case one breaks or I get into some really high winds.
Set up Tips:
After four weeks of vacationing under this sun shade/beach shelter, we got very good at setting it up quickly (and with no arguments). Here are a few tips to help you:
- Fill all of your sandbags first. Fill them all the way up and tamp them down to get them as heavy as possible.
- Spread the Kelty Noah’s tarp out on the ground (where you want it located) and align it so one side is facing into the wind (not a corner). We’ll call this side the “down-wind side”. The opposite side we’ll call the “up-wind side”. This will make the tarp easier to control.
- Place one of the filled 10 litre sandbags onto each of the outstretched corners. You should now have your tarp fully extended on the sand with four sandbags holding it down. This will keep the whole thing stable while you install the poles.
- Attach all of your tarp lines to the sandbag draw strings. Make sure that they are the length that you want (at least 6 feet or 2 meters long).
- Extend all of your tarp poles and place one at each corner of the tarp. Do not install them yet.
- Starting on the “up-wind” side (so the wind does not catch the tarp like a sail) insert the tarp pole into the corner grommet hole. Have someone hold the pole vertical while someone else moves the sandbag that was on this corner. Move the sandbag so it is inline with the diagonal line crossing the tarp to the other side. Pull it tight but not too tight – you will adjust the tension of the sandbags once all poles are in place.
- Next, install the second up-wind pole and sandbag.
- When installing the down-wind poles in windy conditions the wind may catch the tarp like a sail. The two down-wind sandbags should prevent the wind from moving the poles on those corners. You will be surprised how much wind this setup can handle – we were.
- Finish installing the fourth and final tarp pole/sandbag combination.
- Walk around the tarp and adjust the tension of the tarp by moving the sandbags towards or away from the tarp (usually away). Important! At the same time, correct the angle of the bags – you should be able to draw a straight line from one sandbag, up it’s line to the tarp, across the tarp and down the opposite line to the sandbag on the opposite corner.
- Once the tension and sandbag angles are just right, you can move the tarp poles so they are vertical. I was worried that the poles would sink into the sand but that did not seem to be a problem.
Where to buy the parts:
Note: Kelty has updated the Noah’s tarp so it is not exactly like the one shown on this page (but it is very similar).
In the USA
The Kelty Noah’s Tarp is available from: Kelty, Moosejaw.com, Backcountry.com and Amazon.com
The MSR tarp poles are available from: Moosejaw.com, Backcountry.com and Amazon.com
The 10 Litre stuff sacks (sandbags) are available from: Moosejaw.com, Backcountry.com and Amazon.com
The MEC 6’X9′ tarp is available from: Backcountry.com, Amazon.com and MEC.ca
The Coleman “Utopia Breeze” beach mat chair/cooler is available from: Amazon.com
The Kelty Noah’s Tarp is available from: Greatadventure.ca and Amazon.ca
The MSR tarp poles are available from: MEC.ca
The 10 Litre stuff sacks (sandbags) are available from: MEC.ca and Amazon.ca
The MEC 6’X9′ tarp is available from: MEC.ca
The Coleman “Utopia Breeze” beach mat chair/cooler is available from: Amazon.ca