You’re at the beach. The sun is shining, and the water is refreshing. You’re watching the waves gently lap the shore.
You can’t hear the waves, though, because your kid is wailing at the top of her lungs after failing to yank a plastic pail away from another toddler. (You forgot the beach toys.) Your other kid is wet and shivering, but the dog is sprawled across his sandy towel. (You didn’t bring a beach blanket.)
Don’t ruin a perfect beach vacation by being unprepared. Instead, follow this genius plan, and you’ll actually enjoy your trip.
1. Make a list.
You might not be a list maker, but if you wing it at the last second, you’ll be too concerned about beating the traffic and finding a parking spot by the shore to pack your car thoughtfully. Odds are you’ll leave the cooler behind in the kitchen, right where you were packing it up.
2. Remove items from the list.
We’ve all seen that family: the one with the wheelbarrow stacked high with boogie boards, making multiple trips back to the car before assembling a waterside metropolis of ultra-large beach blankets, pup tents, and umbrellas. Don’t be that family. Do you really need a pink flamingo floater for each kid?
3. Get multi-purpose gear.
A good way to carry less stuff is to bring items that serve more than one purpose. Coleman makes a three-in-one folding chair and cooler that you can tote as a backpack. Tommy Bahama makes a comfortable backpack beach chair with extra storage pockets.
For true minimalism, have the kids’ clothing and towel all in one. Lands End makes terrycloth cover-ups that can also serve as towels; you can find cheaper versions of these at Walmart and online, too.
If you’ve got boys, their swim trunks and UV-shunning swim shirts (O’Neill makes some stylish ones that double as boogie-board rash guards) can be their “clothes” on the way to the beach. Save the clean t-shirt for the drive home.
4. Go lightweight.
Everyone loves a big, plush beach towel, except when it fills your entire bag and weighs in at three pounds (more like six, when you add sand and water). Opt for lightweight and space-saving alternatives, like the thin but still good-looking Turkish cotton towels at Target.
For kids, REI sells colorful, quick-dry camping towels that take up about the same amount of space as a water bottle. You may never go back to terrycloth again.
If you don’t want your cooler attached to your beach chair, you should still banish the hard coolers from your beach bundle. Igloo makes a soft cooler with a shoulder strap.
For some items, a little extra weight might be required. Get a beach umbrella that screws into the sand; otherwise, a mere gust of wind may send it halfway to Mazatlan, or straight into an unsuspecting sunbather’s head.
5. Keep the toys simple.
As for toys, try to go somewhat basic on your beach pail and shovel gear. If you bring intricate 20-piece sets, you’ll inevitably lose small plastic parts to the big blue and contribute to our marine plastics problem. Encourage creativity by decorating castles with shells, rocks, and twigs instead.
Frisbees and frisbee rings take up a lot less space than, say, soccer balls and footballs. If your kids are flexible about which sports they play on the beach, that is. Frisbees can double as “pie pans” for the sand-playing set.
6. Embrace mesh.
Experienced beach-going parents would be unanimous in their endorsement of mesh bags. With mesh bags, you can see what’s inside, so when your kid comes of out the water looking for a towel, she won’t have to empty the bag’s contents onto the sand to find it. More importantly, with a mesh bag, you won’t carry ten pounds of newly acquired sand back to the car at the end of the day.
7. Learn from surfers.
After a session, surfers avoid getting sand all over their wetsuits by stripping them off while standing on pads. Our favorite is the FCS surf dome changing mat. You can stand on the round mat, remove your wetsuit, then step off and pull on the cord that encircles the bag. The round mat becomes a waterproof bag, which keeps the car dry and sand-free.
You may not be a surfer, but this handy and compact item can stay in your car while you’re at the beach. Use the mat for wet towels, or have your kids change out of their sandy beach clothes on it, then just pull the cord shut and toss it in the trunk.
8. Be sun- and heat-ready.
You just can’t have enough sun protection. Even if you aren’t headed to the tropics, make a habit of choosing sunblock that doesn’t harm coral reefs. A good option is the mineral sunblock Raw Elements.
Coolibar makes kids’ sun hats with UV protection. This is one item that’s worth having an extra of, just in case you lose one to the waves.
Bring more water than you think you need. Pack up your eco-friendly reusable water bottles like the ones from Hydroflask, which—beyond the handy carrying handles—have the added benefit of thermal insulation. Add ice cubes before you leave home, and the water will stay cool all day.
9. Pack for the specific beach you’re headed to.
If your beach actually has great lunch food nearby, like at the Siren Canteen in Stinson Beach, California, you just need to pack enough small snacks to last until lunchtime.
If the beach you’re going to gets really windy, avoid eating a sand sandwich and getting grains of sand in your eyes. Swap the umbrella out for a tent, like the Easthills Outdoors one.
If your beach is dog-friendly, bring your pooch along, plus a collapsible dog bowl that you can fill with water.
If the beach you’re headed to happens to be on a lake, don’t bring boogie boards.
10. Pack for your kid(s).
If your child is content to make sand castles all day, you don’t really need to bring sports gear or floaties.
If your kids have unending energy, a pail and a frisbee may not be enough. You may need to add paddle rackets, and possibly that soccer ball, as well.
If your kids are water babies, consider goggles, boogie boards, and the like. If you live anywhere north of Santa Barbara on the west coast, you probably already own wetsuits for your kids.
11. Pack for you.
A beach is a place where every family member can have fun. If you can trade off with a partner to keep eyes on the little one, bring a magazine or a book. This is your time to chillax too.
If your kids are younger and need you with them when playing in the water, don’t spend the entire time shivering. Get a neoprene top for yourself.
It may sound corny, but beach trips are a good time to discuss your values, or at least live by them. If you’re a person who likes to have everything at your fingertips, that tent city by the shore could become yours. But if you believe that less is more, then prioritize what matters (sun protection, hydration, a couple of toys, and some towels) and leave the rest at home.