Travel brochures, Instagram and our own imaginations paint an idyllic picture of what it's like to take the kids to the beach: little cherubs frolicking in the sand overlooked by glamorous parents lounging on a picnic blanket, all tans, teeth and designer shades.
As most parents know, the reality can be somewhat... different. Sand gets in all the wrong places, toddlers have tantrums and the weather doesn't always play ball. But all is not lost. With a little planning you can ensure your day is a success with these tips on how to pack for a family beach trip.
Beach days can indeed be idyllic, if you come prepared © James Braund / Getty Images
Don’t forget the essentials
Whatever the ages of your family group – and unless you are visiting a beach on a grey mid-winter’s day – you will need the obvious sunscreen, swimmers, hats, sunglasses and rash vests, plus a few key items:
Home comforts – A massive beach blanket is a must. Consider fold-up chairs, extra towels (to double as cushions) and a windbreak if the grandparents are coming along.
Refreshments – Bring plenty of water (freeze some overnight so it keeps cool) and bite-sized snacks that won’t melt (no chocolate). Everyone knows it’s the law to have ice cream at some point during a trip to the beach so don’t leave your wallet at home or in the car.
Clean-up kit – Baby wipes are always worth bringing along, regardless of how long it was since your children were babies. And don’t forget plenty of reusable plastic bags for rubbish, separating wet and sandy clothes, and scooping up everything else.
First-aid pack – Deal with minor scrapes, bumps and ailments with ease.
Sturdy sandals are ideal for rock pool explorations © Sarah Kelly / EyeEm / Getty Images
Keep everyone entertained
Are they construction workers, beachcombers or ray catchers? Consider the interests of your party before heading to the coast.
Rock poolers – Children who love to collect shells and explore rock pools might need a fishing net, sturdy jelly shoes and a small book on marine biology.
Sports lovers – Ball games like velcro catch or a simple football are usually a winner, as is a boogie board if conditions are right.
Sand architects – A bucket and spade, and spares if sharing just isn’t an option.
Bored teens – As long as it’s not causing offence to your beach neighbours, a portable speaker should please older kids. If high-adrenaline activities such as flyboarding or jet-skiing are on the agenda, the bank of Mum and Dad will need to bring extra cash...
The whole group – If your party is large consider organising a beach scavenger hunt and bring along pre-prepared lists of things to collect.
Parents – Don’t forget a book or magazine for those five minutes you do actually have to yourself!
Oh dear. Lucky Mum packed a spare pair of shorts © Roy James Shakespeare / Getty Images
Know your family’s sand tolerance
Some kids don’t even notice the grit in their sarnies, others find it a constant irritation – which then becomes your constant irritation... If your children fall into the latter camp, a change of clothes is essential.
Create a sand-free zone – Introduce a ‘no-sand’ zone to your beach camp where you can keep everything sand free. Hooks that attach to beach umbrellas or clamps to secure towels in place can work wonders at keeping sand at bay.
Avoid sandy sandwiches – A portable cooler on stilts keeps lunch safely in the no-sand zone. Packing food in small containers ensures that if you lose the contents of one to the sand gods it doesn’t ruin your entire meal.
Don’t take the beach home with you – Baby powder is a great way to remove sand from little hands and feet; it soaks up moisture, leaving just dry sand and the remnants of baby powder which is more easily eliminated. There are even sand removal mitts available if you don’t want to turn everything white. Mesh bags are perfect for toy storage as they remove the issue of sand accumulating in the bottom of your bag.
Rough seas and bad weather doesn't have to spell the end of adventure © I like to capture special and ordinary moments / Getty Images
Prepare for all conditions
Checking the forecast is a good idea regardless of whether you have kids with you or not. But preventing kids from becoming too cold, too hot, too wet or too wind-beaten will ensure they last longer at the beach.
Bring layers – If the weather is changeable, layers are key. It can get cold quickly if the wind gets up. Depending on where in the world you are, think about wetsuits (and wet boots) too if you don’t want children turning blue from staying in the water too long.
Bring spares – You heard it here first: people – especially children – are prone to getting wet at the beach. A change of clothes (including spare swimming costumes) for everyone is definitely worth considering if you can face lugging more kit around. At the very least, a spare towel or two can come in handy.
Stay sun safe – As well as the aforementioned sunscreen, keep strong rays at bay with sun tents for babies and big umbrellas for the rest of the party.
Know the tides – Frantically gathering up small babies, errant toddlers and a family’s worth of kit to run for high ground as the tide comes in much faster than you were expecting isn’t fun. Likewise, it’s always sensible to check swimming conditions and know about any potential hazards such as riptides.
If the thought of carting all these ‘essentials’ around is giving you palpitations then it might be time to invest in a beach trolley, or train your kids up to be packhorses. The latter will obviously pay dividends in other non-beach-related activities.
Packing a bright pink tent is one way to stand out on a busy beach © Drazen_ / Getty Images
Set up a safe, easy-to-find camp
Serial beach-goers go the extra mile when it comes to keeping everyone – and everything – safe and stress-free.
Stand out – Bring an easily-identifiable (read: loud and colourful) beach flag or umbrella to help lost members of your clan find their way back to camp. Pick a memorable location too – behind life-guard stations or near an easily identifiable landmark can work well.
Make like a marine – Having a whistle which family members recognise is also a good way to keep people together; binoculars for scanning the horizon for wandering children, as well as sea life, can be handy.
Keep your world on a string – We all know a family (or have, ahem, been there ourselves) who’ve lost the car keys or their wallet to the sandy depths or worse – to a lucky pick-pocket. Using key-chains allows you to keep things secure and hidden but ensures you can find them easily when you need to.
Who needs YouTube when you've got each other? © Hoxton/Sam Edwards / Getty Images
Leave valuables at home
No-one wants tears at the end of a day at the beach. Consider leaving these items at home:
Expensive tech – Sand isn’t known for being kind to cameras, nor is water the best bedfellow for your smartphone or tablet. Add grubby little hands into the mix and it’s a recipe for disaster. Say goodbye to that perfect Instagram shot and relax into some tech-free family time. Can’t leave the screens at home? Invest in waterproof cases, keep them in a zip-lock bag and stow them safely with other valuables.
Cherished toys – The beach is not the place for children to bring their favourite toys unless there’s a spare one at home. Sure, you can wash something if it gets wet or sandy, but it’s all too easy to bury something or see it wash away with the tide… which could cause major problems at bedtime.