The Best Beach Canopy Review

We tested five canopies on the beaches of California. After three months of testing  the Big Agnes Three Forks Shelter came out on top.
Looking for the best beach canopy? We tested five of the top products on the market. We wrestled with tent shade poles, got crafty with guy lines, and braved sweltering heat, blustering winds, and even a bit of precipitation. We also took on the rough job of testing these canopies in perfect temperatures in peaceful and pristine locations. For months we relaxed under the five beach canopies tested in this review. It was rough work, but we're dedicated to bringing you the best. For this review, we chose two mini-EZ-Up style canopies and three other dome-style contenders. We compared all of the products we tested side-by-side and then scored each based on how they performed in the areas of ease-of-setup, livability, wind resistance, portability and durability.

Read the full review below >

Test Results and Ratings

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Analysis and Award Winners


Review by:
Valentine Cullen
Senior Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Friday
October 23, 2015

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Best Overall Beach Canopy


Big Agnes Three Forks Shelter


Editors' Choice Award

$199.00
at Amazon

We chose the Big Agnes Three Forks Shelter as our Editors' Choice Award winner because it is lightweight, easy to transport, and easy to set-up, even in the wind. The Three Forks has a very usable amount of space (though not quite as much as the REI Alcove) and comes with a removable sidewall that you can move to any side of the shelter quickly and easily as the sun moves around you. We also liked that the sidewall offered protection from the wind and added increased privacy.

Best Bang for the Buck


REI Alcove Shelter


Best Buy Award

$94.93
at REI

The REI Alcove Shelter is a stellar shelter at an even better price. In fact, it was about half the price of most other products we tested and still earned top scores! This canopy has a 100 square feet of usable, comfortable space provided, and it is remarkably durable and well-constructed. This is a great canopy if you are seeking shelter for longer periods of time where you will be closer to your vehicle. We recommend this shelter for overnight or weekend camp outs or for day outings that require shelter for five or six people.




Analysis and Test Results


Which beach canopy is the right product for you? That depends on what you will be doing, how far you'll be walking, and how many people will be with you, how long you will be seeking refuge from the elements. Be sure to consider each of these factors as you're reading our review and you're sure to find a beach canopy that meets your needs!

Types of Beach Canopies


Clockwise starting far left: Kelty Shade Maker 2  Big Agnes Three Forks  Paha Que Cottonwood LT (not fully raised)  REI Alcove and the Lightspeed Quick Canopy.
Clockwise starting far left: Kelty Shade Maker 2, Big Agnes Three Forks, Paha Que Cottonwood LT (not fully raised), REI Alcove and the Lightspeed Quick Canopy.

There are two distinct categories of beach canopies that we tested in this review. One is the canopy type that is a small version of an EZ-Up tent shade and the other distinctly resembles a dome tent without the sides and/or floor. The REI Alcove and Paha Que Cottonwood were the two products we tested that resemble a small EZ-Up canopy. These products are more square and have more height at the edges and upper corners. The Big Agnes Three Forks Shelter, the Kelty Shade Maker 2, and the Lightspeed Quick Canopy were the three products tested that are similar to a dome tent.

The Three Forks Shelter  our Editors' Choice winner  offers a comfortable amount of livable space. The sidewall is removable  allowing you to customize your shade options as the sun moves around you.
The Three Forks Shelter, our Editors' Choice winner, offers a comfortable amount of livable space. The sidewall is removable, allowing you to customize your shade options as the sun moves around you.
We loved the removable sidewall on the Big Agnes Three Forks Shelter. If you want extra shade, privacy, or protection from the wind, we strongly suggest opting for a beach canopy with a removable sidewall, not a fixed one. You can also purchase sidewalls for the Alcove and Cottonwood separately.

Criteria for Evaluation



Livability


For this metric, we assessed the amount of usable space, the height, the amount of shade offered, and other features like removable walls/panels. Of the five products tested, the Paha Que Cottonwood LT scored the highest in this rating metric. Not only is the Cottonwood the tallest EZ-Up type shelter we tested but it also has the most amount of usable square footage and was the best shelter to use for a group of six to eight people. The reason it has the most amount of usable space is because it is the tallest product tested and because it is not a dome-style shade shelter. Generally speaking, the dome styles scored lower in this metric due to the fact that there was less usable space in the corners and the ceiling. Even though the roof of the Cottonwood is eight feet tall, the sides of this beach canopy come over the edges approximately a foot and a half or two depending on how far apart the legs are and what the terrain is like that it is set up upon. If you are close to six feet tall or more, you will have to tilt your head slightly in order to get underneath the Cottonwood.

One of the tallest models we tested  the Cottonwood LT has a peak height of 8 feet! Here  we're testing on the shore of Lake Berryessa in Napa  CA.
One of the tallest models we tested, the Cottonwood LT has a peak height of 8 feet! Here, we're testing on the shore of Lake Berryessa in Napa, CA.

The REI Alcove Shelter was the next highest scoring contender in livability. The Alcove shelters a group of four to six people comfortably and it is high enough in the middle of this shelter to easily stand under. Also the front and back ends of the Alcove are higher than the sides so you can enter it from the ends without having to duck or tilt your head to get under.

Both the Cottonwood and the Alcove are large enough to set up over a picnic table. It is not possible to do this with any of the other products tested.

The uses for the REI Alcove aren't limited to beach days or camping.
The uses for the REI Alcove aren't limited to beach days or camping.

Two dome-style canopies that scored well in this metric: the Kelty Shade Maker 2 and the Big Agnes Three Forks Shelter. Our Editors' Choice winner, the Three Forks Shelter, received a higher score due to its sidewall. The removable sidewall kept wind out and sun all while offering more privacy. It was also very nice to be able to easily move the removable sidewall of the Three forks to other sides as the sun moved around the shelter. On the other end of the spectrum, the Lightspeed received a low livability score due to the fact that it is small, short, and it can get hot inside of it. In extreme heat, the combination of its floor and stationary wall raises the temperature underneath the Lightspeed to a degree or two hotter than outside of it.

Ample room for two to four people under the Shade Maker 2.
Ample room for two to four people under the Shade Maker 2.

Ease of Set-Up


To assess this metric, we simply set up and took down each of the shelters numerous times. In this section, we outline how easy or hard it was to set-up each shelter and provide some best use recommendations based on its performance in this metric. Because there's nothing worse than spending 20 minutes setting up a shelter when you're only going to be at your child's soccer game for 90 minutes. If you are going to be on the sidelines of a sporting event for just a couple of hours in mild weather and want the quickest and easiest beach canopy to set up that we tested, we recommend the Lightspeed Quick Canopy for two to four people. It takes less than three minutes to unpack and set this shelter up (not including staking it in, fixing the guy lines or filling the included sandbags).

The Quick Canopy on the shore of Lake Berryessa in Napa  CA. Although this product earned our lowest scores  it has its place for situations where quick set-up is prioritized.
The Quick Canopy on the shore of Lake Berryessa in Napa, CA. Although this product earned our lowest scores, it has its place for situations where quick set-up is prioritized.

If you are going to the beach, river, lakeside or even the park for a full day outing and want the easiest canopy to set-up for four or five people, we recommend the Big Agnes Three Forks. Although the peak height of the Kelty Shade Maker 2 is taller, we recommend the Three Forks because it is easier for one person to set-up especially if you predict windy weather. Indeed, the Shade Maker is exceptionally challenging to wrangle in higher winds because it uses external clips to secure the poles instead of pole sleeves.

Our Editors' Choice winner is an excellent choice for day use at the beach. Here we test it out at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.
Our Editors' Choice winner is an excellent choice for day use at the beach. Here we test it out at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Because the Alcove and Cottonwood are more difficult to set up, we recommend them primarily for multi-day use. For example, if you are going camping for the weekend either one of these canopies is a great option. Keep in mind, however, that the Alcove is less than half the price of the Cottonwood. Additionally, the Cottonwood is much more difficult than the Alcove to set-up; it takes two people approximately twenty minutes to set up the Cottonwood even after getting used to it. We recommend four people be involved if you want this beach canopy to go up easily.

Wind Resistance


When you're outdoors, especially at the beach, the wind can quickly cause havoc! In this metric, we assessed how well each of the shelters in our review could withstand wind and even light rain. We strongly recommend always staking and guying your shelter down even if it's not windy during set-up. (We learned the hard way in our tests that canopies can blow away while you're boogie boarding, causing damage to the poles). Although we break down the wind resistance of these canopies, it's important to note that there are things you can do to mitigate their propensity to blow away in the wind. Here are some tips on how to set up tent canopies at the beach. Also keep in mind that you could just purchase some sand stakes, you can make your own sandbags as additional anchors, or purchase some like these.

If you plan to use your beach canopy in particularly windy areas, we do not recommend choosing a model with a permanent sidewall - the Lightspeed Quick Canopy caught wind very easily. The wall on the Three Forks Shelter also catches wind, but since it is removable, you can always take it off if the wind really picks up. In a mildly windy situation, the sidewall of the Three Forks is a bonus.

View of the Three Forks from the back without the sidewall attached.
View of the Three Forks from the back without the sidewall attached.

Both the Alcove and Cottonwood performed better in the wind than the dome-style canopies because the wind could pass through them more easily. Additionally, the Alcove is a good option for mild wet weather since you can purchase two sidewalls separately to enclose the entire shelter. You can also purchase extra sidewalls for the Three Forks but there is not as much usable space underneath it as the Alcove due to its dome shape design.

The extra fabric on this canopy provides a bit of extra sun protection. However  it can also catch the wind.
The extra fabric on this canopy provides a bit of extra sun protection. However, it can also catch the wind.

Durability


When evaluating durability, we primarily examined three things: pole construction, pole connection points, and fabric durability. We didn't notice any wear or tear on the canopy fabric, however, we did experience some significant differences in pole durability. We think that the REI Alcove is the most durable canopy we tested due to its thick (19 millimeters) powder-coated steel poles and very sturdy connection system that equally distributes flex stress to six connection points. We did not have any trouble with the poles of this canopy (this was not the case with most of the other products that we tested). We didn't have any trouble with the high performance 100% aluminum 6061 series alloy, shock-corded poles of the Paha Que Cottonwood either.

The REI Alcove earned our highest score in durability, but it is also the heaviest shelter we tested. Our Editors' Choice winner, the Three Forks, offers the best balance between portability and durability.

During our testing, the poles of the Shade Maker 2 became slightly permanently bent during normal use. Additionally, the lightweight aluminum poles of the Editors' Choice Award winning product, the Big Agnes Three Forks were damaged during our testing process as well (however, the damage was caused because we didn't stake it down properly and it blew away). Finally, the Lightspeed Quick Canopy was the least durable beach canopy that we tested. The hub section that allows for such a quick umbrella like set up, stopped tightening all the way after just a few uses.

The Alcove had the most durable poles of the bunch.
The Alcove had the most durable poles of the bunch.

Portability


You're going to the beach and you're already bogged down with a cooler and beach bags full of toys, towels, sunblock, and snacks. You don't want to lug a bulky or heavy canopy along with you. If you typically walk a long way to get to the beach, park, or camp site, then you should consider a beach canopy that is easy to transport. The Kelty Shade Maker 2 easily won the portability contest. It isn't the lightest product tested, but it comes with a cool and convenient backpack style stuff sack that makes it by far the easiest to transport to and from your vehicle. The Three Forks packs down to just about the same size but it is two pounds lighter at 7 lbs 11 oz.

Clockwise: The Lightspeed Quick Canopy (with shoulder strap not show)  Big Agnes Three Forks (has a carrying strap on the bottom end)  Baha Que Cottonwood LT (note shoulder strap on the left) and the REI Alcove.
Clockwise: The Lightspeed Quick Canopy (with shoulder strap not show), Big Agnes Three Forks (has a carrying strap on the bottom end), Baha Que Cottonwood LT (note shoulder strap on the left) and the REI Alcove.

The Lightspeed Quick Canopy is the lightest product that we tested in this review but it has the largest packed size of 26" x 8" x 8". Fortunately its bag comes equipped with a shoulder strap which helps make it easier to carry but it is still a bit awkward and easy to bump into stuff with. The two EZ-Up-type shelters that we tested the Paha Que Cottonwood and the REI Alcove are the heaviest products we tested. The Alcove weighs 15 lbs 10 oz and the Cottonwood weighs 16 lbs. The Cottonwood comes with a shoulder strap as well which does aid in its ease of transport. We recommend these canopies for use when you're near your car.

Conclusion


We tested five canopies on the beaches of California. After three months of testing  the Big Agnes Three Forks Shelter came out on top.
We tested five canopies on the beaches of California. After three months of testing, the Big Agnes Three Forks Shelter came out on top.

Depending on the amount of people seeking shelter in your canopy, where you will be using it, and how far you will need to be transporting it, the canopy that suits your needs will differ. This review is intended to help you sort through the available options to find the best fit for your beach needs.
Valentine Cullen

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Unbiased.