Do you need an umbrella? Are you traveling to a rainy destination? Maybe you've just moved to a rainy climate? Or perhaps your trusty old umbrella finally snapped a stretcher and you're in dire need of a replacement. For those of you who prefer to dress normally and lift a canopy overhead in the rain—rather than don a rain shell jacket over your clothing—this review is for you. We have selected a broad range of sizes and styles of umbrellas, and tested them across the rainy Pacific Northwest, from the urban centers to the snowy backcountry.
We tested traditional crook handle canopies and compact models, classy stylish umbrellas and discrete travel-friendly versions. We assessed each across several metrics to figure out which ones, most importantly, protected us best from the rain, and secondarily, how easy they were to use and transport, as well as how durable they were. Nobody wants to end up with the dreaded disposable umbrella. For that, we're here to help.
In general, there are two different types on the market: compact models and fixed-shaft models. Each has its own advantages and drawbacks. Compact models are lightweight and smaller in size when fully compressed. Non-compact models, on the other hand, are heavier and don't collapse to a small and easy-to-carry size. Despite these drawbacks, they are generally quite sturdy, and none of the non-compact models flipped inside-out in the wind during our tests.
In this article, we've put together an outline of what you should consider when purchasing this rain protection product. But first, here's some information about why you might want to buy one in the first place.
Types of Rain Protection
Today, you have the option between "traditional" (non-compact) umbrellas and compact ones. The former are classic in their form and generally quite sturdy, albeit cumbersome. The latter are small enough to carry with you at all times in your day bag, yet tend to be less durable. In both categories, there is variation in weight, the size of the canopy, and the size when completely collapsed. These factors impact a model's ability to shield you from poor weather conditions, as well as its ease of use and portability. In this section, we'll also discuss the pros and cons of choosing a rain jacket instead of an umbrella.
These models, also known as traditional or stick, once were the only type available. To close, the canopy collapses and wraps around the shaft, leaving you with a cane-like stick. To open, the frame slides up the shaft and deploys the canopy. In the traditional models we tested, the shafts were a single piece of wood or metal, which we found to be quite sturdy. Because their canopies do not compress down, the spokes of the frame on non-compact models don't have as many hinges. Overall, we found the simplicity of traditional models, with less moving parts, resulted in a more durable product capable of withstanding repeated opening and closing. We also think these versions tend to win more style points with their good looks. We especially enjoyed the classic style of the Totes Auto Open Wooden.
The downside of non-compact models is typically their size and weight. Two of our award winners, however, showed us that you truly can have it all: durability, light weight, and excellent rain protection. The Swing Trek LiteFlex Hiking and the Helinox One are a stunning example of fixed length models engineering that reaps all the benefits of that simple shaft design but is sized just right to be reasonably strapped to a backpack, and light enough to be tucked under an arm. The Swing Trek even comes with its own lightweight mesh shoulder carrying sleeve.
Compact or "travel" models are designed to be with you whenever storms begin to brew. They combine telescoping shafts with folding canopies to be highly portable. Closed, this type takes up significantly less space than its non-compact competitors. They also tend to be much more lightweight than traditional models. They are a great choice for travel, and the only convenient option if you like to keep an umbrella in your bag or briefcase for sudden shower protection.
The factors that make compact models so easy to transport, however, also make them less durable. There are a few reasons for this--mainly that there are more moving parts, such as hinges in the stretchers that connect to the ribs to support the canopy. Repeated use and abuse may weaken the hinges, and in one case, we witnessed a stretcher break at the hinge. The extra hinges in compact products also increase the likelihood that the canopy will flip inside-out during high wind. Furthermore, the lightweight shafts of the compact models we tested felt less sturdy (due to the overlapping, telescoping tubes), especially when the wind tugged on our canopies. In this review, we awarded the Swing Trek LiteFlex Hiking our Editors' Choice Award. This high scoring product has a surprisingly lightweight and compact design in a traditional and exceedingly durable fixed-length shaft design.
Wearing a rain jacket is another way to stay dry in the rain, but an overhead canopy offers a few things that a rain jacket doesn't, the first of which is a large amount of ventilation. This is both a blessing and a curse. A rain jacket protects better against the elements, meaning that if the wind picks up and the rain starts to blow sideways, you're less likely to get wet. On the other hand, a rain jacket may protect your upper half from rain coming at you sideways, but if it is mid-summer and you live in a hot and humid climate, you're going to sweat inside the clammy rain jacket material (waterproof-breathable fabric is still somewhat of a myth). No matter how breathable a jacket claims to be, if it's simultaneously warm and rainy out, you're going to feel like your jacket has become a personal sauna. Carrying an overhead canopy, however, allows air to circulate around you, and thus keep you more comfortable in the long run. And on a hot summer day, the slight chance that you might get a little wet because you're using an umbrella instead of a rain jacket may be a welcomed trade-off.
Additionally, an overhead canopy will almost certainly protect your legs from the rain better than a rain jacket, especially if you're wearing a pair of rain boots! Rain jackets protect your top half while shedding miniature rivers down right onto your pants. If the canopy is large enough, it can create a pocket completely devoid of rain, which ideally will shelter not just your torso, but your lower body as well. That said, remember that although it may seem instinctive to want to speedily walk to the nearest shelter from the rain, if the length of your stride increases, then you run the risk of your legs actually leaving the canopy's coverage area. So, if you're caught in a rainstorm, take a deep breath, shorten your stride and enjoy yourself.
An additional benefit to the overhead canopy is that it can also provide some shade from the blistering summer sun. If you're on a hike, at the beach, or at a park, even a small canopy can be the difference between enjoying your time outdoors and a painful skin peeling sunburn. Some of the products in this review are designed with the sun in mind, especially the Editor's Choice winner, the Swing Trek LiteFlex, which has a black interior and a reflective silver outer canopy. Cool. Pun intended.
If you find yourself walking outside during windy downpours, then a rain jacket may just be your best option (or it might be best to choose both a jacket and a canopy!). A rain jacket is also usually the best option while hiking or backpacking, especially if there is a chance of lightning, or if it's chilly enough that your rain jacket can serve as an extra layer. An overhead canopy definitely won't be able to keep you warm on cold and windy summits.
Umbrellas are designed primarily protect you from the rain, but other conditions such as wind can alter how well they perform. Below we explain what factors you should consider for different weather conditions.
Protection from the rain is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about umbrellas. There are a few things to consider that determine how well one of these overhead canopies will keep you sheltered from the rain. The first thing to keep in mind is the size of the canopy. The larger the size of the canopy, the better it will protect you from precipitation.
However, choosing the product that's right for you is a little more complicated than just going out and buying the one with the biggest canopy you can find. In fact, you may need a model that can collapse down to a small and convenient travel size. The more compact the product is, the more likely the size of the canopy is going to suffer, and the less protection from the rain you'll have. However, it's a trade-off that may be in your best interest, especially if it means actually having your umbrella when it begins to rain. Finding a compact model with a good sized canopy is difficult, but not impossible. In our review, the products that offer the best combination are the Lewis N Clark, Swing Trek LiteFlex Hiking, and Helinox.
The models we tested had varying canopy diameters, ranging from 42.5 inches to 31.5 inches. Though the benefits of a large canopy are obvious, the benefits of having a small canopy are less so. Small canopies perform just fine when it's sprinkling or a little drizzly outside. They are also great for kids who are not yet big enough to need a large coverage area. Additionally, if you plan to ever use your new purchase for a hike in the woods, the small canopy will be more maneuverable and less likely to get caught on bushes and trees.
Not surprisingly, the wind has a huge effect on how well the canopy will protect you from the rain. If you have a product that easily flips inside-out, a stray gust can quickly leave you without protection. And if it caves in or becomes unmanageable in relatively low winds, you also get wet. A rounder shape tended to be more wind resistant, and the unique double canopy design of the GustBuster Metro very effectively purged some of the pressure of the wind, making it a breeze to maneuver in high winds.
Some models, like the totes Auto Open Wooden, have very deep canopies; with these, you can pull them down over your head and shoulders for extra protection in the wind, but your lower half will still be exposed to precipitation. Even when there is no wind, your lower legs can still get wet if you don't think to shorten your stride as you walk. A shorter stride will keep your legs under the canopy and keep you dry. Even slowing your pace as you walk can help. It seems counter-intuitive to walk slowly in the rain, but trust us - it'll help in the long run.
We really liked the bubble style umbrellas for protection from wind. You could duck inside and it really was almost like being inside of a bubble—and so long as you keep the wind hitting the rounded outside of the umbrella, you would be in pretty good shape, well braced against strong gusts that threaten your new hairdo.
In general, umbrellas do not perform as well as they try to claim online—be very wary of any that claim they can withstand 60mph winds.
Not only will an overhead canopy keep you dry in the rain, but it can also give you some shade from the sun. Actually, the predecessor to umbrellas - parasols - were invented to block rays long before anyone thought to block raindrops. The larger the canopy, the more shade you are going to get, but if you plan on using it for shade when you're on a hike, a smaller, lightweight, and more compact model will benefit you better than a non-compact model. On the other hand, if you are planning to spend the day at the beach, you won't necessarily be concerned about how easy it is to transport, so a model with the largest canopy you can find may be just what you need. Another thing to consider is the color of the canopy. A black color or a dark pattern will absorb more light and radiate more heat beneath the canopy. And of course, remember that a clear canopy like the one on the Fulton Birdcage won't provide any shade.
Ease of Transport
Once you've thought about the weather conditions where you live, you should consider how easily the different models are to transport, especially if you travel frequently or you use public transportation on a daily basis. If you are always on the move, you don't want to purchase a product that will be too bulky to carry with you. Within this category, there are two major factors to consider: size when collapsed and weight.
If you live in a city and rely on public transportation, or have to walk long distances, a compact model may be your best option. You can carry it on your person without noticing it's there but still have the security of knowing that if a rain storm pops up you'll be protected. Among the products we selected for this review, the collapsed size varied greatly between the compact models and the non-compact models.
If you live in a highly precipitous climate and want to be able to carry that just-in-case canopy in your purse, backpack, or briefcase on a daily basis, then we recommend looking at the smallest and lightest models on the market, which ranged roughly from 10 to 14 ounces. By contrast, if you simply need an overhead canopy to get you from your car to work, or the grocery store, or to walk your dog you probably want to opt for a larger, non-compact model, and these were mostly over 1 pound. The stunning exception to this, however, were the two fixed length trekking models, the Swing Trek and Helinox, which were longer due to the straight shaft, but weighed in around 8 ounces, incredibly impressive.
Other Transport Considerations
Another thing to consider is whether or not the product you choose has a sleeve, which can make deploying the canopy that much slower. If a sudden shower appears, you don't want to be caught fumbling with a sleeve just as the sky opens up. On the other hand, the small case offers the definite perk of having something to contain the wet canopy, not to mention that the sleeve will also cover up the ends of the spokes so the canopy doesn't get caught on anything while it is being stored. All compact models in this review have a storage sleeve. We preferred sleeves with wide openings for quick and easy stowing, as well as accessories like carabiners that made them easy to attach and hang from our bags.
One novelty that turned up in this review was the cinching strap that facilitates attaching the trekking umbrellas, the Swing Trek and Helinox, to a backpack for hands-free trekking. This was a brilliant feature that allows for miles and miles, hours upon hours, of easy and light trekking, rain or shine.
The strength of the canopy's support (i.e. its shaft and stretchers) plays a big part in how well it will perform and whether or not it is likely to fail on you during use. Beginning this review, we were tempted to think that the heavier the product, the more durable it would be, and that lightweight products couldn't handle the same abuse. We soon learned that this is not always the case. Read on as we break down how the different materials and construction affect overall durability and wind resistance.
Shafts & Stretchers
Some of the products in this review have acrylic or wooden shafts, while some others were made of metals such as steel and aluminum. Of all the models we tested, we believe the strongest shafts are those that do not telescope down into a compact size. When a shaft is made of a single piece of material, any abuse will be distributed through the entire piece, whereas a shaft made of various sections will have more points where it can torque and possibly fail.
Not too surprisingly, we discovered that the stretchers are more likely to fail than the shaft. If you've ever had a lightweight umbrella, you've probably seen bent or broken stretchers. In a compact model, there are more moving parts in both the stretchers and shaft. In fact, these lighter weight products are also more likely to flip inside-out during windy storms because the stretchers have numerous hinges that can bend backward. Over time, we expect repeated canopy inversion and correction will stress, and eventually damage, the stretchers.
Another thing to consider is the type of material constituting the stretchers and hinges. Steel or iron, while stronger, are more likely to rust, which means it's important to make sure all the pieces are completely dry before you collapse the canopy. Aluminum and fiberglass don't rust, which means you can get away with storing it when it's still wet.
Canopies come in a wide range of sizes and are made of a variety of materials. Most often, canopies are made of nylon or some similar tightly woven fabric. Other times you may find canopies made out of PVC plastic. PVC is a waterproof material, while nylon canopies may have some added chemical coating, though it's difficult to find that information on the product's hang tags. Regardless, it's more likely that you'll break the stretchers - or lose it entirely - before you have to worry about reapplying any waterproof finish.
Conventional canopies are designed in such a way that the ends of the ribs have an eyelet, like a sewing needle. The canopy is then attached through the eyelet by stitching fabric through the eyelet and to the canopy. However, some companies have gotten creative and made pockets on the underside of the canopy for the ends of the ribs to reside. The Blunt Metro we tested had such pockets, and when we removed a rib from the pocket, it revealed an arrowhead-shaped end, that expands in the pocket. The obvious benefit of having the rib ends inside pockets is pretty simple: no one's eyes are going to get poked out.
We strongly recommend making your purchase decision based on the three major topics covered above: rain protection, ease of transport, and durability. However, if you're looking for the icing on the cake, this is where our final considerations come into play: ease of use, handle shape, and style. Today most umbrellas open at the push of a button, which releases some mechanisms or springs, and the canopy shoots open. However, some still require you to slide a runner-up the shaft to fully deploy the canopy. Either method works, but the auto open (or better yet: auto open/close) feature is extremely convenient, especially if you only have one hand free.
The shape, size, and construction of the handle are also significant. An ergonomic handle will make all the difference in a storm. If the handle is poorly shaped, it's going make controlling the canopy more difficult, awkward, and uncomfortable. Some products not only have ergonomically designed handles, but soft foam materials to add some comfort while you're white-knuckled and racing to your destination to get out of the rain. And if you have large hands, a larger handle is also going to be advantageous. Some handles have very small knobs that have no ergonomic design to them at all, which we found to be uncomfortable and difficult to handle.
Finally, when accounting for style, the most important thing to consider is what you'll be using your umbrella for. If you need to maintain a very business-like appearance, then a classic canopy may be your best option: something black or blue, with an octagonal shape would suffice. However, if you really want something that adds a "pop" to your outfit, look for unique canopy designs, such as the fun bubble designs.