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How to Choose The Right Rain Umbrella

From compact to traditional styles, there's endless possibility in tod...
Photo: Sara Aranda
Thursday April 29, 2021
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Are you traveling to a rainy destination? Maybe you've just moved to a rainy climate? Or perhaps your trusty old 'brella finally snapped a stretcher, and you're in dire need of a replacement? We selected a broad range of sizes and styles to use everywhere from the Pacific Northwest to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, from urban centers to the snowy backcountry. We tested traditional crook handle canopies, bright compact models, business-casual styles, and discrete travel-friendly versions.

We used several metrics to compare each product's nuances, learning a ton along the way. In general, there are two different types of umbrellas on the market: compact models (that telescope) and fixed-shaft models. Each has its own advantages and drawbacks. Compact models are lightweight and smaller in size when fully compressed, whereas the non-compact models tend to be heavier and aren't as easy-to-carry size. Fixed shaft models are generally more sturdy, however, and, as seen from our experiences, none of the non-compact models flipped inside-out in the wind during our tests.

We've put together an outline of what you should consider when purchasing an umbrella. But first, we'd like to provide more information about the distinctions between the various designs and the benefits of each one.

The more traditional models are lengthier but have their own unique...
The more traditional models are lengthier but have their own unique quirks that make them very useful.
Photo: Sara Aranda

Types of Rain Protection


Let's break down various types of rain protection. You often have the option between "traditional" (non-compact) umbrellas and compact ones, as previously mentioned. 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 are variations in weight, canopy size, and packed length (among an array of other technicals specs). These factors all impact a model's ability to shield you from weather conditions, as well as impact overall ease of use and portability.

Non-Compact


These models, also known as traditional or stick umbrellas, were once the only type available. To close them up, 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've tested, the shafts are a single piece of wood or metal, which we often find to be quite sturdy. Because these canopies do not compress down, the spokes of the frames don't have as many hinges. Overall, we found the simplicity of traditional models to be more durable and capable of withstanding repeated opening and closing. We also think these designs tend to win more style points due to their more "refined" or classic look. An example of this is the totes Auto Open Wooden with its wooden features and crook handle.

The classic crook handles are quite functional, from hanging to...
The classic crook handles are quite functional, from hanging to offering extra grip to steady with.
Photo: Sara Aranda

The downside of non-compact models is typically their size and weight. One of our top performers, however, shows us that you truly can have it all: durability, light weight, and excellent rain protection. The EuroSCHIRM Swing Trek Liteflex is an example of a fixed length model engineered to reap all the benefits of utilizing an umbrella in the first place. The simple shaft design is sized just right and can be reasonably strapped to a backpack. It even comes with its own lightweight mesh shoulder carrying sleeve.

If you need a product that can fit conveniently into a backpack or purse, this is the wrong category for you unless you have a large messenger bag or a backpack that can accommodate strapping things to the side of it.

Compact


Compact or "travel" models are designed to be conveniently with you whenever storms begin to brew. They combine telescoping shafts with folding canopies to be highly portable. Closed up, this type takes up significantly less space than the non-compact competitors. They also tend to be much more lightweight than traditional models. A great choice for travel, they are usually the only option for storing in your purse, tote bag, or briefcase.

There's even a mini category that takes the compact design to a whole new (and smaller) level. They are small enough t easily be stashed into a back pocket or the center console of a car.

The factors that make compact models so easy to transport, however, also tend to make them less durable. There are a few reasons for this, mainly due to there being more moving parts, such as hinges in the stretchers. Repeated use and abuse may weaken all of these moving aspects. The extra hinges also increase the likelihood that the canopy will flip inside-out during high wind. Furthermore, the more lightweight shafts of the compact models we've tested thus far feel less sturdy overall due to the overlapping telescoping tubes, which create a potential for rotation.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Rain Jackets


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 can't, the first of which is a large amount of ventilation. This is both a blessing and a curse. A rain jacket technically protects better against the elements. If the wind picks up and the rain starts to blow sideways, you're less likely to get wet with a jacket. On the other hand, the lack of ventilation and general breathability of the fabrics used means you're more likely to sweat inside (breathable waterproof 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 will thus provide more comfort in the long run.

A raincoat and canopy combination is definitely effective, but you...
A raincoat and canopy combination is definitely effective, but you still want a canopy that is large enough to offer useful coverage.
Photo: Sara Aranda

Rain jackets protect your upper body, but water will still shed down onto your pants. If a canopy is large enough, it can create a pocket completely devoid of rain, which will ideally shelter not just your torso but your lower body as well. That said, most real-world scenarios of rain include wind, and therefore, unless you're wearing waterproof pants and boots, your legs are going to get wet no matter what. Even your torso will if it's very windy, so it really does depend on the typical climate patterns you experience in your region. If you plan to be walking outside during windy downpours, then a rain jacket is a must in addition to utilizing an umbrella. Rain jackets are also great options for hiking or backpacking, 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.

The LiteFlex Trekking model kept us protected from rain, sun, and...
The LiteFlex Trekking model kept us protected from rain, sun, and the wet springtime snow showers of the Pacific Northwest!
Photo: Lyra Pierotti

Weather Protection


Designed primarily to protect you from the rain, other conditions such as wind can alter how well an umbrella performs. Here we explain what factors you should consider for different weather conditions.

Rain


Protection from the rain is the first and foremost necessity. There are a few things to consider that determine how well an overhead canopy will keep you sheltered from the rain. The first is to take note of the size of the canopy: the larger the footprint, or square footage, the greater the likelihood of protection 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 into a small, convenient size. The more compact the product is, the more likely the overall expanse of the canopy is going to suffer. 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. In our review, the products that offer the best combination of compact size and coverage are the Lewis N. Clark Umbrella, Balios Double Canopy, and Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Trekking models.

Remember, when comparing canopy sizes, take note of how they are measured. Some manufacturers only list the length of the canopy arc, which is usually a much bigger number than the actual diameter. The diameter of the canopy, which we report in our metrics spreadsheet, will give you a better idea of the actual covered space.

The models we've tested have had varying canopy diameters, ranging from 33.5 to 42 inches. Though, the smaller diameters can be misleading as well without also taking into consideration the depth of the canopy. For example, the 33.5-inch diameter is from the totes Clear Bubble which has a bell shape and a depth of 16.75 inches. Such gratuitous depth is what makes up for the relatively narrow diameter. In general, however, smaller canopies without much depth perform just fine when it's sprinkling. They are also great for kids. Additionally, if you plan to use yours for a hike in the woods, the smaller canopy will be more maneuverable and less likely to get caught on bushes and trees.

We love that we can tuck ourselves inside and still see where we're...
We love that we can tuck ourselves inside and still see where we're going.
Photo: Sara Aranda

Wind


Not surprisingly, the wind has a huge effect on how well a canopy can 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, then you're in trouble. We have found that a rounder shape tends to be more wind-resistant and the unique double canopy (wind vent) design of the Balios or AmazonBasics helps purge some of the pressure of the wind.

Some models, like the totes Auto Open Wooden, have fairly deep canopies; with these, you can pull them down over your head and shoulders for extra protection in the wind, but your legs will still be exposed to precipitation. Even when there is no wind, your lower legs can get wet if you don't think to shorten your stride as you walk. A shorter stride will keep your legs under the canopy. It seems counter-intuitive to walk slowly in the rain, but trust us — it helps. During our testing, we learned that the best defense is to tilt the canopy towards the oncoming wind and rain. Deeper canopies certainly allow you to hide more of your head and shoulders inside.

We really like the bubble-style models for protection from wind as well. They are excellent against strong gusts thanks to the more narrow diameter and iconic depth. In general, the wind is quite an unpredictable force, and in our experience, umbrellas do not perform as well as manufacturers often claim online, so always be prepared for a struggle in high wind, no matter the speed.

We purposefully forced the Amazon to flip inside-out. We are happy...
We purposefully forced the Amazon to flip inside-out. We are happy to report that the structure is flexible and durable enough to withstand this test multiple times in a row.
Photo: Sara Aranda

Sun


Not only will an overhead canopy keep you dry in the rain, but it can also give you some shade from the sun. A predecessor to the umbrella — the parasol — was 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 dark color or pattern will absorb more light and radiate more heat underneath. And of course, remember that a clear canopy like the totes Clear Bubble won't provide any shade.

If you're focused on seeking shade from the sun, be sure to also check out our review of canopy tents.

Darker colors are more soothing on the eyes at times, but they will...
Darker colors are more soothing on the eyes at times, but they will also absorb more heat.
Photo: Sara Aranda

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 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.

Size


If you live in a city and rely on public transportation or have to walk long distances, a compact model is likely 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 rainstorm pops up, you'll be ready. Among the products we selected for this review, the collapsed size varied greatly, even between just the compact models. Many of the models came with their own sleeves to help slim down and pack the umbrella away neatly. But even then, some of the models were a little wider and bulkier. If you aren't going with a compact model, considering the handle design or weight can help offset inconveniences with length.

All the compact models fit well inside small backpacks, as well as...
All the compact models fit well inside small backpacks, as well as in most outer pack pockets or large purses.
Photo: Sara Aranda

Weight


Suppose you live in a highly precipitous climate and want to be able to carry that just-in-case umbrella in your purse, backpack, or briefcase on a daily basis. In that case, we recommend looking at the smallest and lightest models on the market, which range roughly from 10 to 14 ounces. By contrast, if you simply need an overhead canopy to get you from your car to work or walk your dog, you probably want to opt for a larger, non-compact model, which is typically closer to or over one pound. The stunning exception to this, however, is the fixed-length trekking model, the Swing Trek Liteflex, which weighed around 8 ounces without its carrying case and only 10 ounces with the case.

Other Transport Considerations


Another thing to consider is how a sleeve can make deploying the canopy a little slower. If a sudden shower appears, you don't want to be caught fumbling with a too-tight sleeve. Some models have sleeves with zippers for this reason. On the other hand, the small case offers the definite perk of having something to contain the wet canopy when packed, not to mention that the sleeve will also cover up the ends of the spokes so as not to catch on anything while stored. All compact models in this review have a storage sleeve, and the non-compact models traditionally do not. We prefer sleeves with wide openings for quick and easy stowing, as well as accessories like leashes or carabiners (or even a crook handle) to make them easy to attach to a bag or to hang.

Most models come with a sleeve to help contain and streamline the...
Most models come with a sleeve to help contain and streamline the bulk. The longer more traditional models do not typically come with a case or sleeve.
Photo: Sara Aranda

Durability


The strength of a 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 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. We break down how different materials and construction can affect overall durability and wind resistance.

Shafts & Stretchers


Some of the products in this review have fiberglass or wooden elements, while others are 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 undergo torque and possibly fail.

Not too surprisingly, we've discovered that the stretchers are more likely to fail than the shaft. If you've ever owned a lightweight model, you've probably seen bent or broken stretchers. In a compact model, there are more moving parts in both the stretchers and shaft. These lighter-weight products are also more likely to flip inside-out during windy storms because the stretchers' numerous hinges 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. Fiberglass doesn't rust, which means you can get away with storing it when it's still wet, and aluminum canoxidize over time but doesn't degrade or rust in the traditional sense.

The less moving parts, the less chances for points of failure or...
The less moving parts, the less chances for points of failure or breakage. With this top-performing structure, everything is fairly simple and minimal.
Photo: Sara Aranda

Canopy


Canopies come in a wide range of sizes and are made of a variety of materials. Most often, they are made of polyester or a similar tightly woven fabric. Other times you may find canopies made out of a type of plastic, like the thermoplastic polyurethane of the totes Clear Bubble. Plastic is, of course, a waterproof material, while nylon or polyester canopies may have an added chemical coating. Often this specific information is difficult to find on the product's tags or even on manufacturer websites. Regardless, it's more likely that you'll break the skeletal structure — or lose your umbrella entirely — before you have to worry about reapplying any waterproof finish.

Conventional canopies are designed so that the ends of the ribs have an eyelet, like the eye of a sewing needle. The canopy is then attached 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 has 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 will get poked out, and pressure is better distributed to avoid tear and wear of the fabric.

Typically sewn into the rib structure, the canopy points often have...
Typically sewn into the rib structure, the canopy points often have adaptations made to them to prevent sharp ends and potential for user harm. Make a good habit of inspecting these connections.
Photo: Sara Aranda

Final Considerations


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 and style. These days, most models open at the push of a button, which releases a mechanism or spring, 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 for ease of use. An ergonomic handle will make all the difference in a storm. If the handle is poorly shaped, it's going to make controlling the canopy more difficult, awkward, and uncomfortable. Some products have ergonomically designed handles and soft foam materials to add comfort while you're white-knuckled and racing to your destination. And if you have large hands, a larger handle is also going to be advantageous. Some handles have very small knobs with no ergonomic design to them, which we found uncomfortable and slippery 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 is 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, colors, or patterns, which this industry has no shortage of.

So many patterns and colors to contemplate!
So many patterns and colors to contemplate!
Photo: Sara Aranda

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