Like a lot of parents of small children, I have a love-hate relationship with family trips to the beach. We set out in the morning looking like we’re about to shoot a J. Crew catalogue, only to return home hours later as though we’ve emerged from the ocean in a post-apocalyptic world. But our annual trips to Cox Bay Beach in Tofino, B.C. have easily become our favourite family vacay spot, so I’ve had to learn a bunch of tricks and hacks to make a beach day with kids a lot more enjoyable.
My ideal day at the beach does not begin with my husband circling the parking lot 14 times while my stress level soars. I try to arrive no later than 10 a.m. Depending on the popularity of the beach, this gives us our best chance of finding a parking spot and an optimal location for setting up base.
If you’ve ever seen someone wheeling a full-size fridge onto the sand, it was probably me. My kids are only five and eight, but their appetites seem to grow exponentially when we’re at the beach. My fave foods to bring are easy to eat and relatively mess-free:
All kidding aside, you’ll never see me haul a wagon to the beach (no judgement) but there are some items that I deem beach MVPs (Most Valuable Products).
Barbie’s Dreamhouse would become Barbie’s Beachhouse if my daughters were in charge. Alas, rinsing sand out of a doll’s hair is not a part of my post-beach plans. I love classic beach toys like a pail and shovel—throw in a watering can for added pizazz. I’ve also scribbled down a makeshift scavenger hunt before from the comfort of my beach chair to encourage beach exploration (remember to leave everything as you find it). Card games deserve a shout-out as they are entertaining, easy to pack and require no itty-bitty pieces.
During our latest beach outing in Tofino, our umbrella took flight and nearly took out a small child. I vowed to learn how to properly install a beach umbrella (and to get one with better wind resistance). There are countless how-to videos on YouTube but the general consensus is that rocking the umbrella back and forth is key as is tilting it into the wind. A solid anchor system is also critical and some umbrellas include both an anchor and sandbag for added weight. A spouse who also follows directions when installing an umbrella is also a good find.
Unless you’re looking to exfoliate while drying off, keep towels away from the sand. I invested in a proper beach blanket that can be used as a surface for picnics and toy battles scenes, or those much-desired moments of lounging. I can’t avoid the sand altogether but at least I’m not shaking wet sand off the towel (and into my eyes). I also make sure to bring enough towels for everyone in my family—sharing is caring but not when it comes to towels.
The moment I’ve been dreading: My kid asks (OK, demands) that I accompany her into that big blue expanse known as the Pacific Ocean. It’s not going to be a quick dip, either. This will require at least half of my body to be submerged while dodging her unrelenting efforts to splash me. But there is hope. At the start of our beach day, we set boundaries with the adults in our group and make plans to spell each other off. Everyone gets a chance to relax on the beach and a chance to get pummeled by waves—it’s a win-win. We also make sure to verbally communicate when switching shifts to ensure proper supervision.
I am religious about my own sunscreen routine, but I can’t say I’m as diligent when it comes to my kids. Anything I can do to make the process less like an episode of The Crocodile Hunter is a plus. There are some great products that are easy and fun for kids to use themselves, like the Solar Buddies roll-on sponge applicator. I also like the TikTok hack of using makeup brushes to apply sunscreen. A sunscreen stick (as opposed to spray or lotion) can also make face application less scary for little kids.
Beach days can go from hero to zero in no time. One minute you’re crushing your kids at a sandcastle competition and the next minute the castles are crumbling. Admittedly, I’ve been known to push the boundaries for when to leave and I pay the price—tired, teary meltdowns (sometimes my own). But once we’ve run out of food and the kids have changed their outfits more times than during a Lady Gaga concert, it’s time for us to hit the road.
Another successful beach day done and dusted (literally). The car can be cleaned, the clothes can be washed, and the meltdowns can be forgiven because the memories from the day are pretty awesome, after all.