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We’ve spent the last couple of months testing out this sun shelter on beaches across Queensland. Our Cool Cabana review shares the results of our field testing, what we’ve learned along the way, what we loved and what we didn’t. If you’re in the market to upgrade your beach kit this summer you’ll want to read on.
What is a Cool Cabana?
Mark Fraser is an architect and inventor with a knack for solving frustratingly obvious gaps in the market. Like us, he’s a Kiwi living in Australia and back in 2014, unable to find a functional sun shelter on the market, he designed his own and launched Cool Cabanas on Kickstarter.
His requirements were something that you could easily carry, put up quickly, that wouldn’t blow away, or obstruct the view for everyone else on the beach. Having achieved those initial requirements and finding a loyal following, the design has continued to be fine-tuned and is now onto the 5th generation.
Our Cool Cabana review
We took the Cool Cabana with us for a month exploring the Fraser Coast beaches and on many day trips around the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast. When putting a new piece of kit to the test we want to be sure it is fit for our purpose, you really aren’t going to know that using it once or twice so we like to stress test it in a variety of conditions and locations over a period of time.
Being totally upfront about the reviews we publish, you haven’t and won’t see us sharing a load of negativity on this site, that’s just who we are. We only review an item that we have a use for, we put it to the test over a period of time and conditions and if we don’t LOVE it, then we don’t keep it and you just won’t see it mentioned around here.
We won’t recommend a product we don’t love enough to make a regular part of our travel kit or daily carry. What we will do is share both the good and the bad about a product, we know that even if an item works well for us and for our purposes it won’t be right for everyone. Our reviews are intended to help you work out whether a product might be a good solution for you.
So what exactly are we testing?
We went with the current 2021 model, the Cool Cabana 5 in size large and the pineapple design. Here’s why:
Most of the time it’s just the two of us using the cabana so we could have gone with the medium size and it would have been big enough. However, as we tend to prefer the more remote and uncrowded beaches we decided to go with the large size. It’s not likely to impinge on anyone else’s space where we’ll be using it and the packed weight and size difference was minimal, only 10cm in length but offering a whopping 45% more shade. That allows us to comfortably keep ourselves and any gear like the esky in the shade. It will also accommodate friends or family when it needs to.
It’s beach weather most of the year around here but in winter the sun is lower and to the north, so the shade also moves more quickly. A larger shaded area will mean we don’t need to move around in the space as much to avoid the sun.
There’s quite a range of designs available but as a Queenslander who can never get my fill of pineapples, that’s the one we had to have. It won’t often be an issue but if we head to Noosa, Bondi or some of the other more popular Cool Cabana weekend spots it should also make it easier to find our stuff on the beach again after we’ve been for a dip.
What I like about the Cool Cabana
We all need to be sun-safe, especially in the Australian climate. There’s more than the pain of a bad sunburn at stake. The Cool Cabanas fabric is independently tested and rated at SPF 50+ and together with a hat, sunscreen and sunnies, it can help make spending this summer (and winter) outdoors a healthy and comfortable reality.
For us, the beach is our happy place and we spend all the time we can, all year round, exploring the Australian coastline. There are around 34,000 kilometres of coast to explore on this island we call home so we figured we’re going to be out there a while and need to take the best sun-safe precautions we can.
Quick and easy to set up
The design is really smart. Using the provided tool makes it easy to embed the spike into the sand to the right depth. You then drop in the top which opens up like an old-style beach umbrella, then extend one fabric ‘arm’ at a time filling the pocket at the base with sand to hold it in place until you have worked your way around the four corners.
The cabanas are designed for one person to be able to put it up and take it down on their own, being on the shorter side I’d need to tiptoe a bit to do it but it is possible. The mechanism to seat the pole base into the sand makes easy work of that part and it doesn’t require above average strength for any part of the process.
They don’t blow away
We’ve had our old faithful pop up sun dome for the last 15 years but in reality, we rarely used it unless we were desperate. While it was light to carry it was cramped, being enclosed made it hot inside and the slightest breeze saw it flatten down at an awkward angle meaning you’d be huddled together on a slant. It also had a tendency to take off down the beach in the wind when we were taking a dip even when using tent pegs and the sand pocket.
We’ve used the Cool Cabana a number of times on exposed beaches and in a medium-strength breeze. Each corner pocket fits around 4 kg of sand so there is 16 kg holding the umbrella structure level so the wind doesn’t get up underneath to lift it. There were a couple of creaks on the windiest day but it didn’t budge, it’s not going to stay in place in a cyclone but then we aren’t likely to be spending the day at the beach in gale-force winds.
I particularly like that the setup doesn’t need guy ropes and tent pegs which are a hassle and I’m always concerned about someone tripping over them.
The sand free pockets
There’s another set of pockets on the inside near the top of each corner leg. It’s only a small addition but we find it really useful to keep electronic car keys, phones or even the carry bag up away from the sand.
While the pockets aren’t secure as such, they are discrete. Discrete enough that on our first use we managed to pack up the cabana, get it into the carry bag and walk back to the vehicle before we realised that Drews wallet and the keys were still in the pocket which was now folded up securely in the bag. The good news is with the method of putting it back in the bag while it is still upright nothing fell out during the process.
Easy to carry
The large Cool Cabana fits into a tubular carry bag that’s just over a metre long and weighs 5.7 kg. The shoulder strap makes it reasonably easy to carry along with your other beach gear.
When packing up the cabana you go through the setup in reverse. Empty out the sand pockets one at a time, we find it best to turn them inside out then back the right way again ready for next time, that gets rid of the last of the sand residue. Then put the umbrella down but leave the pole standing where it is. Place the carry bag over the top, slightly awkward for shorties like me but possible, then lift it off the base pole. Remove the pole from the sand and slide that into the bag too and you’re done.
When emptying the sand pockets we find it easiest to turn them inside out, the fabric is sand resistant and we’ve had no troubles shaking out the remnants. Even when it’s a bit damp the sand doesn’t seem to stick.
The price point on the Cool Cabanas is at the higher end for a sun shelter, which means most of us are looking for it to be well made and last well. Honestly, it’s difficult to assess that fully with field testing and less than a season of use but we’ve put it up and down many times in a variety of situations and weather conditions and it still looks and performs like new.
The fabric feels good quality and the stitching and finishing all look good. The umbrella mechanism seems solid despite the frame being fairly lightweight and it moves smoothly. In use, including in windy conditions, it doesn’t show any sign of stress or tension that would indicate likely points of failure over time.
We are heavy users of our beach kit, we don’t just use it on the odd weekend and I can see us getting years of use from this one.
So what are the limitations?
The main drawback we experienced was not being able to use the Cool Cabana on the grass. While we would use it on the beach at least 95% of the time there were a few National Park stops and a beach park where we would have liked the option to put it up in a grassy spot when there was no other shade available.
Later in the year when we head up to the Capricorn Coast with the RV, it would be useful to have a stand-alone shelter that could be used nearby on some of the grass sites as well as taking it down to the beach.
After considering ways I could create a workaround I’ve now discovered that there is a Grass Kit available separately from Cool Cabanas that overcomes this issue. We’ll try to get hold of one before we next head away and add an update on how that works.
Overall we’ve been very happy with how the Cool Cabana has performed for our use. The ease of putting it up and down has been a big factor, if that was too time-consuming I think we’d avoid using it unless we were setting up for the day. As it is, it’s easy enough to do so it’s worth putting it up to have our choice of beach spots in the shade even if that’s only for an hour or two.
While I understood the open side design was more about not obstructing others view down the beach it’s also really nice to have the airflow and to take in the view in all directions. After our little dome shelter that space and not feeling confined on a hot day is great.
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