Family Gear Test: Bomber Shade for Your Boat

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By Katie Arnold

We’re back from rafting the San Juan in southern Utah, and despite the sinister-sounding stats—6 days on the river with 6 kids 6 and under—the adventure went off without a hitch, everyone survived, the river was cranking (8,100 cubic-feet-per-second at its max during the week), and I don’t think I saw a cloud the entire time. 

Good thing we brought some shade. 

Keeping little river rats safe under the sun is second only to keeping them safe on the water, and no matter how much SPF 50 you slather on their pasty baby skin or how big the brim on their hats or bomber their SPF clothing is, actual shade is still the best option for minimizing harmful UV exposure and staving off sunburn and heat stroke. 

We’ve used a bunch of different systems over the years and all have their perks and quirks, but until our most recent San Juan trip, we hadn’t tried them all at the same time on the same river under the same conditions—a level playing field that gave us a pretty good sense of what works best, and why. 

Cascade Outfitters Umbrella

This is one step up from your basic beach umbrella: a no-frills nylon canopy with a metal pole that screws into a bracket you rig onto your raft frame, and tilts at the push of a button. The Cascade has served us well—it sheltered a 10-month old baby on our first trip down the San Juan two years ago—but since then the wind’s taken its toll and now it’s so patched with duct tape it looks like a battle-scarred veteran. Still, you get what you pay for and the $38.95 price tag was a no-brainer for simple, low-cost shade.                                         

Pros: Set-up is super easy; just bolt the bracket-base onto your frame, stick the pole in, and pop up the shade. A screw knob makes it easy to lower when the wind kicks up, which you’ll want to do to avoid the Mary Poppins effect. Unscrew the pole from the bracket and it doubles as a beach umbrella.

Cons: Our friends Eric and Karleen demoed our Cascade on the San Juan, and not ten minutes from the launch at Mexican Hat, a swirling dust devil ripped up the canyon and blew the umbrella inside out—mangled, but miraculously still functional. They spent the next five days constantly raising and lowering the umbrella based on the canyon’s fickle winds, which weren’t that strong but nonetheless gusted enough to push the Cascade around. The size is adequate for one or two people, but you may find yourself having to huddle to stay out of the sun. Another minor drag: Having a pole stick up in the middle of the raft can eat into precious lounge space. 

Deets: $38.95,

                                                    River Buddy (left) and Cascade Umbrella

River Buddy Umbrella

Our friend and former Outward Bound river guide Whitney used the Buddy on the San Juan to keep the sun from frying his wife and kids (2.5 and 5). “It’s a big step up from a normal umbrella,” says Whitney, of the Buddy’s canvas canopy and burly steel pole. “It’s an umbrella on steroids.” Set-up was a “piece of cake”—he put it together right out of the box at the boat launch. The bracket that holds the pole clamps right onto your frame with four bolts; the rest assembled simply with snap fittings. 

Pros: The square canopy didn’t blow inside out in normal winds, and when the gusts did pick up, it was easy to furl the umbrella with one hand while rowing with the other. Whitney found the shade “ample,” and liked the way the umbrella rotated so he could shelter his toddler snoozing on the Paco pad in the bow.

Cons: The zinc-plated, rust-resistant frame brackets are bomber, no question, but the support pieces could be sturdier. In the middle of Class II Ross Rapid, an unexpected blast of wind busted one the rivets that held the Buddy upright. Whitney fixed it with a piece of parachute cord from his repair kit, and it held—albeit tenuously—the rest of the way downriver.  At $199, the price is a tad steep for the size of what’s essentially a slightly beefier version of your basic umbrella.

Deets: $199;

River Sombrero

Basically a power-boat bimini kitted out for whitewater rafts, the Sombrero was a game-changer for us: super-rugged construction that easily withstood gusty winds and generous dimensions—ours was six feet long and five feet wide—that shaded practically the entire boat, so we didn’t have to cower together to stay cool. Never has rafting with two tiny children felt so luxurious and civilized. The entry-level canopy we tested was made from a weather-resistant canvas called Sharkskin with an aluminum frame and nylon hardware, but for long-haul expeditions, the Sombreros also come in marine-quality Sunbrella fabric with stainless steel frame and fittings.  

                                                            Layover day cat-napping under the Sombrero

Pros: The Sombrero’s decadent size made it easy to stretch out and use almost the whole boat the boat without getting burned. The baby and her nanny were in the bow, while Pippa snoozed on my lap on a pile of dry bags in the stern. I loved the extra elbow room, and because the canopy rigs to the side of the frame, not the center, we didn’t have to maneuver around a pole sticking up in the middle of the Paco lounge space. Frame works well as clothesline, too!

Cons: This is a serious apparatus, and Steve had to futz a while with assembly before we got to the river (originally he rigged it backwards by accident). But because it’s so sturdy, you don’t have to de-rig it when a squall blows in. Simply accordion the cover back and stow in the stern until calmer air prevails. On a day trip down the Rio Grande a few weeks later, 50 mph gusts turned the Sombrero into a sail and all but halted our downstream progress. We reluctantly stowed it for the rest of the day. One last pet peeve: Its broad canopy can block canyon views—all in all, a minor trade-off for staying cool.

Deets: starting at $239,

Coleman Instant Canopy

Popping up a shade structure in camp is a must, especially when you land on a baking-hot beach that gets late-day sun, the kids are crushed, and all you want to do is put your feet up on a cooler and drink a cold one. Before we left for the San Juan, Steve upgraded his generic pop-up shade structures that he’s been using for years in his landscaping business. They’d been down a few rivers in their day and were all pretty rickety (exhibit A), so he went big—literally—with a Coleman 10 x 10 instant canopy he got at Wal-Mart. 

                                               Exhibit A: This one's seen better days….

Pros: This is the big daddy, but it packs small-ish (and doubled as a backrest for Steve at the oars). It goes up easily with two people, thanks to E-Z push-button levers on the legs, followed by a bit of requisite yanking. It doesn’t budge unless the wind’s really blowing, in which case, tie it down with coolers, rocks, whatever’s handy. The nylon canopy carries a 50+ UV protection factor and is eight feet tall at its peak, so no slouching required. At our layover camp, the kids built sandcastles and napped in its shade all day.

                                                            Ahh, that's better

Cons: 50 mph wind blasts at the Los Alamos Atomic Blast Ultimate tourney a week later proved too much for the seemingly mighty Coleman, and the thing got so torqued by the unheard-of gale (same winds that kicked up the Los Conchas wildfire into a raging firestom the next day) that Steve needs yet another replacement. Lesson learned: When an apocalyptic wind blows in, stow ASAP.

Deets: $158,