Blasts from the Past: What We Packed for a Beach Day in the 1980s

1980s China Little Girl and Father Old Photo of Real Life


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1980s China Little Girl and Father Old Photo of Real Life

Walking Down Memory Lane

Is it just me, or did everyone look really glamorous while going to the beach in the '80s? Maybe it stems from what we've seen on TV (ahem, "Baywatch"), but it seems that before the dawn of social media and modern technology, beach days looked quite different then. Without smartphones or digital distractions, people embraced a slower pace that focused on face-to-face interactions and tangible experiences. 

As such, the items we packed also evoked a sense of nostalgia — reminding us of a time when going to the beach meant being able to truly disconnect and enjoy the natural beauty around us.

a radio sitting on top of sand near the ocean,

1. Portable Radio and Cassette Player

Before the reign of Spotify, the portable radio and cassette player combo was the centerpiece of beach entertainment. Families would bring a selection of their favorite cassette tapes (or CDs if they were fancy), ranging from classic rock to pop hits of the decade. The crackling sound of a radio tuning into a station added to the ambiance, and everyone gathered around to enjoy their favorite songs or radio shows. 

Young woman enjoying a day at the beach
Fortgens Photography/istockphoto

2. Beach Towels with Bright Patterns

Colorful beach towels were another fixture of the 1980s. These were often super big and were adorned with bright, bold patterns to reflect the vibrant fashion styles of the time. These towels were not only for drying off but also served as makeshift picnic blankets and lounging spots. The colorful designs added to the festive atmosphere of a beach day, and kids would love picking out their favorite characters or patterns. 

cropped shot of man holding beach cooler while friends resting on sand behind

3. Cooler Packed with Sandwiches and Sodas

A large cooler filled with homemade sandwiches, soda cans, water, and maybe a fruit salad was essential. Without the convenience of nearby restaurants or food delivery apps, families had to prepare their meals in advance. The cooler was a treasure trove of goodies and opening it was an event in itself — with everyone gathering around and eagerly waiting to get a taste of all the delicious treats inside.

Family playing frisbee at the beach

4. Frisbee and Beach Ball

Simple yet fun, Frisbees and beach balls were staples that provided endless entertainment at the beach. Colorful, lightweight beach balls were perfect for playing in the water or on the sand, while Frisbees encouraged active play and friendly competition. These beach toys epitomized the carefree, active spirit of '80s beach outings, while encouraging spontaneous games among friends and even strangers.

Related: 18 Best Beaches for a Budget Vacation

Young Woman Using Sunscreen Selfie
Blond Fox/istockphoto

5. Sunscreen and Baby Oil

While sun protection was less advanced than today, sunscreen (or baby oil for those who wanted to get really tan) was usually slathered generously. These often had a distinctive coconut scent that evokes memories of summer. Sunscreen was heavily applied to noses and cheeks, doubling as both sun protection and a fashion statement.

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Female Reading and Enjoying Sunset on Beach by the Ocean

6. Books and Magazines

Then as now, reading materials were a must-have for relaxing on the sand. In the days before Kindles and smartphones, parents often brought paperback novels and books, while magazines — ranging from fashion to sports — were shared among kids and friends as they sparked lively conversations. The satisfying feeling of flipping through pages added to the leisurely pace of a beach day, and offered a break from physical activities.

Related: Retro Gadgets That Were Surprisingly Ahead of Their Time

1980s Chinese Little Girl Old Photo of Real Life

7. Inflatable Floaties and Tubes

Inflatable floaties and tubes provided hours of fun in the water. These colorful inflatables that were often shaped as animals were a hit with kids as they enjoyed riding the waves or simply lounging on the water. The process of inflating the toys was also a group effort that often involved the whole family. But once ready, they became a key fixture of beach play and encouraged kids to use their imaginations and sense of adventure.

Childhood memories

8. Disposable Cameras

Before smartphones also doubled as cameras, disposable cameras were the go-to option for capturing memories. These simple cameras allowed families to take snapshots without worrying about expensive equipment. Every click was precious as each film rolls only had a limited number of shots. The excitement of having the pictures developed later also added an element of excitement and nostalgia. 

Related: Vintage Beach Photos From Summers Past

Red children's bucket with sand and toys on the seashore
Ekaterina Sopolnova/istockphoto

9. Sandcastle-Building Tools

Buckets, shovels, and molds were essential for creating sandcastles — a popular beach day pastime that has endured. Kids and adults alike would enjoy the creative process of building intricate structures, often competing for the best design. Though the tools were quite simple, they were useful enough to help create these temporary masterpieces that reflected on the day's fun. 

Italian ice cream seller in a group of holidaymakers on the beach in Riccione, Rimini region

10. Beach Umbrella and Chairs

Providing much-needed shade and respite from the blaring sun, beach umbrellas and chairs were another practical (and key) part of the setup. These large, colorful umbrellas offered a refuge from the sun to help make the beach experience more comfortable. Setting up the umbrella was a family affair as it required teamwork to secure it in the sand. Once in place, it became the central hub for relaxation — with towels and coolers arranged around this protective canopy.