Thursday, October 1, 2015

Travel Umbrellas Without Compromise

British PM Neville Chamberlain travelled to Munich for a 1938 Agreement, appeasing fascist Europe before WWII. Contemporary observers noted, “I wish [Hitler] had to deal with someone stronger than Chamberlain. He brought his umbrella with him you know? Bloody little bank manager…” (The Pale Criminal, Philip Kerr, 1990.)

Well. This early umbrella review seems a little harsh….

One the other hand, umbrellas sheltered English explorers for decades as they suffered steamy rainforest approaches to Mount Everest. For these adventurers, beset by leaches, swollen streams and constant drizzle, umbrellas were an expedition essential. (Everest the Hard Way, Christian Bonington, 1976.)

Unless you’re dealing with fascists, COG recommends keeping an umbrella with your travelling kit at all times.

But which umbrella tests best? We’re rejecting the nine-dollar umbrellas that pop up with the first shower, mostly at drugstores. These units are invariably heavy and flimsy: OK, but only if you’ve ignored our testing.

COG first reviewed trekking umbrellas last summer. These specialized units excel for a wander up to base camp: wide canopy coverage, study construction and stouter weight displacement.

However, with this current review we’ve the tested the lightest-weight umbrellas we could find: umbrellas less sophisticated than your diplomatic mission might require and probably not “up” for high winds at altitude. Here we’re looking at “urban” cruisers so lightweight that you can’t leave them at home.

Check out the photo of COG tester Patricia Crawford enjoying a first look at the Renaissance architectural masterpiece, Il Duomo di Firenze (1436 AD). While less severe than the Khumbu icefall, Florence presents unique challenges. September rains overmatch Gore-Tex rain suits in seconds, driving thronging tourists inside. Notice the snapshot’s few, high-season background figures bent-over against the downpour? Their shell-jacket hoods permit zero visibility beyond rain-soaked shoes. Patricia’s GoLite Half Dome Umbrella frames unobstructed views of the Duomo’s unique, early Gothic, white marble facade.

Featuring a 41-inch canopy-arc, 6-ounce weight and super-compact size (just larger than a men’s wallet), GoLite’s Half Dome is easily the never-leave-it-at-home winner for travel umbrellas. Such convenience requires user effort, however. The umbrella must be deployed and closed by-hand: an occasionally less than graceful maneuver. Also, the 6-ounce, lightweight unit employs a skeletal framework that’s a bit unstable in brisk wind. Patricia turned her GoLite inside-out a time or two with no ill-effect: she reversed the process by facing the umbrella’s crown back into the wind. But it’s best for GoLite’s lightweight wonder to deploy crown-forward, toward the wind, with a firm grip high-up on the handle/stem. $30.00, www.goLite.com. See a comparable, if slightly heavier, Trekking Umbrella from Sea-to-Summit (8-ounces), $40.00, www.seatosummit.com (COG review, August 15, 2013).

At the other end of our review’s strength-to-weight scale is REI’s vented, Travel Umbrella: 43-inch canopy-arc, sixteen-ounces (1lb.), push-button open/close and, folded, about the size of a compact police baton. Besides its self-defense capability, REI’s umbrella features a vented, wind-tunnel-tested canopy: the vented, double-covering allows trapped wind (when gusts force you into a horizontal, Marry Poppins configuration) to pass through the inverted canopy-arc without turning the umbrella inside-out.

Your COG testers found the REI’s umbrella’s vent and study framework resisted even the eponymous “typhoonal flow,” a weather pattern unique along Australia’s northeast coast. Less euphemistically, Americans would call this sort of weather an hurricane’s outer edge: in this part of Australia, wind-driven rain courses over roof-tops in forty-foot long, horizontal “mare’s tails” spray. Our REI umbrellas didn’t keep your COG testers dry downunder, of course, but the umbrellas fought the local Coral Sea typhoon winds to a stand-still. If you’re looking for the toughest, compact umbrella we’ve ever used, REI vented Travel Umbrella, $37.50, www.rei.com.

COG’s favorite umbrella tested to date: Totes’ new Lite N’ Go Travel Umbrella. The Lite N’ Go has two major defects. 1) It’s got a “gimmicky” flashlight built into the handle; 2) You can’t buy the Lite N’ Go until spring. Of the pair, #2’s most serious. Outside of that, Totes’ travel umbrella tests best for our COG reviewers stationed in Western Europe, Northeastern Australia and, most exotically, Utah.

Here’s the side-by-side comparison so far: our COG guy appreciates most that he can’t find his tiny GoLite umbrella until he needs it because it’s so small (it hides in his back pocket). Our COG gal likes her REI umbrella because no matter how hard the wind blows, she can make like Mary Poppins with no worries of canopy collapse. But the Totes umbrella does a great job mediating the trade-offs. First, weight: at eleven-ounces (11 0z.), the Totes Lite N’ Go is dead-center between REI’s bomb-proof wind shedder and GoLite’s barely-there whisper. Second, strength: the Totes’ unit is tested to the same wind tunnel standard as REI’s but does without the wind-vent. COG thinks this results from Totes’ better, structurally integrated framework: frame cross-sections are closed hexagons and jointed members appear double-butted. Or something. Weight-wise: the Lite N’ Go might discourage a small dog but is too lightweight for self-defense. 12” x 1½“ closed-size doesn’t fit in a back pants pocket, but Totes unit’s noticeably lighter in the day pack than REI’s. Also, the Lite N’ Go canopy opens and closes with a push button like REI’s. Totes Lite N’ Go Travel Umbrella, $49, maybe available spring 2014.  www.totes.com,

Now about that flashlight built-in to the Lite N’ Go umbrella handle? First, distinguishing the open/close button from the flashlight switch requires close attention. If you accidently switch-on the flashlight during daytime rambles, the light’s hard to notice since the handle/flashlight points down. By the time daylight fades, you’ll likely find your flashlight “dead.” Guard against accidental discharge by taping a spare battery (it’s dime-sized) to the umbrella handle. Secondly, the flashlight-in-the-handle concept seems weird in our outdoor (lightweight-is-right vs. function) gear-head world. Our COG guys have multiple flashlights stashed away: dashboard, sun visor, glove box, daypack (x2), shoulder bag, carry-on, bedside drawer, bathroom…so the fellows think the umbrella’s built-in flashlight’s over the top. But the COG gals think the flashlight-in-a-handle’s a neat idea…if you routinely have six flashlights at hand, how can one more hurt? Especially in the rain, at night, pointed (by default) at your footpath? Thirdly, an extra $7.00 at retail.

Auto open/close umbrellas (like REI’s and Totes’) require a two-handed maneuver to force the unit into its fully compressed position. This means wet hands every time you stow your umbrella. Guys! Don’t expect your mates to do this digit-numbing task themselves. If you find a gal so inclined, would you let COG’s HR department know?

A note about travel slipcovers for travel umbrellas. As you can see with our product photos, both the REI and Totes umbrellas sport sleek, carabineer-carrying slipcovers. GoLite does the same, but without the carabineer. Besides looking cool, the carabineers secure umbrellas while you’re slumming around town or the backcountry in the sunshine. But it’s Murphy’s Law that, as soon as the clouds open, your umbrella won’t be where you left it: handy to have your umbrella secured by its carabineer. However, those umbrella slipcovers, empty and loose in a daypack, are certain never to be seen again. So, hang on to that little ‘biner: hook the umbrella handle.  But let those slipcovers find their own special place in the universe; you won’t miss the extra weight while you’re dodging liquid sunshine.


  1. I've been looking for the best travel umbrellas and one of my top considerations is durability. Finding the right one which will not fold in strong winds or heavy downpour took a lot of searching. Also, UV protection is also an important consideration for me. I would also like to say that space is a major issue especially for backpackers like me. For more of the best umbrellas for travel look no further http://myoutdoorslife.com/gear/traveling/best-travel-umbrella.html