How to Plan for Shifting Shade


Don’t Let Poor Shade Planning Ruin Your Summer

Sometimes people will build decks or patios just as winter is ending so they can use it from the first day of summer. They build it and start enjoying the early spring shade immediately. But as early spring turns to late summer they notice areas that were getting shade four months ago are getting no shade whatsoever. The shade continues to shift until finally in winter, about the time they had it built, the shade finally reaches back over to cover it.

Without knowing where your shade will fall year-round, you may risk making investments and plans that are virtually unusable. What a disappointment! What a waste! A little more knowledge can help you prevent this and show you the best place to position additional outdoor shades wherever you need them.

Shade Shifts.

Knowing where shade shifts before you set up your outdoor shades will help you avoid hot summers without shade.

Plan Your Shade In Advance

If you know where the shade will be, you’ll know where to put the patio, where to put the awnings (and what kind to get), where to plant the trees, and you’ll know if you’ll need overhead shade or vertical shade or both.

This seems really simple at first. But have you ever set up your outdoor shades in the spring, only to see that near the end of summer you’re not getting the shade you’d hoped for? Not having a shade plan may be the most common mistake people make when setting up their shades. Not such a big problem if you’re dealing with an umbrella you can move around. But what if it’s a patio cover? A tree?

There are 3 basics you need to know for shade planning:

  1. Shadows fall away from the direction of the sun.
  2. Shadows are longest when the sun is closest to the horizon; shadows are shortest when the sun is overhead.
  3. Shadows shift throughout the year.

Permanent shade structures can be expensive. Even temporary shade structures can be hard to move around. Planning your shade can help you set them up right the first time. Shade planning can be as simple or as precise as you need. The more expensive and permanent your shade structure and the more people it affects, the more important precise shade planning becomes.

The first two basics may be simpler because we can observe them every day. These are helpful for short term shade planning. The third basic — knowing where the sun will be — can be a little trickier but is especially helpful for a long term shade plan.

Shade Planning: How to Find the Shade?

The first step in shade planning is knowing where the sun will be is to know approximately where north or south, east and west are. Here’s how. Everywhere on earth the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Standing with the morning sun at your right means you are facing North and your back is toward the South; standing with the afternoon sun at your right means you are facing South and your back is toward the North.

When you face North the sun rises on your right side and sets on your left side.

Short-term Shade Planning

On the summer day in the illustrations below, the structure gets almost no shade on the South. (We’re looking at the picture facing West so South is to our right.) Keep in mind the “structure” could be anything: a building, a tree, an umbrella, etc. Notice the place that gets shade during the hottest part of the day is a small area close the to North side of the structure. This is where the shade will fall whether the structure is a building, canopy or even a tree.

This short term shade plan tells you that close to the North side of the shade structure is where you should be to get some shade through the hottest part of the day. For more shade you’ll need to add some kind of shade structure to the South side of the existing structure.

Shade diagram: summer morning
Shade diagram: summer morning

Notice that on summer mornings, shade is long and towards the northwest.

Shade diagram: summer afternoon
Shade diagram: summer afternoon

On summer afternoons, shade is short and toward the northeast.

Take a look at these images. They show you how the sun’s position changes from morning to afternoon of a summer day. Areas that get shade in morning may not get it in the afternoon. (Please note this is just for general information. Locations South of the equator would show shade to the South instead of the North.)

Armed with this information, you can set up shade in your area to protect you in any short term or temporary situation. Now if you know when you’ll be outside, you can decide:

  • A) where to place your outdoor shades (umbrellas, canopies, etc.) so the shade will fall where you will be, OR
  • B) where to conduct your activities so you will be where the shade will fall — you can’t move that shade tree, but you set up your picnic near it. Where will you get shade if you’re there morning through afternoon? Very close and to the North of any shade structure, tree, or building.

Long-term Shade Planning

But let’s say you want shade for more than a few hours or a few days. Maybe you want it all summer long or all year long. Have you noticed that shade is harder to find in the summer than in the winter? I always thought it just seemed that way because it was hot. But no, there actually IS less shade. That’s because the sun’s position is different in the summer than it is in the winter. This is a result of the predictable seasonal shifts of the sun’s location. A shade plan that takes advantage of where the sun will be throughout the year can help you avoid some costly and disappointing mistakes.

The third step in knowing where the sun will be is to know how the sun will shift throughout the year. Keep in mind summer falls in different months north of the equator than it does south of the equator.

North of the equator:

  • The winter sun rises in the southeast, peaks low toward the south, and sets in the southwest.
  • The summer sun rises in the northeast, peaks nearly straight overhead, and sets in the northwest.

If you live north of the equator summer shadows will always be toward the north.

South of the equator:

  • The winter sun rises in the northeast, peaks low toward the south, and sets in the northwest.
  • The summer sun rises in the southeast, peaks nearly straight overhead, and sets in the southwest.

If you live south of the equator summer shadows will always be toward the south.

Shade diagram: summer afternoon
Shade diagram: summer afternoon
Shade diagram: winter afternoon
Shade diagram: winter afternoon

Notice that even though it’s the same time of day in both pictures above, summer shadows are much shorter than winter shadows. If you were to set up a deck in the northeast winter shade, by summer that shade would have completely disappeared, leaving your deck and guests to bake in the summer heat. This shows how critical it is to plan your shade in advance and understand where shade will be during the times that you’ll need it.

When in doubt, plan for short shadows. When the sun is hottest overhead is generally when shadows are shortest.

This may be all the information you need to plan for your shade needs. But you can get even more precise about the sun’s location by using some helpful tools.

Sun path calculators and computer applications help you predict the position of the sun throughout the course of a day, season or year. These tools are enormously helpful in situations where sun protection is critical, such as at schools, playgrounds, and anywhere children, the elderly or the public need protection, or where permanent shade structures will be installed.

Any company installing outdoor shades for you should be able to help position your outdoor shade so it will be most effective for your needs. The more precise you can be in predicting the sun, the more use you’ll be able to make of its shade.

But the more precise you get, the more complicated it gets. These calculators and applications can be expensive and extremely difficult to understand. For something much less complicated I highly recommend doing a shade audit for your area.

Understand Your Area and Your Needs with a Shade Assessment

A shade audit helps you develop and draw out a personalized outdoor shade plan suited to your area and your needs. A basic shade assessment has 3 parts:

  • PART 1. Sketch the area you want shade. This uses your knowledge of the shifting shade and tells you where and when shade will fall in your area. Tools like can help with this.
  • PART 2. Think about the space and how it’s used. This will tell you where and when shade would be most beneficial for you.
  • PART 3. Visualize — what kind of shade to add and where or where to move activities — your personal shade solution!

Visit our shade assessment page to learn how to plan shade for your area.

Your Personal Shade Solution

Shade planning will help you design a shade solution that may consider how temporary or permanent the shade should be. It may consider the shade structure’s placement and shade material.

Will the look of your outdoor shade be important? Will it need to enhance the look of your home or business? Or is function the only consideration? And your personal shade solution must fit within your budget and timing.

Get some shade ideas at our pages on shade structures and shade materials. These page will tell you about your many shade options, the qualities and features of different shade structures, including permanent, temporary and portable shades.

Your personalized shade solution may be as simple as selecting a single structure that will protect any given area for a few hours, perhaps a few umbrellas or a canopy. Or it may incorporate natural shade (your local plant nursery can be tremendously helpful in recommending plants that will provide shade and will thrive in your area), and a number of different manufactured outdoor shades. An example might be a combination of trees, a patio cover and outdoor shade curtains.

We hope you will find what you’re looking for and perhaps pick up a few new ideas.

Other Outdoor Cooling Methods

Outdoor shades are a nearly universal solution that increase the cooling effectiveness of other cooling methods, like outdoor fans and misting systems for added cooling effect. These other cooling methods combine well with outdoor shade, too:

  • Misting fans are a clear example of how misting systems work with another cooling method – outdoor fans – to maximize cooling in a single device.
  • Swamp coolers (desert coolers) use a similar technology as misting systems, but in a contained unit.
  • For special circumstances and enclosed areas, consider portable air conditioners.

Take a look at our comparison page or our pages on other outdoor cooling methods.