Outdoor Shade Structures


Innovations in Outdoor Shades

New advances are constantly being made to outdoor shade structures, giving you more options than ever before. Materials are more beautiful, durable, and sustainable than ever before. Structures can tilt, roll up, roll down, roll out — manually or automatically, by sensor, by timer, by remote control or app. Innovative construction gives you attractive options that resist being blown over or blown down. They can set up fast for an afternoon of refreshing shade or set up permanently for many years of dependable shade.

Learn how the sun and its shade shifts throughout the day, the seasons, and the year. Learn how to plan your shade so you have it when and where you need it, and ensure you position your shade correctly.

Extra Durability of Outdoor Shades

Most outdoor shades can be cleaned by just hosing them off. It’s hard to say that about indoor shades!

Outdoor shade structures are specially constructed to stand up to the harsh outdoors — sun, wind, rain, dust, and snow, heat and cold. Outdoor shades use special shade materials that resist fading and are especially durable compared to indoor materials. Support structures resist rust and corrosion and many are made of completely rust-proof materials. Mechanisms that control outdoor shade panels are extra durable, too, and made to work safely outdoors. Look for damp- or wet-ratings for any mechanisms that use electricity outdoors.

Outdoor shades have the unique ability to protect from harsh ultraviolet exposure, so they not only keep you cool but can keep you safe, too. Many can work with misting systems, outdoor fans, or swamp coolers for cooler shade. Enclosed shade structures, such as enclosed tents can be fitted with portable air conditioners for maximum cooling where other methods might not be as effective.

Permanent or Temporary

Permanent shade structures can withstand many years of constant exposure to the outdoors, so are often constructed of far heavier materials than temporary structures. Because of that weight, attention to construction is especially important for safety concerns. Local building permits may be required. Contact your city or county for information on any required regulations.

Temporary shade structures are often made of lightweight materials that can be adjusted, moved and stored when not in use. Because they are less durable, whenever possible, store these indoor when not in use.

There is often overlap between these definitions. Structures that used to be only permanent, are sometimes constructed so they can be moved or removed. Certain elements of permanent structures, such as curtains or tarps, can also be moved or removed. These kinds of structures and materials generally need the same kind of care as temporary structures and may need to be stored when not in use to prolong their usefulness.

Overhead Shade Structures

A note about shade structure terminology

Whether a structure is an umbrella or a parasol, a tent or a canopy is nearly impossible to pin down. Some of the differences are only a matter of location – the same item may be called a canopy in one part of the country and a gazebo somewhere else. This can make shopping for your perfect item a little challenging.

Keep an open mind as you look for ideas and start to zero in on exactly what you want. With an open mind you might be able to find better features or a better price for something that simply has a different name. Don’t be surprised if you end up buying a pergola when what you thought you were looking for was a cabana.

From small, lightweight, & temporary to grand & permanent


patio umbrella
patio umbrella

Umbrellas protect us from more than just rain. What is a beach chair without an umbrella? A sidewalk cafe without umbrella-canopied tables? When used for the sun, umbrellas are literally “parasols”, which loosely translates to “for the sun”.

Unlike tents, canopies, or sails that use three or more supports to hold the shade material, umbrellas typically use a single central support. This support can usually be tilted to work with the shifting sun, and most umbrellas can be collapsed or retracted to move aside when not in use.

Cantilevered umbrellas shade areas with traffic
Cantilevered umbrellas shade areas with traffic

Some supports are offset or cantilevered, meaning they don’t stick down the center of the shade like typical umbrellas (which are sometimes called market umbrellas), but are set off to the side. Offset umbrellas work well in situations where you might need space to move around underneath. Some umbrella styles use flaps around the edges to create just a bit more shade as the sun shifts.

Shade canopies and tents

shade tent canopy over playground
shade tent canopy over playground

Outdoor Shade Canopies and Tents are available pre-built and custom-built. Their shade is usually provided by durable fabric, which keeps the structure very light compared to solid shade structures. You will usually find these with open sides or optional sides. Adding curtains or screens on the sides allows you to increase the shade as the sun shifts.

shade tent canopy over playground
shade tent canopy over playground
solartent shade structure protects family from the sun
solartent shade structure
permanent shade canopy
permanent shade canopy

The most lightweight outdoor shade canopies can be collapsed and carried. These super-lightweight shades are great to take to events where you’ll have a little space to set them up so you’ll always have shade with you. Lighter weight versions are popular for special events and with vendors for fairs and festivals.

As will all shade structures, these can get more elaborate and more permanent depending on your needs and budget.


Traditional awnings shade a balcony and window
Traditional awnings shade a balcony and window

Awnings typically attach to a permanent support, such as the side of a building. This means their shade will often fall onto the building and cool the building’s interior as well as the exterior. They may be small enough to cover only one window, or they may be large enough to cover an entire patio.

Freestanding / portable awnings bridge the gap between wall-mounted awnings and umbrellas.

Awnings are usually covered by durable lightweight fabrics that allow for air flow, often with UV protection or water resistance.

Retractable awnings shift and tilt to provide shade as the sun moves
Retractable awnings

Retractable awnings collapse or tilt to adapt to the shifting sun — manually if they need to be repositioned occasionally, or by motorized remote control or app – invaluable if they need to be retracted from a large area or are difficult to reach.

Options include integrated heating or lighting and vertical flaps that can shade from lower angles of the sun.

Shades sails and tensile shade structures

Shade sails have many options for configuration and material.
Shade sails have many options for configuration and material
Shade sails are available in many shapes, fabrics, and configurations.
Square shade sails cool a market street
long retractable shade panels seem to float on thin guidewires
Retractable shade panels seem to float on thin guide wires

Shade sails are available in limitless shapes, configurations, and materials. These are part of a larger category called tensile shade structures which hold up a shade cloth stretched tightly between them. The tension provides the support instead of a framework. The height and angle of the sails can be adjusted to work with the changing angle of the sun.

Since the footings must be “rock solid”, these are considered permanent shade structures. But the sails can be removed and it’s possible to install removable support posts over a permanent base.

Shade sails with curved panels can be extremely dramatic. But they also come in other shapes that work well on their own, or together with other shapes and sizes. Pictured here are rectangle shade sails that can shade an entire walkway.

Retractable shade sails, roman shade sails or wave sails go by many names. Shade fabric hangs from guide wires that allow the fabric to be extended or retracted as the sun changes.


A simple, but stylish cabana
A simple, but stylish cabana

Cabanas, Beach Huts, and Pool Houses originated with bath houses or water-side changing rooms. They might be solid structures or simply a screened area or tent. They typically have at least one side open to any water feature, such as a pool, lake or beach, perhaps made private with curtains or a door.

More extravagant styles may include some kind of plumbing (ranging from a garden hose to a tiled shower) for an after-swim shower. As with most outdoor shades, the range of uses and designs are limited only by the imagination and budget.


Freestanding garden pergola shades a garden nook
Freestanding garden pergola

Pergolas are simply defined as frameworks, often used to support climbing plants. Their roofs are typically open-framed, allowing sun to shine through on any plants that might climb them. They are freestanding just as often as they are attached to the side of a building or other solid structure. When attached, they may be called overhangs or canopies as well as pergolas.

They provide little shade by themselves, but plants can climb over them and fill in the open framework with a lush and natural green, semi-solid shade.

If tending plants isn’t for you, pergolas can support shade fabrics or other materials, or cooling methods such as a misting system.

decorative lattice and shade pergola patio cover
decorative lattice pergola patio cover

When connected to a permanent structure, pergolas often cover patios or decks because they naturally create a semi-enclosed area, allowing for more control of the environment. Plants can still be used to cover the frame or various shade materials can be added, often for less cost than a solid roof.

Gazebos and Pagodas

traditional gazebos offer shade with historic charm
traditional gazebos offer shade with historic charm

Gazebos and Pagodas are permanent freestanding shade structures. From elaborate multi-story Chinese pagodas, to Victorian era bandstands, these have historically been places of beauty, comfort and rest. A traditional gazebo might be eight-sided with a solid peaked roof, often with some kind of vent to allow heat to escape.

The number of sides may vary — they may even be round, and the roof needn’t be peaked, or even solid. Their sides may be completely open, allowing for every possible breeze. But traditionally, the sides are used as an opportunity for ornamentation or beautiful windows.

 a modern gazebo varies from other shade structures by it top vent
a modern gazebo

As definitions change with time and location, you might find many kinds of shade structures going by the term gazebo.

Notice the modern gazebo pictured looks like a canopy except for the vented roof.


Where to put your shade structures:

Learn how the sun and its shade shifts throughout the day, the seasons, and the year. Learn how to plan your shade so you have it when and where you need it, and ensure you position your shade correctly.

Umbrella pavilion at Sundance Square in Texas
Umbrella pavilion at Sundance Square, Texas
Pavilion with sectioned areas
A park pavilion with sectioned areas
Swoosh Pavilion interior
The interior of England’s Swoosh Pavilion

Pavilions incorporate a sense of size or grandeur into most any kind of gathering space. They are often permanent structures with solid roofs, although there are many, like sports pavilions that have only partial roofs, while others have no roof, evoking a kind of pathway.

Temporary pavilions can range from a large tent rented for a day to custom-built structures that are in place for several months. The sense of grandeur can house large events or draw attention to a section of a large event or public space, often becoming a focal point, as with fairs and cultural expos.

A tranquil pavilion
A tranquil pavilion in New Orleans
A pavilion's grandeur in a smaller space
A pavilion’s grandeur in a smaller space
Pavilions can accommodate large events
Pavilions typically house large events

Pavilions can highlight an architect’s capabilities, or express an artist’s vision. Custom-built pavilions allow for infinite style options. Ambitious homeowners and hosts can draw inspiration from imagination, existing pavilions, art, and architecture to create their own, one-of-a-kind pavilion, or customizable kits and pre-fabricated pergolas interpret grandeur on a smaller scale.

Shade trees and plants

Shade trees offer beauty unmatched by man-made shade structures
Shade trees offer beauty unmatched by man-made shade structures

Shade Trees and other plants can provide shade and add some welcome humidity in dry climates. Smaller plants can grow in decorative pots, while larger plants need to spread their roots out into the soil. Like many shade structures, they can increase property values, while being far less expensive than other structures.

They can provide texture, colorful flowers, fragrance, fruit, and a natural beauty unmatched by man-made shade structures.

Shade plants bring the color green into hot areas. Many studies have been done on the affects color can have on how people experience an area. When cool colors like greens, blues, and purples are used in hot areas, people perceive that area as cooler than when warm colors like yellow, oranges, or reds are used.

Potted plants bring shade into hard-to-reach areas

Plants require a different kind of maintenance than other shade structures. They need access to water. They may need pruning, fertilizing, and pest management. They may shed leaves, fruit or flowers that need to be cleaned up. However, many people find gardening rewarding.

Choose plants based on their suitability to the area they will be planted – climate, soil, sun and frost exposure. Also look for the plant’s maximum size and shape, and any special care considerations. Consult with a local nursery for appropriate plants in your area.

Learn how the sun and its shade shifts throughout the day, the seasons, and the year. Learn how to plan your shade so you have it when and where you need it, and ensure you position your shade correctly.

Vertical Shade Structures

Most outdoor shade structures can protect from the scorching sun when it is directly overhead. But when you need protection from hot morning or afternoon sun, vertical shades come to the rescue. They can provide shade when overhead shades simply cannot. Position them close to the areas needing shade to take the best advantage of the shadows they cast.

All vertical shades need to be located near activities to make the maximum use of their shade because they cast little or no shade when the sun is directly overhead. But the lower the sun, the longer the shade. The taller these shades are, the further their shade is cast.

Position them close to the areas needing shade to take the best advantage of the shadows they cast.

Vertical Shade Screens

vertical shade panels added to a structure increase the resulting shade
Vertical panels cast shade as the sun moves
Vertical shades can add style as well as shade
Vertical shades can add style and lower temperatures
Decorative shade panels overhead and on the side
Decorative shade panels overhead and on the side

Vertical shade screen and panels are usually attached to the wall or post of an overhead shade structure to add shade to its interior.

These screens and panels are sometimes freestanding and may be called privacy screens or privacy panels. If they are not permanently anchored, they may need to be held in place with heavy weights or stakes into the ground to keep them from blowing over.

Vertical shade screens and panels may be made of cloth, wood, metal, bamboo, or decorative plastics that allow varying amounts of sun to shine through. They are sometimes made of multiple panels that can be repositioned, allowing you to adjust the amount of shade they provide.

The taller they are, the more shade they will cast when the sun is low. As in the picture, these can be positioned on a ledge to get more height.

Fences, walls, and hedges

Vertical shade from walls and overhead shade from tall plants ensures shade for several hours
Shade from walls and overhead shade from tall plants ensures shade for several hours

These are permanent vertical screens. Existing fences, walls, and hedges are often overlooked in shade assessments but they can provide shade when overhead shade simply cannot. The taller these are, the further their shade is cast.

As with all vertical shades, they need to be located near activities to make the maximum use of the shade they cast. All vertical shades will cast little or no shade when the sun is directly overhead, but the lower the sun, the longer the shade.

Three of the many kinds of fence toppers available
Three of the many kinds of fence toppers available

Open fences like metal post or chain link can be covered inexpensively with shade fabric that can be removed when not needed to prolong its use. Slats can be attached to or slipped through the fence openings of post or chain link fences. Slats are more durable than shade fabric, but more time consuming to install and remove.

If your local codes allow it, you could add pre-fabricated fence toppers or make them from decorative panels to increase the height of your fence, creating longer shadows. Be sure to do a shade assessment first to ensure this will give you shade where and when you need it.

Walls from nearby buildings are usually tall enough to cast wonderfully long shadows, but if the wall does not cast shade when and where you need it, that shade is not helpful. If it makes sense, move your activities over by the wall and add overhead shade structures for shade at peak hours.

Consider some of the many shade structures and vertical shade options on this page. Or learn about other cooling methods on our comparison page.

Overhead and vertical shade from trees and hedges
Overhead and vertical shade from trees and hedges

Hedges can be a beautiful option for vertical shade. If planted in containers, hedge plants can be moved while still small to adjust positioning for effective shade when the plants are bigger. Some plants may be too big for containers, so choose plants carefully and position them based on your shade assessment . A local garden nursery can be extremely helpful. Learn more about shade plants here.

Outdoor curtains

Curtains bring vertical shade to outdoor shade structures
Curtains bring additional shade to outdoor structures

Curtains use permanently mounted hardware, but the curtains themselves would best be considered temporary since one of their strongest features is that they can be drawn aside or removed when not needed. They can add a tremendous amount of ambiance, especially if decorative fabrics are used.

Curtains can blow around in the wind, especially lightweight and tighter weave materials. This can be minimized by placing small weights in the hem or on the edges or by securing them to supports.

Fabric choice is important. Typical fabrics are not durable enough for outdoor environments. They can soak up water, become moldy, fall apart, and fade. Look for more durable outdoor fabrics. You can learn more about fabric choices for outdoors on our shade materials page or read a bit more on them in the next section on roller shades and blinds.

Roller shades and roller blinds

Roller shades and blinds cool outdoor areas
Roller shades and blinds cool outdoor areas

Roller shades and blinds are similar to outdoor shade curtains. The main difference is that they usually use rigid materials or panels instead of flowing fabrics. Their extra rigidity means they will flutter less in the breeze than most curtains would. They are available in a variety of beautiful natural and synthetic materials and weaves. Many include a valance or “cassette” at the top to give it a clean appearance.

The simplest can be raised and lowered manually, or by a cord, chain, wand or crank that can be anchored to the solid structure to keep it operating smoothly and prevent damage from flying around in the wind. Others include motors that allow the blinds to be raised and lowered by a remote control device or cell phone app.

Be sure a roller shade or blind is built for outdoor use. Outdoor fabrics are more durable than indoor fabrics. Highest quality materials are waterproof and resistant to mold and mildew. Some are enhanced with UV resistance that protects the shade from exposure to damaging ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Special weaves can lower the UVs that pass through the shade, meaning they can protect you and your possessions as well. You can learn more about fabric choices for outdoors on our shade materials page.

If motors are used, they are specially located or constructed to protect them from harsh outdoor environments.

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.