How to Make the Best Above Ground Pools Look Even Better, According to Designers
Start swimming in a weekend.
Published Jun 7, 2022 1:00 AM
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While relief from the sun on a sweltering hot day can be as quick and easy as blowing up an inflatable pool, it’s not exactly our idea of a summer-long lounging spot. If you’re ready to add a more permanent cool-down feature to your backyard—especially if you happen to have the space!—the best above ground pools can be installed in just a weekend’s time. And while their utilitarian exteriors tend to leave much to be desired—from a basic bright blue to a logo-emblazoned outer—we’re dispelling the notion that an above ground pool is tacky. You can dress them up in infinite ways. That’s why in addition to speaking with a couple of pool experts about how to nail down the right size and shape (and general install and maintenance know-how), we made sure to chat with designers who either have transformed their own pools (like Sara Simon’s Tulum-inspired clay tile–clad California escape) or landscaped around these products (Thayer Gowdy, for example, chic-ified her stock tank with sand and stone in her Ojai backyard) to provide a few tips on how to prevent this purchase from becoming an eyesore. Below, you’ll find our list of the best above ground pools prime for customization.
- Best rectangular: Bestway Power Steel Above Ground Pool
- Best round: Intex Above Ground Swimming Pool Set
- Best value: CountyLine Round Galvanized Stock Tank
Best Rectangular: Bestway Power Steel Above Ground Pool
Dimensions: 9.3-by-6.5-by-2.75 feet | Weight: 90 pounds | Frame type: Reinforced steel
What we like:
- Less than $500
- No tools required for setup (or takedown)
- Corrosion-resistant frame
- Comes with a chlorine dispenser
- Weak filter
- 90-day warranty on the liner
Why we chose it: A deck-friendly shape that’s easier to frame around compared to pools with curvier walls.
Although easier to install, the main aesthetic woe of going with an above ground pool is that it’s always exposed; you could argue in-ground pools are almost hidden and look more like a pond rather than an oversize water fountain, revealing only the liner you decided to go with. Our main reason for choosing a rectangular above ground pool is simple: It makes installing a deck around its perimeter far easier, especially if you’re determined to pick up a few boards to saw and install yourself. If you’re not sure where to start, Etsy creators offer a variety of plans available to purchase (how cool is this?), or you can even pick up interlocking composite planks. As for the pool itself, it’s a less obtrusive light gray wrapped around a tilelike vinyl liner that’s puncture resistant and doesn’t require any tools to set up—simply add the poles and water and you’re good to go.
The complementary filter, however, isn’t exactly large enough to handle the 967-gallon capacity, considering it has a flow rate of just 330 gallons. And this pick is affordable, but small, so if a larger size is what you’re after, there are bigger alternatives, such as one that’s 18 feet long.
Best Round: Intex Above Ground Swimming Pool Set
Dimensions: 15.6-by-4 feet | Weight: 492.8 pounds | Frame type: High-density plastic
What we like:
- Woodlike exterior
- Decently deep depth
- Powerful filter (1,200 gallons per hour)
- Comes with a pump, ladder, cover, and ground cloth for all-in-one setup
- Pricey (over $1,000)
Why we chose it: Strong, sleek exterior that looks like composite wood, so all you have to worry about is dressing up your yard.
If the idea of assembling pieces of lumber to DIY a deck around your pool seems like a bit too much work (or power tools aren’t really your thing), there is this preframed option from Intex. You’ll have to pay extra for this one-and-done model (really, after setting it up, all you’ll have to decide is what kind of landscaping to surround it with—from lightly colored pebbles to tiki torches to string lights to up the ambience at night). Designed to look like wood, this exterior is actually made from a high-density plastic, so you won’t have to worry about re-staining it. It’s only offered in a darker, charcoal-like gray, but you can always pick up a can of spray paint or a brush to transform it into any color you choose. The liner is also a prefixed pick, but the simple faux tile grout lines are a crowd-pleaser.
Best Value: CountyLine Round Galvanized Stock Tank
Dimensions: 6-by-2-feet | Weight: 115 pounds | Frame type: Galvanized steel wall
What we like:
- Made in the U.S.
- Superdurable and rust-resistant, designed to be left outdoors
- Holds nearly 400 gallons of water
- Budget-friendly cost
- Small, only 2 feet deep (but great for kids!)
- An advanced DIY
Why we chose it: All you need is paint and a pump to take this from a watering tank to a pool party for your kids.
Stock tanks were summer 2020’s hero—if you aren’t afraid of a little DIY, this steel tub (it also comes in an oval option for single soaking) is the perfect blank slate (and these seven designs prove it). If you don’t have a lot of space or the budget to deal with anything bigger, this watering hole is the perfect solution for an accessible and affordable above ground pool. You can dress up the plain steel with paint, wrap it around pebbles, or clad the exterior in a completely different material altogether, whether it’s tile, bamboo, or wood. Getting the right look doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be as simple as adding a chic bench or a stone path, just like Gowdy did in her Ojai backyard. The possibilities are only limited to your imagination (and maybe just how crafty your skill set is). Personally, we’ll be emulating designer Bri Moysa, who put together her entire outdoor oasis for $600, which includes a 2-foot-high deck (with stairs!) for $175 (it also hides the pump; that’s what we call a win-win). And it’s just as easy to disassemble, as she has since sold hers.
If You’re Ready for an Upgrade
- For an easy, all-in-one kit, Leslie’s Weekender will deliver the walls, bottom rail, skimmer, pool liner, A-frame ladder, and a sand-and-pump filter system that the company claims you can have up and running in a weekend’s time (so you can focus on which stone you’ll lay leading up to it).
- According to Robert Tarson Jr., president of Tarson Pools and Spas in upstate New York, the best above ground pools are the Aquasport models made by Buster Crabbe, one of the oldest manufacturers in the country. “They are made in the U.S., so parts are always available,” Tarson notes. And its corrugated walls, although heavy, are still rolled, so they won’t be as fragile come install day. “The engineering style is much more superior than other pools on the market. The company also makes a full walk-around aluminum deck that allows a small seating section.” It makes cleaning easier, too.
How We Chose These Products
We spoke with a few pool experts—from small, independent retailers and large, nationwide chains to designers and a landscape architect—to determine what to look for in the best above ground pools. While nearly all agreed you can’t go wrong with the custom route (especially if you’re looking to create a more permanent fixture in your outdoor oasis), that decision will likely require a bigger budget and the help of a professional—and while your choices will increase, so too will your lead time (though still not nearly as much as if you were to go the in-ground route). From there, we wanted to offer a range of size and shapes, price points, and exteriors, though the goal here is to give a boring exterior a little facelift, even if only with paint.
Our Shopping Checklist
Types of Pools
When it comes to selecting an above ground pool, you’ll likely be choosing between two main types: soft walls and hard walls made from steel. The former is considered a more temporary relief from the sun (it’ll only last a few summers), whereas the latter is a long-term investment, as it will likely be made from steel, resin, or aluminum. “A soft-sided pool is easy to assemble and take down at the end of the season,” explains Greg Canfield, Leslie’s pool expert. “Hard-wall pools are also customizable, so you can select all of the features such as the liner, ladder, rails, and more to fit your needs. If well maintained, hard-wall pools can last you anywhere from 15 to 30 years.”
But the best above ground pools aren’t just a budget-friendly solution to a cooling water feature. As Simon shares, an above ground pool, when styled, can become the centerpiece of your backyard. “I knew I didn’t want to do an in-ground pool; I wanted to create an experience built around the pool,” she adds. “I wanted the pool to be a focal point and make it feel like you were escaping to another world. This is why I went with the bright colored tile from Fireclay, which gives off a Moroccan riad vibe, and landscaped it like the jungles of Tulum.”
Size and Shape
Determining the best size (or even shape—round, oval, or rectangular) of your pool comes down to what your yard can comfortably accommodate, especially considering an above ground pool can be as small as 10 feet in diameter but can also be significantly larger—from 30 feet in diameter or in length (we’re talking more than 24,000 gallons). And you’ll likely need to add on an extra foot or two to account for movability and if your product has heftier steel pole frames. This is also dependent on how you foresee yourself primarily enjoying the pool, argues Meredith Forney Beach, principal of Campion Hruby Landscape Architects. “Is it for a family with small children where shallow water is critical? Or is it a competitive, sporty family where a same-depth pool provides the best opportunity for games?” poses Beach. “Do you want to sit in a chair in the water sipping a refreshing drink, or would you rather submerge yourself on a deep-end toe ledge? Are there sunbathers? Make sure there is terrace space where you can lie facing the southern sun. Not a sunbather? A large terrace may not be necessary, but you’ll want to leave enough space for a shade structure or some umbrellas.”
It’s also important to check with your local town, city, or Homeowners Association (HOA) to confirm if you’re allowed to install an above ground pool. For instance, while we were obsessed with designer Melanie Rave’s DIYed above ground pool setup (complete with a surrounding deck), she unfortunately was forced to remove it. And if you’re working with a professional installer, securing approval is necessary before any excavation work can start.
While above ground pools don’t require as large of an area to excavate or as much labor-intensive work to set up, installation certainly isn’t an all-around breeze and there will likely still be a decent amount of digging involved to level the placement of a pool. Once the ground is level (this is key, as an uneven foundation can threaten the pool’s integrity and longevity), Tarson reveals his team of installers add a special sand to the base of the excavation site before assembling the pool (you can mimic this by investing in a pool cloth for extra protection against potential puncture culprits like sticks and rocks). If you do decide to go the upgraded route, you’ll also likely need electrical grounding, he adds, and a final inspection from the town to ensure everything is in working order.
From there, fill it up, circulate the water, and enjoy—that is, if you’re satisfied with the pump your pool came with. Unfortunately, for most of the above ground pools available online and shipped to your door, they don’t all exactly come with adequate equipment. Most of the experts we chatted with advise investing in your own pump system, so you don’t have to constantly worry about chlorine or water clarity and can focus on relaxing.
Landscape and Decking
Once your pool is installed, you may want to consider surrounding the structure with more than just the grass of your backyard. Adding pavers, for instance, is great for a pathway that won’t irritate the bottom of your feet as much as something more gravelly. “Natural stone is classic and beautiful,” offers Beach, who likes to use travertine, limestone, or marble. “We have found that with the right design, each of these materials can work in both modern and traditional settings.”
Adding a deck, for Beach, is almost always a no-brainer to upgrading this backyard amenity, making it big enough to easily walk around and clean, or even just as a suitable place to lounge, while also adding a bit more visual intrigue to an exterior (if it happens to remain exposed). “When we use a decking material, we will combine this with a natural stone coping directly around the pool—constant contact with water will take a toll on decking. We have often used hardwoods such as ipe, but are always on the lookout for more sustainable materials.”
Pool Care and Maintenance
“When looking to invest in a pool, it’s important to remember that there is a bit of upkeep that comes along with it,” stresses Canfield. “It’s necessary to maintain the pool chemistry to keep the water healthy and safe. Although it’s not a difficult task or something that’s time-consuming, water should be tested weekly to ensure that chemicals are balanced.” Still not sure what you need? Check out our guide to the best pool algicides and test kits.
Q: How can I make my above ground pool not look like any eyesore?
According to Cathy Purple Cherry, founder and principal of Purple Cherry Architects, above ground pools shouldn’t be “dropped in the middle of the lawn,” they should look as if they belong. To integrate one in your backyard landscape, focus on making your space functional.
“An above ground pool needs to be stitched both vertically and horizontally into the surrounding landscape. This can be done with a deck that surrounds the pool and gracefully steps back down to ground level, layered planting surrounding the deck, or even the pool by itself can soften the vertical transition,” adds Beach. Open and shaded seating areas, in addition to beautiful planting and hardscape design (though avoid bluestone, as it can get hot enough in the sun to burn your feet!), are also recommended. “Another landscape design trend that our clients are loving is designing a pool that is nested slightly lower than the house by using a landscape wall. This allows the pool furniture to disappear from view (when viewing from inside the home) and also allows for a terraced or stepped landscape design.”
For instance, Simon relied on tropical greenery for a natural element of shade, then surrounded her pool with two distinct lounging areas. “On one side of the pool I did built-in seating with a terrazzo firepit, and on the other end I did a giant daybed for sun lounging,” she explains. “Everything was plastered white, which allows all the plants and tile to pop. It is simplicity at its finest. It’s cool, crisp, and a total vibe.”
Q: Do I need a pump and filtration system for my above ground pool?
To keep your above ground pool water clear, you’ll need to employ the help of more than just a bag of chemicals. A filtration system is necessary to keep still water moving and capture all the microbes that can muck up your swimming time. This is definitely something we wouldn’t skimp on, as it’s crucial to keeping your pool clean and safe.
Q: Can I leave my pool up all year long? Do I need to drain it?
In most instances, yes, but that depends on what pool you went with. “At the end of the swimming season, soft-sided pools need to be drained, cleaned, and boxed up to be stored away,” explains Canfield. But those made of sturdier materials (otherwise known as hard-wall pools), designed to be a permanent fixture in your backyard, are too difficult to take down all the way—you’ll need to properly winterize it, especially if you live in the Northeast. “The winterization process includes covering the pool and removing the equipment to be stored away for the colder months,” he adds, but not the water; doing so can damage your liner, depending on what material you choose, namely vinyl.
Q: What kind of accessories should I consider getting for my pool?
Personally, we think you can’t go wrong with a set of pool steps, which makes getting in and out of the water a breeze. Whether you want to lounge in the sun to catch a few rays or just get a quick photo op, the best pool floats come in all fun shapes and sizes and are perfect for a party.
The Last Word
The best above ground pool is the one that works best in your backyard and suits your swimming needs, whether that’s a small, soft-wall temporary fix for a summer or two, or a more permanent hard-wall pick that will last years. For the latter, we recommend giving it a quick design treatment. “It’s important to incorporate a pool in a manner that feels like it is a piece of the entire landscape composition and not something that dropped in from outer space,” notes Beach. And that can be as simple as cladding the sides in a fresh coat of paint or strips of bamboo, surrounding it with a deck, and blowing up your favorite pool float to finish the look.
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