Camping on the Coast - Beach Camping Basics

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Pitching a tent right on the beach allows you to fall asleep listening to crashing surf and wake up to a stunning sunrise over the ocean. Wide open spaces, salty ocean breezes, and sand under bare feet allow us to relax and recharge.

Many people consider camping on the coast to be the ultimate beach getaway. However, beach camping presents a unique set of challenges. Thankfully, a little knowledge and preparation can help keep your beach camping trip from turning into a sandy nightmare.  

Here are some tips, tricks, and a packing list to help turn a wild, rustic oceanside stay into an enjoyable and serene seaside vacation. 

Know Where You Can Camp

Wild beach camping brings a desert island-type feel to your beach vacation. Cape Lookout National Seashore is one place you can pitch a tent anywhere along the beach. However, camping right on the beach isn’t allowed in many areas, so check local regulations before you pitch your tent. 

At many beaches, you may only be able to stay at an area campground. Although beachside campgrounds often have easy access to the shoreline, they also have more people, which can steal the wild, free-spirited feel you’re looking for. 

On the upside, coastal campgrounds offer amenities like bathrooms, showers, and vending machines - things you might not think you’ll miss until you don’t have easy access to them.

If you want to camp close to the beach but enjoy the finer things in life, like toilets, Cape Hatteras National Seashore has several campgrounds that offer easy access to the beach.

Hauling Your Beach Camping Gear

Avoiding people at the beach can take some effort, especially during the summer months. If you want to find a secluded spot to camp, you’ll need to haul your gear. Transporting camping equipment over long stretches of beach sand is no easy feat. 

Since wheels and sand don’t usually play well together, consider using a sled instead of a wagon to haul extra gear. The flat bottom of a cheap plastic toboggan won’t sink into the sand the same way wheels do. Just attach a few feet of rope or paracord, load up the sled, and drag it over the sand behind you. 

Check the Weather

Coastal weather can be unpredictable. Hurricane season coincides with prime camping weather along most of the coast, and even a tropical storm will quickly ruin any beach camping experience.

Check the weather before you leave home to make sure there aren’t any major weather events forecast for the area. A local beach forecast will also let you know if there are any rip tides or other beach advisories.

Summer squalls can pop up out of nowhere, bringing hard driving rain, strong winds, and dangerous lightning. Once you’re at the beach, you’ll want to keep an eye on the weather just in case, even if there aren’t any storms in the forecast. If you are outside of cell service, you may want to bring along a weather radio for the most up-to-date information.

Camp Above The Tide Line

If you are allowed to camp directly on the beach, the last thing you want is for your campsite to get washed out to sea at high tide. 

Before you set up camp, look for tide signs on the beach. A line of accumulated driftwood, seaweed, and debris is an indication of the last storm’s water level. You’ll want to choose a site above that line. If in doubt, go even further inland. 

Although you want to pitch your tent well above the high tide line, stay well away from the dunes. While the rolling sand might seem like a cool spot for a campsite, dunes are a fragile but important part of the coastline. They serve as a natural barrier that helps prevent beach erosion. Plodding around on them can cause unnecessary damage and compromise their integrity. 

Pitching a Tent on Sand

Even calm days on the beach are relatively breezy. Because most beaches are wide open to the ocean, there aren’t many places to find a wind break. 

Even a mild gust of wind can knock over a flimsy tent, and sand isn’t exactly conducive to driving stakes.

There are a few different ways to anchor your tent on the beach. 

Sand Stakes

Because you need to drive stakes in soft, shifting ground, you’ll want to ditch the flimsy aluminum stakes that probably came with your tent. Swap them out for stakes with a wider gripping area. Sand stakes usually feature a spiraling swirl design or a wider V-shape to help them hold fast in soft sand. 

Sand Bags

If you don’t have sand stakes, you can use bags filled with sand to hold down the corners of your shelter. Bring the bags with you, fill them up when you get to the beach, and tie your lines directly to the bags. 

Dealing With Sand

Sand is everywhere on the coast, and keeping it out of your tent and on the beach where it belongs is no easy task. Here are a few tricks that seasoned beach campers swear by.

  1. Leave a tarp at the door. Just a few feet of tarp at the entrance to your shelter provides a (mostly) sand-free space to kick off your shoes and dust off your feet. This will help minimize the amount of sand you drag inside.
  2. Keep a bucket and towel nearby. A small bin or bucket filled with fresh seawater lets you give your feet a quick rinse before you head to bed. Just splash around a bit, and then towel off. 
  3. Bring a small brush and dustpan. No matter how vigilant you are, you will still end up with sand inside your tent. A small brush and dustpan will help you tidy up when it does. 

Dealing With the Sun

The sun can be doubly harsh at the beach. Not only does it beat down on you from the sky, but it also reflects off the sand and water. To make matters worse, there is very little (if any) natural shade near the ocean. 

Here are a few important tips for minimizing sun exposure while camping on the beach.

  1. Pack sunscreen. Use sunscreen with a high SPF, and slather it on often, especially after swimming or sweating. 
  2. Bring a sun shirt. While sunscreen should be your first line of defense against blistering rays, having a long-sleeved shirt can be a lifesaver, particularly if you’re enjoying an extended beach stay. Consider packing clothing with natural UV protection built in. 
  3. Wear a hat. Whether you choose a simple ball cap or a wide-brimmed straw sombrero, a hat will help protect your face from excessive sun exposure.
  4. Make your own shade. Hanging out in the sun for extended periods can leave you longing for shade. A canopy, beach umbrella, or a tarp fashioned into a makeshift sunshade can provide a welcome respite from the sun. 

Dealing With Bugs

Although days at the beach can be fairly bug-free, insects come out in full force once the sun starts to set. Pack plenty of bug spray. 

Citronella candles can help keep the mosquitoes away, but it can be hard to keep them lit in windy conditions. Mosquito netting can also be helpful. 

You should also check yourself for ticks every night before you hit the hay.

Stay Hydrated

Sun, salt, wind, and heat combine to create the perfect formula for dehydration. On a normal day, the average person should drink at least a half gallon of fresh water. At the beach, you’ll need to consume closer to a full gallon. Since you can’t drink seawater, pack more H2O than you think you will need to stay properly hydrated. 

Leave No Trace

Although the “Leave No Trace” concept originated with backcountry campers and hikers, the principle is just as relevant for beachgoers. 

When it comes to your trash, if you pack it in, pack it out. Don’t leave garbage on the beach.

If you come across someone else’s trash, pack that out too. Always try to leave the beach better than you found it.

If there are no nearby bathroom facilities, you’ll need to properly dispose of any human waste. Dig a hole at least 200 feet from any water source, and cover it over when you’re done. Pack out your toilet paper and any feminine hygiene products. 

Be sure to smooth over any holes you dig and knock down your sandcastles. Nesting turtles and hatchlings will thank you.

Be Responsible With Fire

A beach bonfire is one of the finer things in life, but be sure to check beach rules before you light one up.

To keep your fire going in windy beach conditions, dig a small pit in the sand. This will help block your fire from the wind and prevent hot embers from drifting away and burning your gear.

In many areas, you may be able to scavenge enough driftwood for fuel. If you want to ensure you have enough fuel for a fire, you may need to bring your own firewood.

Never leave a beach fire unattended. Make sure it is fully extinguished with either water or sand (there should be plenty of both around) before you go to bed. 

A proper “leave no trace” fire looks like it never happened in the first place. 

Beach Camping Packing List 

Although beach camping gear and supplies will vary slightly from camper to camper, here are the essentials for every primitive coastal getaway. 

  • Tent
  • Tarp
  • Sand stakes (or bags for sand)
  • Beach umbrella or sunshade
  • Broom and dustpan
  • Sleeping bags
  • Flashlight, lantern, or headlamp
  • Towels
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip balm
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses 
  • Camping chairs (or beach blanket)
  • Water (at least one gallon per camper)
  • Cooler and ice
  • Swimsuit
  • UV clothing, light jacket, or long-sleeved shirt
  • Bug spray
  • First aid kit
  • Food
  • Plates and cups
  • Biodegradable dish soap
  • Campstove or portable grill
  • Trashbags
  • Trowel or hand shovel




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