Guide to Planning your First Beach Camping Trip

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For years we have talked about turning our beach day trips into an overnight Camping Adventure and we finally did it!  Let's start with, we survived!  And asked after it was all said and done the kids' said "It was so much fun!" 

So about now you are thinking what is the big deal?  Pitch a tent, cook some supper, play in the ocean and wake up to a beach sunrise-easy peasy.  Well, yes, but... This beach adventure starts on a boat, a ride to on a remote island off the Cape Lookout National Seashore, and no facilities.  Planning is Key.

Here are 10 Must Do's to plan your Trip

  1. Set Expectations.  This is Number One because it is key to a happy adventure.
  2. Beach Rules and Regulations
  3. Weather, Tides and the Best Spot
  4. Plan Meals.  And pack extra beverages.
  5. Pack for Sand, sand, sand.  More sand and some water.
  6. Plan for no Facilities (see expectations, no1!)
  7. Wildlife.  You are not in control of the Wildlife.
  8. And the LIST of STUFF

 1. Set Expectations.  Some trips you can plan every last detail.  A day on an island far away from cars and bathrooms and stores where the wind and water are in charge has its own plan.  "Where are we going to camp?" was a popular question as we prepared the kids for our day out.  We just didn't know, too much depended on the direction of the wind.  "Can we go to the lighthouse?"  "Can we bring our boards and cross the island to the waves?"  In our case our campers, our family plus friends like family, have been on daytrips to Cape Lookout so we had to remind them that today would be special in that we needed to pick a spot that would be good for overnight, one where we could anchor the boat and it would probably still be there in the morning(my greatest fear!) and that they would just have to wait and see what the Beach had in mind.  Also, for several days prior we repeated the mantra "there will not be a bathroom all day.  We might try to visit the Lighthouse and then would be your chance but otherwise you are going to have to work that out."  With 5 kids ranging 8-13 we thought they could handle that(and they did great).  The only thing we had specific plans on was who was sleeping in which tent and that gave them something to be excited about and "know for sure."

2. Have to know the Rules and Regulations.  We camped at the Cape Lookout National Seashore and they have rules about where you can camp, permits for large groups, dogs on leashes, fires (or not fires), etc.  This is super important.  After getting back today another friend told a story of camping nearby on another island but it was a protected bird sanctuary and they could have been fined big time, better to know in advance!  Cape Lookout National Seashore has patrols since it is a park so you'll want to be doing just what you should be.

 3.  Weather, Tides, and the Best Spot.  Of course, check your weather before and during your camping adventure.  Weather can change quickly on the coast and without permanent shelters around you will want to know in advance of a thunderstorm moving in.  Tides and Wind can make or break your choice of best spot.  We had big plans of camping near the lighthouse but the wind just made anchoring the boat and unloading/loading too difficult.  This spot, across the water from the lighthouse, had no wave action to pull at the anchor lines and the sandbar gave some protection.  Wind off the beach helped keep the waves gentle. 
The spot we picked had a lot of people playing during the day but only one group had a tent set up so we hoped it would be quiet in the evening, everyone cleared out by about 5.  Note in the right photo that we have not moved the boat, this is it pretty far out at high tide.  Still accessible, but past this tide pool area(shown left).  We did not want to be high and dry when time to leave!  Even so, we had to hightail it to get around the sandbar shown in first photo the next day. 

 4. Plan meals, pack extra beverages.  Obvious, sure.  The beach can dehydrate you easily, have extra water on hand for everyone.  Have enough food in case the fish aren't biting (we lucked out with some kid-caught Blue Fish, yum!) but everyone still ate a burger.  Utensils saved from carryout often have salt and pepper, a lifesaver when you are trying to have everything.  Ziplocks in icy coolers are a must.  Pack extra.  Extra Beer might come in handy if you need to barter with that other tent for some forgotten toilet paper.  One of us was smart enough to bring a 5 gallon container of water with that little spigot, great for cleaning up hands, pots, eyes with sand in them...

5. The Beach is Sandy.  And Wet.  Pack things you'd like dry in a large garbage bag or jumbo plastic container.  Handy even for the boat ride, which in our case was very splashy and everything could have potentially been soaked before we started.  Helpful for moving things off the boat and onto the sand before any tents are set up.  Garbage bags are handy for the trash you'll find on the beach and then for packing up to go home.  Our girls set up a bucket outside their tent for feet washing: sit bottom first in the tent with feet outside, dip feet in the bucket then dry.  Viola, no sand in the tent!  The boys did not...go figure.  Change of clothes for everyone is a must, sand in your pants is just bad. 

6. Facilities or Lack Thereof.  Again, there are no bathrooms.  Go before you leave the marina, work it out otherwise.  Everybody has to go, it's all ok.  Grab a shovel, take some tp.  See you in 10.

7. Wildlife.  We were blessed and cursed.  Wild horses, birds, fish, dolphin - check. Wild bugs - double check. Wild racoons - rumored but not this trip(whew!).

Scouting the dunes behind our tents the girls spotted the wild Shackleford horses in the area behind our beach(can you see them in the distance?).  Love finding the horses on our adventures!  However, horses never use facilities and so watch out, the beach might have more that just scattered shells.  Get that shovel...

After dinner everyone headed to their tents; everything was grand until 11pm, when we all woke up. And itched. And were generally miserable.  Except one of us, who had the real thing and was still sleeping.  We raided his tent and pirated off with the Deet Bug Spray to aid in keeping the no-see-ums off us!  They were insidious, everywhere (yep, everywhere) and unstoppable.  Tent mesh was no match.  Sensitive skin bug repellent was like a sweet invitation, we had to have the hard stuff. 

Ee were awake from 11pm-midnight letting the bug spray soak in (yuck!).  When the kids waiting for us slowpokes to get up and spray bug repellent, they witnessed 10-15 horses walking down the beach right in front of them!  The full moon was so bright, the kids really got an amazing view of them walking past.  The better kind of wildlife to get on a trip!

After we got the bug spray sorted out, we walked down the beach to see the horses.  Not too close, they are wild and we did not want bigger problems than bugs biting us!  But check them out.  With a full moon, a lighthouse, a long lens and a tripod they are pretty clear for a photo at 11pm!  You can make out the couple standing guard while the others sleep.

At about 3am they stampeded about 15' from our tents up the dunes to who-knows-where.  I must admit, they scared me.  In the moon-daylight I could see them flying past clearly though our tent mesh; could feel them pounding the sand. Wild-Life!

And birds and fish, love some Pelicans! Wildlife everywhere, be ready.

Moon-light (like the sun!)


Hoofprints in the sand

 8.  The LIST of STUFF is long because you still need the things you want for a daytrip but then you also need the overnight stuff.  Here ya go: life jackets, towels, extra towels, change of clothes, SUNSCREEN, bug spray, hats, sunglasses, sunshirt, chapstick, toilet paper, book, chairs, umbrella, buckets, shovels, goggles.  And for night: tent(s), sleeping mats(the sand is hard), small pillow or clean towel, more bug spray, flashlights, lantern, jacket, sleeping bags, trash bags to transport.  And for meals: table, plates, paper towels, food(I trust you can make that list!), drinks, water for drinking and washing, trash bag, cooler you can take to beach(that you can lift!), grill(plan for propane if windy), pans, griddle, grill utensils, knife, utensils for eating, ziplocks, fishing gear, butter, filet knife(if you are lucky!).  And if still have space: swim fins, boogie boards, frisbee, soccer ball or lacrosse sticks.  We used big plastic containers for things like the grill, propane, etc and they were handy for nighttime packing of pantry food(bread, chips) so the Wildlife find it harder to forage(racoons, ants).  Plan what to pack with your camp-mates so you'll have just the right mix of stuff.  You don't want to forget anything but you don't want to pack double, it might just not all fit in the boat!  Some Advil/Tylenol is handy to have after a hot day in the sun and cortizone cream would have been terrific after a night of itching.  Don't forget your camera and at least one phone for emergencies and weather updates.


We made it!  Getting home and taking a nap in my cool, sand-free, bug-free bed was awesome but this was a trip that was a long time in the making and it was more than my expectations allowed(setting them for minimum is good, see #1).  In fact, the trip was amazing and I hope to do it again sometime in the month of October when I hear the no-see-ums are not as bad.  Waiting a couple of years for the kids to be big enough to handle it was important and I guess we have crossed that hurdle.  Our dogs stayed home and had many visits from our neighbors (thank you for making this possible!), another hurdle to a night out.  Plan your trip with contingencies like (a) if the grill won't light, we can go to Beaufort and have dinner or (b) the wind is just too much, it'll have to be another time so today is now a daytrip and (c) we simply cannot fit one.more.thing on this boat, you'll just have to bodysurf.

Sunrise was beautiful with the change in color.  I honestly can't say the light intensity changed all that much though.  The moon was so bright all night, it felt like a cloudy day through the not-bug-proof mesh roof of our tent.  Add that to number 3, make it "Weather, Tides and Moon Cycle".  Ferries can take you over to visit the lighthouse and gorgeous beaches.  And three short things I just learned: "The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is the only such structure in the United States to bear the checkered daymark, intended not only for differentiation between similar light towers, but also to show direction. The center of the black diamonds points in a north-south direction, while the center of the white diamonds points east-west"(Wikipedia). And it is one of only a few lighthouses that lights all the time. This is my lighthouse so I just thought they all lit up all the time.

Having lots of time to photograph nature, family and variations in light was so much fun.  Hopefully you can get an idea of the beauty in our NC beach landscape.  Cape Lookout is gorgeous, you should definitely plan a visit if here in Eastern NC. 

Please let us know in the comments the best tips you have for camping on the beach, we certainly can use any pointers!  We definitely picked up lots of shells to use for special thank you's to our customers, look in your next order to see if you get a lucky thank you shell!  Here is another article if you need more reading or information on ferries:


tent view from the beach, above the highest tide line. big plastic container, small blue bucket of "clean feet water"

tents from above, in the dunes, probably too much in dunes to avoid bugs.  make a choice: high tide line, bugs?

we are helping you fish, see our feet?

love some pelicans

family of dolphins or porpoises swam by

only diagonal checkered lighthouse in US, diamonds indicate direction.  Cape Lookout lights all day.

yes, but we need to make this path from ocean to tide pool.  even if high tide will skip the gap.

finally, you feed us.  blue fish are yummy. soy sauce would have made it awesome.  add to list.

full moon rising, with the clouds looks like every werewolf movie ever made. 

full moon risen, bright as the sun.  all night.  very very bright.  save the batteries, we are good.

bugs were awful, really.  but to have the wild horses walk down the beach and go night-night, amazing.  we stayed quite a ways away but the super- moon made seeing them (and photographing sans flash) possible, remember this scene was after 11pm.  2 sentries stood guard around the circle. lighthouse shining above.

sunrise.  sun chased the moon, which had not even set yet.  witnessed as close as I've come to an Alaskan summer 24 hour day.

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  • Love this! So glad you all got to go! Now all the bugs are worked out may be the cousins and aunt and uncle can join!

    Mary Todd on

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