RVing the Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the Outer Banks of NC
A Beach Bum's Paradise
The Outer Banks, a 200-mile-long string of barrier islands along the North Carolina coast, is a beach bum's paradise. Many people who love the ocean dream of spending their time enjoying great expanses of white sand and blue water. We were no exception. When we retired and became full-time RVers, the first place we headed was the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
RV Along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Where you choose to camp on the Outer Banks will depend on your budget and your choice of camping style.
Currently, there is no admission fee to the National Seashore if you just wish to walk the beaches, swim, and picnic. However, there are fees for driving on the beach and for the campgrounds. You will also need to purchase a surf fishing license if you wish to fish from the shore. Pets are allowed at the campgrounds and on the beach but must be kept on a six-foot lead. Open campfires are not allowed in the campgrounds, but you may build a fire on the beach below the high water line.
National Seashore Campgrounds
Camping is only allowed in designated campgrounds. There are four campgrounds along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Except for the campground on Ocracoke Island, none of them accept reservations. There are no hookups, and the restrooms and showers only have cold water. Most of the campgrounds open at the beginning of April and close in mid-October. The cost in 2011 was $23 a night at Ocracoke and $20 a night at the rest of the National Seashore campgrounds. America the Beautiful Senior Pass and Access passes are accepted for the 50% camping discount.
- Oregon Inlet Campground is located on Bodie Island near the Bonner Bridge at Highway 12, Nags Head, NC. It is across the highway from the Oregon Inlet Marina. This campground is a very popular choice for fishermen and families who access the beach with their 4WD vehicles or charter fishing boats at the marina. The campground is flat and open with a few sand paths over the dunes to the beach. The ocean is not visible from the campground as low dunes are between the campground and water.
- Cape Point Campground is located at 46700 Lighthouse Rd., Buxton, NC just a few miles from the Cape Hatteras lighthouse. It is also a popular campground for fishermen as the nearby beach access allows entry to Diamond Shoals, a hugely popular fishing spot, during some times of the year. Driving on the beach here is prohibited during the nesting season of the piping plover, a protected bird.
- Frisco Campground, largest of the National Seashore campgrounds, is located on Hatteras Island at 53415 Billy Mitchell Rd, Frisco, NC. Campsites are spread out among dunes covered with sea oats and grasses and most sites are quite spacious. Some sites have a few low trees on them. There are wooden walkways from the campground to the beach with a small parking area by the walkway if you don't want to walk all the way from your campsite. Most people camped here will drive onto the beach.
- Ocracoke Island Campground is located at 4352 Irvin Garrish Highway, Ocracoke, NC. Ocracoke Island can only be reached by ferry. There are free ferries running frequently and they are large enough to carry large RVs. If you are traveling to Ocracoke from the north, you just get in line for the ferry in Hatteras. The ride takes about 40 minutes. If you are taking the ferry to the campground during the summer months, try to arrive early in the morning as waiting lines get longer as the day goes on.
Photos of the Outer BanksClick thumbnail to view full-size
Outer Banks Private Campgrounds
There are several private campgrounds from Kitty Hawk to Hatteras that offer these options. While the campsites at private campgrounds are generally closer together and cost substantially more than National Seashore campgrounds, they do offer amenities of hot showers, water, electric and sewer hookups. Some of the larger campgrounds also have pools and play areas for children. If you are planning to stay in a private campground during the summer months, make your reservations well in advance, as they are very popular with families.
Weather on the Outer Banks
The Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina warms up in June with an average daytime temperature of 70° to 80° or more through the summer. While ocean breezes will cool you down at night if you are camping, the daytime temperatures can be very hot in July and August.
Summer water temperatures on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore can vary from 60° to over 80° depending on water currents, but the average water temperature from mid-June to mid-September is usually in the 70s. Even when the water is cool, it's fun to splash in the surf on a hot day. Just bring plenty of sunscreen!
Tips for Camping by the Beach
Camping near the beach, whether it is in a motorhome, trailer or tent, is a little different than camping in the woods. The Outer Banks islands are basically sand bars. Sand is everywhere, and campers must be prepared to deal with it. Sand between your toes is a wonderful feeling. Sand between your teeth or between your sheets, not so much!
Some items to bring along to help control sand in your rig are:
- A large doormat or an outdoor rug to put down outside of the door to your rig.
- A shallow pan or bucket that you can fill with water to rinse feet before entering your rig.
- Waterproof slide-in sandals, flip flops or Crocks to wear from rig to the beach to protect your feet from hot sand and burrs. Although the sand on the beach is usually free of burrs, the sand in the campgrounds is full of the little stickers. Don't run around camp barefoot or you will be picking out thorns for a long time to come. I like Crocks or flip-flops because I can leave them on when rinsing off at the restroom water station and wear them in the shower.
- A broom or whisk broom. You will want to sweep off your outdoor rug and steps into the rig periodically to keep from tracking inside.
Tips for Driving on Sand
When you purchase your permit to drive on the beach, you will be given a map of the beach access points as well as information about restricted areas. Be sure to pick up a tide table so you don't get stranded by incoming tides blocking your exit from the beach. If you don't know how to read it, ask!
Tips for driving on the sand:
- Only go out with 4WD high clearance vehicles!
- A tire pressure gauge is an absolute necessity!
- Carry a tow rope and a shovel with you just in case...
- Keep a pair of shoes in the car so that you can walk on hot sand without burning your feet.
- Let tire air pressure down to 15 to 20 psi before going onto the sand. Use a tire gauge to check pressure. You can air up your tires again at the Oregon Inlet Marina or gas stations along Route 12.
- Drive with a steady pressure on the gas, and do not accelerate quickly. Stay in tracks that are already there as the sand is more compressed in these areas. NEVER drive on vegetation or too close to the dunes on the soft sand. Driving on the dunes is prohibited.
- Never drive or park your car where the water is flowing onto the beach. Before you park, find out if the tide is going in or out. If the tide is coming in, park well up on dry sand and watch the water closely. It doesn't take long to get stuck if water starts washing the sand away from under your vehicle.
- Watch for very narrow areas of beach and don't cross them if the tide is coming in. There are several places near Oregon Inlet and Cape Point where you can get cut off from your return route by the incoming tide and will have to wait for hours before you can get out again.
- If you get stuck DON'T keep spinning your tires or rock back and forth. You will only dig yourself deeper. Use a slow steady pressure on the gas and try to move forward. If you can't, then try to back up in your same tracks, then accelerating slowly to move forward. If you can't get free, usually someone will stop to help you get unstuck if they can.
Shells and Sea Life on the BeachClick thumbnail to view full-size
Beach Combing on the Outer Banks
Beachcombers on the Outer Banks will come across some interesting shells and sea creatures. Sometimes the beaches are washed clean of any shells or life, other times, the tides or storms wash many different shells up on the beach. You might see jellyfish, horseshoe crabs, or starfish wash up on shore. You may want to pick up some shells for souvenirs, but it's best to leave the creatures on the beach. Lovely as they are to look at, you will not enjoy the smell if you put them in the trunk of your car to take home! Photographs of the jellyfish, starfish or horseshoe crabs will be great keepsakes.
Bird Watching on the Outer Banks
Bird watchers will enjoy many different coastal birds on the beach and near the sand dunes. We've watched ospreys dipping into the ocean for their food and gulls and other shorebirds running in and out of the waves. The great blue heron often shows up, too. There are over 400 species of birds in the Outer Banks. Bird watching is especially good in the spring and the fall when birds are migrating.
The Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge attracts thousands of migrating tundra swans, snow geese and many species of ducks which can be seen from the viewing platforms. Do stop into the Pea Island NWR visitor center to get information on which birds to look for and talk to the knowledgeable staff. The walkway through the marsh to the viewing platform is a great way to view and photograph the resident birds and ducks.
Dolphin Watching on the Outer Banks
Dolphins swimming just off the shoreline are a common sight from Outer Banks beaches. Although there are dolphin watch boat trips available, often you can see dolphins swimming very close to shore as they feed. If you are lucky, you will also see the young ones cavorting around their mothers.
Sea turtles also nest in the sandy beaches at the edge of the dunes. When these nests are discovered by the Park Rangers, the areas are roped off to protect the nest until the eggs hatch.
What to Pack for a Seashore Camping Trip
There are grocery and convenience stores on the islands south of Nags Head where you can buy food, drinks, and some beach items, but the National Seashore campgrounds do not have any kind of stores. Those who regularly camp or vacation near the seashore go prepared with certain basics to help make their trip more enjoyable:
- Sunblock. Pack it and be sure to use it, even on overcast days. Sand and water can reflect the sun's harmful rays while cool ocean breezes and cool water make you think you aren't burning. Don't be fooled! You can get a severe burn even on overcast days. A sunburn can ruin not only the day but the following week while you recover. And it hurts!
- Hat with a brim, sunglasses. Sun and water reflect the bright sun and you will be thankful for the shade of a brimmed hat and sunglasses.
- Folding beach chairs or a beach blanket.
- Beach umbrella (optional, but it provides some shade if you are on the beach all day).
- Insect repellent. You may not need it on the beach, but you'll want some insect repellent back at your campsite.
- Camera and binoculars. It's up to you if you want to take these to the beach, but binoculars make dolphin watching lots more fun.
- At least two bathing suits for each person so that you can wear a fresh suit while the other is drying.
- Small cooler for carrying drinks to the beach. While you may want to go back to your rig for lunch, you will still want a cold drink handy when out on the beach. One trick we've learned is to freeze a couple of water bottles full of water and use to keep the rest of the drinks cold. PLEASE DON'T LEAVE PLASTIC ON THE BEACH!
- A large beach towel for each person.
- A sweatshirt, sweatpants or loose fitting knit pants. There are times when you will be cool and maybe a little burned. You'll appreciate cozy, soft clothing then.
- A long-sleeved shirt or beach cover-up.
- A beach bag with a zipper compartment for keys. You won't want to take valuables to the beach, but you'll need a safe place for your keys. DON't put them in the pocket of your bathing suit! We met one unhappy camper who locked his wallet and cell phone in his car, put the keys in his bathing suit and lost them in the ocean. It took him more than 24 hours before he could get someone to bring his spare set.
- While a screen tent is not absolutely necessary, it is sometimes nice to have a place to sit where you can close the netting against mosquitoes.
- Optional: reading material, fishing gear, art supplies, bag for collecting shells, bird identification guide.
Things to Do on the Outer Banks
- Climb the Jockey's Ridge State Park sand dunes, the largest sand dunes east of the Mississippi. Here you can watch hang gliders or even get lessons in Hang Gliding.
- Visit one or all of the five lighthouses on the Outer Banks: Currituck Beach, Bodie Light, Hatteras, Ocracoke or Roanoke Marshes lighthouses.
- Visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills where the Wright Brothers' first flight took place.
- Visit the historic Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station in Rodanthe.
- Watch windsurfers at Canadian Hole or near the Hatteras lighthouse on Hatteras.
- Take a charter fishing boat and go deep sea fishing from Oregon Inlet Marina.
- See the Banker ponies on Ocracoke Island.
- Fly a kite on the beach.
Enjoying the National Seashore
The Cape Hatteras National Seashore beaches are long expanses of soft sand and clear water. Although the water is the warmest in the summer, September and October are still warm enough for swimming and enjoying the beaches.
Depending on your personal preferences, you may enjoy driving your 4WD onto the beach or you might like a quieter beach where vehicles are not allowed. If you prefer to enjoy a beach without vehicles, one of the nicest is Coquina Beach near Nags Head which is reserved for pedestrians only. There is a big parking lot, restrooms and changing rooms as well as outdoor showers. Bodie lighthouse is on the other side of Route 12, so do stop there before you leave. There are also several other parking areas along Route 12 where you can walk over the dunes on wooden walkways to the beaches. Overnight camping is not allowed in parking areas. Dunes are protected, so please don't walk on them except in designated areas.
While RVing on the Outer Banks, do make some day trips to see local attractions. Take the free ferry and spend a day on Ocracoke Island walking the beautiful flat beaches or exploring the quaint town. Don't miss the Ocracoke lighthouse or the museum on the southern tip of the island.
If you go as far as Buxton, take the opportunity to visit the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Those who have the stamina can climb the stairs to the top for an incredible view of the island.
Whether you spend your days lounging on the beach, exploring lighthouses, or watching birds and wildlife, there are many fun activities here. I hope you enjoy RVing in the Outer Banks as much as I do!
Cape Hatteras National Seashore Campgrounds
The Atlantic Ocean Just Before a Hurricane
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Stephanie Henkel