Beach Camping in the United States
Whether you typically RV across the interior of the United States and just want to find yourself a change of scenery, or you’ve been dreaming of toes out the back, wheels in the sand van camping on as many beaches as you can find, the US has no shortage of places to play in the ocean and make it back to your rig before your shorts dry.
While both private RV parks and public land dot the nation’s oceanfront real estate from San Diego to Arcadia, Miami to the Olympics, when it comes to value and the likelihood of a natural beach experience, it’s the public parks that tend to provide the opportunity to watch local wildlife, see the beaches as they were meant to be, and not break the bank while you’re at it. From small city parks where you can toss a frisbee with your pup or savor a sandwich with the family to national seashores speckled with avid birdwatchers and surfers alike, it’s these public lands we’ll focus on here as much as possible.
Many of the best “beach camping” will not be the specific experience of camping just inches from the tide, though plenty of that exists. Occasionally, you’ll be just across some state park street or a boardwalk through the dunes to get to maximum fun in the sun. In certain states, you’ll always be a short walk or bike ride from the ocean, while others — we’re looking at you New Jersey — will have little or no camping suitable for RVs anywhere near the coast. These are the experiences that often make travel all the more worth it, like discovering the intricacies that separate the massive driftwood log fortified sands of Washington’s coast from the white sand pristine family vacation destinations of Florida’s Gulf Coast.
When you do find yourself in that dreamy situation where you can truly, actually camp right on the beach, keeping a few key rules in mind can make all the difference, and maybe even save your life.
- Scout Ahead. Make sure the sand feels strong enough to support a vehicle. Loose sand often equates to stuck tires, and though the water may seem far away at any given moment, the difference in low tide and high tide can vary dramatically as the day goes on. Getting stuck is annoying enough, but racing against the tide, hoping you can free your home-on-the-road before the ocean claims it, isn’t exactly a beachy experience.
- Check the Tides, Check the Weather. Stressing how important it is to be safe, whether it’s just knowing how high the tide will actually rise over the course of a day (there are two high tides every 24 hours) or being aware of how an incoming storm may affect your ability to drive back off the sand can be incredibly helpful.
- Check with Local Officials. If you’re at a state park or similar facility, the rangers and staff will often make you aware of any particularly pertinent considerations, but if they don’t, it never hurts to ask.
- Air Down Your Tires. While not always necessary, leaving some air out of your tires can make it easier for your vehicle to get the traction it needs to get back off the sand. Just be sure to have the equipment necessary to fill them back up as soon as possible once you’re back on regular roads so you don’t damage your wheels or run into issues with braking.
- Stay Off the Dunes. Not simply beautiful, these natural barriers protect the environment and the creatures that live here even when we go home. Most areas will specifically post signage telling you to stay off of the dunes, but even when the man hasn’t gotten around to putting up a warning, do the right thing so we can continue to enjoy these beaches for generations to come. Similarly, don’t leave your litter behind (and feel free to pick some up if you can) and remember that for those beaches where fires are permitted, burning things like palettes means nails in the sand for the next guy.
- Be Prepared. At a bare minimum, before you go driving out onto oceanfront sand, you should have a shovel, tow rope and maybe a few boards just in case you get stuck. The perfect kit for anyone planning on camping on the beach would also include a tire pressure gauge, air pump, spare tire and extra water or coolant, not to mention things you might have aboard already like a flashlight, fire extinguisher and maybe even a bumper jack for particularly tricky situations.
Not to make the experience sound more like armageddon than a good time by the ocean, it’s just always better to be prepared so you can spend more of your minutes frolicking and less cursing the sand you parked your home on.
Beach Camping in Washington
While beach camping may often bring visions of being parked directly on the sand with a vast ocean just out your window, much of Washington’s beachfront camping occurs on the Salish Sea (the water that surrounds the Olympic Peninsula and San Juan Islands), and Pacific Coast camping is at times separated from the water by the natural sand dunes so vital to the coast’s ecosystem.
If you’re looking to step directly into the sand — or as close to that experience as possible — pop on your Crocs and head to South Beach in Olympic National Park or ferry over to the San Juan’s and pop your top at Odlin Park on Lopez Island.
Beach Camping in Oregon
While Oregon has some of the most spectacular beachfront property in the nation. Think cheesecake thick slices of fog crawling up sheer cliff faces, massive spruce trees towering over the crashing waves, and the entire coastline is public property (no one can legally block your access to any stretch of beach in the entire state), finding a spot to camp directly on the beach is as elusive as a sunny day in November. While you may not be able to sleep with your toes in the sand, having a fire and sitting around it all night long is permitted on most beaches, so given the ubiquitous access and general friendliness of visiting any given stretch of beach, camping a few minutes walk from the water isn’t the worst tradeoff.
That’s not to say it’s impossible to find right-near-da-beach RV camping, but it’s largely in private RV parks like the aptly named Beachfront RV Park in Brookings, Oregon.
Harris Beach and Nehalem State Park are particularly good spots to see the full splendor of the coast in full effect, but thanks to US 101, you can traverse almost the entirety of the state from north to south with the Pacific Ocean in view.
Beach Camping in California
With some of the most prolific beachfront camping of any state in the Union, California comes correct despite its (well deserved) reputation for also being one of the more expensive states for camping.
The following is just a smattering of the smorgasbord of beachfront camping available in the Golden State, and whether you prefer the lonelier coastline north of San Francisco, or the guaranteed sunshine of Southern California (where all of the campgrounds below reside), with a little planning (and sometimes a reservation) you’ll be able to find the right surf and sand for your particular tastes.
Beach Camping in Texas
You may not think “beach front property” when the Lone Star comes to mind, but Texas actually has more beachfront camping than any other state save Florida. Sure, it’s technically not oceanfront (given that Texas’ access to saltwater comes in the form of the Gulf of Mexico), but you’re not only often tires in the sand, you may even snag that perfect combination of ocean view and the low, low price tag of free!
Plus, where else can you let your cowboy hat and flip flops fashion fly so freely?
Beach Camping in Louisiana
Another state generous enough to put up campers on many of its beaches for free, Louisiana is easily one of the most affordable, eclectic places to travel by RV. Whether you have your eyes set on boondocking on public beaches like the free Rutherford Beach or getting your hookup fix at the highly recommended Burns Point Park, beachcombing the Bayou State has something for you.
Beach Camping in Mississippi
With less shoreline than any other Gulf Coast state, it’s no surprise that Ol’ Miss has less options for camping, too. Still, campgrounds like Buccaneer State Park will get you pretty darn close (if you’re lucky enough to get a spot separated from the gulf by a two lane road), and plenty of other places will put you within a short drive.
Beach Camping in Alabama
Alabama boasts a shoreline an entire nine miles longer than Mississippi, and so by the simple laws of real estate shares a relative lack of places to camp directly on the beach. Still, a healthy handful of private RV parks with a couple of public campgrounds tossed in for good measure make it possible to camp at least walking distance to the Gulf of Mexico.
Beach Camping in Florida
Nine out of ten postcards recommend Florida for anyone who loves exotic birds, endless sandy beaches and a 24/7 opportunity to hear Jimmy Buffet songs everywhere you go. While the primary options in the state — pay a small fortune at a private RV park or make a reservation months in advance — can make it a little daunting if you’re used to floating around from town to town with no particular schedule in mind, with a little effort, there’s no place better to enjoy a traditional beachcomber experience than the Sunshine State.
Hands down, if you can manage to get a spot (ahem, reservations!), Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys is probably the quintessential beach camping experience.
Beach Camping in Georgia
The majority of beach camping in the Peach State is restricted to tenters, options are largely limited to a county park on Jekyll Island and a private RV park on Tybee Island, neither of which are directly on the water.
Beach Camping in South Carolina
A string of state parks along the South Carolina coast provide beach camping, with Edisto Beach offering spots adjacent to the the dunes separating your RV from the water, and Hunting Island providing a nearly perfect combination of shaded camping in the forest that bumps up directly to a pristine sandy beach.
Just remember that while South Carolina’s state park system does not allow any alcoholic beverages in any of their parks, they do allow alligators free admission.
Beach Camping in North Carolina
North Carolina’s best beach camping happens within or near its two national seashores: Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout, also known as the Outer Banks. Tourists flock to the area in troves for the ample public lands where binoculars take aim at shorebirds, feral horses, sharks and more.
Beach Camping in Virginia
Virginia is known for hard to reach beaches on the Atlantic side, but there is ample opportunity (typically via private RV parks) to camp on the Chesapeake Bay. Expect most beach camping to actually be “just across the street” or a little ways from your actual campsite.
You can also be adventurous and camp for free, in a parking lot, halfway across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
Beach Camping in Maryland
As you head up the Atlantic Coast, the states begin to grow smaller and smaller, minimizing the opportunities for tires in the sand camping. Lucky for Maryland, a huge swath of available beachfront property is part of Assateague Island National Seashore. You won’t find a more beachy experience than camping in the park’s Oceanside Campground, and an accompanying state park just north provides for even more options.
Beach Camping in Delaware
While places like Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach are beautiful destinations popular for beachgoers from around the Mid-Atlantic, camping options are severely limited for those who’d like ocean views.
Only a couple of pricey state parks and a parking lot in Rehoboth offer any opportunity for camping in the country’s First State.
Beach Camping in New York
If you want to find the ocean in the Empire State, you more or less have to drive through New York City or the surrounding freeways. If that conjures up notions of fast paced, multi-lane driving where you begin to wonder if a career in NASCAR is a prerequisite to getting a driver’s license in this part of the nation, congratulations — your imagination is exactly right.
Should you be a regular Steve McQueen and make the trek across the skyline and onto Long Island, you’ll be rewarded with several opportunities for right on the water camping — though note many of these campsites require full self-contained units where even tent camping isn’t always allowed.
Beach Camping in Connecticut
While actual beachfront camping is unheard of in Connecticut, a few state parks while pricey especially for non-residents, are located within walking distance to the beach like Hammonasset.
Beach Camping in Rhode Island
Famous for being only twice the size of a quarter and absolutely not an island, Rhode Island, even with its remarkable 400 miles of coastline — a seeming impossibility for a state that’s only 37 miles wide — calls itself the Ocean State. Despite all of these fun-filled facts ready for your next dinner party, beachfront camping is a rarity, with a few notable exceptions such as Fort Getty Campground.
Beach Camping in Massachusettes
If you’re traveling north into New England and following the ocean, the Bay State will be your first best chance at finding some truly great, sand and sun filled camping in the region. Race Point ORV Beach Camping, for those who have can meet the regulations, offers the full Monty: rubber in the sand, salt spray on your windshield and more ocean views than you can skip a stone at.
To stay, you’ll need a fully self-contained vehicle (no trailers) and a permit, along with a willingness and the capability to meet some strict regulations like airing down your tires, dumping your tanks (full or not) at specific intervals, and minimum tire sizes. The full regulations can be found at the NPS.gov site for Cape Cod National Seashore, but for those who can meet the standards, you’ll be camping next to seals and shorebirds, off a coast known for whale sightings and the elusive, eclectic denizens of nearby Provincetown.
Beach Camping in New Hampshire
A young traveler once drove all across the state of New Hampshire when he saw a few towns he mistook for “The Hamptons” on the ocean coast he never realized the state had. Alas, it turns out the real “The Hamptons” are in New York, but if you want to experience the oceanfront boardwalk towns of a similar name in the Granite State, Hampton Beach State Park promises waterfront camping along sandy beaches.
Beach Camping in Maine
As you may expect from a state that has dubbed itself “Vacationland,” beaches galore line the coast, from long sandy stretches to island solitude, small town’s that watch the sail boats pass to perhaps the most stunning of our eastern national parks, there’s no shortage of spots to get near the ocean in the Pine Tree State.
The islands north and east of Portland and Freeport, exciting towns you may never have known you wanted to explore, are served primarily by private RV parks, but local and national public campgrounds exist from cute little Boothbay to Bar Harbor, including Acadia National Park.
Exploring every coastal beach in the United States could easily soak up a lifetime of meandering around the nation in your RV, and that doesn’t even include the many beaches of “The North Coast,” aka the Great Lakes, where states like Michigan boast national lakeshores and camping can be found near just about every stretch of water.