A Beginner's Guide To Beach Camping

Beach camping is a fun and easy way to enjoy the US coasts. And the coastlines are not the only beaches in the US.

Beach camping doesn't have to be a multi-day backpack on a remote, wild stretch of coastline. There are plenty of destinations that are accessible to novice beach backpackers - either because you can drive right to them or reach them via short hike.

Pre-trip planning

Beginners should probably start with a weekend trip of car camping or that entails a short hike to the camping area of no more than a two or three miles. While experienced beach campers often brave the fall and spring (and even winter), first-timers should opt for a summer trip when the weather is more likely to be nice.

Whether you choose an ocean, lake, or river beach as your destination, do your research ahead of time. Some beaches have established campsites; others offer camping on the sand wherever you can find a spot.

Allow enough time to get to your destination. If your trip involves a hike to the campsite, find out how long it takes to drive to the trailhead and how may miles it is out to the beach. For a two-mile hike, allow an hour at minimum, especially when carrying a heavy pack. If you are going to arrive late in the day, see if there is a campground or other lodging near the trailhead. Consider reserving a spot there and starting fresh first thing in the morning.

Check to see whether you need a reservation to camp or a backcountry permit. If you plan to visit a popular area, you may need to reserve these well in advance. Out-of-the-way areas - or beaches reached by longer hikes - may allow registration at the ranger station or trailhead when you arrive.

Also check to see if campfires and wood-gathering are allowed. Many people (myself included) think that a beach camping experience is incomplete without a campfire. In addition, cooking over an open fire saves stove fuel and is more efficient (and fun - more about this later).

Research water sources. If you're going to the ocean, find out if there is fresh water available. Never drink any water from a stream, lake, river, or spring - no matter how clean it looks - without filtering, treating, or boiling it. If there is no fresh water source, you'll need to bring (or pack in) enough water for the weekend.

Packing checklist

You'll need the camping or backpacking basics: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove (with a lighter or two and/or water proof matches), cookware (a nonstick frying pan, a pot for boiling water, and a camping coffee pot are recommended), one or two dishtowels for drying dishes and to use as pot holders, a plate or bowl, fork, spoon, and Swiss army knife.

If there is no tap water, you'll need a water filter or treatment tablets for preparing drinking water (unless you want to boil all your drinking water); newspaper for starting fires (especially if the wood is wet); first aid kit; flashlight or headlamp; rain gear; sunscreen, sunglasses, and a sun hat; a warm hat and gloves for chilly nights; and a piece of rope to use as a clothesline for drying wet clothes and swimsuits.

Backpackers will need Ziploc bags for stashing trash and keeping small items dry; a cover, rain poncho, or hefty bag for covering your pack in case it rains ; trail map and compass;

Protect your food from such scavengers as bears and raccoons. A bear canister is more secure than bear-bagging and is even required in some areas. Bear canisters are available for rent at ranger stations or outdoor supply stores.

If campfires are allowed where you are going, using a barbecue grate over an open fire is a great way to cook on the beach. At breakfast, for example, you can perk coffee, cook bacon, and make pancakes all at the same time. Using foil is a no-hassle way to cook bacon, bake potatoes, steam fish, roast vegetables, and even fry bacon. After cooking, let any grease that remains solidify, wad up the foil, and throw it away or put it in your Ziploc trash bag and pack it out.

Ocean beaches can be damp, deserts are usually hot, and there are often afternoon thunderstorms at mountain lakes. Bring a tarp and a rope so you can build a shelter/sun shade at your camp site. In rainy, misty, or foggy conditions, an overhead tarp and a beach fire create a cozy setting in which to wait for the sun.

Other items that are not necessities, but can make your trip more enjoyable, include: a whisk broom for clearing sand out of your tent before you go to bed; beach or camp chairs (or a kit that turns a therm-a-rest sleeping mattress into a seat - available at outdoor stores); small nylon bags to fill with sand, tie to your tent and rain-fly's guy-lines, and bury (a good substitute for tent stakes, which are pretty useless in the sand); an additional tarp or sheet of plastic to lay down under the tent (so sand doesn't grind away at its waterproof coating); a small shovel; extra towels for beach use and cleanup; travel-sized board games; a good book; a kite; a frisbee; binoculars; a camera; field guides; a notebook and pen or pencil; a fishing pole and tackle; and rubber boots for tide-pooling, fishing, or exploring.

Car campers can bring as much gear as they like. Backpackers should use their judgment (and their research) to determine which optional items they might need and how much weight they want to carry.

If you are backpacking, fully pack your backpack ahead of time, and walk around in it for half-and-hour to get an idea of what it's going to be like on the trail. The advantage of starting with a short hike is that you can leave items in your car and take a quick jog back to the trailhead to get them if needed.

The more beach camping trips you take, the better you'll be at deciding what you need and don't need.

Beach behavior

If you're camping on the sand, situate your camp well above the high tide line (where the sand is very dry), especially on an ocean beach, or you may wake up in the water.

Before putting up the tent, smooth out the sand (or dirt) and remove rocks and sticks - this will make for more comfortable sleeping.

When camping on the beach, especially at the ocean where mist and fog often roll in, it's important to keep everything as dry as possible. Don't leave anything out overnight unless you're prepared for it to be wet in the morning. Put the rain fly on your tent. If you're backpacking, stash your pack inside; if it doesn't fit, be sure to keep your pack's pockets zipped, and cover your pack with something waterproof (backpack cover, poncho, hefty bag, or even your rain jacket), especially at night.

If there is no outhouse or restroom, designate an area away from any water sources as the "bathroom." Dig a hole (with a small shovel or stick), and bury waste. Throw away, pack out, or burn toilet paper.

Never bury trash. Use the campground trash bins or pack out all non-burnable trash (and burn the burnable trash). Despite what you might have seen in old campfire rings, foil, glass, and cans are not burnable.

Wet sand is great for washing dishes. It's abrasive enough to scrub away grease and food particles. Be sure and scrape all the excess food that you can off of the dishes (and throw it away or put it into a Ziploc bag to pack out). Don't bury food or dump it into the water - even the ocean. And, if you are at the ocean, make sure your dishes don't get washed out to sea with the tide (as mine once did) during rinsing.

At the beach, it is inevitable that sand will get into everything. Delicate stove parts can get jammed up when this happens, so be sure to clean the sand out of your equipment as soon as possible after the trip.

With these tips in mind, your beach camping trip should be a great experience - and the start of many more.

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