Remote beach camping in Carolina
From our camp we could not see another camp as far as you could see in either direction. (Andrew Aughenbaugh photo)

The cold winds of winter drift the snow blocking the garage door. My mind drifts to a remote warm sunny beach; one where I can pitch my tent right on the sand and watch the surf softly roll while sitting by the campfire.

If the crowds of Ocean City are too much for your liking and even the constant 4x4 traffic up and down Assateague Beach leave you wanting a more remote beach? I know a place. A place that requires a private ferry ride to reach. A place where camping is not only permitted on the beach but is required since the beach is the only place to set your tent. A place rich in history, surf fishing, kayaking and excellent beach combing, all without the thick crowds that normally come with a beach vacation.


Portsmouth Island is a small Outer Banks Barrier island in North Carolina located just south of Ocracoke Island on the southern side of the Ocracoke Inlet. The barrier island is 13 miles long with no vacation homes, no stores, or any businesses of any kind on the island.

The National Park Service does have a cluster of cottages that it maintains and rents to vacationers on the southern end of the island.

Portsmouth Island is a part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore which consists of 56 miles of undeveloped beach stretched over 4 barrier islands from Ocracoke Inlet to the North and Beaufort inlet on the south. There are 20 cabins maintained and operated by the National Park Service on Portsmouth Island. All the cabins have electric, hot water, and bathrooms, but only a few have air conditioning.

This is the place to go to get away from things for a while.

From Westminster to Portsmouth Island takes about eight hours to cover the 400 miles and includes a ferry ride. To reach the island you need to catch the Morris Marina ferry in Atlantic, N.C. Morris Marina runs two ferries out to the island and the trip takes about 45 minutes. The ferry schedule changes and is based on demand, especially during the off season. The round trip cost for a single vehicle is $75. Walk-ons are available as well as ATV transport.

On my last trip down to the island, I met Kari and Rick Martin who operate Morris Marina and their operation is an enjoyable part of the adventure getting out to the island. For more information on the ferry schedule and rates, Morris Marina can be reached at (252) 225-4261.

Camping on Portsmouth Island is not like the normal campgrounds you might be accustomed to visiting. To begin with, there are no assigned camping spots. You find your own spot on the beach, as close to or as far away from other people as you want. The last time I was there, I was camping with three other campers and we set up our own little town of tents slipped in between the dunes above the high tide mark. We were there the first week of April and from our camp we could not see another camp as far as you could see in either direction.

Being prepared and having everything you'll need during the trip with you is important. The Island does not have a camp store. If you didn't bring it, you have to do without. Public restrooms are located at both ends of the island, one at the NPS cabins which includes public showers and one on the edge of the Portsmouth village.

The island is a place for the 4x4 vehicle since there are no roads on the island. Well, paved roads that is. Once off the ferry ramp your tires hit the sand and the fun begins. Most of the driving is done on the beach, but there is a dune road that can be used when the tide is too high or for a little added exploring.

A highly lifted customized 4x4 is not required to run the beach. A stock 4x4 SUV will handle the sand perfectly if properly prepared. The number one rule when driving on sand is to lower the air pressure in the tires. Over the years I've found that between 17 to 20 PSI works well when driving on the sand. There are certain tools that you should always have when you venture out on the beach.

Tools for the beach:


-Hi-lift jack or some kind of jack that can be used in the sand

-A board to use as a jack stand


-Water for the radiator

-Tow strap

-Tire gauge

-Air compressor

On the Northern end of the island sits a little piece of history frozen in time, Portsmouth Village. Established in 1753, Portsmouth grew to be one of the largest settlements on the Outer Banks by 1770. For 100 years the town was the major shipping center on the Banks. Portsmouth was established to run cargo in tinder boats from the Ocracoke inlet to the mainland as the inlet and sound was too shallow for the larger ships.

Trade routes shifted and Portsmouth became a ghost town. Many of the buildings remain today and have been restored including the Life Saving Service Station, the post office, and the Methodist church.

If you have ever sat on the beach wishing you had it all to yourself without the crowds, tall condos, and busy streets, wishing instead for a quiet camp on the beach sharing a campfire with a few friends while watching the surf and stars, then this could be the place for you.