Everything You Need to Know About Camping in North Carolina's Outer Banks

The best campgrounds in the Outer Banks, packing essentials, safety tips, and more.

Aerial view of tent on a sand dune near Outer Banks beach
Photo: Eifel Kreutz / Getty Images

The remote Outer Banks is one of the East Coast's most astonishing areas of peace, quiet, and natural beauty. Soaring dunes, serene maritime forests, and mile after mile of pristine sandy beaches — it's no wonder the region is a point of pride for North Carolinians.

One of the best ways to experience this precious stretch of Atlantic Coast is by camping. Dotting the secluded barrier islands are dozens of campgrounds, from lively oceanfront compounds to sleepy soundside retreats. Here's everything you need to know about camping in the Outer Banks, including the best places to park your rig or pitch a tent and things to do when you tire of sitting around a fire pit.

Best Outer Banks Campgrounds

Ocracoke Campground

Ocracoke Island

Anyone who wants a back-to-nature, off-the-grid-esque beach getaway will be delighted by Ocracoke Campground. This solitary National Park Service-run site is accessible only by ferry (as is the whole of Ocracoke). It's located about four miles from the island's bustling harbor and village. Those who make the trek are rewarded with pretty evergreen scenery, rustic campsites at the foot of rolling dunes, and direct access to a seemingly deserted sweep of stunning beach.

Tent and camper spots are nonelectric, and the showers in the bathhouse have only cold water (rarely a problem in the heat of summer). There's no Wi-Fi, but cell phone signal is reportedly decent.

Cape Hatteras KOA Resort

Nestled between the Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, this pet-friendly campground in Rodanthe comes closer to a resort experience than most OBX camping spots. The resort's most attractive amenities include a year-round pool, a dog park, and, most importantly, beach access. A fleet of bike, kayak, paddleboard, and golf cart rentals stand at the ready for island exploration. From the campground, it's a short drive or bike ride to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, a protected bird habitat.

Wi-Fi-equipped lodging options range from grassy tent sites (with water, electricity, a campfire ring, grill, and sheltered picnic table) to elevated cabins that sleep up to eight and include full baths, kitchens, and cable TV. The property even has a large modern beach house separated into apartment-like rental suites, each with a kitchen and balcony.

Cape Woods Campground

On the flip side of the bustling KOA experience is Cape Woods Campground, a chilled-out spot in Hatteras Island's woodsy interior, a short drive or bike ride from the beach. The family-owned property offers a sampler platter of accommodations ranging from RV sites with full hookups and tent sites to half a dozen wood cabins. Guests happy to trade beach access for quiet, shady grounds will be happy at this hidden gem.

Oregon Inlet Campground

This simple, peaceful Nags Head property — a shoo-in for fishing enthusiasts wanting to be near Oregon Inlet — has some electric tent and RV sites alongside its more minimalistic plots. However, the lack of shade might be a dealbreaker for some.

Don't come to Oregon Inlet Campground expecting activities and amenities galore. On the plus side, though, a 15-minute drive up the coast will land you at the adventure-packed Jockey's Ridge State Park.

Camp Hatteras RV Resort and Campground

This 50-acre Outer Banks campsite on Hatteras Island stretches from sound to sea, with 1,000 feet of shoreline on both bodies of water. Its long list of amenities — multiple pools, shared kitchen facilities, laundry, Wi-Fi, a camp store, bike and water sports rentals, tennis, shuffleboard, corn hole, and mini golf — make it especially popular with large groups and families.

Most of the lots are RV sites with full hookups, though there is a smattering of tent sites equipped with water and electricity, and Camp Hatteras' six-person wood cottages have TVs, baths, and full kitchens.

Ocean Waves Campground

With 68 sites, Ocean Waves is a smaller facility with amenities aplenty and a low-key vibe. The family-owned campground offers a combination of electric and nonelectric tent sites and RV sites — some a stone's throw from the dunes — with an option of tacking on cable. Sites have picnic tables but no fire pits, though beach fires are allowed in this area with a permit.

Other draws here include a swimming pool, camp store, laundry room, and hot showers.

Frisco Campground

Part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, this back-to-basics campground immerses visitors in the Outer Banks landscape of dunes, salt marshes, and shrub thickets. The camp is quiet, clean, and well-maintained, offering little more than picnic tables and charcoal grills. (Sorry, no utility hookups or hot-water showers here.) Some elevated sites on the dunes have views of the ocean, albeit with no shade; lower sites are blanketed in shady vegetation but lack the views.

Rodanthe Watersports and Campground

Laid-back, family-owned Rodanthe Watersports and Campground is located on the Pamlico Sound, letting tent campers and RVers station themselves right on the serene shoreline. Water and electricity are add-ons for those who want them. The sleepy soundside spot also rents equipment for all manner of land and water activities: bikes, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, surf and boogie boards, beach chairs, umbrellas, and even sailboats.

Note that this is a humble, homey spot with a few dozen sites, some grills, a bathhouse, and a fish-cleaning station; it's too small for big rigs.

Hatteras Sands Campground

Hatteras Sands exemplifies OBX-style glamping with colorful beach huts reminiscent of Brighton's famous bathing boxes. These cottages are bigger, though—big enough to fit a queen-sized bed downstairs and a twin bed upstairs. They're air-conditioned, and each comes equipped with a small fridge, microwave, and TV.

Hatteras Sands, centrally located in Hatteras Village, also has 60-plus paved RV and tent sites. Depending on the site, you might get water, sewer, electric, cable, and Wi-Fi. On the property is an Olympic-size swimming pool, a clubhouse with games and a lounge for adults, laundry facilities, beaches, and a canal.

Cape Point Campground

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Storm

While the campgrounds at Cape Hatteras National Seashore may pride themselves on their beachfront real estate, RVers know that big rigs and sand do not always mix. Those looking for something more easy-come, easy-go are delighted by the paved sites at Cape Point. It's not the most scenic campground — think wide-open golf course — but it's a safe and reliable option for large RVs. Besides, it's a short walk to the beach and Cape Hatteras lighthouse.

Cape Point is the biggest Outer Banks campground, containing about 200 sites. There's no power here — only outdoor showers, picnic tables, and charcoal grills at each site. Tents are also allowed.

The Refuge on Roanoke Island

One of the smaller, quieter campgrounds around, The Refuge on Roanoke Island features just 15 RV sites positioned in a semicircle, each overlooking the Roanoke Sound. This campground is popular for fishing as it's located in the fishing village of Wanchese. It has a charming pavilion where you can eat your lunch and a soundside pool for summer dips.

The Refuge is only about a 25-minute drive from Kill Devil Hills, the geographical center of Outer Banks. About the same distance away is Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve, where you can kayak through the maritime forest and marshland.

All sites at The Refuge come with hookups (30- or 50-amp) and Wi-Fi.

Book campsites early.

Campgrounds give Outer Banks travelers a chance to not only see this special sheltered world, but to really live in it — just imagine unzipping your tent or stepping out of your trailer to the sound of rolling surf and the sight of billowy sand dunes and sea oats rustling in the breeze. Last-minute travelers might luck into an open site upon arrival, but it's always safer to lay claim to your slice of island before you go. (This is particularly true during summer holiday weekends.) NPS-managed campgrounds require site-specific reservations (which can be booked up to six months in advance), though walk-ups are accepted at some.

Know your needs.

Almost all Outer Banks campgrounds have spots for both tents and RVs. (Very few, like OBX Campground, are RV only.) It's easy to find tent and RV sites in the Outer Banks that come with hookups for water and electricity — as well as RV sites with full hookups (water, electricity, and sewer service) — but not all campgrounds offer these utilities. More rustic properties might only have nonelectric sites for tents and RVs; the NPS-managed Ocracoke, Frisco, and Cape Point campgrounds fall into this bucket.

Leave gear at home if you want.

It's entirely possible to experience camping in the Outer Banks without pitching a tent or owning an RV. Many campgrounds have rental cabins, cottages, permanently parked RVs, or — in the case of Cape Hatteras KOA Resort — beach house suites as accommodation options.

Understand that amenities, vibe, and scenery vary.

More than a dozen campgrounds operate during the summer (fewer in the off season), and every one of them is distinct. For campers who want little more than a patch of land to call their own, there are simple facilities with few to no frills — the beachfront Frisco Campground, without hot water or electricity, is one such option. Those looking for more bells and whistles can opt for a more resort-like compound, complete with full-utility sites and amenities like pools, game rooms, tennis courts, and general stores.

There's also the matter of finding a campground with the right topography for you. If you specifically want to sleep on the sound or park yourself at the base of the beach dunes, then a bit of research and advance booking might be in order. Bear in mind that shade is not a guarantee for beach camping; consider going a bit inland on Hatteras Island if this is a priority for you.

Frisco Campground on Hatteras, Outer Banks, North Carolina
Courtesy of Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, outerbanks.org

Know the rules.

Permits are not required for camping in the Outer Banks, but you must stay in official campgrounds that are either privately owned or managed by the National Park Service. Oceanfront camping means behind the barrier dunes; camping on the beach itself is not allowed. The one exception to this rule is the very rustic, very under-the-radar Portsmouth Island, an undeveloped paradise accessible only by boat. There, you can pitch a tent right on the beach and sleep under the stars.

Bring your pets.

Outer Banks campgrounds are typically very pro-dog — quite a few even have dog-friendly features like canine parks and agility courses. Caveats: Campgrounds may have fees and leash policies. Even pet-friendly properties might not allow pets in certain accommodation types, like rental cabins.

Perfect your packing list.

Of course, camping requires a bit more prep work than a holiday spent in a hotel or vacation house. Make a thorough packing checklist, including any necessary gear (tent, tarp, extra-long stakes for the sandy soil, sleeping pads and bags, lantern, flashlight, camping chairs), cookware (food, cook stove, pot, cooler, dishes, utensils, cups, mugs, tablecloth, waterproof matches, paper towels), and other supplies (rain gear, solar battery charger, pocket knife, sunscreen, tick/mosquito repellent, toiletries, first-aid kit, bottled water, binoculars for wildlife spotting, beach reads, a pack of cards). If you're staying in a cottage or cabin, check to see if you need to provide your own linens and pillows. Consider mosquito netting and a small broom for whisking sand out of your tent, RV, or cabin.

Many campgrounds — but not all — have general stores stocked with essentials. For anything forgotten or in need of replenishment, there are produce stands, fish markets, and small local shops throughout the islands, plus several Outer Banks outposts of the big-box, North Carolina-based Food Lion grocery store.

Naturally, you'll also need to pack beach items: swimsuits, hats, sunglasses, towels, and cover-ups. Many campgrounds have laundry facilities, so you can plan on doing a load or two rather than overthinking the clothes packing. On the shoe front, make sure to bring shower shoes and something closed-toe (and socks!) for walking, as sand spurs, prickly pear, and poison ivy might be an issue.

Plan your route.

As with any remote destination, there are logistics involved in getting to and around the Outer Banks. Accessing the 100-mile sweep of islands means crossing long, low bridges or catching ferries to secluded points otherwise inaccessible from the North Carolina mainland.

Although unlikely, bridge and road closures completely cutting off the Outer Banks are not unheard of. A much more common issue is sticky Saturday traffic — most vacation homes are Saturday-to-Saturday rentals, and the roads can get choked with people coming and going. Parking is free at the beaches and in the towns.

A ferry or boat crossing is the only way to reach the Outer Banks islands of Portsmouth and Ocracoke, which is perhaps the most charming destination in the region. The ferry scoots riders and vehicles across the inlet and into Ocracoke's pretty harbor. Overnighters can set up camp at Teeter's Campground, Jerniman's Campground, or Ocracoke Campground.

Take a break from the camp stove.

One of the joys of camping is throwing dinner on the grill. But when you're ready for a breather, consider a pickup from the islands' local seafood spots, barbecue joints, and country-style cafes. The SaltBox Cafe, High Cotton BBQ, and Outer Banks Boil Company in Kitty Hawk and neighboring Kill Devil Hills have all earned a devoted following. From the latter, you can get a big pot of juicy shrimp, spicy Louisiana sausage, fresh corn, and red-skin potatoes, and steam it at camp for a traditional seafood boil.

Hatteras Camping Resort cabins in cute pastel colors in Outer Banks, North Carolina
Courtesy of Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, outerbanks.org

Go beyond the campground.

Your idea of Outer Banks camping may be all about swimming, sunbathing, and poring over juicy thrillers on a private spot on the sand. For those who want to pepper in a bit more adventure, recommended activities include kayaking through the maritime forest and marshland at Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve and off-roading across Corolla to see wild horses roaming free. The super-intrepid can kiteboard, wreck dive, or hang glide over Jockey's Ridge State Park — home to the tallest sand dune on the East Coast. (Even if soaring through the air in an unpiloted aircraft isn't your thing, you shouldn't miss sunset at Jockey's Ridge; the towering dune is an amazing place to see the sun sink into Albemarle Sound.)

For avid cyclists, a ride along the Outer Banks' bikeways, sidepaths, and multi-use trails is a fantastic way to explore the area. Need more ideas? There are coastal villages, hiking trails and ecological preserves (don't miss Nags Head Woods Preserve), and outdoor attractions like lighthouses, beach piers, and the Wright Brothers National Memorial to discover.

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