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Beach Camping Essentials

Beach Camping Essentials: Family Beach Camping Tips and Tricks

Camping on the beach can be an absolutely magical or a downright tortuous affair (sometimes both!) On the one hand, you get sunsets and sunrises with unobstructed views, hours upon hours of sand play or splashing in the waves, evening walks to explore and find shells.

But you also can get a tent full of sand, be blown away by the wind, or end up sunburned beyond what you’ve ever experienced. A little preparation goes a long way in tent-camping comfort and safety in all locations, but particularly at the beach where the elements can be particularly unforgiving and unpredictable.

Beach Camping Essentials
Camping at Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina’s most popular state park.

Planning and preparation

Find a beach

Depending on what area of the country (or world!) you are in, finding a beach to camp on might be the trickiest part. Many popular beaches are lined with hotels, resorts, or vacation homes, but there are also some pristine beaches located throughout the U.S. that are accessible to campers and backpackers.

When choosing a beach, you’ll need to consider how you will access the campsites, whether by boat, foot, or car; if driving, whether you will need 4WD to drive directly on the beach or if a 2WD vehicle will suffice; and if hiking in, how you will manage to bring all of the water and food you’ll need for your trip. Some beaches, like the Cape Cod National Seashore, only allow self-contained vehicles but no tents.

Track the weather and tides

Use the NOAA Weather App to get an accurate forecast for the weather for your camping trip. While this is vital when doing any outdoor adventuring or backcountry exploration, being on the beach during a lightning storm can be deadly. Storms and even just strong winds can also put a serious damper on a fun camping trip.

A man surrounded by young children sits at a picnic table. One of the kids drinks out of a yellow water bottle. They are on a beach, with a firepit and fire next to them.
On this trip, we had the advantage of a picnic table and sun shelter directly on the beach.

You will also want to be familiar with the tides, which you can check on an app like Tides Near Me. Be careful not to set up your tent or leave other belongings too close to the high tide line.

Gear to Bring for Camping on the Beach

The gear you bring will depend on many factors, including: the facilities that are available, if you will be directly on the beach versus at an established campground next to the beach, the weather, and if you can drive directly up to the campsite versus hiking. You will not need too much “specialized” gear compared to backpacking or car-camping. But there are some things to consider when beach camping that you wouldn’t think about on a different kind of camping trip:

Tent for Beach Camping

You won’t need too much more than a typical car-camping tent, but be sure to choose a tent that can handle windy conditions and stake it down properly. Be strategic about the angle you pitch it as well, so winds coming from the ocean don’t hit one of the sides head on.

One beach camping trip, we had 50-60 mph winds one night, and many of the cheaper tents of our neighbors collapsed and broke in the storm. We were in the REI Base Camp 6, which I was sure would not handle it well considering the height but performed beautifully during those conditions.

Primitive camping at Padre Island National Seashore, the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world.

Baby powder

Absolutely essential is some form of baby powder (or even just cornstarch!) to run on tiny bodies covered in sand. Make sure they are rinsed and dried first, then use the powder to get off any remaining sand.

You want to be careful to not get too much powder in the sand (leave no trace!) Setting up a “de-sanding” station on a tarp right outside the tent entrance can help keep the powder contained, and it can prevent even MORE sand from clinging to little (and big) legs before hopping in the tent.

Sunshade for Beach Camping

Another essential is a sunshade to sit under while on the beach. Camping on the beach means being actually on the beach and in the sun ALL. DAY. LONG. And if it’s a hot day, you don’t want to spend a lot of time inside the stuffy tent. Sunshades are a great base for all-day beach play, but also where you can put a baby or toddler down for a nap (or take one yourself, because you’re gonna need it). 

I also like to keep our cooler or food in the shade too, so maybe even having a separate shade just for food is a good idea as well. Although there are some sun shelters out there that you can stake down, we’ve had great luck with this pop-up one from Ikea too.

Sun-protective clothes

In a similar vein, bring plenty of sun-protective clothes. We often wear head-to-toe UV barriers anytime we swim for long periods of time or spend the day at a wild water spot with little shade, but it’s essential for beach camping when you are out all day long.

A kid stands in front of a packed car, wearing a full-body swimsuit.

There are so many great options out there now from popular brands like Carter’s, Cat & Jack (Target), Hanna Andersson, Mini Boden, or specialized brands like Coolibar and UVSkinz.

Two preschool-aged children sit on the beach in the shallow waves, one is wearing a bright purple long-sleeved swimsuit with a hood, the other a white and pink sunshirt.
We found this one-piece at Costco one summer, and it remains one of my favorite items of clothing we’ve ever had!

If you are playing a lot in the water, a rash guard or similar material will keep you protected from the sun and won’t overheat you. If you or your kids are not in the water but rather playing on the beach, rash guards can get quite hot, so we recommend sun-protective clothing that’s lightweight and breathable.

I like having lightweight, quick-dry clothes for changing into when water play is over or for going on walks and exploring the beach. Many of the above-mentioned brands (Coolibar is a favorite for us!) make swimsuit cover-ups that are amazing for that on-the-beach but not in the water play.

Choose brightly-colored rash guards and sun clothing to keep track of kids playing in the sand and in the water.

Another essential item is a good sunhat, especially for younger babies and toddlers with no hair. My personal favorite is the Play Hat from Sunday Afternoons, with their adjustable and wide brim. Even on very windy beach days, these hats stay on better than most others!

My baby watches a group of seagulls, in her Sunday Afternoons Play Hat.

Privacy shelters

If you are primitive camping directly on the beach (for example, as we did at Padre Island National Seashore) and have no access to facilities, you will need to bring along a portable toilet and bags to pack out waste—we have used this one from Cleanwaste for our family and it works well. Bring a privacy shelter to keep the toilet in if you will be around others (or if you don’t like pooping in front of your family). Nervous about helping your kids poop? This post about how to help your kid poop outside will help!

If you will be camping around other folks, an additional privacy shelter can also serve as a place to change clothes without going back into the tent, keeping the dreaded sand out of your sleeping bags. A privacy shelter can even be a spot to hang a solar shower, to rinse off at the end of the day.

As a different and perhaps more accessible option, bring an extra tent specifically for “day use” to change clothes, play card games, or simply chill during the day out of the sun.

A small backpacking tent can be set-up as a place to play or change during the day, to avoid getting sand in the main sleeping quarters.

Hammock

If you are camping on a beach with shelters, bringing a hammock to play and nap in is another great option for a place to hang (pun intended!) during the long days on the sand.

A man in a baseball cap sits in a hammock, a little redheaded toddler head peeking out too. In the background, there are kids playing on the beach.

Towels

We love packable, light-weight, quick-dry towels at the beach. Sand won’t cling to them as it does to standard bath towels, and they dry quickly in the wind and sun so you can use them again soon after. While we have a PackTowel brand towel that we have used for years that still looks great, there are also cheaper microfiber options available too.

Another option is Turkish towels, which are absorbent but lighter than standard towels. These dry quickly too and they are made of natural fibers unlike the microfiber packable towels.

More tips and tricks for camping on the beach

Fire

If you are camping at an established campground, it is likely you will have a designated fire ring. But for primitive camping directly on the beach, you can dig a hole for a fire pit. Beach camping, again, can be really windy, so make sure you have a lighter or matches that are “windproof,” or won’t extinguish quickly. You can also set up a wind barrier if you are having trouble keeping matches lit while starting the fire.

Food and water

Choose foods that are easy to prep, since it can be tricky when sand is basically… everywhere. Crackers, individually-wrapped cheese sticks, squeezable yogurts and applesauce, individual chip bags, protein bars, trail mix, granola bars, cups of ramen, or freeze-dried backpacking meals.

Eating breakfast at Hunting Island State Park.

If you are camping with no facilities, you will need to bring enough water to drink, wash hands and rinse off, and do dishes. Unlike camping in the mountains next to a water source, you can’t filter ocean water to drink or cook with, and so you need to pack in all you will need. We like to bring a container with a push-button spigot because it’s handy for filling bottles and washing hands (and kids can’t accidentally spill it all at once), like the classic Igloo water cooler. Aim to bring about 2 gallons of water per person per day for drinking, washing hands, brushing teeth, and food prep.

Camping Sand Toys

We tend to leave most toys at home when camping, since we’ve noticed they can throw off our kids’ play rhythms by introducing arguments or conflict. But on a beach, sand toys are KEY to sibling-playtime bliss. We were introduced to Spielstabil sand toys while on a trip to Germany, and they are amazing quality. So many cheap sand toys are meant for one trip to the beach and then to the landfill, but we have had the same sand toys for years and years, and they are holding up great!

A toddler with curly hair and a dark purple shirt sits and plays with a yellow bucket and blue shovel in a parking lot.
Sand toys: great for sand and gravel alike!

Magical beach camping

Camping on the beach can be a magical way to immerse yourself next to the ocean, day and night. There is nothing better than falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves and waking up to a phenomenal sunrise.

A woman carrying a baby in a striped wrap holds the hand of two more kids as they stroll down a beach in the evening.
An evening stroll on a quiet beach.

Although it takes a bit more planning and some inevitably sandy sleeping arrangements, you’ll create lasting memories of uninterrupted family time in the outdoors.

Related Articles:

Family Beach Camping Gear

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