Lance Camper
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Beach Camping

How To Truck Camp On the Beach

Bob Gray on required beach equipment, beach driving, beach protocols, beach fishing, beach friends, and recommended post beach rig cleaning.  First tip: Zip Wax everything.

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We have always been beach people.  We go boating, fishing, and take vacations up and down the coast.  We even owned a house by the sea.

Bob Gray on required beach equipment, beach driving, beach protocols, beach fishing, beach friends, and recommended post beach rig cleaning.  First tip: Zip Wax everything.

We’ve long been sea loving people who boat, fish, and take vacations up and down the Mid-Atlantic coast.  We even owned a beach house.  So it’s no surprise that when my wife and I spotted truck campers on a misty fall Cape Cod beach several years ago, we knew immediately it was something we just had to try.  Already shopping for a new pick up for plowing snow, I added truck camper research to my quest and was off and running.

Truck Camper Magazine and RV.net were terrific newbie resources where I read everything I could find about truck camping rigs.  I directly credit seasoned and knowledgeable beach campers Mike Layton and Ron Humphress, and their Truck Camper Magazine articles, for helping usher us into the world of beach camping and enjoy it to the extent that we do today.

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After narrowing our search to a new Ford F350 diesel, and determining that a Lance 950S fit our needs best (and was within truck payload), we inked a deal with Parkview RV in Smyrna, Delaware and began our new adventure.  We used that great camper for two seasons, quickly realizing that our new beach camping hobby required extra space and, more importantly, additional fresh, grey, and black water capacity and upgraded to our current Lance 992.

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Above: Deirdre and Bob Gray enjoying their time on the beach

Here are some beach camping basics that we’ve learned from advice, experience, and old fashioned trial-and-error!

Each Beach Has a Protocol

Every beach we’ve been to has different rules, different vehicle requirements, and definitely their own protocol.  They also all have different fees and different limits on how many days you can stay out on the beach.

For any beach you plant to visit, check the beach website before you go for specific rules and regulations and possible closures.  And don’t be afraid to talk to the people on the beach – they will help you out.

Our very first beach camping outing was to Assateague National Seashore a few years ago.  As we pulled up and began to air down, fellow truck campers and friends Ron and Michelle Humphress pulled up right behind us.  Realizing that we’re kind of new at this game, they cheerfully greeted us with “This is how it’s done,” and offered to lead us down the beach.  We camped with them for the weekend, learning a lot about best beach camping practices for Assateague.

Essential Beach Equipment

Every beach camper will tell you, it’s not “if” you’ll get stuck in the sand, it’s “when” you’ll get stuck in the sand.  Be prepared.  The following equipment list is applicable to most beaches.  Again, check with each beach website you plan of visiting before planning a trip, as they may have their own equipment requirements for their beach.

1. Heavy Duty Tow Strap – Go to an auto parts store (like Pep Boys) and buy a heavy duty wet tow strap.  Try to get the longest one you can, 10-feet at a minimum.  It’s easier for another vehicle to pull you from farther away.  In most cases, if you can get moved five to six inches, you can climb out of hole.

2. Vehicle Jack – A regular car jack won’t do for a truck camper rig.  A heavy duty jack is a smart investment.  I carry a hydraulic 10-ton bottle jack.

3. Boards – The minimum requirement is usually a 12”x12”x 3/4-inch plywood board.  I carry four 3-foot, 1” thick plywood boards on my cooler rack.  I have used them only once to jack my vehicle up out of the sand without assistance.  I dug out, put the boards in front of my wheels and drove right out.  You can also use these boards under your camper jacks.

4. Shovel – I have a 4-foot short-handled hard metal shovel.  I prefer a shovel with a handle and a spade blade.  Having a handle makes reaching under the truck and pulling back much easier.  I also carry a second military surplus folding shovel.  Even if I don’t go to the beach, it’s a nice shovel to use for other camping purposes.

5. Air pressure gauge – Get a good air pressure gauge.  I have a commercial duty truck air pressure gauge that’s very accurate.  The dial type gauges are not as reliable, especially if dropped.  I tried one and found it to be inaccurate.

6. Electric air compressor – Depending on which beach I’m visiting, if an air compressor is not available, I have a small compressor that runs off my generator.  It’s a little cumbersome, but will do a good enough job to get me to the nearest service station.

7. Fire extinguisher – The one inside your camper will work just fine

8. First aid kit – I’m an Eagle Scout and live by the “Be Prepared” motto.  We have an extensive first aid kit because we fish with sharp things like hooks and knives!

9. Miscellaneous items – Check with the specific beach you’ll be visiting as some also require you have at least half a tank of fuel, a spare tire, flashlight, trash bags, jumper cables, current tide chart, proof of insurance, license, and registration.  Fines can be charged if you do not have the necessary equipment.

Vehicle Preparation

1. Keep your clean rig.  It’s very important to keep your vehicle clean and protected from salt air exposure.  I use Zip Wax, a one-step wash and wax that you can buy at any auto supply store, or online.  I wash the whole truck with Zip Wax before going to any beach.  I use a bug sprayer to apply a coating of Zip Wax on the entire underside.  After five years of beach camping and faithful Zip Wax washing, my truck is very clean underneath and shows no signs of beach wear.

2. Practice good vehicle maintenance.  Although trucks are built for this, driving the on sand strains the truck.  Be sure to practice good vehicle maintenance, like checking your oil and coolant before each trip.

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Above: Airing down before going on the beach

3. Proper tire pressure.  To drive on the beach, you’ll need to air down your tires.  Normal road driving specifications on my Continental truck tires are 65 psi in the front and 80 psi in the rear.  No matter what beach I’m visiting, I typically lower the back wheels to 25 psi and the front to 20 psi.  Depending on current sand conditions, I can air my particular tires down as far down as 17 or 18 psi.

On difficult soft sand beaches like Island Beach State Park, you need have to have a good “belly” (low psi) in the tire so that the truck will “float” across the sand, not sink into it.  An inexpensive device like Tire Buddy III that screws onto the tire valve stems and lets a precise amount of air out of the tires makes the deflating job quick and easy.  I personally have two labeled rear and front for obvious reasons and always double check the psi with my air gauge.

Beach Driving Tips

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1. When you first pull out onto the sand, take your foot off the gas.  If your truck doesn’t roll freely, you need to let more air out of the tires.  Let more air out so your truck tires floating, not sinking.  I rarely have problems running 20 psi in the front and 25 psi in the back.

2. Drive in four-wheel drive low range at ten to fifteen miles per hour.  High range is hard on your transmission when you’re in four-wheel drive.  Monitor your oil and transmission temperature gauges to become familiar with what normal is for your truck.  Excessive heat can damage your transmission but taking it easy in low range will keep the temperature down.

3. Keep an eye out for boards with nails sticking out and other debris.  Have a tire repair kit ready in case you need to shove a plug into your tire.  I have never had a flat tire on the beach, but I have on the highway.  A plug is simple and a quick solution and much easier than changing a tire on the sand.

4. As you drive down on the beach, stay in the tire ruts towards the dune side.  When you are going up on the beach, stay on the ocean side.  Protocol when coming up the beach is to yield to oncoming vehicles.  It’s especially relevant for narrow beaches like Cape Lookout.  Generally, there’s lots of room on Assateague between the dunes and the water.

5. Never drive on the tidal sand (sand inside the high tide water line).  Avoid tidal sand at all costs because you can sink in air pockets.  I’ve seen videos of the ocean taking people’s trucks, usually through carelessness.  You don’t want your rig anywhere where the high tide comes in.

6. Find where the weed lines are, and where the soft sand meets the hard sand.  When you’re camping, be aware of tide times and how high the tide comes up.  In some places, the tide can almost come up to the dunes particularly if you have a full or new moon when the tidal range is greater.

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Above: Stay in the tire ruts and stay in four wheel drive low

7. When driving on the beach, stay in the ruts left by other vehicles.  On Assateague and Island Beach there is definitely a truck camper highway of ruts.  It’s kind of like being on a railroad track line.  Even if you take your hand off the steering wheel, your rig will stay in well-defined ruts.

8. Be prepared to change lanes if you run out of room against a dune or someone is coming the other way.  If this happens, gradually start turning the wheel while going to the next lane.  The key is to change lanes gradually, and without quick acceleration or steering changes.

9. Don’t make any sharp turns.  When turning around, make a wide sweeping turn in a broad area.  By turning with a larger radius, you have less chance of getting stuck.  I use my brakes sparingly on the beach preferring to just and wait for my vehicle to stop.

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Above: Turning parallel to the ocean when camping

10. When I’ve found a spot for the night, turn parallel to the ocean or put back door to the ocean depending on the breeze.  I pull the truck up and then back up.  That packs the sand so I’m not sitting in a low spot.  Again, be careful not to touch the brake.  When you touch the brake, your wheels sink down into the sand.

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Above: Backing up to the ocean when camping

Getting Stuck and Unstuck

1. If you drive on the beach frequently enough, you will eventually get stuck.  I go to beach ten times a year, and have spent twenty-five nights a year on the beach for the past five years. In all that time, I’ve been stuck fewer than five times.  Through experience, you learn to read the beach and you avoid breaking out the shovel.

2. If I realize my rig is starting to get stuck or digging itself in, I just stop.  I get out of the truck and evaluate the situation.  You’re not really stuck until your axle or frame is touching the sand.  If that happens, now you have a problem. Always stop before you get that deep, it will save you work.

3. If you do get stuck, don’t panic!  Typically, all you’ve got to do to get unstuck is dig out some sand in the front or back of your tires and clear any sand from under your axles that might hang up your vehicle.  There have been times where I’ve felt the rig getting stuck, stopped, gotten out, and fixed the situation as described.  With experience, you will get a feel for driving on the beach, how your rig handles on sand, and what to do.

4. Try to avoid holes in the sand.  You’ll occasionally see a hole where someone dug to get out, but left their hole behind. I got stuck in one of these holes once and had to get out.  It is protocol to fill holes back in because people might not see them.

5. Be sure you’re actually engaged in four-wheel drive.  It’s a rookie mistake, but it happens.  To engage my truck in four-wheel drive it needs to be in neutral.  This one neglected pre-trip check left me digging out.  That taught me to make absolutely sure four-wheel drive is engaged by checking one last time before entering the sand.

6. Join a beach fishing association.  We joined a couple of beach fishing associations (New Jersey Beach Buggy Association NJBBA and the Assateague Mobile Sports Fishermen AMSA) for two reasons.  First and foremost to support lobbying efforts to preserve access to these beaches we’ve come to love so much.  And secondly, because most of the fellow members we have met down at the beach will stop and help you if you become stuck.  Remember, it is a two way street.  It’s nice if you stop and help a fellow camper with a pull if they get stuck as well.

Dually vs. Single Rear Wheels

For years, dual rear wheels were forbidden on Assateague Island National Seashore (I’ve never seen the dually rule for any other beach), which was one of the main reasons my first rig was a single rear wheel truck.  But last year they changed that rule.  I know many dually rig owners who do really well on the beach.  In fact, I just bought a Ford F350 dually myself.  I enjoy extended beach trips and no longer have to worry about being overweight when carrying extra water and ice.

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Above: A one-inch dually spacer is inserted so the dually tires don’t rub

One thing I did was put a 1-inch spacer in between my dual rear wheels to keep the dual rear tires from rubbing together.  My friend and fellow truck camper whom I met on the beach in North Carolina highly recommended the spacer and he leaves his on all the time.  A single beach camping trip to Cape Lookout racks up in excess of 100 over sand miles and I really don’t want my tire sidewalls rubbing together.

Fun on the Beach

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Above: Camping with truck camper friends at Cape Lookout, North Carolina

I work for myself and find I have a hard time relaxing.  When I get to the beach, I immediately unwind and disengage from the stresses at home.  When I’m coastal, I feel so much more relaxed.  Camping on the beach by ourselves is fun, but camping with another rig (or two or three or a hundred in the case of a beach camper rally) is even more fun.

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Above: Eating really well on the beach with friends

We’re fortunate to have made really good friends beach camping.  We fish, share stories around the fire, and play guitars and bocce ball.  Cooking and eating are big beach camping rituals.  We eat well, cooking in our Dutch oven right out on the beach.  Our friends and fellow beach campers, the Ward family, create a seafood boil that rivals any five star restaurant at the shore.

Beach Camping Tips

1. Bring sunscreen and a straw hat to protect yourself from the sun.  We also carry two umbrellas.  One goes over our cooler to keep the ice cool, and one we sit under.

2. Bring insect repellant and a fly swatter for every person.  If you go to Assateague, everyone has one.  If you get a west wind at Assateague, the horse flies are brutal.  They bite! Mosquitoes tend to only be a problem at dusk.  When the wind comes off the ocean it keeps the bugs away.  When the wind drops down to nothing, the bugs return.  Sometimes it is best to leave if that is the case.

3. Pay attention to the weather.  Review the weekend forecast.  I have experienced the famous Assateague thunder and lightning storms.  It is really something to watch, but can be a little frightening.  If storms approach, we drive up to the dune line and wait it out.  We have always felt reasonably safe in our camper.

We have added an Oregon Scientific weather station to our rig on a pole mount made by fabricator Mike Olesnevich.  It measures wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, and temperature.  Basically, a drop in barometric pressure indicates bad impending bad weather.

We also look down the beach, to see where it’s getting dark.  All of this gives us a feel for the direction of the weather.  Always be aware of your weather and, when in doubt, err on the side of caution and leave the beach.  You can always go back when it clears.

4. If you’re swimming, learn about rip currents.  Rip currents are dangerously strong localized currents of water that pull swimmers out to sea without warning, and exhaust swimmers attempting to return to the beach.  Research how to identify rip currents (NOAA is a good source), and defeat a rip current if you become caught or how to help someone else. Every place we go, the beaches are unguarded.  You are responsible for yourself.  Use judgement, and be careful, especially in outgoing tides.

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Above: A rear deck allows the sand to stay outside

5. Having a rear deck on your truck camper gives you a transition area.  This transition area allows you to brush the sand off with a brush broom before entering camper.  We have friends who keep a solar shower bag rigged with an extra-long hose attached to their ladder for even cleaner camper feet!  The deck also has tie-downs.  If we decide to move to a better fishing area, we just bungee the beach chairs and umbrella and drive down beach.

Post Beach Rig Maintenance

1. When you return from the beach, wash your truck and camper to remove the salt and sand.  I slide a lawn sprinkler under my truck to rinse off the salt and sand pulling from the back to the front to rinse off the salt and sand under the carriage.

2. Give your entire rig a thorough interior cleaning and vacuuming.  Sand in the camper is not a big deal to remove.  It’s actually easier to camp at the beach than a campground where dirt is like clay.  I clean everything on the exterior – including my fishing tackle – with Zip Wax.  On the inside of the rig, I take a damp rag with Murphy’s oil soap and wipe things off.

3. Open up the whole camper and let it air out to dry.  That goes for any camping trip.  I also reorganize the storage compartments if I need to put in different gear.  We have different gear for beach camping versus regular camping.

Truck Camper Friendly Beaches We Love

Only a short drive from home, Island Beach State Park is our go-to spot for a two-day weekend.  If we have three days, it’s Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland.  If we have more time than that, we’ll go to North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Island Beach State Park, Seaside Park, New Jersey

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Above: Island Beach State Park, New Jersey at sunrise

Island Beach State Park is a New Jersey gem that stretches 10-miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Barnegat Bay providing ample room for truck camping rigs.  Island Beach offers excellent surf fishing for striped bass and bluefish, with 24-hour access.

A Mobile Sport Fishing Vehicle Permit runs $195 for New Jersey residents ($225 for non-residents) for a calendar year, January through December.  Three-day permits are also available for $75 ($90 non-resident) at the park’s Visitor Contact Station located at the entrance gate.

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Above: Bob with a Striper Bass

Island Beach requires that every person twelve and older have a fishing pole, bait, and tackle.  Island Beach allows overnight stay on the beach as long as you are engaged in a fishing activity.

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Above: The view out the back of their camper at Island Beach State Park

There is also a designated lot for overnighting truck campers.  We’ve done both and have never been bothered in either location.  Free airing stations are located only a few hundred yards from the mobile vehicle access.

Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland

Assateague Island National Seashore features over 12-miles of beach for over sand vehicle use.  Their off-road permit runs from $70 to $150, depending on the type of access desired, and is valid for twelve calendar months from the date of purchase.  The rangers will give you a sticker to put on your windshield and be sure to put it on as they do regular checks.  As you enter the sand, there is an electronic gate that keeps track of number of vehicles on the beach.  If there are more than 145 vehicles, it’s one off, one on.  There are free airing and dump stations on site.

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Above: Camping in the bullpen at Assateague Island National Seashore

To camp on the beach you’ll need a $150 “bullpen” pass (link to application here) in addition to the national park admission fee.  The bull pen is an expansive area covering several acres located behind the dune line (but without dunes in front of it) and is used mostly by truck campers.  It’s large enough to park by yourself or camp with friends.  Most rigs line up with the back of their camper toward the ocean.

While I recommend driving in the daylight the first time you drive on any beach to get the lay of the land, don’t be afraid to drive on the beach at night once you’ve become familiar with it.  By arriving late, we avoid heavy shore traffic and have never waited in line (there’s almost always a line on Saturday morning).  Once again, it’s always a good idea to be aware of the Assateague Island Over Sand Vehicle Use Regulations before you visit.

Freeman Park, Carolina Beach, North Carolina

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Above: Carolina Beach, North Carolina

Freeman Park is a beautiful and wildly popular beach situated in Carolina Beach’s undeveloped north end.  It’s so popular in fact that they changed their rules beginning this camping season in an effort to preserve the park’s natural resource.  What used to be pretty much a freestyle mix of day trippers, tents, and over sand vehicles is now limited to a designated area by pre-paid and limited permit.

We typically go with ten to twelve other campers, and spend a long weekend there.  It’s a different type of camping that’s crowded, fun, and borderline out of control.  But the view and fishing are both spectacular.  We plan to take future trips in the fall when the camping rules are more relaxed and the crowds thinner.

Cape Lookout National Seashore, Davis, North Carolina

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Cape Lookout’s beautiful and remote camping is my favorite, but I definitely recommend that you have some beach camping experience first before making this trip.  We generally spend five or six days on Cape Lookout which my Lance 992 handles with ease.  The views and fishing are some the best I’ve experienced.

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The camping itself is free, but the ferry ride to get you there is not.  The rates vary by the length of your vehicle.  You need to make advanced reservations for the Davis Ferry, which also offers ice, bait, tackle, and other supplies.

Montauk, Long Island, New York

Last year we discovered Hither Hills State Park in Montauk, on Long Island and are just learning that area now.  It’s gorgeous, and I highly recommend it, but make reservations far in advance or visit off season if you want a spot in this popular park.  We camped there to scope out the epic fall striper fishing, but don’t have a beach pass just yet.

Make sure you check out the 2015 Montauk beach fishing permit requirements and the Hither Hills Four-Wheel Drive Beach Vehicle Fishing Permit application before you visit.  There is also four wheel drive beach in Montauk Point State Park.  Our plan this year is to go in October and beach camp.

Truck Camper Rig
Truck: 2011 Ford F350, extended cab, 4×4, long bed, FX4, snow plow and camper package, diesel 6.7 liter engine (needs updating from Bob)
Camper: 2013 Lance 992
Tie-Downs/Turnbuckles: Happijacs
Suspension: Rancho Shocks, Skid Plates, Posi-traction – locks out axles direct drive all four wheels, Firestone airbags, Roadmaster sway bar
Gear: Deck by Xtreme Campers, weather station, 35 gallon tank that goes on the roof (for exterior showering), cooler and rod rack on front of truck, Lance centering guides in truck

Truck Camper Information
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