Skip Bosley shares forty years of stories, wisdom, and advice on Assateague National Seashore, one of the most rewarding truck camping destinations on Earth. Don’t miss Skip’s mods and tips.
Linda and I have had a close relationship with Assateague Island since its transition from a private development to a National Seashore. In the late 1960s, the National Park Service bought out private land and home owners to develop a preserve and recreation complex on the forty mile long barrier island.
Maryland and Virginia share the island at its southern end, the smaller and inhabited Chincoteague Island. Virginia tucks in closely between the mainland and Assateague. A hurricane in 1932 created an inlet at Ocean City, Maryland thereby causing the remaining long barrier spit to become an island. Before the hurricane, the area was sparsely built up with a few summer houses and a small ferry for access.
Today there is a bridge close to the northern end, in Maryland, to access a 680 acre Maryland State camping park. The park offers a limited number of sites with electric, many sites just over a dune from the beach, and bath houses with hot showers.
The National Seashore, which is managed by the United States Park Service, extends southward about twenty miles to the Virginia line. The United States Park Service operates a large campground for both RV and tent camping. The campground also offers many recreational opportunities including swimming, hiking, birding, fishing, bicycling, canoeing, and off-road vehicle use.
In 1968, I was a real estate broker selling property at Ocean Pines, then a brand new community not far from the new bridge to Assateague. For several years there were no improvements on Assateague, other than the bridge, a road, and parking. We were able to drive onto the beach, after airing down the tires, and there was little to no supervision. Dune buggies, dirt bikes, and anything with wheels was found on the beach. Fisherman, campers, and surfers all clamored for spaces. I took my real estate prospects to see Assateague, as I considered the developing park to be a major asset to the area.
In those days, we had a VW Campmobile. We would let some air out of the tires and camp on the beach. During those early years, many vehicles got caught in the soft sand below the tide lines and were lost to the sea. As facilities were built, including a ranger station, pavilions, and bath houses, the United States Park Service began to actively manage and supervise the activities. Out of chaos, came order.
“Home is the sailor, home from the sea, and the hunter home from the hill.”
– Robert Louis Stevenson
The Assateague Island National Seashore Experience
A stay on the beach at Assateague Island is like no other US Park Service facility experience. The sun rises out of the sea, dolphins play in the surf, a herd of wild ponies graze over the dunes, and the yearling colts kick up their heels. It’s a place of many wonders.
In the Spring and Fall, the weekends are busy. On the weekdays, we have gone for days seeing only the rangers making their rounds. During the summer, it is recommended to arrive early, as a limited number of vehicles are permitted on the beach at any one time. I think it’s 145 vehicles, and then it’s one vehicle off, one vehicle on. During the weekdays in summer, the Bull Pen is not crowded.
Should you get stuck in the sand, another rig will always stop to help. As with everything, experience is the best teacher. If stuck, let out a little more air from your tires, then slowly drive forward, or back up a little, and then go ahead. Spinning wheels will just take the rig down into the sand and up to the frame.
Always use wide turns on the beach. Drive slow and steady, stay on the level areas, and never drive on the dunes. Whenever possible stop on level sand, never facing up or down hill. With a bit of care, driving and camping on the sand is very doable.
What You Need for Beach Camping
In order to buy a permit for over sand vehicle use on Assateague Island National Seashore, several things are needed. Specifically, you need a single-rear wheel, four wheel drive licensed vehicle, a towing strap or cable, a jack capable of lifting the vehicle above the sand, an 18”x18” three-quarters of an inch plywood pad for the jack, and a shovel.
If you wish to spend the night on the beach, you must be actively engaged in fishing, or have an upgraded permit. Overnight camping on Assateague Island National Seashore requires a fully-self contained camper and is only available inside a designated, “Bull Pen” area. You can stay on Assateague for as long as your tanks hold out.
“You might be a Redneck, if you make all your new friends at an RV dump station.” – Skip Bee, RV.net
Camping on Assateague Island
Dump stations are available after passing through the gates of the National Seashore. As you drive south toward the off-road entrance, you will pass by two campgrounds, one oceanside, and one bayside. Both campgrounds have dump stations, black tank non-potable rinsing water, and potable drinking water.
Prior to driving onto the beach, we always empty the camper holding tanks and top off with fresh water. We also use the non-potable rinse water to wash off the undercarriage of the rig when coming off the beach. I have a hose and small lawn sprinkler for this purpose.
The beach at Assateague is a harsh environment for the truck, camper, and our bodies. Preparation to handle the conditions is very important, as is knowing when to leave and when to change course.
A bank of high pressure air hoses are set up at the beach access point. You must air down in the very soft sand. With our heavy rig, we find that 20 psi in the front and 30 psi in the rear works well. If we hit an extra soft spot we still have room to go down a bit more. Using 4×4 low range, with wide turns, generally keeps us rolling. We travel south and north in parallel tracks, southbound on the land side, northbound on the seaside. That keeps confusion to a minimum.
1. For a nice flow of air through the pickup cab and into the truck camper, we fabricated removable screens for the windows of the truck. Flexible magnetic strapping from Joanne’s Fabrics or Michael’s Crafts is used with fiberglass screening and white duct tape. To make the screens, measure the window, cut the magnetic tape to frame it, lay on the cut to size the screening, and tape it all together. Ours, as pictured, has been in use for more than seven years. They must be stowed when underway. I store them under our camper mattress. They could be sewn, of course, but the KISS (keep it simple stupid) principle applies.
2. Keeping track of the weather is especially important at Assateague. A portable weather station radio is stowed in the hanging locker (a big camper closet) and mounted on the ladder when we camp. The radio tells us when dangerous weather is approaching. It’s from Oregon Scientific, and measures the temperate inside and out, atmospheric pressure, wind speed and direction, humidity, and give us the time, and date. It also provides weather predictions.
I wish we had an instrument like this when we were at sea. It is helpful and fun to monitor. If you have internet access when you travel, the website www.intellicast.com has been a great source of weather data. NOAA and the National Hurricane Center are also on my list of favorites.
3. A simple AM portable radio will portent a thunderstorm. When lighting strikes it creates radio waves called sferics which you can hear, almost instantly on an AM radio as sudden static. Tune the AM radio to a frequency with very weak or non-existent reception for best results.
Whispy high clouds, called, “mares’ tails” indicate high altitude wind shifts and signal a weather change is coming, usually a weather front of some type. You will recognize the whispy “mare’s tails” as they look like horses’ tails.
4. Fires are permitted on the beach at Assateague Island National Seashore. Let the fires burn out fully before leaving or covering them with sand. Firewood coming from outside of Worchester County is not allowed. On your way into Assateague Island, there’s lots of cut wood available. Some dopes still put bottles and cans into the camp fires. Don’t be a dope, take the trash out when you leave.
5. In mid-summer, the west wind brings the bugs to unbearable levels. Deet and torches help with mosquitoes. The green-headed flies are another deal altogether. The green-headed flies love deet and they carry teeny tiny portable drills. Itching from their bites is awful. They linger in the shade, under your awnings, and beneath the beach chairs. They are terrible. But with an easterly breeze, the dreaded green-heads are gone. With the coolness in spring and fall, bug problems are diminished.
The bugs on the beach love wet targets. Dry off when you finish swimming. It helps almost as much as bug spray. That said, bug spray is essential. More deet, he cried! We also use torches, and place them up wind. A coconut husk smoldering at the fireside edge wards off mosquitos very well. Fresh coconut helps with cooling the cocktails. Mount Gay Rum, ah yes! Best of the best!
6. We have little gadgets called tire deflators to automatically air down our truck tires. Staun is the brand we use. They are pricy, but make a boring job easy and pain free. They can be preset to a desired pressure and work well.
7. On approach to Assateague on Maryland Route 611 is Buck’s Place. They sell deflators as well as bait, propane, ice, and lots of other stuff. They are also a good source of fishing information.
8. If you want to fish on Assateague, a fishing license may or may not be needed. Google “National Saltwater Angler Registry” and it will explain what is required to fish at Assateague. My Grandfather said, “If the only reason someone goes fishing is to catch fish, they should go to a fish market!” If you’re not gonna eat ‘em, release ‘em, please.
Above: Campers at AMSA’s Camporee, held each August on Assateague Island
9. Assateague Mobile Sportsfisherman’s Association, AMSA is our beloved fishing club. Without them there would be no beach access on Assateague Island. Their tireless efforts, negotiations, and problem resolutions have kept the beach open to over sand travel.
Many other beach camping areas have lost or had beach access severely curtailed by lacking a thoughtful and realistic program of co-operation with the powers that be. AMSA and its members follow rules that allow us to continue to enjoy the spectacular resource of Assateague National Seashore.
The website, www.keepersofthebeach.com will give you all of the information needed about AMSA. Membership is inexpensive. I encourage anyone interested in over sand travel, camping, fishing, and conservation to join us.
Bonus Story #1: Freedom Bosley, A Chincoteague Pony Rescue
Assateague is home to many critters including huge flocks of migratory sea and shore birds that cycle on and off the island’s many bays and beaches. In the surf, striped bass, drum fish, flounder, and Atlantic Dolphin come and go with the seasons. On the dunes and in the thickets, white-tailed deer, and the small Sika deer, an Asian elk introduced on the island in 1923, live in groups and are frequently seen in the pine forests and marshes.
Perhaps the most unique critters living on Assateague are the now wild ponies. In the 17th century, Eastern Shore farmers put livestock to graze on Assateague to avoid taxes and fencing laws. Some of the horses, like their western Mustang cousins, became well adapted and sturdy in the harsh salty environment. Today there are two herds divided by a fence at the Maryland-Virginia Line.
The Maryland herd is managed by the US Park Service, primarily inoculating mares for birth control to keep the herd size in check. In Virginia, the herd is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. The herd is allowed to roam in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Each year on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July, a “Pony Penning” is held in Chincoteague. The herd is rounded up, by the fireman, swum across from Assateague to Chincoteague, and, during a wonderful village festival, some of the foals are auctioned off to support the Fire Company. A legendary children’s book, “Misty of Chincoteague”, has immortalized the event.
In July of 1968, Linda organized attendance, with our three kids, in the VW camper, to “Pony Penning“. All had agreed that we would not be buying any ponies, only observing.
It was pouring rain and the event became a “drive-in” auction. Everyone was sitting in their cars and trucks as the ponies were presented. As we pulled in, the auctioneer was holding a tiny foal in his arms explaining that the little colt had become separated from his mother in the swim and required bottle feeding.
The auctioneer called, “What is the bid? Do I hear fifty dollars?” Linda’s arm is out of the window, quick as a cobra. “Sold to the lady in the camper”, the auctioneer banged his gavel.
We, who lived in a large rented second floor apartment, just off the beach in Ocean City, Maryland, now were the caregivers and owners of an unweaned “wild pony”. It was decided that, for the night, the pony would stay in the VW, after feeding, with the windows down.
That night we had a knock at the door. The police officer asked, “Do ya’ll have a little pony? Well, it’s running up Coastal Highway. Ya better round him up.”
A large tarp was found, installed on the floor of our boy’s bedroom, and the pony had a stall for the night. In the morning, Linda called our landlord, Bud Church, to come over, and asked if we could use an abandoned shed in the yard. “For what?” Bud asked. “For our Chincoteague Pony”, she replied. Bud nodded, and left. He returned in a few minutes with several chickens saying that the pony needed some company. Bud Church was a great landlord!
”Freedom” lived in the shed with his chickens until well into the fall. Each evening we would organize a herd and take him on the beach to swim and workout. The lifeguards were skeptical, but the signs only banned dogs. The next year all the signs read “No dogs or other livestock”.
We eventually built a corral at Ocean Pines and Freedom became an attraction. When he was grown enough we set him free with his heard in Chincoteague. We never saw him again.
Bonus Story #2: Tropical Storm Ernesto
In late August several years ago we were in the “H” Loop (the electric loop) in the Maryland State camping area. It was hot and buggy so the air conditioning from shore power was a welcome relief. All the weather sources became abuzz with the northward advance of tropical storm, Ernesto. Its projected paths were many and varied. As a result of our many years at sea in the tropics, two lessons have been learned:
1. The paths of tropical storms and hurricanes are unpredictable for the most part. They can do anything including reversing paths.
2. Hurricanes and tropical storms do not watch television, or listen to the radio.
The storm, after crossing Florida, went over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, and was now moving toward us, strengthening. We decided to leave Assateague and move to Milburn Landing Campground, a little Maryland state park on the Pocomoke River, inland about twenty-five miles.
The following morning, the advancing storm was lashing the tops of the tall Loblolly Pines, covering our truck camper with debris. The NOAA weather radio was now predicting the storm to veer west carving a route up the Chesapeake Bay. We quickly lowered the satellite dish, raised the jacks, set the turnbuckles, and headed back to Assateague Island to evade the storm. As we crossed the Chincoteague Bay Bridge, the wind was up and we were heeling as though we were under sail.
When we arrived at Assateague, the ranger looked at us with wonder, ”You’re going back down there?”. When we mentioned the new forecast, he said, ”Well, we still have a few RVs on site, and we haven’t been told to send anyone out.”
With the wind still increasing as we were setting up, we noticed a newer, very nice looking, pop-up trailer beside us, completely deployed, with no towing vehicle present. The wind was pressing hard on the canvas sides. Someone pulled in, removed a few objects, and drove off. I had expected them to at least lower the top and close the popup. They did neither.
As darkness came, the forecast now was that the storm would not increase to a hurricane, but it would skirt the coast and not veer west. We brought in the slide-out and settled in for the night.
At 2:00am the wind was whistling around our rig. It was bobbing and shivering. Linda nudged me awake, ”Will you go on deck and check the anchor lines?”.
We were somewhat sheltered by a sand dune. The winds were gusting to 70 miles per hour, which is not quite hurricane strength. As the sun began to rise, the wind sharply abated, and we looked to the pop-up.
It was as a total wreck. The canvas sides were shredded and the mattresses, bedding and clothing strewn downwind all across the campground. We later learned a park volunteer had the paint sand blasted from the side of his new pick-up. It was parked in a spot with a long fetch of sand windward.
Together with the other campers, we gathered up the mess from the pop-up and were putting it together when the owner drove in. He was livid, “No one told me that this could happen. This is the fault of the park and the rangers. Some one should have told me!”
His sister was in the fiver on the other side. She said that he was told to put it down but ignored the advice. He went to the ranger station and said he was going to abandon the wreck. The Rangers advised him that it would be much cheaper for him to pull it out then for the state to remove it and that they had his credit card on file. He wisely complied.