Camping at Masonboro Island

Primitive camping is allowed at the Masonboro Island Reserve. When the property was considered for protection and later dedicated as a state nature preserve, this activity was acknowledged as an existing recreational use, important to the local community. It was decided that this activity would be allowed to continue as long as it did not negatively impact the natural resources of the reserve or interfere with the education and research programs that are the core purpose of the Coastal Reserve program. To prevent damage to the reserve, campers can practice camping methods that minimize damage and impacts to the habitats, soils, and organisms of the Reserve. Many of these practices will also ensure that campers have enjoyable and safe camping experiences. 

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Good planning is important for any camping trip, but essential for camping in a remote natural area such as the Masonboro Island Reserve. Planning can help campers avoid a negative camping experience and ensure that natural resources are not damaged by camping activities. 

Reasons for thorough pre-trip planning:

  • Ensures the safety of campers.
  • Prepares you to “leave no trace” and minimizes the harm that may be caused to wildlife, vegetation, soils, and dunes.
  • Contributes to a safe and enjoyable experience for all campers.
  • Increases self-confidence and nature study opportunities.

Elements to consider for trip planning:

Identify the expectations for your trip. The chance for unexpected things to happen exists with any outdoor activity. However, planning your trip with the expectations of your group in mind will help to make it a positive experience for all involved. Take into account whether you’re more interested in a short walk with your gear or in not seeing another group of campers. Determine whether the paddle over and back are an essential part of the camping experience or whether the quicker and easier use of a motorboat would suit you better. Check-in with the members of your group about the expectations and make sure the plan fits.

Identify the skill and ability of trip participants. Consider whether you are seasoned campers ready for any type of experience or if this is a new and unfamiliar situation for campers in your group. New experiences can be stressful, which can lead to accidents or disappointment, so be reasonable about how much unfamiliar territory to try to cover in one trip, especially if children are involved. Staying focused on a safe and happy trip rather than big, unrealistic goals can be the difference between good and not-so-good memories. 

Select a camping location that suits your goals and abilities. Choose a landing with a short walk to appropriate camping if you have a group of inexperienced campers or folks who just want to take it easy. Choose a more remote landing that requires a longer paddling effort if you want a more secluded, solitary experience and you don’t mind the extra workout. 

Select a mode of transportation that is appropriate to the abilities of your group. Small, privately owned motorboats and human-powered vessels such as kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards each have their own benefits and limitations. Commercial ferry services are available out of Wrightsville Beach. Make sure your choice of transportation fits your plan and the needs of your group. 

Gain knowledge about the site you will be visiting. Read materials about the Masonboro Island Reserve, including the site brochuresite profile, and management plan. These documents explain the purpose of the Reserve and describe the important natural characteristics being protected at the site.

Study maps and aerials of the reserve and the area you plan to visit. Use Google Earth or the New Hanover County GIS website to get familiar with the surroundings. This will help you be prepared for what you are likely to encounter during your visit and give you confidence.

Check the tide times and amplitudes. Understand how these will impact your trip. Many areas of the reserve have little or no water around low tide. Creeks and open water that appears perfectly adequate can quickly drain out with the tide, leaving you and your boat high and dry. Especially important can be whether it is a “spring” tide, when high tides are higher and low tides are lower than average. Make sure there will there be enough water to get to your chosen access point and, more importantly, to leave for your return trip.

Check the weather forecast for the entire duration of your planned trip. Consider how the weather will impact your trip. Winds and storms can make or break the camping experience. If an offshore breeze is expected, it is likely to bring bugs your way. If thunderstorms are possible on the way, it might be better to choose another date for the trip. Remember to take the heat index into account during warm months and the wind chill into effect during cool months. 

Choose and carry appropriate equipment and clothing. Duplication of some supplies can help you to be prepared for the unexpected. Always camp with basic first aid supplies and some extra clothing. A pocket knife or multi-tool can come in handy in all kinds of situations. A variety of items of clothing is essential, as weather can change and damp air can make it feel cooler or hotter than the actual air temperature, depending on the season. Another essential supply is a trash receptacle: designate a 5-gallon bucket or a small plastic tub with a lid as your group’s trash can and place all waste items inside after use to prevent scattering by the wind or attracting wildlife. 

Bring an adequate water supply. A rough estimate of water needs is to plan on a minimum of a gallon of water per person for a 24-hour trip. This amount will vary greatly depending on the season. You will need more if you will be engaging in any physical activity (distance walking, paddling, surfing) and if you want some freshwater for use for cleaning dishes and your body. (Rinsing salty, sandy feet prior to getting under covers or into a sleeping bag can be quite refreshing.)

Planning meals to reduce waste and the need for fire. It can be fun to camp over an open fire, but it also means lots of extra hauling of firewood and pots, and more time spent with the cleanup. By carefully planning meals in advance, you can take items that will result in minimal waste and effort to worry about during your trip. Try to pack only the amount of food you will really need to avoid having to carry food items home with you (and to avoid the likelihood of food being left behind on the site.) Pack items that are already cooked and ready to eat such as hard-boiled eggs or boiled shrimp with the shells already removed; cut fruits and vegetables with dips or nut butters; cheese and crackers; or quartered sandwiches, already assembled. Transporting food items in plastic containers or sealable bags can reduce the total amount of waste you have to carry home and be easier to pack than leaving items in original packaging and preparing food at the campsite. If you absolutely must have hot food, plan to pack a camp stove to reduce the need to build a campfire. 

Make a float plan. It may be difficult to take safety seriously when you can still see the mainland when you are on the island, but telling someone where you are going and when you plan to return could actually help you enormously during a difficult situation. Instruct your on-shore contact to notify the Coast Guard or the New Hanover County Sherriff’s Department if you do not call within a specified time after your expected return. In the very unlikely case that you have multiple misfortunes that prevent you from returning from your trip as planned, it is better to be prepared than be in a bad situation with no one aware that you might need help. 

By thoughtful consideration of where you choose to access the island and where you set up camp, you can minimize the impact you will create. Choosing an appropriate access point and a good campsite will also affect what type of camping experience you will have.

Reasons for carefully considering your camping location:

  • Ensures positive experience for campers.
  • Reduces impacts on natural resources.
  • Allows campers who follow you to have an equally positive experience. 

Be aware of the durability of surfaces

The terrain on the upland portions of Masonboro Island consists primarily of sand dunes, open flat sand areas, and broad sandy grasslands. Soils in these areas are relatively durable, meaning that moderate human foot traffic will not cause extensive damage. Vegetation in these areas, however, is fragile and susceptible to damage from trampling. Protect vegetation by staying on existing trails and staying off vegetated dunes. Other portions of the reserve are salt marsh, mudflats, and oyster flats. These portions may be exposed during low tide and flooded or submerged at high tide. These habitats are not durable and are very easily damaged. To protect these areas, do not trample marsh grasses, stay off oyster reefs, and minimize damage to mudflats.

Choosing your landing or access area

Many areas of the island are only accessible close to high tide. In some areas, long stretches of sandy landing area exist, making access simple. In other areas, the sound side of the island is fringed by extensive salt marsh. A single camper dragging a kayak through marsh grass can lead others to follow, creating a new path and permanent damage to the marsh. If arriving by powerboat, plan ahead to anchor in sandy soils, to access the island around high tide so that you will have adequate water and only land in areas that allow you to get to durable sandy soil quickly without a long walk through muddy soils or marsh. 

Choosing your campsite

You will find areas on the island where previous camping activity is easily noticeable - large open areas devoid of vegetation with remnants of campfires visible. Limit your impact by camping in these areas rather than in an area with intact vegetation and no signs of human activity. This assists with confining impacts on places that already show use and avoid enlarging the area of disturbance. Areas like this are prevalent in the northern reaches of the island and near landings that are accessible throughout the tide cycle. If a more remote experience removed from all signs of humanity is highly important to you, choose an open flat area of sand with no vegetation and plan ahead to leave no trace.

Traversing the site using trails

While you are moving around on the island, be aware of where your footsteps fall. In addition to protecting your feet from sharp objects, sandspurs, and the like, you should make an effort to stay on existing trails. Where there are no trails, walk through open flat sand areas, crossing between sparse vegetation and impacting as little vegetation as possible. Once a short-cut or side trail is begun, it is likely to expand as other campers come along. Help minimize damage to the Reserve by limiting the number of trails created.


Camping on dunes can damage the vegetation that serves to anchor the dune. Trampling on vegetation on steeper slopes is particularly damaging. Staying off dunes and slopes protects these structures, reduces erosion, and allows dunes to develop and shift naturally. 

Campfires are permitted on Masonboro Island and should be handled in a responsible manner. Campfires can be an important part of the camping experience, producing warmth, creating a central focus for social interaction at the campsite and providing heat to cook your food; however, the natural appearance of many areas on Masonboro Island has been degraded by the cumulative effect of the campfires of multiple campers.

Things to consider about campfires on Masonboro:

  • Think about using a camp stove rather than building a fire.
  • Bring a fire pit with you to minimize the impact.
  • Plan to carry your coals home with you.
  • Avoid using commercial charcoal or lighter fluid.
  • Choose firewood carefully.
  • Never leave a fire unattended.

Choose to use a camp stove as an alternative

There are many different varieties of camping stoves that have various applications. Lightweight, efficient camp stoves make it possible to cook without building a fire. Stoves cook quickly, are flexible, and eliminate the need to carry firewood and matches. Stoves also operate in almost any weather condition, and “leave no trace.” 

Choosing a safe location for your fire

If you must have a campfire at your campsite, it is important that you take the necessary steps to choose a safe and appropriate location to minimize your impact. Building your fire away from vegetation and taking the wind direction into account can prevent a wildfire from starting. Choose open sand 10 or more feet from the nearest vegetation. Before you start to build a fire, take the time to stop and look around to assess the potential for fire danger. NOTE: if you chose to camp on a dredge spoil island, be particularly aware of vegetation and make sure you site your fire far enough from trees and shrubs so that you will not be a source of a wildfire.   

Minimizing the impact of your fire

Choosing a site that already shows obvious signs of a previous fire can help to reduce the overall visual impact of this activity. Campfires concentrated in a single area means that a smaller total area of the Reserve is impacted by this activity. If each new group of campers chooses a pristine site for fire building, over time, increasingly larger areas are noticeably affected by humans rather than in a completely natural condition. 

Choosing the type of campfire you will make 

If you choose to build a campfire, select the type of fire that will create the lowest impact while meeting your needs. The best practice for building a fire on Masonboro Island involves the use of a fire pan to contain your fire. Clean metal oil pans and small backyard barbecue grills make effective and inexpensive fire pans. A pan with at least three-inch-high sides is recommended and can serve the dual purpose of holding your firewood during transport. If desired, dig a shallow pit to accommodate the fire pan before building your fire. When the ash and coals are cool, either carry them home in the fire pan or turn them into the shallow pit and cover them with sand. If no fire pan is available, a campfire can be built directly on the sand.

Handling fire remains 

Regardless of the type of fire you choose to build, the best practice is to burn all of the fuel until it is ash. If this is not possible, and coals remain, ensure that they are cool to the touch by thoroughly soaking them with water. Ideally, coals would be carried home in a fireproof container rather than left on the island. If fire remains are left on the island, they can be lightly buried with sand. Scattering of coals is not recommended. At some of the more heavily visited camping areas, this has led to large expanses of sand with consistently present coals, reducing the aesthetic beauty and natural character of the area, and potentially causing ecological alteration.

Firewood concerns

It is important to carry firewood, kindling, and a fire source with you if you plan to have a fire on the island. There are no reliable sources of fuel on the island. Driftwood and other washed-up material, if found, are usually damp and difficult to burn. Also, damaging vegetation, whether alive or dead, to procure firewood is unlawful. Please inspect firewood previous to packing it for a camping trip to ensure that it is not infested with ants or other pests. Carry unburned firewood home with you. 

Campfire do’s and don’ts

It is important that any campfire is attended by a responsible person while burning. Keep wood and other fuel sources away from the fire. Provide adequate supervision for children near any fire. Plastic items, foil-lined wrappers, glass bottles, and aluminum cans should never be burned in a campfire. 

Proper disposal of wastes is important to avoid pollution of water sources, ensure that other campers are not negatively impacted by wastes, minimize the possibility of spreading disease, and prevent subsidization of predator populations. 

Pack it out 

The best practice is to carry all waste products home with you. Careful planning can mean that little waste is produced (see recommendations on pre-trip planning). Plan to carry a trash container rather than plastic bags that can blow away and become one more piece of trash. Keep waste items contained and covered to avoid them being windblown and prevent attracting wildlife. 

Dealing with solid human waste 

Again, the best practice for solid human wastes is to plan to carry them home. Some campers have been known to rig a 5-gallon bucket with a toilet seat to provide a bit of comfort and a way to transport wastes off the island. If this is not possible, the next best practice is to dig a “cat hole” at least 6 inches deep, some distance from trails and camping areas, to serve as a receptacle for solid wastes, including toilet paper. Toilet paper should never be left on the surface of the sand.

Other human waste 

Urine has little direct effect on vegetation or soils and is largely sterile. It is rapidly neutralized on sandy soils exposed to direct sun. However, choosing a site away from camping areas can help prevent attracting wildlife. Another option is to urinate in the ocean where dilution immediately accommodates this type of waste. 

Human waste paper products 

Toilet paper should be used sparingly. Only plain, white, non-perfumed brands should be used. Paper should not be left on the surface or the sand where other campers may come across it or accidentally step on it but should be buried in a cathole as previously described. Proper disposal of feminine hygiene products dictates that they be placed in a plastic bag and carried out. These items do not decompose readily and, if buried, may be dug up by wildlife or pets.

Thoughtful campers leave nothing behind to reveal their presence except footprints. They also leave the site as it was when they arrived.

Things to remember to reduce your impact:

  • Leave everything as you found it. Do not dig trenches or pits, construct lean-tos, or make “improvements” to the site.
  • Remember that the best campsites are those that are found, not made.
  • Do not hammer nails into trees for hanging things or remove branches to accommodate tents. Altering or damaging vegetation for any reason is unacceptable.
  • Consider taking nothing with you that was found on the island. That shell or piece of driftwood you found will be equally treasured by other visitors who will come after you

Masonboro Island is a nature preserve. It is home to a variety of plants and animals. For many of the animals that live on the island and the surrounding waters at least part of the year, access to this type of habitat is essential. There are few undeveloped areas like Masonboro left in southern North Carolina. Remember when you go to the island that this is their home and you are just a visitor.

Keep your distance 

Learn about wildlife through quiet observation. Do not disturb wildlife to get a “better look.” Observing from a distance or with binoculars prevents disturbance to wildlife. If disturbed, birds may abandon nests or may waste valuable stored energy needed for migration.

Consider your behavior 

Studies have shown that birds are disturbed to a greater extent by dogs than by humans. Leash your dog, keep him/her as far away from birds as possible, or consider leaving him/her at home during nesting season. Do not allow children or dogs to run after resting flocks. Startling a flock and sending it into flight is stressful and for some individuals could mean the difference between completing a successful migration or not.

Hands off 

Do not touch, get close to, feed, or pick up wild animals. Sick or wounded animals can bite, peck, or scratch and send you to the hospital. If you find a sick or injured animal, leave them where they are and notify Coastal Reserve staff immediately. 

Food wastes can hurt wildlife 

Considerate campers store food securely and keep garbage and food scraps away from animals. This includes those apple cores and potato chips left behind because “they’re organic – they’ll decompose.” On Masonboro Island, predators may be benefitting from additional nutrients garnered from food left by campers. Stronger and more numerous predators can have devastating effects on shorebird and sea turtle populations. By using extreme care while camping, you can help to not make this difficult situation worse. 

The golden rule applies even in the outdoor environment and for camping situations. Most visitors to Masonboro Island are looking for a peaceful visit in a natural setting, free from much of the usual beach-going experience. Also, the island’s status as a nature preserve means that disturbances such as noise and free-running dogs are not allowed because of the serious impacts they can have on wildlife.  

Easy tips to limit your impact on other visitors and the island’s natural inhabitants:

  • Keep the noise level down while camping. Leave your speakers at home and enjoy the sounds of nature.
  • Limit group size to enhance the feeling of solitude and ensure your behavior is unobtrusive.
  • Maximize your feeling of privacy by avoiding trips to Masonboro Island on holidays and busy weekends. Or increase your experience and decrease your impact by camping during the offseason.
  • Be smart about activities, avoiding any that may lead to serious injuries or fatality. You should have a fun and enjoyable camping trip, but please enjoy Masonboro Island in a respectful and responsible manner.
  • Keep pets under control at all times and clean up after your pet. The law dictates that dogs must be leashed in New Hanover County. Dogs running free are often unwelcome by other visitors and they can disturb wildlife. If you camp with your dog, be considerate of other visitors, and pack bags to carry out pet wastes.

The following activities are prohibited by state or local law:

  • Fireworks
  • Noise (such as generators and sound systems)
  • Nudity
  • Dogs off leash
  • Littering or dumping
  • Disturbance of or damage to plants and soils
  • Personal property on the Reserve for more than 48 hours