Cape Lookout - first time


Camping at Cape Lookout - South Core Banks

(On this trip I wasn’t much of a photographer. My wife and kids did take some pics, and once I get them sorted out I’ll add them.)

Secluded. Windy. Sandy. Oceany. Cape Lookout has everything you love and hate about the beach, to the nines. Except crowds & lifeguards. There are three major islands - the North Core, South Core, and Shackleford banks. We stayed on the South Core banks.

Like kites? Lots of wind, and plenty of space, and no one in the way.

Fish? I don’t fish much, but I was tempted to get a rod and license and give it a try. Judging by the rod covered vehicles driving by every morning, the fishing is good.

Shelling? Quite good along the southern tip. Not so great, but not bad, where we were camped.

Sitting around emptying beverage cans while doing nothing except watching the kids, the birds, and the waves? Perfection.

The surf was really strong - too strong for real swimming - on the ocean side. Didn’t run into any rip tides or long shore currents, but the waves would knock the kids over easily. They loved it. The waves on the sound side were much, much, much less. Really, no waves to speak of. Lots of people though, and handy showers to rinse off. We used both the ocean and the sound, and enjoyed both.

When the wind kicked up we got sandblasted. I got used to it quickly, but it gets the sand into even more places. Sand gets everywhere but I got used to that too for the most part. The key was to avoid surfaces where sand is really apparent - like a bare sleeping pad. The fleece slipcover I made did a good job of hiding the sand from me. They say bring a wisk broom, but really several would have been handy. We had one, and it was always somewhere else when needed.

Watch those tides

When we arrived on Sunday we chose a spot around mile 38 in the afternoon and settled in. Because it was very windy it took a while to get the tent up and secured, then the Goddess (see below) and the potty tent.

By that time we had high tide coming in and it was getting surprisingly close to where we were camped. My wife looked up a tides app, and said it was two feet below high tide. Oh poo.

At this point I was pretty beat, tired, and sweaty. I hadn’t set our tent up in a serious wind before and while nothing really went wrong it took a lot longer than expected and only time shows how sturdy a ground anchor is. We were relying on a lot of ground anchors. Doubt was creeping in.

Then the tide shows up and looks like it’s going to wash us away. I was trying to remember when the last ferry of the day was leaving as I double checked the tide.

It turned out the reporting station Susan was reading was from the sound side, not the ocean side. We were only 6 inches away from high tide, which was acceptable. We never did get wet, but it got within a few feet of us. A tidal pool formed next to the truck :cool:

Not bad, but not the kind of surprise you need when doing this for the first time!

The new moon was the culprit - it brings a much higher tide than usual.


I was sitting down for the first time after setting up camp, with a beer in hand, and I said “Wow Susan, the bugs really aren’t too ba…Son of a <bleep>! Holy <bleep>!” I leapt out of my chair and did an involuntary high speed martial arts montage as I felt a red hot electrified knitting needle pierce my tender hide.

I noticed the large green striped fly clinging to me like an ugly hooker in a red light district, continuing to snack on my flesh. Still thrashing around I finally I hit her hard enough to daze her enough to get her under foot for a proper coup de gras.

Apparently I have not been exposed to this type of biting fly before. They’re tough, persistent, and bite like a freaking tiger. Fortunately they hang on so they are easily killed once they start to bite. Also, they don’t handle wind very well, and even a 5-10mph breeze keeps them on the sand. The Thermacell did a good job of keeping them confused, and once I sprayed the Goddess with permethrin they were pretty much out of the picture.

I did get bit a few more times, and strangely it never again hurt like that first time.

No mosquitoes to speak of, or other biting insects.

Protect your feet

Up in the dry sand around camp we got used to going barefoot very quickly, but two of us cut our feet. This is not a good place to get a cut on the beach. All healed well enough, but I was limping sore until I finally relented, cleaned things up, and applied bandages.

The Green Goddess

Before our first trip of the season, to Natural Bridge, Susan insisted I get a screen tent. I had resisted a long time, being a confirmed tarp guy, but I could see our camping days would be over unless I produced so I commenced to researching.

I ended up buying a 35lb behemoth called The Clam. It is very large when packed, but it makes up for that by being heavy as well. About the size and weight of a large area rug rolled up with a body inside.

It also goes up quickly and is sturdy. As soon as Susan saw it she dubbed it the Green Goddess. The Green Goddess turned out to be another trip saving purchase. It stayed up with some guy lines even in 30+mph winds, well past reasonable tarp weather, and provided great shade and shelter from wind and blowing sand. Without it we would have had to live with just a tarp, which would have been nearly a full-time job to keep up with the wind we had, not to mention the noise, and lack of wind protection.

Nemo Heliopolis - aka potty tent

Overall, this was a bit disappointing.

The steel frame is strong and has steel cables holding the sections together. It rusted at the joints, and the sections on one pole became glued together.

The tie down points are halfway up on the tent body, and are just simple web loops.

Ventilation is fair. The upside is that there is no fly to worry about, the bad news is that it can get hot inside. The only ventilation is a large screen window with an adjustable cover on the inside. Depending on wind direction you can get great air coming through, or not much.

The floor is basically poly tarp material, not removable.

The toilet paper holder worked pretty well, better than I expected. The mountain money stayed dry despite showers and was easy to get to.

There is nowhere for a kid to put their towel. The elastic pockets up top are convenient for adults, but kids can’t reach them. the work around is to hang them over the straps holding the frame clips.

The privacy zipper feature that allows for the zipper to be locked from the inside had me wondering - if you’re in the middle of nowhere with folks who you can’t trust not to unzip the tent while you’re in it…you’ve got bigger problems than someone unzipping the tent while you’re in it.

It stayed up in strong wind with three corners out of four guyed out. One pole bent a bit, and one had a few joints glued together via salt/sand/rust. Once it dried out I got it apart, but it was basically welded the day we took it down. The stakes that come with it are the usual joke - a 6” piece of 1/8” soft steel wire with a 100degree bend in one end.

Worth $150? Meh, I wish I had taken a closer look at the cheaper alternatives. The overall construction is long on clever features and short on robustness.

Helio shower

The Nemo Helio shower worked well. Susan and the girls were very happy to have it. They all have long hair and they washed it easily. It does a good job of maximizing water use while giving a usefully strong spray.

The bad is that it comes in a fiddly bag that is too tight and water proof (why? Why not a sensible mesh bag?) and the pump mechanism isn’t very tolerant of sand. I could tell that the valve that makes the foot pump work was getting sand in it because I could hear it leaking when I pumped. The shower still worked, just not quite as well. I was far happier with the shower than the shower tent.

Thetford PortaPotti

After bathing the next hurdle I had was providing a toilet - the girls were simply not going to use a hole in the ground. Frankly, I didn’t want to either.

So I got a Thetford PortaPotti 550p as the solution. It worked pretty darn well. Normal toilet height, and everyone was willing to use it. It did, however, develop an odor. Not a good one. Susan was the first to complain, but then it was obvious. I used the deodorant they provided, but still the potty tent smelled like a sewer.

I explained that I had tested the unit at home - indeed using both normal functions, and left it to ferment for a few weeks and no smells were apparent. Could it just be that my personal feces are not odiferous? Susan made it clear that was not the case.

I believe the cause is that the unit does not have a standing pool of water like a normal toilet to keep the unintentional residue of usage, aka skid marks, from being exposed to air. A quick wipe and things improved. When I removed it from the truck this morning it was not very smelly at all.

About the only thing I don’t like about this unit is that there aren’t handles for carrying it.

Pro tip: When emptying, do not - seriously, DO NOT - press the vent button until the unit is elevated or you will end up with a handful of something you definitely do not want a handful of.

Stakes are really important

Normally I use a mix of the standard 10” steel stakes that are basically a large nail with a plastic top, and Snow Peak #30 stakes. Neither have let me down in normal soil, and I figured they’d be ok for sand.

Fortunately at the last minute I decided to spend some money getting some sand/snow stakes from Amazon, along with some military stakes from Coleman’s Surplus. It would be a trip-saving move.

I really wanted to get the MSR ToughStakes, but they were just too expensive. So instead I used the same concept with the much less expensive snow stakes from Amazon, which worked very well.

I routed a cord through the bottom hole, about 3” up from the bottom tip, back through the smaller hole just up from the bottom hole and then into a figure 8 stop knot. A bowline at the other end for a loop. This put the pull well below ground and near the center of the stake. In use the stakes got sucked under and disappeared from the surface. Just the cord would be coming out of the ground.

They kept a 16’ Kelty Noah’s tarp up in a 20mph wind, and kept our tent and shower tent up through higher winds than that. Easy, cheap and effective. I have no doubt the MSR ToughStakes work better, but they’re 10 times the cost or more.

The military stakes are clearly superior to the nails, and probably even the Snow Peaks. Much, much better in sand, and I bet they’re drivable into the usual clay soil/soil gravel mix I run into. I drilled them about 3/5 of the way down from the top to route cord through like the snow stakes, but didn’t end up using them that way.

Reflective cord and more cord

I will never use anything but brightly colored reflective cord for guy lines (or pretty much anything else) again. I will also use the taught line hitch instead of the silly plastic adjusters that came with our tent. Properly taught lines I can see are much better than getting clotheslined by sagging lines I can’t see.

I normally bring four 25’ hanks of reflective cord for the tarp, and another 50’ hank of regular cord for a clothes line (doubled and twisted so clothes can be tucked in the twists) and another two 25’ brightly colored hanks just in case.

This time I brought that plus four more reflective hanks to guy out the shower tent, and another six of tan and dark red cord I had lying around just in case. Plus a total of 24 orange snow stakes, and 24 OD military stakes.

I used all the cord, and all but maybe 6 of the stakes. I used only 8 of the Snow Peak stakes, and none of the nails. Without the new stakes and extra cord, we would have spent a lot of time setting stuff back up.

Mileage was terrible

We used over 3/4 of a tank of gas driving around, and we didn’t drive all that much. Most of the consumption was on the first day when we drove the island top to bottom to decide where to stay. We got between 5 and 10mpg, with the lower end being far more common.

Never got stuck, or even close. If you’re looking for epic wheelin’ you’ll be left wanting I think. That said, the saltier looking truck campers, the ones that clearly had been out there often, were sporting tow straps and shovels in convenient locations.

I ran BFG AT’s, at about 20psi.

The air hose at the Cape Lookout ferry company is about useless. I should have just used my compressor during the ferry ride to air back up. I ended up doing just that on the next ferry to Ocracoke.

The Fridge Rocked

Even though they sell ice on the island I couldn’t imagine doing this trip without a fridge.

We ran 4 or 5 gallons of water, at least, through the fridge in Nalgene bottles for drinking. The local water didn’t taste too bad. When it is 90 plus degrees with humidity to match, 35 degree drinking water doesn’t have to be Evian :cool:.

Chocolate, even the hard 70% stuff I like, quickly turned to liquid and anything with it had to go into the fridge. Also we accumulated quite a lot of water in the bottom of the fridge - 1/4” or so - just from condensation.

Running that much drinking water through the fridge, along with it being exposed to sun more than it should have been, was a bit of a torture test. I brought 100w of solar to power it but we ended up driving somewhere every day so the solar was not the only source of power. As it as 100w of solar probably wouldn’t have been enough. Maybe 150w would have. The fridge used over 700wh per day, and 1.2kwh on the ride home. Inside my garage at home I was seeing more like 400wh per day, which I’d thought was a good test. The fridge was less than half full on the way home. It clearly works more efficiently when it is full.

Outside another trip to the beach or a desert I doubt I’ll see that kind of power consumption again, but it does give credibility to those here who say 100+ah plus of battery & 200w of solar are needed for a reliable fridge system.

I will be getting a fridge slide. Before the trip I agonized about whether to get solar or a slide. I chose solar. Should have chosen the slide.

Water consumption

We brought 35gal of water but 25 was enough capacity to keep getting water from being a pain. We filled up 30gal while we were there, and left with 25. So we used about 40gal from late Sunday until Thursday morning, with two adults and three kids including bathing. We used seawater to wash dishes, fresh to rinse.

I used Scepter cans and took two black water cans for bathing/cleaning water, and four civilian blue cans for cooking/drinking. One Coleman container with a spigot for dispensing and hand washing.

The idea was the black cans would heat the water up in the sun. It worked pretty well - got the water up over 100 degrees.

But what did you do?

Flew kites, played in the surf, swam in the sound, a bit of shelling at the point. Really, not much. That was the point of going, actually. Sunsets were nice, but sunrises were nicer. I could spend all day siting and watching the ocean. My girls can spend all day playing in it.

We also drove through the “village” of houses from folks who had been living there, and it was fun to consider what it would be like to live there while looking at these old buildings.

What I liked best, and figured I would like best, is that there isn’t a whole lot of structure or rules. Yes there are signs about where you can and can’t go, but it’s common sense stuff and I don’t mind giving a turtle nest or bird nest some space. The seclusion was what I was after, and I got it.

I’d read about oppressive rangers, but we only saw one drive by on a quad every morning, and then back every evening. She waved when we waved, but otherwise paid us no mind.

We left the dog at home - thank God! She’d have been miserable in the heat, and it would have been very hard on her paws.

Getting home

We left Cape Lookout on Thursday, and drove to Cedar Island and took the ferry to Ocracoke. We got there, saw the lighthouse, and learned there was a power outage. So we took the ferry to Hatteras to see that lighthouse on our way to the Outer Banks.

We had reservations for a campsite at Oregon Inlet, so the power outage wasn’t a big hassle. It just kept us from having some ice cream on Ocracoke.

Oregon Inlet was more of a typical southern campsite - small sites packed cheek to jowl. Burrs on the ground all over (site A26, should have chosen better but it was nearly dark when we arrived), but reasonable showers and bathroom. We really only slept there.

Friday we did some shopping, drove north to the beach at Corolla and drove up there a ways to see the horses, and then more shopping. In the evening we met up with a photographer on a beach for family pics, and then Saturday morning we headed home.

Going back

Will I go back to Cape Lookout? Heck yeah. So will Susan and the girls. However, as people here suggested, July is a tough time to be there. The wind mostly kept the bugs at bay, but between sweat, wind, and sand, I’d prefer to pick two instead of having all three.


Thank you for posting about your trip! Would like to take the family out sometime and enjoyed learning about all the details. Glad to hear you will be back and better prepared the next time around.
Reactions: kdj
Thanks for posting about your trip, cape lookout is on my must see list. We stay in the outer banks a few times a year, July would definitely be a hot time to visit.
How was the driving on sand? (and what was your rig?) I have a ambo I'm working on (4x4 Ford class 3) and scared a little bit about driving on sand.


Hi Punisher,

I drive a Ram 1500, with BFG AT tires. The driving was no big deal really. I drove gently, like on snow, and avoided wheel spin. I did a Y turn in the back road a few times, and more than once the truck decided to put itself in 2wd and I didn't notice until traction control kicked in. I did air down to about 20psi. I noticed that the tour trucks that the passenger ferry company uses were on street tires and that didn't appear to be aired down much.

If you stay out of the surf or tidal pools you're probably going to be fine. There are plenty of truck campers there.

I brought a shovel, tow strap, and board for under the jack. None were used.

Up in Corolla, at the north end of the outer banks, it seemed like the prevailing technique was to worry about airing down if and when one got stuck. But, there was enough traffic and enough aggressively lifted/tired trucks around that if you did get stuck you'd probably have people fighting for the chance to pull you out :cool:


Hey, a local, cool! Great trip report and I appreciate the product reviews. My boys are old enough now, so it's time to start traveling!


New member
I'm planning on going to Cape Lookout next month. Is a day and night enough to look around and enjoy the island or should I camp two nights? We're also going to stay in Wilmington a couple of nights. I'm trying to figure out how to divide up the days.
I've never been to Cape lookout itself, but having spent a bunch of time in obx I would say "it depends ". If you want to get out to the island and experience the solitude, do some fishing, swimming, etc then I would take two nights. The ferry takes forever and I think the extra day would really make it worth it. However, there aren't any amenities or structures, so if you just want to go there to drive around and see the island, you could probably do it in one night. Of course the no see ums get bad at certain times of year, so that might make the difference of whether you want to stay the extra day!


With the time and $$ required to get on and off the island (ferry takes some time and isn't cheap) plus the relative effort to set up camp, I'd do a 2 night minimum. From your post, I am not certain if you refer to going to Cape Lookout as in Cape Lookout National Seashore or specifically the barrier island on which the Cape and the lighthouse are a part of. That island goes by South Core Banks or Davis Island (since its ferry services sails from Davis, NC). The northern island is Portsmouth Island and it's the location of Portsmouth Village at its far north end. It's ferry runs from Atlantic, NC. I've only once visited PI, but it was a great 5-day trip in 1990 and I didn't want to leave when we had to catch our reserved ferry ride back to Atlantic.



What is the best time of year to go if you still want to enjoy the water?
Is there any time where the biting insects are less harsh?