Living in Charlotte, I’m always looking for a new place away from the city to explore with the mutts. it is usually a lot more convenient to drive to the mountains than it is to the beach. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the mountains. In fact, there are few places that I’d rather be. But, after the leaves fall and before the snow comes, I start to crave something different… a change of scenery, a different landscape. So, this year, in DECEMBER, I got the bright idea to head to the beach with the pups to camp! This was both an amazing idea and a really stupid one at the same time, but I am so glad that we did it. By the end of this, you will either decide that we’re the same kind of crazy and that you too want to do this, or that I’m just off my rocker. Either way, enjoy!
Winter Beach Camping with Dogs
So, I knew two things. 1. That I wanted to go to the beach & 2. It had to be SUPER dog friendly. I started looking at state parks, because we’ve always had great experiences in our state parks and their campsites (and parks in general) are really dog friendly. This brought me to Carolina Beach State Park. 4 hours away, some beautiful trails. While I was looking at pictures online, I saw a picture of a tent on the beach. WHAT???
I assumed it was at the state park (because it said as much), so I went to their site to book one. They have camping, but definitely not on the beach. After lots of googling, I found nearby Freeman Park. You can drive on the beach, find the perfect spot, and set up camp. AND, most importantly, it’s dog friendly. In fact, their website even said “Dogs are allowed in Freeman Park OFF LEASH between October 1st and March 31st so long as they remain under voice command and the owner is within reasonable distance of the pet.” YES! Count us in!
But first, hiking!
We hit the road on a Thursday morning before the sun rose, loaded up with camping gear, just me and the two little ones. After watching the cutest cuddlefest ever for the 4 hour drive, we arrived at our first destination, Carolina Beach State Park. For once, I wasn’t worried about being able to score a good campsite, so we hit the trails first. After a quick stop in the welcome center, I decide on a 3 mile loop that leads you to the top of Sugarloaf, the biggest sand dune in the park.
The dogs were on high alert with all the new sights and smells. The trail weaved through a variety of different ecosystems, from beautiful salt marshes and beaches to pine forests and mud flats. So many amazing vistas and picture taking opportunities and lots for the pups to sniff along the way. After the first mile, we met a really cool couple and a even a Cattle Dog puppy! I loaded up Roxie in my pack when her ever-present limp started to worsen.
For more info on Carolina Beach State park, check out their website here.
Driving on the beach
The GPS takes us through the town, past public beach accesses, and I find a pay station and an attendant at the Freeman Park entrance. I pay my fee ($30/day for access, good until the next morning at 10am) and my campsite is free because well, it’s December and there’s no shortage of sites. During season, it’s only an extra $10 for a site, but you need to reserve way in advance online.
Now the fun part! I switch over to 4 LOW and start cruising down the beach. Windows down, waves crashing, following tracks from previous visitors in the sand. Ringo is hanging his head out the passenger window, watching the birds, enjoying the breeze. We pass the first row of campsites and a few fishermen and all is going smoothly. I’ve done this once before, so I’m basically a pro (hahaha).
I had seen online that the beach had a big curve and that afterwards there were more campsites. I assume there will be even less people and more room for the dogs to run, so I pass the last fisherman and start making my way towards the bend. Let’s face it, driving in the sand is FUN! If you’ve never done it (and have 4WD) I highly suggest it. It’s awesome.. until you almost get stuck. On a pretty empty beach, by yourself with two small dogs.
As I’m approaching the bend, the beach gets much more narrow, and less flat. I’m driving nice and slow, following where other people have driven before me.. and then we start to slide sideways.. where other people slid sideways. The truck is now on a 30-40 degree angle, leaning towards the ocean. A freaked out Ringo decides to hop in the back with Roxie and we continue to slide, my tires continue to spin, and my heart starts pounding out of my chest. Those campsites back there looked great. Why did I decide to keep going. Why did I decide to come alone. What if I get stuck. And then we do. We’re stuck in a deep rut. I don’t have a lot of experience in sand, but I grew up in a place with a lot of snow, so I rely on my old instincts and gently rock the truck back and forth ever so slightly, nice and slow, until I somehow pop out of the rut. Whew..
But, all that is ahead is more loose sand, more uneven sand, and no people. Oh, and nowhere to turn around. I have to keep going. After two more sliding instances and two more near heart attacks, we get to an open area with room to turn around. As I see it, I have 2 options. Keep going up the beach and hope it gets better, or turn around and do THAT again. At least I know what to expect going back and there are some people to help if I get stuck. How embarrassing would that be? I know I’m a woman, but I generally believe myself to be just as capable as any man in most situations. Please don’t let me get stuck. I have no intention of being a “damsel in distress”. Fast forward.. We turn around, get stuck again, get out again, and find a perfectly awesome flat campsite, pull in, turn off the truck, and let out a big sigh of relief. WHEW. Time to hop out, watch the waves, run with the dogs, and enjoy this awesome place.
A Beach To Ourselves
Aside from the handful of fishermen who watched me almost get stuck in the sand (and probably laughed at me amongst themselves), there is no one here. I decide to spread out over two campsites, because we can, so the dogs have lots of room to run. Roxie has never been to the beach before, but being her curious self, she wanders right down to the water’s edge with Ringo and I, fearless. They hang out while I set up camp and then proceed to chase each other in and out of the tent, around the truck, up and down the beach, until the tent and everything in it is NICE and sandy. HAHA. I don’t even care. Watching them have so much fun is what it’s all about. They so seldom get to run and play when we go hiking, or even camping, with the strict leash laws in our area, that this is exactly what they needed. It’s a amazing 60 degrees with a slight breeze, everything is perfect.
They run until they can run no more and when the temps start to drop, we snuggle up in the back of my Xterra in a pile of sleeping bags and blankets and watch the skies turn into beautiful pinks and oranges, like a delicious sorbet. Sitting there in a pile of blankets and snuggly dogs, watching the skies change, listening to the waves, this is what it’s all about. This is why I came during the off season. Now, to remember this during the night when my teeth are chattering and I’m questioning my thought process.
A Cold, Windy Night
The plan was to sleep in the tent, in the sand. Sounds magical right? Well, drop the temperature to the low 30s, add some really high winds, and eventually that plan got scrapped. We piled back in the truck, away from the wind, and thank goodness we did. At some point during the night, the tent blew over, even with proper sand stakes. Thank goodness I weighed it down just in case, or it would have floated away into the middle of the ocean. The winds got so strong that it sounded like the waves were about the crash into the truck. I woke a few times during the night to check, sure that I was crazy, but not being able to get the thought out of my head, all while the dogs slumbered peacefully in their mound of blankets.
At about 4 am, after a much protested pee break in the windy, 30 degree temps, we got back in the truck and BOTH dogs wiggled into my new sleeping bag with me for warmth. Ringo slithered down to my feet and Roxie slept against my chest. Okay, so there are perks to this cold weather thing. This is exactly why I didn’t bring Boomer, who freaks out when night temps are below 50 when camping.
One of the things I craved most about beach camping was waking up to watch the sunrise. We would hang out on the beach, I’d take some awesome sunrise pics of the dogs. They’d frolic and play in the morning light. Yeah, okay. We did wake up, we did go out, the dogs ran around for a total of 2 minutes and then shivered and looked at me like I was torturing them. Even their winter coats were no match for this wind. I got one decent pic and we loaded back up and turned on the truck for heat. As much as I wanted to stay, the dogs were not having this cold thing, so they ate breakfast in the truck while I loaded our collapsed tent (and a lot of sand) and we hit the road.
To Camp or not to Camp (in winter)?
Now that we’re home and have had some time to reflect (and warm up), the question is whether I’d make the same decision if I knew how cold it would end up being. Which, for the record, was more than 10 degrees colder than the weather forecast. All in all, for the amount of room to run and the lack of people, you really can’t beat off season beach camping. Though next time, I may try for a slightly warmer month, like November or March. After talking to people who have gone during season, I am so grateful for the peace and tranquility that the winter months provide in this oasis. I much prefer the cold to loud, crazy crowds and being packed in like sardines, especially with dogs.
So, yes, I’d do it again, and you should to. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend this place. For more information, check out the Town of Carolina Beach website here for rules and booking info.
For tips on what to bring on a camping trip with your dog, check out our Ultimate Dog Camping Gear List post and printable checklist.
Let us know if you ever decide to go (or have been before). I’d love to hear your experience. Comment any questions or comments below or shoot us a message via our contact page.
Thanks for reading!
Debbie & THE MUTTS