Driving on the Outer Banks Beaches

A 4x4 beach in Hatteras

One of the reasons so many vacationers flock to the Outer Banks is the thrill of driving on the beach, a rare privilege that few East Coast beach vacation destinations can offer. On the Outer Banks, beach driving enthusiasts will find miles of shoreline to explore, from the uninhabited shoreline along Ocracoke Island to the solely 4WD accessible beaches of Carova, north of Corolla.

In fact, driving on the beach isn't just a favorite local pastime and a draw to adventurous vacationers and fishermen. On the Outer Banks, it's practically an institution.

For decades, the only way for vacationers to even access the majority of the Outer Banks beaches was by hitting the sand, making a visit to the OBX a rustic and downright tricky adventure.

Early morning, where NC 12 ends in Corolla

Before NC Highway 12 was built all the way to Corolla in the late 60s and early 70s, visitors had to follow sandy paths, from either the north along the Virginia state line, or from the south via the more developed beaches of Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk. The 20 mile or so trip was a tricky one, with unpredictable high tides and mud flats that could easily slow a driver down.

Conditions were similar on Hatteras Island, which until the construction of the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge in the early 1960s, was only accessible by a privately run ferry owned and operated by Captain Tillet.

Once successfully ferried across the Oregon Inlet to the island, drivers could either follow the oceanfront beaches to the main villages, (with sand that was as deep and soft as it is today), or attempt to follow a series of sporadically used small trails that veered from the ocean dunes to the soundside. Taking either path was a tricky endeavor, and adventurous vacationers could expect the trip from Nags Head to the main villages of Hatteras Island to take several hours in the very best of conditions.

Thankfully, after decades of development and subsequent paved roads and bridges, the hike to get to some of the Outer Banks' most treasured and quiet vacation destinations is by all means no longer an ordeal. But the love of driving on the beach has never quite disappeared from these beaches, both among locals who have been driving along the beaches their entire life, and newcomers who love the convenience of driving until they find that perfect, secluded beach spot.

Ready to take the 4WD vehicle out for a spin? Beach driving is a time-tested and fun activity on the Outer Banks that's open to everyone, locals and visitors alike, and many folks find after that first initial trip, they are officially dedicated to exploring beach spots well off the beaten path.

Where to drive on the Outer Banks beaches

A neighborhood in Carova

One of the most notable locations to drive on the beach on the Outer Banks is the small village of Carova, and the neighboring beach communities of Seagull, Penny's Hill, Swan Beach, and North Swan Beach. (Although visitors will find that generally the majority of locals simply refer to the entire area as "Carova.")

After Corolla and Duck were developed, homes slowly started springing up along the Outer Banks northernmost beaches, under the assumption that NC Highway 12 would eventually follow its northern path all the way to the Virginia state border.

But due to a number of property ownership factors and environmental concerns, that never happened, and instead, a well-worn sand "road" was haphazardly created, allowing trucks of all sizes to access the small northern villages.

Today, this area is home to a varying collection of vacation rental homes, ranging from shaded 3 bedroom soundside cottages to behemoth oceanfront rental homes. Though the landscape and variety of accommodations may have changed, one factor remains the same - the only way to get to this area is via a 4WD vehicle and a ride along the Outer Banks shoreline.

Frequent Carova vacationers love this attribute, as it means that the area remains sparsely populated, with no commercial businesses or large complexes to intrude on the natural landscape. In fact, because of its limited population, the area is also the centuries-old home of the Carova Wild Horses, who roam the beaches freely without any worry of encountering highway traffic.

To access the 4WD beaches of the Carova coastline, visitors simply take the sand ramp located at the very northern end of Corolla. From there, they can enjoy miles of beach driving, scenic ocean views, and if they're lucky, a glimpse of the wild horses, the area's first and most treasured local residents.

The central Outer Banks beaches of Nags Head, Kills Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk generally also allow beach driving, during certain conditions. Beach driving in these popular areas is restricted to the off-season winter months, for the safety of beach-goers, and a town driving permit may be required depending on the location. Virtually hidden ramps are located along the beach road, next to public access, and winter vacationers will find they have miles of open shoreline to explore. Even if you're exploring the central Outer Banks beaches on foot, the wintertime is an exceptionally attractive time to go, as the area is not quite a ghost town, with plenty of restaurants and shops still open, but the beaches offer ample elbow room for fishing, shelling, or just enjoying a long secluded stroll.

Permits now required on Hatteras Isand

The Cape Hatteras National Seashore which comprises the beaches of Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands also offers miles of shoreline for beach drivers to explore, all marked by brown, National Park Service managed "ramp markers" that indicate the mile and entrance point of every beach ramp along these islands.

These beach access ramps begin with Coquina Beach, located just a few miles north of Nags Head, and extend all the way to the Ocracoke Inlet ramp, which literally borders the town of Ocracoke's city limits.

In between, vacationers will find a dozen seasonally open beach access ramps, including 4 in between the tri-villages of Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo and the town of Avon, one in between Avon and Buxton, one in the heart of Frisco, and one on the very southern edge of Hatteras Village that leads out to Hatteras Inlet.

On Ocracoke Island, visitors will find a handful of beach access ramps that begin just 100 yards or so from the ferry docks, and are located throughout the island all the way to the Ocracoke Inlet ramp. Because of Ocracoke's unique geographic location, the time it takes to get from the edge of the entrance of the beach access ramp to the oceanfront itself can vary greatly. For example, near the ferry docks, it's just a quick drive across the dunes to access the beach, but on the ramp closest to the village, drivers can expect to travel a long sandy road, (easily travelling a good mile), before arriving to the oceanfront.

One of many 4x4 access ramps

All of the beach driving areas and ramps on Hatteras and Ocracoke Island are open seasonally, meaning that during certain times of year, (specifically in the summer months), some areas may be closed for threatened species that are breeding, or sea turtles that are nesting. The National Park Service has a weekly updated map on their website, which outlines the areas of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore that are open to pedestrians, vehicles, or both, and summer visitors are encouraged to check out their website to confirm which beach driving areas are open during their vacation.

In addition, beach drivers on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore will need to obtain a Beach Driving Permit before hitting the shore, which is administered by the National Park Service (NPS.) Vacationers will find several locations throughout the islands where they can obtain them, specifically located at Park Service Ranger stations. To acquire a permit, a prospective beach driver must watch a 10 minute video regarding beach driving rules and regulations, and pay a weekly or annual fee, depending on the beach driver's preference.

Once a beach driving permit is secured, drivers are encouraged to pay close attention to the NPS rules and regulations which are posted at the entrance point of every beach ramp on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The rules are easy to follow, and include such guidelines such as maintaining (or not exceeding) a certain speed, keeping pets on a leash, tire pressure recommendations, or other general NPS rules.

The reward for jumping through the local hoops is access to some of the islands' best beaches, which are sparsely travelled and offer unparalleled shelling, fishing, and gorgeous oceanfront, sound, or inlet views.

How to Drive on an Outer Banks Beach

Air down to drive on soft sand

The first and foremost rule to beach driving is to use a 4WD vehicle. While some AWD or even front-wheel drive vehicles may be able to navigate through certain areas, specifically along the soundside or any beach that has hard, packed sand, the majority of the Outer Banks is comprised of deep and soft sand, which can only be navigated with a 4WD vehicle, particularly when it comes to making turns, or having to veer off the established tracks.

Before hitting the shores, you'll also want to be sure and air down your tires. Slack tires are essential to navigating through the sand, and visitors are encouraged to decrease their tire air pressure to 15 - 19 PSI, depending on the beach conditions. (In other words, a lower PSI works much better in softer sand, while a higher PSI might be fine in harder, packed sand conditions.)

No need to worry about having slack tires for the rest of your vacation. The majority of local convenience stores and gas stations, particularly those closest to the beach access ramps, offer free air hoses so you can fill your tires back up before you travel too far along the pavement.

Once on the beach, it is best, if possible, to stick to the established sand tracks that run along the high tide line. These tracks are formed by dozens of daily drivers that have consequently created a hard packed route, making driving along the beach an easier venture.

Drivers will notice there are generally two sets of tracks, or "two lanes," along the shoreline, and are encouraged to follow the same rules as a regular road - stick to the farthest right tracks, don't pass unless necessary, and don't veer off the "beach" road.

Above all else, whenever possible, make sure you drive above the high tide line. Driving along the ocean wash will only splash saltwater into the undercarriage of your vehicle, (which can completely ruin a truck), and in the unfortunate case you get stuck, if you're located above the high tide line, you don't have to worry about the imminent threat of saltwater.

Finally, the best rule of thumb for beach drivers is to be considerate. Don't air down your tires on the beach ramp, observe local speed limit regulations, and be mindful of the families and beach-goers around you. The rules of the paved road also apply to the rules of the beach road, and beach drivers should follow this rule of thumb accordingly.

In case you get stuck

Even the most seasoned local beach driver can get stuck on the sand from time to time, and with a few extra precautions and measures ahead of time, getting stuck on the beach can easily turn into a funny vacation story, instead of a frustrating vacation headache.

Before you hit the sand, make sure you have a shovel, two 2' x 4's (about 4-6' ft. in length), and a tow rope, which can be purchased at virtually any hardware store.

While driving along the beach, if you feel yourself getting stuck in the sand, the most important thing is to not try to force your way out. Spinning your tires will only drag you deeper down into the soft sandy ruts.

Instead, hop out of the vehicle, and start digging behind or in front of your tires, depending on where your tires are lodged the deepest, and where the easiest route off the patch of sand is. Once an uphill path is created, you can try to move the vehicle again, or you can lay down the 2' x 4's, giving your vehicle some stable ground to drive on.

Still stuck? Many new beach drivers are surprised and delighted to find how many of their beach driving neighbors are willing to help. Chances are, if there is a vehicle passing by or parked up the beach, they will probably pause and assist you in getting out of the sand. This is where the town rope comes in handy. Just be sure that the vehicle that is pulling you out is an equal size and weight or more, or else you very well might both get stuck in the process.

As a last resort, the Outer Banks is also home to a number of towing companies that are stationed throughout the beaches, and are particularly concentrated around areas that are popular with beach driving, (specifically, Carova and Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands.) Always on call, a local towing company can assist you year-round, and can have your vehicle out of the sand in no time.

Yes, getting stuck is always a risk when it comes to beach driving, but sandy drivers on the Outer Banks find the risk is most certainly worth the reward. As one of the few coastal destinations where vacationers can jump in their truck and head to the ocean, beach driving is a decades-old way of life that has been maintained and celebrated on the Outer Banks, and is as old as tourism on the OBX itself.

By taking a drive along the beach, vacationers will find they can easily pack all the gear they desire, discover new and inviting locations, and basically tour huge parcels of the Outer Banks shoreline without even stepping out of their vehicle.

For a different perspective on the standard beach day, load up the truck, the family, and even the pets, and drive out onto the sand for a fantastic, uniquely Outer Banks adventure. Chances are that after a leisurely spin along the shoreline, like generations of vacationers, you'll be simply hooked.