Recreation in the Outer Banks centers around the water, so it's no surprise that almost every town on this stretch of North Carolina coastline, from Corolla to Ocracoke, offers kayaking tours, adventures and rentals to seasonal visitors. With so many watery avenues to explore, from small marshy canals littered with wildlife, to crushing ocean waves for extreme ocean kayakers, kayaking on the Outer Banks can cater to all types of vacationers, from novices to experts.
Whether you're in search of a calm sunset tour or an overnight kayaking adventure, no matter where you are in the Outer Banks, you'll have plenty of opportunities to grab a paddle and start cruising.
Ideal for all ages, sound kayaking is one of the most popular sports on the Outer Banks, and no matter where you vacation, it's easy to find a launching point for your paddle.
Five different sounds separate the Outer Banks from the mainland. In the northern beaches, kayakers can cruise the Currituck Sound. Central Outer Banks vacationers can access the Albemarle Sound, and Roanoke Island claims borders to two sounds: Roanoke Sound to the East and Croatan Sound to the West. Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands border the massive Pamlico Sound, which at an average of 30 miles wide, is one of the largest sounds on the East Coast.
All five sounds on the Outer Banks consist of generally calm salt waters. A gusty day may create small rippling waves and stronger currents, but on a typical summer day with winds of 10mph or less, paddlers can expect smooth sailing.
Despite their large area, all sounds are generally very shallow, with waters ranging on average from 3 to 5 feet deep. In fact, dredging deep canals in the Pamlico Sound is often necessary for the North Carolina Ferry System that runs between Hatteras Island and Ocracoke, so the ferries don't become lodged on a sand bar. This makes kayak paddling safe for all ages, as if the kayak tips over, usually all the kayaker has to do to get back aboard is stand up.
Any type of kayak will do the trick for a cruise through the sound, from lightweight ocean kayaks to deep aluminum canoes, but kayakers are generally encouraged to rent one or two-seater medium sized kayaks with roomy seating, which are the most comfortable for long leisurely voyages.
Where to launch your Kayak
The great thing about kayaking and canoeing is that generally if you can find an access point to the sound, you can launch. Big boating ramps are not required, and even the smallest canal can act as a launching point for a moderately sized kayak.
That said, throughout the Outer Banks, there are a number of public launches and soundside parks or recreation areas that are popular with kayakers and water sports enthusiasts alike.
Duck: In Duck, kayakers can launch near the town's center, adjacent to a number of waterfront restaurants, bars, and shops, and can even dock besides a local restaurant for a snack, a cool drink, and an evening sunset.
Kitty Hawk: The Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve offers an abundance of wooded trails to explore, an educational center, and access to both the Currituck Sound and Kitty Hawk Bay. Have fun exploring, but remember that the reserve is closed to the public after sunset.
Roanoke Island - Wanchese: The Refuge on Roanoke Island borders acres of local wetlands and offers sound access as well as a pond that's ripe for exploring. Picnic areas invite vacationers to spend the day, and camping is available for folks looking for a longer stay.
Roanoke Island - Manteo: Head to historic downtown Manteo for some of the most scenic kayaking Roanoke Island has to offer. Paddle along the busy waterfront, and enjoy views of the Elizabeth II, a replica of a 16th sailing vessel that brought the first European residents to the Outer Banks, and Roanoke Marshes Light, a stunning reproduction of the original lighthouse that guided sailors in Wanchese through the Croatan Sound.
Nags Head: Climb past the giant sand dunes in Jockey's Ridge State Park, and you'll discover a series of wooded trails leading directly to the Albemarle Sound. From here, kayakers can enjoy an easy launch to open waters bordering the maritime forest, perfect for wildlife viewing.
Pea Island: The Pea Island National Wildlife Refuges offers miles of undisturbed marshes, sounds, and maritime forest. Driving along NC Highway 12 towards Hatteras Island, you'll find plenty of parking spots along the refuge, giving kayakers and birders ample opportunities to launch for a self-guided wildlife Tour.
Salvo: The Salvo day use area, just south of the tri-villages of Salvo, Waves and Rodanthe, is a large public parking area with exceptional sound access, bathhouses, and a picnic area. Featuring a wide sandy soundfront beach, this area is ideal for both kayakers and little ones who want to splash in the water without the threat of large ocean waves.
Avon / Buxton: Canadian Hole, in between Avon and Buxton, has been a windsurfing and kiteboarding Mecca for years, but kayakers are also welcome to explore the open sound waters. With plenty of parking, bathrooms, and seasonally open showers, kayakers can spend the day cruising the Pamlico Sound, while catching amazing views of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and the spectacular tricks performed by kiteboarders at neighboring Kite Point.
Frisco: For vacationers who love nature, the Frisco Woods Campground offers an idyllic waterfront retreat. Nestled in Frisco Woods adjacent to the Pamlico Sound, this small family-run campground offers superior sound access as well as private wooded campsites, so guests truly feel like they are in the middle of their own private natural retreat.
Ocracoke: While there are plenty of soundside nature trails to explore on the 13 mile stretch of NC Highway 12 that leads from the Hatteras Ferry Docks to Ocracoke Village, many kayakers enjoy cruising around the popular Ocracoke Harbor, where boats, pelicans, and ferries may pass by at any moment. For a quieter voyage, head to Springer's Point and enjoy a serene soundside launch that's bordered by one of Ocracoke Villager's best nature trails.
What you'll love about Sound Kayaking
The biggest draw to kayaking in the sound is the relaxing pace and the natural setting. Don't expect a thrill ride - on a calm day, gliding through the sound will be a peaceful experience.
Because it's such a quiet endeavor, it's not unusual for sound kayakers to encounter an abundance of local wildlife, including great blue herons, egrets, pelicans, cormorants, ducks, geese, turtles and more. Ideally, sound kayakers should head out in the late afternoon, to enjoy a front row seat to a waterfront sunset. Be sure and bring a camera, because the photo opportunities are amazing. Sound kayaking is also ideal for all ages, young and old, as everyone will find it an easy exercise to traverse the gentle sound waters.
What you should know about Sound Kayaking
For longer adventures, you may want to bring plenty of water and some snacks, and in the summer months, a little bug spray can come in handy, particularly if you are traveling through marshy areas or saltwater canals. Be sure and use caution on blustery days: heavy winds can produce heavy currents, even in the shallow sound waters. Also, steer clear of the inlets, where rapid currents are not always noticeable, and larger vessels frequently travel.
For kayakers who crave a bit of a rush, ocean kayaking might be just the ticket. Ocean kayaks are generally lighter, longer, and more narrow than their sound kayak counterparts, with a slightly indented seat for easy boarding. Ocean kayaks also come in one and two seat varieties, but in a pinch, any sort of kayak will work for ocean kayaking, although the lighter variety is much easier to navigate through the waves.
For most riders, ocean kayaking works very similar to surfing, in that ocean kayakers literally paddle to where the larger sets are breaking and ride the ocean waves towards the surf. Of course, kayakers always have the option to paddle past the breakers for a more relaxing, and less labor intensive ocean adventure.
Where to launch
Wherever there's a beach, there's a launching point. Simply skirt off the sand and start paddling the Atlantic Ocean waves. For more extreme kayakers, and surfers as well, there are a few hot surf spots on the Outer Banks where the waves are usually the best on the beach for all kinds of riders.
Jennette's Pier: The friction off the pier pilings makes the waters around Jennette's Pier in Nags head ideal for surfers or experienced ocean kayakers. Just be sure and stay at least 500 ft. away from the actual pier itself - not only is it a rule, it's also the safest way to navigate the waves without running into the pilings.
S-Curves: Just north of Rodanthe, the twisty NC Highway 12 turns gives this surfer hot spot its name. Known for excellent waves, and generally populated by throngs of surfers from all along the East Coast, the S-Curves is one of the most popular spots to catch a ride.
Old Lighthouse Spot: Not to be confused with the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse's current location hundreds of yards away, the Old Lighthouse Spot in Buxton marks where the lighthouse originally stood until it was moved in 1999. The original jetties that were initially built to protect it still stand, providing some excellent wave action. Be careful, though, because the same rock hard jetties that provide good surf can also cause injuries and damage to kayaks.
What you'll love about Ocean Kayaking
Ocean kayaking offers the rush of surfing or ocean kiteboarding, but without the tricky balance that's required for these sports. For water sports lovers who want to master wave riding in all its forms, ocean kayaking is a good place to get your feet wet. In this sport, you can learn how to time wave riding, and paddle out past the breakers, (essential for all ocean riding sports), and still enjoy a fast paced ride.
What you should know before you Kayak
For ocean kayakers, the most important thing to remember is to be mindful of rip currents. While central Outer Banks beaches from Nags Head to Southern Shores usually put up red flags during rip current conditions, more remote beaches such as the shorelines of Hatteras Island and Corolla or further north to Carova, may not have any warning markers at all. The best way to avoid rip currents is to avoid highly windy days, where currents can form in mere minutes. You should also avoid beaches that border inlets, or areas of beach where major currents meet, (specifically Cape Point in Buxton where the Gulf Stream meets the Labrador Current), as these areas are prone to fast currents and rip currents in all weather conditions.
Beginners may want to initially try ocean kayaking on a lifeguarded beach. There are a number of lifeguarded beaches from Nags Head to Corolla, and in the Southern Outer Banks, kayakers can find seasonally open lifeguarded beaches in Buxton and just south of Ocracoke Village.
The Outer Banks' newest craze for kayakers is Kayak Fishing. Kayak fishing can vary wildly, from easy-going casting in the sound for small bait mullet, to a big sea adventure in the open waters of the Gulf Stream for Mahi Mahi, Amberjack, Puppy Drum, and more.
Kayak Fishing can be as easy as trucking along a tackle box, a fishing pole, and a cooler on your next paddle into the sound. You'll obviously want a larger kayak or canoe, with plenty of space, to keep your gear safe and on board. Sound kayakers can simply cast out in any open water, or hunt near clusters of pilings or marshy areas, where delicious local species like Sheepshead like to frequent.
Several local companies offer Gulf Stream or Inshore Kayak Fishing trips, where the kayak and the passengers are both shuttled off to the waters off the coast on a charter fishing boat, and then launched in open waters, while the charter boat stays close and keeps an eye on the drifting kayak. Even in the calmest conditions, the Gulf Stream generally moves anywhere between 5 mph to 10 mph, so having the charter boat close by to monitor is key.
This adventure is not for the faint of heart, as it's not unusual to see large shadows, much larger than a kayak, hovering hundreds of feet below the water's surface. It is imperative to plan this trip with a professional company, as the Gulf Stream waters, and the large species that call it home, can potentially be treacherous for kayakers. The reward, however, is the chance to get face to face with a lime green and turquoise Mahi Mahi at the end of your line, as it battles along the side of the kayak.
Guided Kayak Tours
Outer Banks newcomers may find that the best way to figure out the best spots to kayak is via a guided tour. Many small companies and large nationally renowned water sports businesses, like Kitty Hawk Kites, offer guided tours from Carova to Ocracoke. Tours are generally seasonal, from spring though the fall season, and can range from a quick one hour paddle to an overnight camping adventure.
When browsing for the best tour, be sure to keep in mind what you want to explore in the water. Are you interested in birding and wildlife? Do you want to catch a spectacular sunset? Because of the variety of tours available, from nature explorations to family oriented excursions, you'll want to start planning with a game plan in mind.
Reservations, especially for large groups, are highly recommended, especially in the prime summer months of June, July and August when the popularity of kayak tours is at its peak.
Some companies also offer ocean kayaking lessons. These may be imperative for new riders who have no experience in navigating or riding ocean waves. Generally, a two hour lesson in how to steer, maneuver, and how to avoid the waves right as they are breaking, can go a long way in getting a hold on the sport of ocean kayaking.
Many of the companies that offer lessons offer rentals as well, from hour increments for an afternoon of exploring to week-long rentals for kayaking anytime during your vacation. You can also use local rental companies, like Ocean Atlantic Rentals or Moneysworth Rentals, which are located throughout the Outer Banks and can even provide delivery service.
You'll find that many waterfront shops and plazas offer kayak rentals on site throughout the Outer Banks. This is another easy way to get on the water, as no hauling is needed - simply pick out your rental, launch, and start paddling. Rates vary dependent on the model and rental time, but generally, kayaking is an easy sport that's also easy on the wallet.
If after a few days of paddling you find you're addicted, many Outer Banks surf shops and water sports stores also offer kayaks for sale. A good tip for vacationers who want to purchase a kayak is to wait until the end of the season, generally between October to Thanksgiving, when some of the larger businesses offer sales on used kayaks that were used throughout the season but are still in good condition.
Whether you're looking for a quick escape, an oceanside adventure, or a lifetime of self-guided waterfront nature tours, kayaking is an Outer Banks water sport that everyone can enjoy at their own pace. With literally hundreds of miles of water to explore, a kayaking adventure can offer vacationers a new perspective of the Outer Banks and the wildlife that calls it home. Take a leisurely cruise of the Pamlico or Albemarle Sounds, or paddle like crazy on the rushing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, and see why the best adventures on the Outer Banks take place on the water.