Cape Hatteras National Seashore | OFF ROAD DRIVING

Driving on the beach is known as Off Road Driving

Driving on the beach is known as Off Road Driving

Driving on the beach, or “off road,” is allowed at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, both along the Atlantic Ocean and the Pamlico Sound. However, fee-based permits are required along with a vehicle that is capable of driving in deep, soft sand and a set of basic rescue-oriented equipment: low-pressure tire gauge, shovel, jack and jack support board, full-sized spare tire, first-aid kit, fire extinguisher, trash bag or container, flashlight (if night driving), and tow strap. While any street-legal vehicle with two axles is allowed off road if you think you can make it through the sand, I recommend nothing less than a high-clearance 4-Wheel Drive vehicle. However, I have received a few emails from people who argue that All-Wheel-Drive vehicles will suffice, but they do suggest the vehicles be high-clearance. From a recent National Park Planner visitor:

Great article! But one comment—your advise for vehicles not to attempt with AWD, well yes and no. Having beach drove many years in Coralla and Hatteras (and kayak camped on the Core Banks) I have to say then yes, most AWDs should not attempt (friend with a Honda got stuck in Coralla’s 4wd area), but no, not the case with Subaru Foresters— in fact one (you can’t choose your relatives) flew by me in my F150 once in reverse showing off! Think it’s about ground clearance, most AWD’s don’t have enough but a few do.  

You can also tow a boat or utility trailer as long as the trailer has no more than two axles. Camping trailers are not allowed, nor are ATVs, UTVs, and motorcycles.

I did not drive on the beach at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, but I drove just about every foot of beach at North and South Core Banks at Cape Lookout National Seashore. At first I was very apprehensive due to the possibility of getting stuck. I had done quite a lot of “4-Wheelin’” on rocky roads, but prior to this the only beach I had driven on was Daytona Beach in Florida, and that’s as hard as pavement. However, my worries were all for naught, for with a 4-Wheel Drive vehicle and some common sense you can pretty much make your way through any type of sand.

Based on my two days of beach driving, here are a few tips:

  • It is recommended to lower your tire pressure to 20 psi. Be sure to bring a tire pressure gauge with you, and get to a gas station with air as soon as possible after leaving the park.
  • If you are in soft sand, don’t slam on your brakes. This will cause the wheels to dig into the sand. In fact, try not to stop at all on the soft sand.
  • When in soft sand, drive on the tire tracks of previous vehicles, as this sand will be packed down.

Regardless of your vehicle, you really need to contemplate the reasons for driving on the beach. If you would like to do so just because it looks like fun, you need to reassess your vacation plans. The undercarriage of your vehicle will be coated with salt that if not removed can cause rust damage, your vehicle will get sand in it, and you run the risk getting stuck. During my visit I saw dozens and dozens of pick-ups and SUVs driving along the beach without any problem, but I also saw one that got stuck just going up the off-road access ramp. The sand near the shore is usually hard packed; it’s the sandy road leads from the paved area to the beach that is often soft and deep. However, I wouldn’t let the thought of a towing bill scare you away, for just about any vehicle that gets stuck can get unstuck with a little help and the right equipment, which you should be carrying in your vehicle.

I see no reason at all for the typical beach-going vacationer to go through the trouble of getting a permit and equipment to drive on the beach. If you are local to the area and visit Cape Hatteras National Seashore all the time, that’s another story, and even then you need to have a good reason to do so. For example, maybe there is a great fishing spot you can’t get to easily on foot. Maybe you are a surfer or kiteboarder who wants to get away from the crowds. Maybe you have anxiety attacks at the thought of seeing another person on the beach and you must find seclusion. For what it’s worth, most of the beach drivers are fishermen who come to the seashore on a regular basis.

Off Road Driving offers the opportunity to reach secluded spots on the beach

Off Road Driving offers the opportunity to reach secluded spots on the beach

Let me first discuss where you are able to drive, then I’ll give some details on how to go about it. As mentioned, driving on the beach on the Atlantic Ocean side of the National Seashore is allowed throughout the park, on Bodie, Hatteras, and Ocracoke islands. Entrance to the beach is via Off Road Ramps placed at various locations along the main road through the park. You can pick up a map at one of the Visitor Centers.

Off Road Access Ramp #27

Off Road Access Ramp #27

Off-Road Vehicle Access Map (click to enlarge)

Off-Road Vehicle Access Map (click to enlarge)

However, not all sections of the beach are open to vehicles, so you can’t drive from one end of the island to the other along the shoreline. Some sections are open only to pedestrians, and some sections are open seasonally (all beaches that border the towns on the islands are closed in the summer). Furthermore, areas are often closed for turtle and seabird nesting season. Signs are posted, either on the ramps or on the beaches, themselves.

Off Road Ramps can be closed for the season or for wildlife preservation

Off Road Ramps can be closed for the season or for wildlife preservation

Beach closed to vehicles

Beach closed to vehicles

There is no driving up and down the shoreline on the Pamlico Sound, but there are sandy roads that lead from NC-12 to the Sound where you can park your vehicle and have access to a secluded spot on the water—unless someone else has the same idea. These roads are ideal for those who want to launch their hand-paddled watercraft or fish from the shore along the Sound.

Off Road Permits are needed for most access roads to the Pamlico Sound

Off Road Permits are needed for most access roads to the Pamlico Sound

Secluded spot on the Pamlico Sound

Secluded spot on the Pamlico Sound

Permits are now only available for purchase online at Recreation.gov. You can get a permit for ten days or for the year. Print your permit and tape it to your vehicle windshield (or just be sure it is visible at all times). Screenshots or other digital information on your cell phone do not qualify as a permit. If you purchase an annual permit, you will eventually get a sticker, but until then, the printed permit will do. If you purchase a permit at the park and cannot print it, there is a form you can get at the Visitor Centers or at some of the local tackle shops. Just fill out the paper form with the information from your on-line permit. For complete details, visit Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s Off-Road Vehicle, Permits and Reservations, and Off-Road Vehicle Frequently Asked Questions web pages.

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Last updated on June 28, 2022
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