Wild Camping on North Carolina's Masonboro Island
Less than a mile off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina, lies an eight mile stretch of pristine, undeveloped barrier island that - due to its limited accessibility - is often overlooked as a camping destination. While summer or early fall might be the best time to plan a paddling adventure to Masonboro Island, don't rule out a winter adventure.
Masonboro Island is an untouched slice of paradise. It's easy to imagine the days when the pirate Black Beard sought refuge in the area back in the early 1700's. While summer or early fall might be the best time to plan an adventure to Masonboro, winter brings with it a particular tranquility. Plus, you are likely to have the entire 8 miles to yourself if you brave the seasonal north winds which can gust – even on a 'calm' day – to 25 knots.
Trails End - Masonboro Island Adventure Begins
We put in at Trails End Park public boat ramp (613 Trails End Rd, Wilmington, NC 28409) and paddled upwind and north past our takeout point. Then we made the turn south and east for an easier approach as we had a strong tail wind. This narrower part of Masonboro Island makes for less of a hike to the dunes on the Atlantic side of the island and the best camping.
Making the Crossing to Masonboro Island via Kayak
Even mid-November, the sound side water temperatures remain in the 60's so air temps in the upper 50's to low 60's keeps you within a safe winter-weather paddle. While kayaking, we use the 120-degree rule: if the combined air and water temperature is 120 degrees or greater then you are safe to paddle without a drysuit. During favorable conditions, your single biggest challenge is going to be the prevailing north cross wind.
At 2.5 miles one-way, this is a short paddle but we don't want to minimize the inherent danger that any paddle represents, especially during the winter. If you are not 100% confident in your ability to self-rescue then consider a dry-suit option in colder weather or an experienced paddling companion. The strong north winds kick up without notice and the crossing of the Intracoastal Waterway can be busy with motored traffic so watch out for wakes.
Time your departure as close as possible to high-tide which will give you the greatest chance to cross the tidal flats and wetlands that border the western parts of Masonboro Island. A low-tide pull out could have you slogging through the last 100 meters in shin-deep silt and marsh mud dragging your kayak behind. If you've loaded well and have kept your profile down, the cross-wind approach will be challenging but not likely to put you in the drink. In our case, the safer option was to head straight north into the prevailing headwind and make the turn south and east safe behind the barrier of one of the many smaller islands that dot the channel. Another option has you navigating an additional mile across the northern tip of Masonboro, turning south and making a beach landing anywhere along the 8-mile shoreline.