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.

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Wild Camping

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

Trails End Public Boat Ramp for Masonboro Island Access, North Carolina

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.

Kayak on Intercoastal Waterway heading toward Masonboro Island, North Carolina

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.

Beach campfire on Masonboro Island, North Carolina

Camping on Masonboro Island

We consider North Carolina a 4-season camping state and in the winter months make it a habit to keep a close eye on the weather for a warm spell to pop up and with it an opportunity to get outside for an adventure.

Make camp behind one of the high dunes which will give you some wind relief for sleeping, cooking, and a campfire, provided you've brought along enough wood for the stay. There is no reliable source of combustibles on Masonboro. Our solution was to load our firewood into a few 30L dry-bags and cargo-netted them to the decks. This did create a bit of a challenge when trying to keep a low-profile for a strong cross-wind approach.

The waters off Masonboro Island are known for their spot, mullet, flounder, and pompano so bring your fishing gear (and proper fishing license). After you've unloaded, your lighter rig should make exploring the waters around the island a little easier.  Species that are known to the area include loggerhead sea turtles, green sea turtles, and migrating bottlenose dolphin.

Camping on Masonboro Island, North Carolina

Solitude

Most beach experiences in the region - even in the off season – are shared.  We've had some great beach camps along the North Carolina coast (Carolina Beach, Outer Banks) even in the height of tourist season, but if you are looking for solitude go to Masonboro Island or Hammocks Beach in the late fall or winter. You'll likely have the run of the place.


Food, Water, Facilities

Unless you are a confident angler, then you'll have to pack everything in. Think of it as being stranded on a deserted island. Masonboro Island is truly remote and completely absent of human development. There are no sources for potable water.

Leave No Trace

Be kind and pack out all your trash - and leave Masonboro Island better than you found it for everyone to enjoy.

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