Well known for its iconic wild island horses, Assateague Island is a 37 mile long barrier island with picturesque white sand beaches. Assateague Island camping is a unique ocean getaway that feels more like a tropical island than an east coast destination.
The barrier island sits alongside southern Maryland and northern Virginia on the east coast of the United States. Assateague Island camping is allowed at both Assateague State Park and Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland. There is no camping allowed on the Virginia side of Assateague Island. The island is mostly undeveloped, offering a rare experience compared to the other barrier islands of the eastern United States.
Assateague Island is brimming with activities, all centered around the barrier island ecosystem. From swimming and surfing the ocean side of the island, to paddling and crabbing the calm bayside waters, there is plenty of things to do while you are camping at Assateague Island.
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In a hurry? Skip to our recommended gear for your Assateague camping trip!
Camping at Assateague Island
Assateague State Park:
- Campsites Available: 342 sites, each include a fire ring & picnic table
- Types of Camping Allowed: Both tent and RV
- Reservations: Book at Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources
- Fees: $27.50/night for no electric, $38.50/night with electric
- Camping Season: late April to late October
- Skip To: Camping details for Assateague State Park
Assateague Island National Seashore:
- Campsites Available: 158 sites, each include a fire ring & picnic table plus background campsites (hike/boat in only)
- Types of Camping Allowed: Both tent and RV (no hookups available)
- Reservations: Recreation.gov
- Fees: $30/night plus $20 for a week long admission pass to the park
- Camping Season: year round, with reservations required mid March to mid November.
- Skip To: Camping details for Assateague Island National Seashore
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge:
The Virginia portion of Assateague Island is managed by the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. While there is no camping allowed at the refuge, neighboring Chincoteague Island in Virginia does have commercial campgrounds.
How to Get There
Assateaugue Island stretches between both Maryland and Virginia, but camping is only allowed on the Maryland side. The only Maryland access to the island is on state route 611 across the Verrazano Bridge outside of Berlin, MD.
Just before crossing over the bridge sits the Assateague Island Visitors Center run the NPS. Cross the bridge and drive to the Assateague State Park, or drive through the state park to access the Assateague Island National Seashore.
Travel time to the Assateague Island Visitors Center:
- From Ocean City, MD: 15 minutes
- From Philadelphia, PA: 3 hours
- From Baltimore, MD: 3 hours
- Richmond, VA: 4 hours
Assateague Island National Seashore Camping
The Assateague Island National Seashore, run by the National Park Service, spans the majority of the Maryland side of Assateague Island.
Tent campsites are either walk in or drive in, and are on both the ocean side and bay side. RV sites are not powered and limited. Back country campsites are available to either hike or paddle to. Reservations book up quickly.
Walk In Tent Camping
The ocean side walk in tent camping has short boardwalks separating campsites from the parking areas. At most the campsites are 200 yards from your car, but the distance feels quite far when hauling in your gear!
Coolers with wheels and minimal camping gear will make for a happier unloading and loading time! Campsites in the first two rows of sites closest to the beach will be on top of the dunes, with a direct line of sight to the ocean.
Drive In Tent and RV Camping
If you would prefer to skip hauling your gear over the boardwalks, opt for a drive in site. Tents, trailers, and RVs are allowed at drive in sites, but there are no electric hookups available.
There are 6 backcountry campsites available at the Assateague Island National Seashore. Permits are $10/person for a 7 day permit plus the $20 entrance fee per vehicle. Permits are issues on a first come, first served basis each day. Access to the campsites is either by foot along the beach, or by canoe along the bayside. There is no water at the backcountry campsites, and must be hiked/boated in.
Assateague State Park Camping
Assateague State Park manages a smaller area on Assateague Island. The State park is open for both day use and camping, and is the first tract of land you enter after crossing over the Verrazano Bridge.
All the campsites at Assateague State Park are drive in, with no walk in or backcountry sites. There are some electric hook ups on the “G” and “I” loop (see map above).
Choosing Your Campsite at Assateague Island
Ocean side and bay side sites have both positives and challenges. The raw beauty of an ocean side, sandy campsite can not be beat, unless you’re coming back from a day away from your tent to find it flattened by the wind! We’ve seen a number of tents at Assateague ripped apart by the constant winds of a barrier island.
The closer your campsite is to the bay side of the island, the more sheltered it will be from the constant winds and relentless sun of the beach. The sand dunes and their scrubby vegetation stop the majority of the everyday wind that blows in off the ocean. Unfortunately with that still air comes mosquitoes, and they are ferocious!
After having camped in both the wind and mosquito zone of Assateague, our preference is definitely to be up on the sand dunes away from the biting insects. With that said, the correct gear is essential to create a smooth camping trip up on the dunes. Low profile tents that are properly staked down with sand stakes will keep your tent in place.
Shade is definitely needed both when camping up on the dunes, or closer to the bay. Our preference is a 10×10 pop up style of shade tent, so we can lower the frame and remove the canopy when we’re not on site. Even when there, stake those shade tents down well!
Assateague Wild Horses
If camping on beautiful white sand beaches is not enough incentive to visit Assateague, then perhaps the few hundred wild horses are. The Assateague Island horses are well known from the book Misty of Chincoteague that recounts the annual horse swim and round up on the Virginia side of Assateague Island. While there is no round up on the Maryland side, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to see the wild horses while camping.
The visitor center and park signs clearly lay out the potential dangers of these wild beauties. The Assateague Horses are wild, and will bite and kick if you get too close. There are also determined food thieves, and we were very surprised at how easily they steal your dinner!
The park advises all food to be kept in vehicles or coolers, with a ratchet strap secured around the cooler. After watching one impressive horse kick a cooler long enough to break open the ratchet strap, we switched to leaving our “secured” cooler under the picnic table. The picnic tables are heavy to lift, but it means coolers aren’t raided.
Be on the watch while sitting and eating dinner, when your food is outside of the secured containers. Every evening one smart band of horses comes up the row of tents and surprises families sitting and eating.
Assateague Island Weather
Always be prepared for the weather to change quickly and without notice on Assateague Island. Protecting yourself from the sun and wind are the biggest necessities during your Assateague camping trip. Sun or wind burnt faces are no fun, especially when shade is minimal at your beach side campsite.
There are so many things to do on Assateague Island. When you arrive, take a look at the upcoming activities at the Visitors Center. The Center hosts exhibits and touch tanks, and Rangers lead guided programs on the flora and fauna of Assateague during the summer months.
The ocean side beaches are perfect for a classic beach day of swimming and beachcombing. Surfing is also popular along the barrier island. The calm bay waters are perfect for a number of paddling sports, with boat rentals available on the island.
Assateague Island Crabbing
Rent a canoe and try your hand at crabbing around the marsh waters. It is ridiculously fun and entertaining, even if you don’t find many crabs large enough to take!
Full details on responsible crabbing, including Maryland crab regulations, can be found at the Visitors Center. All it takes is a length of string tied around a bit of raw chicken and the crabs come running!
Assateague Island Trails
If the water sports aren’t enough, lace up your hiking boots and hit the trails of the National Seashore, or take a relaxing bike ride through the barrier island terrain.
Boat and Bike Rentals
Assateague Outfitters rents kayaks, canoes, stand up paddle boards, and comfy bikes along the bay side of Assateague Island. Their pick up location is along the border of Assateague State Park and the National Seashore. Reservations should be made online for quick, safe rental pick up.
- Single Kayak Rental
- 2 hours = $30; 4 hours = $50; full day = $60; weekend = $120, full week = $150
- Double Kayak Rental
- 2 hours = $40; 4 hours = $60; full day = $70; weekend = $150, full week = $200
- Canoe Rental
- 2 hours = $40; 4 hours = $60; full day = $70; weekend = $150, full week = $200
- Stand Up Paddleboard Rental
- 2 hours = $40; 4 hours = $60; full day = $70; weekend = $125, full week = $200
- Cruiser Bicycle Rental
- 2 hours = $16; 4 hours = $32; full day = $40; weekend = $60, full week = $80
Assateague Outfitters includes life jackets in their rental prices, but encourages renters to bring their own jackets if at all possible to help maintain cleanliness.
Rainy Day Activities
If you need to escape your beach camping site on a rainy day, head into Ocean City, Maryland for endless things to do. Museums, shopping, and many dining options will keep you dry and hopefully well entertained! Ocean City is just a 15 minute drive from the north end of Assateague Island.
Virtual Assateague Island National Seashore
New for 2020, The National Park Service has done an excellent job bringing photos, videos, and virtual tours to your from the comfort of your home. Either enjoy Assateague from a distance, or use the virtual tours to help get excited and prepared for your camping trip to Assateague.
Be Prepared-Essential Gear to Bring
Assateague camping definitely requires extra gear that we don’t normally need to worry about in other locations. The list below is not a complete list of what to bring, rather additions or changes to your regular camping list that will come in handy when camping along the ocean on Assateague Island.
Tents and Shade
- Low profile tent with guy wires attached where ever possible to help with wind. Leave the giant, roomy car camping tents at home if you’re camping up on the dunes.
- Sand stakes and a mallet. Regular tent stakes won’t grip well enough in the sand. Pack enough stakes for both your tent and sun shade.
- We’ve had a lot of luck with these sand stakes, and the orange color helps from losing them in the sand!
- Shade tent. You’ll need some kind of shelter from the sun when camping on the dunes. Since shade tents are not low profile, it’s important your tent is staked down with guy wires attached so it stays put. We leave the frame in place when not in use, but take the canopy off.
Food and Kitchen
- Small wheeled coolers and plastic food storage bins. You must have your food contained in coolers and/or bins with straps to keep the horses away. As stated above, bring coolers/bins small enough to slip under the picnic table will prevent the most determined horses from kicking them open. Wheeled coolers are essential if you’ve chosen a walk in site.
- Ratchet straps. Bring a pack of these for securing your coolers from the horses if you don’t already have some.
- Planning to try your hand at crabbing? Make sure to bring a stock pot large enough to fit your catch. We use a 32 quart pot with built in colander (and cook over the fire), or bring a pot with a strong pair of tongs.
- A long handled fishing net is essential to help catch the big one!
Fun Around Camp
- The shore break at Assateague is a ton of fun for boogie boarding. Slip a few boards into your packing for endless fun during the days.
- Take advantage of the windy weather and wide open spaces for some kite flying. No need to worry about power lines on Assateague’s lengthy beaches!
- With minimal light pollution, Assateague will likely be the darkest sky in your area. We bring our backpack telescope to see a much better array of stars than at home.
- Bug spray and sun screen. Self explanatory items that are even more important when camping at the beach!
Time for Assateague Island Camping Reservations!
Are you convinced yet that Assateague Island should be your next summer camping destination? We hope you’ll love Assateague camping as much as we have!
Loving coastal camping on the East coast and want to keep exploring? Take a look at the gorgeous rocky coastline in Maine for our favorite Hermit Island Campground.
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This article was first written in February, 2019 and recently updated in February, 2022.