Camping at the Dry Tortugas National Park is likely to be one of the most memorable camping experiences of your life. Here’s everything you need to know about camping in this magical place, and how to ensure you have a comfortable experience.
There are 10+ primitive campsites on the island, all clustered among the shady area near South Beach. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are all shaded, as some are under trees and some are not. We recommend being annoying and rushing off the boat first thing to try and nab a shady campsite once the ferry docks.
All camping supplies are pack in pack out. Leave no trace.
Swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, skin-murdering/tanning, scenery-oggling. The largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere, and a 19th-century United States fort also happens to be on the island, if you’re interested.
The thousand strong colony of hermit crabs will serve as your entertainment while on the island. Not even kidding.
From tiny, thumb-sized crabs to softball-sized monsters, hermit crabs are all over the camping areas, living in the trees. They’re clumsy and mostly afraid of people, so there’s no need to fear them. The crabs congregate around food sources, pieces of food you might have dropped and date palms, in swarms and are generally amusing to watch. We fed them scraps and raced them, which is probably against the rules.
Don’t hurt them, or try to eat them (there’s probably not much meat on them anyway). And be careful of their pincers, especially the larger ones. Because… ouch.
How to Plan Your Trip
If you’re unlike the rest of us, and have access to a chartered boat or sea plane, you can skip this section. For the rest of us 99%, you’ll be getting in and out of the island via the Yankee Freedom Ferry Service.
The Ferry Service offers trips to and from the island daily, bringing in both day trippers and campers. They’ll also set up your camping trip for you, booking your ferry trip and camping reservation at the park. The only downside is a 3 night maximum stay for campers coming in on the ferry. As this is the cheapest and most widely available method of getting to the island, go ahead and plan for a 3 night stay.
What to Bring
After going two years in a row, we’ve figured out what you need to take for camping at the Dry Tortugas and what you can leave behind to make the best of your experience.
Sun protection. Bring enough sunscreen. Wear it at all times. You may not need a lot of sun protection normally, but the Dry Tortugas are in the tropics, and the sun is hot, constant and completely merciless. Think of it like Liam Neeson in Taken: It will find you- and it will kill you.
The sun is omnipresent, even behind cloud cover and while setting. We have both gotten burned during these times because we did not reapply sunscreen, thinking that the risks were minimized because it wasn’t directly over head.
If you do get burned during your camping trip, there is virtually nowhere to hide from the sun and recover. Your burn most likely won’t be minor either, and sun exposure on top of an existing burn is both painful and dangerous.
Seriously don’t risk it. Wear a hat, wear a T-shirt or rashguard to cover your torso. Wear sunscreen on every inch of exposed skin, and reapply every few hours, sooner if you’re going in and out of the water.
Water. There is no fresh water on the island, thus the name Dry Tortugas, and all fresh water is brought in via the supply boats. You will need to bring in all of your water- all of it: drinking, cooking, cleaning.
Luckily for you, the Yankee Freedom’s weight limit for camping supplies is absurdly large, and that doesn’t include water. We recommend getting 2 of the 2.5 gallon water dispensers you find at any grocery store, and a water bottle per camper. This should be enough to drink (remember to drink a lot and stay hydrated in the heat!), cook with, rinse dishes, and if you’re lucky, rinse off the salt at the end of your stay.
Food. Meals can be as simple or fancy as you want them to be. The grill can lead campers into a false sense of luxury, and we met some folks on one trip who loaded up with burgers, pork chops and tenderloin. It was nice, but in the heat you don’t really want to be loaded down with a huge, meaty meal. And keep in mind the meat needs to be kept cold.
Our last trip we packed a cooler with easy-to-eat fruits, as well as veggies we could grill, like Brussels sprouts, asparagus, and onions, and some sausages (the precooked kind). We made some nicer meals for dinner, grilling veggies over a layer of aluminum foil, but munched on fruits, nuts and Clif bars during the day. Efficient and easy to keep fresh.
Your cooler will mostly likely run out of ice after a couple days, and you can buy more from the Yankee Freedom for exorbitant amounts on money.
Self-lighting charcoal. A 5lb bag should be more than enough for a 3 night stay.
Water shoes. Beaches on the island are the picturesque, white sandy variety, but can be hard on the feet. Coral and shell fragments are sharp, so wear water shoes while on the beaches or in the water and you’ll have a better time. Even better, if you buy fins for diving or snorkeling, you can just wear around the little booties that come with them.
A tent. Standard issue should do fine, you won’t be spending that much time inside it anyway.
A headlamp with a red UV setting. Exploring the island at night is fun, but nesting sea turtles can be confused or scared away by bright flashlights. Flashlights and headlamps with red UV light settings are fine to use on the beaches.
Your own snorkel gear. A mask and a snorkel. Fins if you want them. You can use the Yankee Freedom’s gear only when the ferry is docked, meaning you’ll miss out on snorkeling in the morning and late afternoon- some of the best times! More about snorkeling the island here.
What Not to Bring
A hammock. We are big time hammock camping advocates, but setting up hammocks at the park is verboten. The trees around the campsites are essentially historical artifacts, brought in to provide shade on the island as the fort was being built. They are hundreds of years old and extremely fragile. No touch!
A camping stove. Everything you cook must be cooked over an open flame contained within a grill located at your campsite. Any other flames, including campfires, are not allowed.
Lots of clothes. A swim suit or two, a towel, some flip flops and a change of clothes are really all you need. As there are no showers, you’ll get used to the sticky, post-salt water feeling. Just wear the same outfit and worry about enjoying your time there. There aren’t any mirrors to show you how shitty you’ll look anyway.
Getting the Most out of Your Days
Get up early. Mornings are mild and quiet. Day trippers from the ferry don’t arrive until about 10-10:30 AM, so getting up early means you’ll have the island almost to yourself, and a lot less heat to deal with. Plus, the wildlife on the reefs can be vastly different depending on the time of day.
Take it easy while the sun is overhead. You can relax at your campsite, make a meal, or go on a tour of the fort while the ferry is docked. If sun exposure doesn’t bother you, why not take your kayak out and look for some ship wrecks around the island? Just be sure to get the exact coordinates from the Park Ranger.
Snorkel in the afternoon. Wait for things to quiet down after the ferry leaves and hit the water. Or just relax on the newly deserted beaches, both of which will give you a great view of the sunset.
Explore the empty fort. Without a lot of visitors walking around, the fort can get downright eerie. Walking around at dusk is pretty cool, if you’re into that. Don’t neglect the large grassy center of the fort, where there are rare, sprawling, hundred-year-old trees worth taking a look at.
Explore the island at night. Nights are cool and breezy with an amazing sky full of stars. Big blobs of seaweed wash ashore sometimes, full of twinkling phosphorescent plankton. Play time! Grab your UV headlamp or flashlight and explore the island- carefully!
This should be everything you need to start planning your trip camping at the Dry Tortugas. Have you ever been to camping at the Dry Tortugas? What else would you recommend for campers? Let us know in the comments section!