Dry Tortugas camp site

Camping at the Dry Tortugas National Park

In Adventure, Destinations by Sally18 Comments

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.

Camping Accommodations

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.

  • Dry Tortugas camp site

    Our first day camping there were no tree covered camping spots available so we found ourselves in the bright sun in the overflow area.

  • Dry Tortugas camp site

    Camping under the wonderful old trees is much better. If you’re camping with a partner one of you should run out before the required camper talk and nab a good spot.

All campsites come with a picnic table and charcoal grill. Composting toilets are available for campers only. There are no showers or running water.

All camping supplies are pack in pack out. Leave no trace.

Activities

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.

Entertainment

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.

camping meal at the Dry Tortugas

Easy and simple meal: Onion and tomatoes in aluminum foil. Delicious.

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

Dry Tortugas bird couple

This pair of birds was on the island both times that we visited. They will eat your crumbs and provide endless entertainment. On our last night we realized they were sleeping right above us!

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.

Dry Tortugas sunset

The sun setting over Loggerhead Key. Kayaking to Loggerhead is well worth the day trip.

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!

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Comments

  1. Stacy, thanks a ton for these Dry Tortugas posts! They are so helpful. We’re going next week, and getting packing lists and etc together now. Your posts have been invaluable. (Just got off the phone with Marty, he’s awesome!)

    1. Author

      Hi M! Thanks for letting me know our posts helped you. We are so excited for your Dry Tortugas trip (and also a bit jealous!!) Hope you’re having a great time snorkeling, kayaking and enjoying one of the most beautiful places on earth B)

  2. Hi! Thank you for this awesome info on the Tortugas. My husband and I are planning a trip in August and have been to the Tortugas before but only for a day trip; this time we are camping. I am torn between 2 nights and 3. What were your thoughts. We are going in August so I know if will be very warm. Do you feel like you would have been cheated with only 2 nights vs. 3 nights – Thank You, Renee

    1. Author

      If you plan on kayaking out to Loggerhead key I would recommend 3 nights, otherwise spending the same amount of time bumming around the island and snorkeling can begin to get dull. This all depends on how much you liked your previous experience there and what activities you plan on doing, or whether you prefer to have a long, relaxing stay on a remote and primitive island.
      I would expect August to be much more than “warm.” The Dry Tortugas are very close to the equator and the sun is extreme. August is also the hottest month in summer, so I would prepare for heat and sun as much as possible. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, as there is plenty of shade and a whole ocean to dip into when it gets hot. Please check with NOAA for temperature averages for when you’re planning to go.

  3. You don’t want to use a UV light (which are blue BTW), red flashlights are just red to help preserve night vision.

  4. I was so disappointed. I called today to make my resevation for camping and was told they are booked through January. The gentleman stated we needed to call 6 months in advance! We were going in October. Bummer! My boys were so looking forward to camping. I guess a day trip will suffice. Great info by the way.

    1. Author

      Hi Carrie,

      Thanks for reading! 6 months is a long time… I’ve always booked a few months in advance, but 6 seems much more than usual. No harm in trying though. Your kids will love it and there’s always next year!

  5. My husband and I just booked a two night camping trip for Dry Tortugas in the end of January. I know it’s going to be a little cold in the water, but we were hoping we’d still be able to go snorkeling… Maybe in wetsuits? Do you have any tips for us, going in winter?

    1. Author

      Hi Kaila,

      Thanks for your comment! Wetsuits are probably a good idea. Personally speaking, it’s easy to get cold in the water after a while, even in the heat of summer, and January is likely to be colder and cloudier.

      Don’t have a lot of tips for winter. If anything you’re probably dodging a bullet with some of the extreme heat for the summer months. Other than that, I would say just be careful on things like wind advisory if you have any plans to take small craft on the water.

    1. Author

      Hi Lauren,

      I want to say it’s probably not allowed but I’m not sure. I’d check with the NPS or Yankee Freedom.

  6. Wow…such a great blog and really useful info. I have my own photography adventure blog so I realize the effort it requires. Question: what about bringing your own folding beach chairs? You did not really mention that in your writeup….either to chill on the beach or mostly at your campsite? Thanks again…it might not be until 2018 when I get there but this is on my list.

    1. Author

      Hi Robert,

      Thanks for the kind words about our blog. I don’t know about bringing folding beach chairs, you’ll need to check regulations with the Park Service. There are picnic tables at every campsite where you can sit, on the beach, you can sit in the sand. Trust me, it feels very nice 🙂

  7. I’ve been 4 of the last 5 years, and have reservations for this year. We always go first or second week of December. Have never had bad weather. My suggestions. Bring abfishing pole and a cooler full of bait. The fishing off the boat dock is awesome. Also rent a two person sea kayak and paddle the 3 miles to Loggerhead Key. Once there check out the grounds of the lighthouse and snorkel little Africa. Stay all 3 nights. The ferry offers a free lunch the first day and you can pay 7.00 to eat the other days

  8. Such great help! I want to photograph the sunrise and sunset but not sure how to keep my photography equine safe while on the water, any suggestions?

  9. Please help! I have a family of five and we’d love to visit over Christmas weekend this year – how did you know you’d have a campsite available?

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