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Vanlife Camping Outer Banks: Why It’s Horrible

Robyn and Pawdrick walking on the beach

Living in a van full-time is a blessing and a curse. You have the freedom to go where you want, sure. But you also have to find a place to camp at night, which can be more complicated than finding the energy to make the bed at night!

Vacationing in the Outer Banks is a blast, but vanlife camping Outer Banks is a different story. It’s challenging to find a place to park at night without getting hassled by the police or rangers (hey, they’re just doing their job, and I can’t blame them!). Everything is super expensive, and even in the off-season, it gets pretty crowded.

In this article, we’ll review our experiences with vanlife camping outer banks, and I’ll let you in on some of the places we could sleep at night. In the end, we ended up moving on after just two overnights.

This post contains affiliate links, but no worries, we’ve got your back! We only suggest items that we genuinely love and would use ourselves. And hey, if you decide to make a purchase, we get a small commission – it’s a win-win! There are no sponsorships here, just the honest truth about our absolute favorite finds. Happy exploring!

Outer Banks: Fun During The Day

The Outer Banks is a little sliver of land located in North Carolina. It is near well-known beach towns such as Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, and Cape Hatteras. 

Camping Outer Banks may be challenging, but vanlifing in the Outer Banks is a lot of fun during the day, with plenty of free things to do!

Free Parking With Beach Access

There’s a plethora of accessible parking areas with access to the beach. This is a great place to spend the day and be a beach bum. You can find beach-access parking from as far north as Carolla and as far south as Hatteras Island.

We parked at Coquina Beach at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. It was convenient because it had clean bathrooms, outdoor showers, and changing rooms with lockable doors. 

Coquina Beach parking lot highlighted from google maps bird eye view.

It came with a few downsides:

  • Pet Restrictions: No pets are allowed in the outdoor showering/changing room area. This is also the only convenient way to get to the beach, so we had to take a small path over the dunes instead to access the beach with our dog.
  • Cactuses/Prickers: The grassy areas had tons of prickly plants that get stuck to your shoe and will prick your pet’s paws. Items like booties or paw protection are highly recommended!
  • No overnight parking: The ranger drove by our van during the day, and the first thing he said to us was, “No overnight parking.”
  • No shade: The parking lots sit in the sun all day with no shade trees.

Even with the downsides, it was preferable to a crowded beach-access parking lot in the heart of the Outer Banks.

Parks & Preserves

The Outer Banks area contains many parksrefuges, and preserves for those vanlifers who like to hike! If you’re not from a beachy area, it offers a unique experience as you stroll through dunes, swamps, sweetgum forests, and ocean views!

  • Currituck: Just before the 4×4 beach in Carolla, there are a few trails in the Currituck Banks Reserve. It’s dog-friendly and offers some interesting views of estuaries and live oaks.
  • Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Preserve: This small preserve has a few trails that take you around creeks and through wooded areas. It’s a nice getaway from the busy town of Kitty Hawk.
  • Nags Head Woods Preserve: Like the Kitty Hawk Woods Preserve, the Nags Head Preserve is a small area that offers just a few trails. They’re nothing spectacular to see, but it gets you out of the hustle and bustle of Outer Banks tourism. Unfortunately, no dogs are allowed in this park.
  • Jockey’s Ridge State Park: A small park near Nags Head. I recommend the Tracks in the Sand Trail, which takes you through the dunes and makes for an enjoyable hike.
  • Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge: Various environments spanning beaches and dunes to ponds and marshes. There are two trails here – the North Pond Wildlife Trail, which takes you around the north pond and connects to the Salt Flats wildlife trail.

All the parks and preserves are free to enter. Just be sure to check the pet policy if you bring your pup along!

Sight Seeing

The Outer Banks is home to the first flight of the Wright Brothers. It’s also home to the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. No matter your interest, there is a sightseeing area for you!

1. Wright Brothers National Memorial

First stop: the Wright Brothers National Memorial. This iconic site commemorates the place where the Wright Brothers first took flight. The memorial offers a fascinating glimpse into aviation history, with plenty of informative exhibits to explore.

Getting there is pretty straightforward. Just follow the signs from Highway 158. There’s ample parking available, including larger spots that can accommodate vans. Entry fees are $10. There are a few free days throughout the year, which you can check on the National Park Service website.

For our vanlifers who travel with pets, you’ll be happy to know that dogs are welcome at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. However, they must be kept on a leash and cannot enter buildings (unless they are service pets).

2. Jockey’s Ridge State Park

Next, we have the largest natural sand dune system in the Eastern United States — Jockey’s Ridge State Park. The views from the top are truly breathtaking, especially at sunset. Plus, it’s an excellent spot for hang gliding if you’re feeling adventurous.

You can find the park off South Croatan Highway in Nags Head. Parking is free, and there’s plenty of space for vansThe park is also free to enter, making it a budget-friendly option.

As with the Wright Brother’s Memorial, pets are allowed inside Jockey’s Ridge State Park. They must be on a leash and cannot enter buildings. 

Some of the activities available at the park include:

  • Hiking
  • Sandboarding
  • Swimming
  • Paddling
  • Windsurfing
  • Hang gliding

3. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, standing tall at 193.20 feet, is a sight to behold. It’s the tallest lighthouse in the United States! The view from the top is quite the reward after the challenging climb.

This lighthouse protects what’s known as the ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic.’ The Diamond Shoals, a dangerous sandbar, inhabits this area, and the lighthouse helps ships navigate the hazardous conditions.

The lighthouse is located in Buxton, and a large parking lot nearby can easily fit vans. Admission to the lighthouse grounds is free, but climbing the lighthouse costs $8. For all the fur-parents out there, pets are welcome on the grounds!

4. Carova’s Wild Horses

A visit to the Outer Banks wouldn’t be complete without a glimpse of the wild horses in Carova. Seeing these majestic creatures roam freely is an unforgettable experience.

Access to Carova is via the beach, which acts as a road (4WD required). Parking is limited, and driving your van on the 4×4 beach is not recommended, as you will most likely get stuck. 

Instead, consider parking in Carolla and walking down the beach, or take a tour with a local company like Back Country Wild Horse Safari Tour. Prices vary depending on the tour operator but are typically expensive – around $50 or more.

Unfortunately, no pets are allowed on the tours, even service dogs.

5. Historic Corolla Park

Next, we have Historic Corolla Park. This place is home to the Whalehead historic house, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education, and the Currituck Maritime Museum. It’s like four attractions in one!

The park is located in Corolla Village, and there’s a spacious parking lot that’s van-friendly. Admission to the park is free, though some attractions inside may have entry fees.

6. Ocracoke Island

If you’re looking for cool free stuff to do while vanlifing in Outer Banks, check out Ocracoke Island. It can only be accessed by boat or plane, but a free ferry will take you and your van from Hatteras Island to Ocracoke Island!

While on the island, there are plenty of things to do:

  • See the Ocracoke Ponies at the Pony Pen
  • Visit the Ocracoke Lighthouse
  • Nature trails and preserves
  • Go to the beach
  • Shopping

Ocracoke is pretty pet-friendly as well! Specific trails and restaurants may not allow pets, so check before you go.

Camping Outer Banks: Why It’s Awful

We’ve established that Outer Banks is a blast during the day. But any vanlifer knows the dread of finding a place to park at night. And let me tell you – Outer Banks might be the worst! This is a trend in touristy areas. 

No Overnight Parking…Anywhere!

No matter where you go in Outer Banks, parking is banned overnight unless you have a permit to park in designated Outer Banks campgrounds. For those of us on a budget, this isn’t ideal.

Speaking of budgets, you can read our article on how to afford vanlife for budget tips!

Walmarts and Lowes are typically a last-resort campground for vanlifers, but watch yourself in the Outer Banks! Even the Walmart parking lots have signs stating no overnight parking. Stealth camping Outer Banks on side streets isn’t an option – you’ll get busted by the police or rangers.

At one point, we even called the local police to see if there was anywhere we could park for free without having to worry about getting a knock or getting towed. After getting transferred and speaking with a few local police stations and park rangers, the results were, “Uhh, we don’t know.”

View of Big Red in a parking lock we were not allowed to sleep in, no camping outer banks.

Welcome centers? Nope. Walmarts or Lowes? Nope. Side streets? Nope. Free camping outer banks? doesn’t exist.


If you live in your van, you probably work on the computer occasionally. And who wants to work with a bunch of noisy traffic around or people and kids screaming?

Outer Banks is pretty noisy everywhere, even in the off-season. If you park at a local beach access, you’ll hear the road traffic, which virtually never stops. Plus, people walk to and from the beach, cars start up, and doors close and open.

At night, the noise doesn’t really die down. There are the lovely 2 a.m. engine revvers, the partiers, and the general hustle and bustle of traffic.

How To Vanlife At The Outer Banks

Outer banks during the day: fun. Outer Banks at night: a vanlifers nightmare! So, how do you vanlife at the Outer Banks? Don’t expect to find any wild camping spots in the Outer Banks.

We stayed for only two nights since we didn’t feel welcome or comfortable sleeping overnight. Here’s how we survived vanlife camping Outer Banks!

Drive Outside Outer Banks At Night: Stumpy Point

The best sleep we got at the Outer Banks was when we drove outside the area to sleep. One night, we stayed at a boat ramp called Stumpy Point. It was a beautiful spot next to the bay. We went in November and were the only ones in the parking lot.

Stumpy point on a map.

Stumpy Point is located in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. It’s one of the only places in the world where you can see wild red wolves, though we didn’t spot any while there. Stumpy Point is accessed by taking Route 64 out of Outer Banks and across Roanoke Island.


  • Flat parking lot
  • Great views
  • Super quiet at night


  • ‘No overnight parking’ isn’t spelled out, but signs state that using the lot for things other than putting your boat in is prohibited.
  • Mosquitoes and biting flies were everywhere.
  • Early-morning noise due to people launching their boats.
  • No bathrooms or water available

Overall, it was a pleasant place to stay for one night. We got the impression from the locals that we would only be tolerated for a single night, so we didn’t stay there again.

Another option would be to take route 158 out of Outer Banks. It’s more north, and a few parks and wildlife refuges could offer parking spots, though we didn’t try any!

Van parked at stumpy point with Pawd sitting in the front seat.

Stealth Camping At Walmart

Jarrod sitting in the van with pawd and luna on my lap.

The following night, we stealth-parked at the Walmart in Kitty Hawk. Driving toward the back of the lot, you’ll see signs that state no overnight parking. 

We parked our van in the lot’s southwest corner and had no issues. Again, we didn’t feel comfortable parking there for a second night, so we moved on.


  • Relatively flat
  • Bathrooms available while open (closed at 10 p.m.)


  • Noisy
  • No overnight parking was permitted, so we were worried about getting a knock all night
  • 2 a.m. engine revvers made themselves present
  • Truck deliveries happened at all hours of the day and night

Overall, we wouldn’t stay here again, even for a single night. It was worth it to drive outside of Outer Banks to park.

Park At A Campground

If you can afford it, there are plenty of campgrounds around the area to park and enjoy a somewhat peaceful night’s sleep in this busy city. Unfortunately, most campgrounds are geared toward tent sites or larger RVs for family camping.

Here are some popular campgrounds in the Outer Banks area:

CampgroundLocationPrice Per Night (2023)AmenitiesPets Allowed?
Cape Point46700 Old Lighthouse Rd, Buxton, NC 27920$20Paved parking pad, picnic table, grill, bathrooms, outdoor showers, potable waterYes
Cape Woods47649 Buxton Back Rd, Buxton, NC 27920$30 – $60Swimming pool, pavilion, fire pit, laundry room, bath houses, playground, gated accessYes
Frisco53415 Billy Mitchell Rd, Frisco, NC 27936$28Bathrooms, potable water, outdoor showers, paved parking pad, picnic table, grill, dumpsters, recyclingYes
Sands Of Time40523 North End Rd, Avon, NC 27915$40Water, hot showers, laundry, bathroomsYes – 2 dog maximum
Oregon Inlet12001 North Carolina Hwy 12, Nags Head, NC 27959$28Bathrooms, heated showers, potable water, paved parking pad, picnic table, grill, dump station, Yes
Outer Banks126 Marshy Ridge Rd, Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948$70 in season. $50 off-seasonBathhouse, laundry facility, picnic table, playgroundYes

Wrapping Up The Outer Banks Vanlife Experience: Final Thoughts

Starting vanlife in November wasn’t the brightest idea we’ve ever had. Especially since we’re from the Northeast, where November is cold! To keep us and the pets comfortable, we went where it was warm: the Outer Banks.

We quickly learned that vanlife camping Outer Banks is not enjoyable, and the area is not friendly to nomads like us. There’s no overnight parking, and even safe havens like Walmart and Lowes are restrictive.

That said, there were some fun things to do during the day, such as visiting the beach and taking in some sights. However, the overnight parking situation made it less enjoyable, and we only stayed briefly.

Have you stayed at the outer banks in your van? Let us know how it went and where you spent the night in the comments below! It might help our community of vanlifers enjoy this beautiful area in the future!

For more information about vanlifing around the United States, check out our vanlife blog!


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