Sand Campers

Roughing it at $30-per-night campsites leaves more money for exploring Assateague

$500 Getaway


IF CAMPING REMINDS YOU OF a bad night's sleep and mosquitoes, well, you have a good memory. But the plus side to a $500 weekend with a tent is that the budget leaves plenty of cash for adventure.

The three-day trip with my husband, David, included surfing lessons, a fishing tournament and meals that were anything but freeze-dried. And we suffered zero mosquito bites, even though the place we pitched our tent is known for them in the summer.

Assateague is essentially a giant sand bar. The 37-mile-long barrier island is so narrow in places you could kick a soccer ball across it. The Eastern Shore destination is known for wild ponies and sandy campsites. You can watch the sun set over Chincoteague Bay or rise over the Atlantic Ocean.

The island sits directly south of Ocean City and stretches down to Virginia. The northern portion is a state park, and the southern part is a national park; but unlike other national and state parks, there are no huts or hard-sided lodging. The only option is camping.

Campers can stay at either the Assateague Island National Seashore or the Assateague State Park. But getting a campsite may be tricky because you will be up against some professionals. People we talked to had been going to the same camp loop every year for decades. Some had RVs, gas grills, generators, equipment that ran off solar power, tents made of mosquito netting, even little flags. Our favorite gadget was a electric bug swatting paddle -- essentially a deadly Taser for mosquitoes. It reduces horseflies to dust, too, though we had trouble finding something to swat.

Two months before our trip there were only a few sites available in either location. The national and the state parks accept reservations online, but the system doesn't always work smoothly. I spent a frustrating 45 minutes one evening attempting to book a campsite online, only to receive error message after error message.

Using the toll free number, I booked a campsite for a Friday night, but there were no availabilities for the second night at either park. There are no waiting lists, but we kept calling back and a week before our trip my husband got lucky and was able to book another night. The only catch: we would need to switch campsites.

Once we got to the campground it became abundantly clear why the area is so popular. We set up our tent just steps from the ocean. We could hear the waves from our tent and only a low sand dune prevented us from actually seeing the water. This for $30 a night.

Camping 101

We have plenty of camping equipment, but for those who don't, tents and camping stoves can be rented (see "If you go" box). Keep in mind this is "car camping" -- so there's no need to pack light. In our spirit of not roughing it we hauled our fancy Tempur-Pedic pillows from home -- and next time I'll throw in an air mattress.

The park service personnel told us to bring extra-long tent stakes to use in the sandy sites. But our regular ones worked just fine. They also recommended an arsenal of anti-mosquito weaponry. We had DEET. In a moment of total paranoia we stopped in Salisbury at Gander Mountain, an outdoors store with inexpensive equipment, and bought two green head nets that fit over a hat.

We sure looked funny, but we were all set.

We arrived at about noon and, with some time to kill before the campsites opened at 2 p.m., we explored Berlin, a cute town about seven miles from Assateague. We picked up corn at a farmers' market and fresh bread (still warm) at a bakery. I got a straw hat -- bought at a local hardware store that probably looks like it did 50 years ago, including the deer head on the wall. We checked out a cute eatery called Tea by the Sea, which we meant to try out -- the menu's clotted cream looked enticing -- but we never made it. There are public restrooms near the Berlin police station, which is possibly the only law enforcement headquarters in the state with lace curtains.

At exactly 2 p.m. we drove up to the ranger's station in the state park. The rangers -- who have the reservations in neat little envelopes hanging on a peg board -- gave us plastic passes for the car and a code for the gate. We were in.

The campsites are laid out as a series of loops off a road that goes straight down the middle of the island. In the state park all campsites face the ocean side. (Maps of the campsites are online.)

There is plenty of space between campsites so you don't feel like you are on top of your neighbor.

There is a picnic table and a fire pit and you share bathrooms with everyone in the loop. Each loop has a shower with hot and cold water -- although the hot water was out our second night. There is also a Dumpster and a place to wash dishes.

Outside the tent

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