How to Set Up Camp at the Beach

United States California Camping
by David Miller Jun 5, 2009

My camp in Baja California. Photo: Laura Bernhein

Lessons on camping learned from extended time in the backcountry.

I’VE LEARNED MORE about camping from surf-trips than anything else. The reason is simple: the goal on a surf trip is to spend as long as possible in one place.

Staying put allows you to get into the flow of the terrain, to figure out weather patterns, tide, winds, how the sun moves across the sky, when and where there is shade, when and where to avoid insects, where you can find firewood, water, and so many other things that you’d never learn if you were just quickly trekking through.

It also teaches you all these little tricks: how to make do with less, how to cook over a fire, how to craft makeshift furniture, how to keep sand out of your food–things that take a lot of trial and error to really lock down.

The following tips are been collected from over years’ worth of days and nights spent living on beaches both desert and tropical throughout the Pacific coast of Mexico, Central, and South America.


Reference this photo with the list below, noting the yoga mat rolled up onto food supply to act as easily wipe-able and sand-free ‘sink’, as well as the large skillet, the crossed sticks on either side of fire pit for holding pole (and pot above fire), firewood cache, and smiling partner. Photo: David Mather Johnson

Over the years I’ve found that the less gear I bring with me, the quicker I begin to get into the flow of wherever I’m at. In general I like to have the following:

*megamid (floorless shelter which can be used as sunshade) with pole
*mosquito net
*summer weight sleeping bag
*serape (woven blanket)
*yoga mat (or other nylon sleeping pad)
*simple cotton sheet
*backpacking hammock
*4-6″ sheath knife strong enough to chop wood / cut tentstakes
*strong nylong rope (parachute cord)
*large pot with lid and handle that enables it to be hung over a fire
*smaller (1-quart) pot with tight fitting lid
*large but lightweight skillet
*small cookset (plate, spoon, knife, fork)
*large old-school enamel coffee mug (which can be used to boil water)
*large water container
*mini-backpacking stove (optional)

That’s really it. All of this fits easily in, or strapped to my 40-liter backpack.

Where to set up camp

Study the terrain carefully before setting up camp. Stay well above the high tide mark, but out of dunes which might have easily-impacted vegetation. Look for transition areas (ecotones) between the last bit of vegetation and the beach where you can set up in the sand but still take advantage of any windblocks or shade offered by the vegetation.

Cooking over a fire

The key to extended stays is learning how to cook over a fire. There are several ways to do this, but after a lot of trial and error, I like using a pair of crossed sticks on either side of the fire (see illustration above), where you can where you can run another stick through the pot handle and then set it on top of the crossed sticks. Another variation of this is to set up a tripod, tying the tops of sticks so that the come together about a foot over the firepit.

No matter how you set it up, remember that you’re not cooking over the flames themselves, but letting the fire burn down to a hot bed of embers. It takes practice.

Sun protection

If you’re in a jungle environment then finding shade shouldn’t be a problem. Oftentimes you might have find an ideal ‘siesta spot’ to hang your hammock that isn’t necessarily right next to your camp.

If you’re in desert terrain you need to set up some kind of open-aired shelter. One good way is to drive two vertical sticks (about 4′ high and 4-6 feet apart) into the beach, then tie a stick across them. Then fasten a cotton or serape over this, so it makes a mini lean-to, either staking the loose ends down to the sand or weighting them down with rocks.

Community Connection

Do you have any good tricks or tips for setting up camp at the beach? Share them with us in the comments below.

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