Mississippi’s barrier islands offer a unique wilderness camping experience for those who want to get away from the mainland and try an island lifestyle, if only for a weekend. Can you imagine walking miles of beaches in the light of a full moon without a road, casino, or house in sight? How about waking up on an empty expanse of white sand, with nothing but Gulf of Mexico at your front door and miles of forest and marsh to explore in the interior? These experiences and more can be found on the barrier islands that lie just over the horizon across the Mississippi Sound. Camping comfortably on these barrier islands, however, requires some special techniques and equipment to deal with changing conditions encountered there. Scorching sun, relentless winds, and fierce insect hordes can all conspire to make these islands seem anything but paradise to those who are not prepared.
These considerations make the tent the most important item on the camper’s checklist. It pays to invest in a good tent. Cheap dome tents with fiberglass poles do not fare well in heavy rain squalls and the strong winds that sweep unimpeded across the exposed beaches of the barrier islands. Better tents have lightweight but strong aluminum poles, and a separate rain fly that attaches over the main tent. I favor the A-frame designs over domes. These allow you to open the doors at least part way for ventilation on hot but rainy nights. Good tents also feature finer mesh in the screens of windows and doors. This is an absolute necessity on the islands, where tiny biting gnats called “no-see-ums” can attack in such numbers that the unprepared will be driven off the island. This happened to me on one of my first trips many years ago in a cheap dome tent with standard mosquito netting. In addition to the tent, you will need plenty of good stakes to secure it against high winds in the deep and shifting sands that make up these island beaches. The best tent stakes for sand are the plastic ones that are T-shaped in cross-section and at least an inch wide for holding power. Use stakes that are a foot long or more, and drive them deeply with a mallet or piece of driftwood. I also like to carry a light tarp in addition to a tent to set up as an awning for cooking in rainy weather or for shade on a hot day. This will require extra tent stakes, line, and some sort of pole or piece of driftwood for setting up, but it is well worth carrying.
Island cooking can be done with a fire, but be aware that fires are permitted in the Gulf Islands National Seashore only in the sand below the high tide line. A better option is a portable camp stove. The ones that use disposable propane bottles are the most efficient and reliable. Cookware should be of stainless steel, and can be scrubbed clean with beach sand as long as it is not Teflon-coated.
Fresh water is a precious commodity on the barrier islands. Carry as much as you can, and more than you think you’ll need, for drinking, cooking, and washing; and be sure it is in leak-proof containers so it is not spilled and wasted. If you go wilderness camping on Mississippi’s barrier islands, you need to plan to be self-sufficient. Carry everything you think you’ll need, and take everything you carry back home with you. Many people don’t realize they can travel light, camp in remote places, and still be comfortable. To me, part of the pleasure in wilderness travel is feeling at home wherever I may stop for the night. And feeling at home means being sheltered, well-fed, and comfortable. I am including here an abbreviated gear checklist for island camping, as well as rules and regulations for camping in the Gulf Islands National Seashore. More specifics on gear, techniques, and where to go can be found in my book: Exploring Coastal Mississippi: A Guide to the Marine Waters and Islands, University Press of Mississippi, 2004. In future articles here I plan to discuss sea kayaking equipment and techniques, look at other boat types suitable for camp cruising, and for those who do not have their own boats, profile various outfitters and charter operators who can provide transportation to the islands.
Island Camping Checklist: (The Basic Essentials)
Tent with “no-see-um” netting, strong poles Extra tarp or rain fly
Tent stakes that work in sand, mallet and extra line for tie-downs
Self-inflating sleeping pad or air mattress
Camp stove and fuel
Stove lighters or matches
Stainless steel cookware (skillet, coffee pot, cook pot, etc.)
Stainless or plastic utensils, cups, bowls, plates
Compact can opener
Biodegradable liquid soap
Cooking and drinking water in leak proof containers
Waterproof flashlight (with spare bulbs, batteries)
Rain jacket and pants, or poncho
Hiking boots or shoes
Long sleeve shirt and pants (even in hot weather- for insect protection when needed)
Hat for sun protection
Basic first aid supplies, snakebite kit,
Benadryl (for stings)
Toothbrush, toilet paper, etc.
Camera, binoculars, notebook (optional)
Hammock and good book (optional)
Camping in the Gulf Islands National Seashore
Beach camping is permitted on Petit Bois, Horn, East Ship Island, and the parts of Cat Island that are included in the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Camping is not permitted anywhere on West Ship Island.
Permits are not required for camping on the islands, but certain areas may be closed by the rangers at various time to protect nesting birds and other plant and animal species.
Fires are permitted only below the high tide line where waves will carry the debris away. Driftwood is abundant, so cutting firewood is not permitted.
Glass bottles or containers of any kind are prohibited on all the islands, as are firearms.
Campers should come prepared, with all food, water, fuel, etc. they will need for the duration of their stay. It is not the job of the park rangers to supply these essentials to the ill-prepared.
(This article was first published in South Mississippi Outdoors and Recreation, July 2004)
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Much more information on the barrier islands of Mississippi is available in my book, Exploring Coastal Mississippi. Although Hurricane Katrina drastically changed the man made structures on the coast and rendered much of the marina and services information in this book obsolete, the natural features of the islands were less affected and the information published about them is still useful.