Armed with all my regular outdoor gear, plus special tent stakes for the sand, 4 gallons of water and enough sunscreen to slather an elephant, I headed to the Texas Gulf Coast recently to find out what it’s like to camp on the beach.
Until then, I’d left seaside camping to people who don’t mind wallowing in sweat and grit. But I love to sleep in a tent, and when a group of friends who have been surfing together since the early 1980s invited me to join them, I couldn’t resist.
Six of us met in Port Mansfield, Texas, then paid a fishing guide to shuttle us out to the “cut,” or channel, between North and South Padre Islands. Two others drove up the beach from South Padre Island, a three-hour jaunt over soft sand that requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
“One of the things about camping on the beach is you have to not mind being sticky with saltwater and sand everywhere — and crunchy dinners,” freelance photographer Erich Schlegel tells me.
He’s right, and I’ve come mentally prepared. It’s kind of fun to skip the shower and embrace the dirt now and then.
As we step off the boat and unload coolers, duffel bags and folding chairs onto a sweet, crescent-shaped beach next to the channel, I scout a spot to set up my tent. It’s windy. I hope the oversized stakes for which I made a special trip to REI will keep my sleeping quarters from taking flight.
Five of my camping compadres met nearly four decades ago, during their high school days in Brownsville. They learned to surf together and now plan the occasional outing to catch some waves — and, with any luck, some fish.
I’m the only woman among them. Now, as I pop up my tent and slide my cooler inside to help anchor it in place in the gale-force breeze, the guys assemble fishing rods and wade out into the channel in search of supper.
Beyond our protected corner of the beach, the jetty, made of giant blocks of pink and gray granite, juts out into the ocean. I hop down the structure and discover that every crack and crevice is filled with trash — discarded water bottles, flip-flops, torn bags, old beach umbrellas and broken bits of plastic. It’s the only downside to an otherwise gorgeous setting and reminds me that we all need to cut back on our use of disposable stuff.
Beyond the jetty, a caramel-colored beach stretches to the horizon. Four or five other groups are camped on that side, sun shelters deployed and fishing lines like silver threads stretching to the surf. The ocean glints like a mirror.
I clamber back just in time to watch Schlegel reel in a nice-size speckled trout, which will wind up in a skillet with a little onion and garlic. A few sea turtles bob near the rocks of the jetty, and birds on stiltlike legs fish along the shore.
After a few hours of fishing, the guys convene beneath a shade structure, a vital piece of beach camping equipment, plop down in folding chairs and sip cold drinks as they reminisce. For this group, reconnecting with old friends means as much as the surfing, fishing and camping.
We discuss the differences between inland camping and beach camping. A long-sleeve shirt to keep the sun off is a must, plus long pants to protect against mosquitoes at night. That shade structure is vital for midday, when the sun beats down, and since there are no amenities here you need to haul plenty of water for drinking and cooking. Remember a first-aid kit, too.
“If you don’t like to be gritty and sandy, don’t do it,” says Neil Haub, 52, who runs a logo merchandising company.
By the next morning, the surf has picked up. Mother Nature has decided to deliver some good waves. The guys pull out their boards, carry them over the rocky outcropping, wade into the water and paddle out.
“The thing about Mansfield is because of the length of the jetty and sandbar, this is typically the best wave in Texas,” says Schlegel, who started surfing at South Padre Island in 1979. The vibe differs from California or Hawaii. “It’s more chill. There’s the sense in the lineup it’s not competitive like it is other places.”
Here, waves arrive in tight sets crafted by the wind. The campers spend a few hours catching 3- and 4-footers, hooting and hollering as they zip down the line of the breaking waves. They’re the only surfers in sight.
“Being as isolated as it is, we usually have it to ourselves because it is a trek to get here,” says Carlos Nunez, a packaging broker who lives in Brownsville.
The group spends the rest of weekend alternating between fishing, surfing and loafing. The wind blows, the waves lap and the rods dip in and out of the water. And that’s the appeal here: nothing flashy or luxurious — just good friends, the orange, setting sun, a coastal breeze and stories to tell.