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7 Oceano Dunes Camping Tips for Getting on the Sand

Camping on the Oceano Dunes is a unique way to take in the outdoors on the California Coast.  It is the only place in the State that allows easy drive on beach access and overnight camp sites.

The sandy terrain and exposure to the elements leads to some challenges if you are not properly prepared.

After living at the Central Coast and camping at the Oceano Dunes for many years, I have put together those need to know tips for first time beach campers.

1. MAKE A RESERVATION

The Ocean Dunes is a California State Park that requires visitors to purchase a reservation prior to visiting the park.  The State of California has created a website called Reserve California to guide users through the process.  Here are some tips for easily navigating the reservation website:

  1. Browse to www.reservecalifonia.com
  2. Use the search term “oceano dunes” in the Place Name field
  3. Give the reservation selection page time to load.  In my experience it will show a blank page for greater than 10 seconds before it displays a long list on the left.
  4. The reservations load with all the unavailable reservation spots sorted at the top, shown with red boxes.  Use the scroll bar in the center of the page to move down the list.  If there are spots available for your selected dates then you will see them in green boxes.

2. 4WD IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

You will be driving on dry, soft sand to your final camp spot.  Its strongly suggested you have a 4wd vehicle to give you the extra traction to get on and off the dunes.

Any vehicle is allowed onto the sand after you check in at the state parks main gate.  Getting onto the sand is generally wet and packed making it easy for a 2WD vehicle to get out and cruise the beach.

However, the wet, drivable sand close to the waterline is the main traffic area for vehicles to come and go.  This is not a place to set up your camp.  You will want to move away from the waterline and head East a couple hundred feet a minimum.  As you do, you will be going into deeper sand and the potential to get your car stuck increases.

Here are a few tips to help

  • Lower you tire pressure – Taking a moment to let some air out of your tires can increase your chances once you are out on the dunes.  You will see a lot of trucks with trailers, and vehicles alike stopping right after they get through the gate.  They are taking a precautionary step to lower the tire pressure on all four corners.  A tire pressure of 15-20lbs is a safe number for me to suggest.  I would not go under 10psi for the average tire and wheel combination.
  • Reduce wheel spin – Allowing the momentum of your vehicles speed has a much greater advantage then going full throttle.  If you know where you are headed simply roll onto the throttle and allow the vehicle to gain speed slowly.  If you have a heavy foot, those tires will just dig a hole underneath them allowing your vehicle to sink into the sand.
  • Bring a shovel – You will want to have a shovel if you do end up getting stuck.  When you are stuck, the tires have dug deep into the sand and built up around the corners of your car.  No amount of throttle in a 2WD vehicle is going to climb out of the holes and over the sand barrier.  It is possible to use the shovel to move the sand from the front of your car.  Dig down into the hole around the tire to create a smooth level line for the tires to use and get back moving.
  • Ask for help – The Oceano Dunes community is filled with everyone having a good time.  I guarantee you can find someone willing to pull you out. 

There is an active group of off-roaders called the Jerk Pirates who have members out enjoying the dunes most weekends.  Best way to communicate with them would be to message them on their Facebook page.

I recently joined their group and always willing to help.  So if you see me in my red FJ40 or Chevy Cheyenne wave me down!

3. YOU CAN HAVE A CAMPFIRE

The Oceano Dunes is one of the few places in California that allows open campfires year-round.  The sand leaves little to no chance of a campfire getting out of control and burning the surrounding area.

A campfire permit is required if you intend to have a campfire anywhere in California.  It is a simple online application, video tutorial, and simple test before they issue your permit electronically. 

https://www.readyforwildfire.org/permits/campfire-permit/

It is a good idea to purchase your firewood from local merchants.  Most likely they have harvested wood from nearby ranches and downed trees. Wood from out of the area could threaten the local trees and shrubs by transporting nonnative insects and disease.

4. SECURE YOUR GEAR FROM THE WIND

The wind will at some point on your trip pick and put your belongings in jeopardy.  I have seen too many times items blowing across the dune landscape.  Even if the wind in calm in the morning it will increase towards the afternoon as the day heats up.  Pop up canopies are one of the easiest targets for the wind to pick up and blow away.  Even your tent can be susceptible, so be prepared.  Here are some ideas to save you from running across the sand.

  • Drop one side of your pop-up canopy.  The wind generally blows from the ocean so lower the two legs on that side.
  • Purchase specialized anchors that are designed for the sand.  They make longer “corkscrew” style tent stakes.  You can also pick up weights for your pop canopy that go at the base of each leg.
  • Use items you brought on your trip as anchors.  Placing your food storage bins and ice chest inside your tent will help hold it down.  An ice chest strapped to the pop-up canopy with a tie down is a great way to keep it stable.  If the wind is bad you can use the spare tire from your vehicle to weigh your items down.

5. BRING A PAIR OF BOOTS

It sounds obvious, but you will be walking on sand the entire time.  A lightweight mid-height boot will work best while hiking through the dunes.  A regular height shoe is going to allow sand to flow inside and around foot with every step you make.  Along with a good boot you will want to have a pair of sandals or flip flops during the day.

I purchased a pair of Ariat slip-on work boots, and they are my primary footwear when I am out in the Oceano Dunes.

6. PROTECT YOURSELF FROM THE SUN

Spending the weekend at the Oceano Dunes means long days in the sun with very places to retreat.  Most days you will wake up to a cool morning of fog.  In the afternoon when the sun is directly above, and the fog has burned off you will be looking for cover.  You will want to have a hat, sunscreen, and SPF lip balm near by to protect from the sun. 

Most campers set up popup canopies or beach tents to escape for the direct sun.  Here are 2 setups I see a lot when I get out to the Oceano Dunes.

Manufacturers like EZ-Up or QuikShade make pop-up canopies in a variety sizes and styles.  Plan to spend about $100 for a 10×10 tent. 

They are readily available at Big 5, Costco, or big chain stores like Dicks Sporting Goods. Their packed size for transport is going to be around 50 x 9 x 9 inches and weigh about 50 lbs.

Popular open sided beach tents are manufactured by Pacific Breeze.  You can most likely find this type of tent sporting goods stores.  This packs up much smaller and lighter than a pop-up canopy.  The packed size is 38 x 6 x 6 inches and only weighs 6 pounds.  You may be luckily to find one is a beachfront store on your way into the dunes if you forget one at home.

7. WASH OFF THE SALT WATER

After the weekend, or even a day, out in the dunes you will want to rinse off the salt residue from your vehicle top to bottom.  The air at the oceano dunes has a high concentration of salt.  Even if you do not drive in the sea water, the air will collect on the exterior and undercarriage of your vehicle.

I have got an old FJ40 land cruiser that started to rust after a recent weekend trip.  I made the mistake of waiting two weeks before I decided to wash my rig.  A lot of the metal components had started to collect a light amount of rust.  Even a metal breather line in the engine bay started to rust.  It would have been a lot easier if I had just sprayed down the land cruiser once I got home.

I’d plan to wash it at a local drive thru car wash that you see at many gas stations.  Make sure to select the wash option that sprays the under carriage of the vehicle.  A coin-op spray and wash is another great way to rinse the salt and sand off with a high pressure hose.

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