21 Feb 2022
One of the main benefits of visiting the Outer Banks beaches is there are a plethora of places to drive your vehicle on the sand. However, driving on the sand is much different than driving on pavement and there are many things to know before you take your 4-wheel drive (4WD) vehicle off the road. Keep reading to learn when and where you can drive your 4WD vehicle on the Outer Banks, as well as what permits you need to obtain, and the rules, regulations and tips to follow to make your off-roading adventure a memorable success!
Which Outer Banks Towns Allow Driving on the Beach?
Corolla/Carova: This is the north end of the Outer Banks, where driving on the beach is permitted, without a permit, during the off-season. However, parking permits are required on the Friday before Memorial Day until the summer season ends at 11:59 PM on Labor Day.
Duck: The town of Duck does not permit driving on the beach at any point during the year.
Southern Shores: The town of Southern Shores does not permit driving on the beach at any point during the year.,
Kitty Hawk: The town of Kitty Hawk prohibits driving on the beach at any point during the year.
Kill Devil Hills: Kill Devil Hills permits driving on the beach during the off-season, from October 1st to April 30th.
Nags Head: Nags Head permits driving on the beach during the off-season, from October 1st to April 30th.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore (Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, Hatteras, and Ocracoke): The Cape Hatteras National Seashore has miles of shoreline for beach driving. This area is marked by brown, National Park Service managed "ramp markers" that indicate the mile and entrance point of every beach ramp from Rodanthe to Ocracoke.
There are 4 seasonally-opened beach ramps in between the tri-villages of Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo, and the town of Avon. There’s also a ramp in between Avon and Buxton, one in Frisco, and one on the edge of Hatteras Village that reaches Hatteras Inlet.
All of the beach driving areas and ramps on Hatteras and Ocracoke Island are also open seasonally. At certain times of the year, typically the summer months, some areas may be closed to allow the nesting of sea turtles or the breeding of threatened species.
For a more in-depth look at where and when to drive along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, check their weekly-updated map on their website, This indicates which areas are open for visitors during their summer vacation and other times of the year.
Rules for Driving on the Beach
Here are some regulations from the National Park Service that must be observed when driving on OBX beaches:
- Be sure to observe posted closures. Violators are subject to a fine of up to $5,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 6 months.
- Night Driving Restrictions: Driving on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s beaches is prohibited from 9 PM to 7 AM. If there are no sea turtle nests in the area, some off-road vehicle (ORV) driving areas may reopen at night beginning September 15th.
- Pets must be on at least a 6-foot leash at all times and are prohibited from any bird closures, for they could disturb nesting adults and/or kill chicks and eggs.
- You are allowed to have beach fires, but only on the free ocean beaches in front of Coquina Beach, including the villages of Rodanthe, Salvo, Waves, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras. Fires are only permitted from May 1st to November 15th in these areas with a free beach fire permit. They’re also permitted in the Ocracoke Day Use Area, year-round, but only between the hours of 6 AM to 10 PM. The Seashore’s beaches permit beach fires from November 16th to April 30th with a free beach fire permit.
- Beach fires must be more than 50ft from any vegetative area and may not be built within 328ft from any turtle nest closure. FIres must be less than 3 feet in diameter and must NOT contain non-wood items or wood products containing non-wood items (glass, cans, plastic, etc.).
- Drivers must remove any trash or litter from being left on the beach, including bait or dead fish parts, as these may attract predators.
- Feeding wildlife is prohibited.
- Fireworks and metal detectors are prohibited.
- Jet skis and other personal motorized watercraft are not permitted.
- If camping, you must do so ONLY in designated camping grounds, not on the beaches.
- Please do NOT dump wastewater or greywater on the beach. Instead, use designated park dump stations.
Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) Use - Traffic Laws That Also Apply To Beach Driving
- Always wear a seatbelt – it’s the law!
- A current driver’s license, valid vehicle registration, insurance, and license plate are required for all vehicles, including ATVs.
- The speed limit on park beaches is 15 mph unless otherwise posted. Please do not drive on or between the dunes, only drive on marked ORV Routes. Also, driving or parking on vegetation is prohibited.
- Open containers of any type of alcoholic beverage are prohibited in vehicles. Public consumption of alcoholic beverages is prohibited.
- Do not hang out of moving vehicles or sit on the tailgate or roof. Those who ride in truck beds must be seated on the floor with the tailgate closed. If any children ride in truck beds, they must be accompanied by an adult. And always remember to check the weather forecast and tide reports before starting your trip.
- Reckless driving, such as spinning circles or defacing the beach, is prohibited.
- Avoid driving or parking on the wrack line: a line of stranded natural debris on the beach left by a previous high tide, which can be an important food source for birds.
- Please remember: pedestrians ALWAYS have the right-of-way!
- Any laws that apply to vehicles used on a paved road in the State of North Carolina also apply to ORV use on OBX beaches.
Tips, Tools & Required/Recommended Equipment for Driving on the Beach
Tools and Recommended Equipment:
It’s always a good idea to carry a small shovel, traction mats, air gauge, a jack, and jack board to put underneath, and a tow rope – always better to be prepared than not!
Some tips for driving on OBX beaches:
- As mentioned before, always go with 4WD over AWD!
- Be sure to air down before hitting the sand - You need some slack in your tires before driving on the shore. It’s usually recommended to decrease tire air pressure to 15 - 22 PSI, depending on beach conditions. However, in Corolla, please do NOT air down/up or leave your vehicle in the NC Coastal Estuarine Reserve parking lot (small parking lot just before the North end of NC-12). Instead, use one of the Corolla beach access lots or the Historic Corolla Park lot.
- Air up upon returning to the pavement - You’ll find plenty of gas station parking lots that allow you to refill your tires after returning to the road.
- Staying in tracks - Once on the beach, it is best, if possible, to stick to the established sand tracks that run along the high tide line. These tracks are formed a hard-packed route from other daily drivers. You’ll notice there are two sets of tracks along the shoreline. Just follow these like those on a regular road and you’ll be good to go! Unlike the regular road, just try not to pass other drivers!
- Wash down - Be sure you drive above the high tide line. Driving along the ocean wash will splash saltwater into the undercarriage of your vehicle and cause loads of potential mechanical problems! Then, spray your undercarriage whenever you make it off the beach.
- Be Considerate of Other Drivers - Don't air down your tires on the middle of a beach ramp, observe local speed limit regulations, and be mindful of the families and pets around you.
Where to Obtain a Beach Driving Permit
Corolla: Driving permits are not required but parking permits info may be accessed here.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore: Beach driving permits for the Seashoreare issued from the National Park Service and may be accessed here.
Driving In Corolla Around The Wild Horses
When driving on the Outer Banks beaches, particularly the northern beaches (Corolla, Carova), please be mindful of any wild horses you may encounter. These free-roaming majestic creatures are a major allure and incredible sight for visitors. When driving on the beaches in Corolla and Corova, you must be alert at all times since the horses can dart out from anywhere. Wild horses rest by laying down on the beaches, making it harder for drivers to see them, especially over the dune lines. The speed limit for driving on the beach is 15 MPH and imperative to follow. Please stay alert and follow the regulations mandated by government officials and local authorities.
Visitors are highly encouraged to learn about and witness these historic and majestic marvels in the hopes that preservation and conservation efforts will grow. However, it’s imperative for your safety and the safety of the horses that this is done at a safe distance. Currituck County law addresses human interaction with the wild horses in the Wild Horse Ordinance.
Important items from the ordinance include:
- It shall further be unlawful for any person to lure, attract or entice a wild horse to come within 50 feet of any person or for any person. (Sec. 3-31. – Luring, enticing, seizing)
- It shall be unlawful for any person to molest, torture, torment, cruelly beat, needlessly mutilate or kill, wound, injure, poison or subject to conditions detrimental to its health or general welfare any wild horse within a wild horse sanctuary, or to cause or procure such action. The words "torture" and "torment" shall be held to include every act which causes unjustifiable pain, suffering or death. (Sec. 3-33. – Cruelty)
- It shall be unlawful for any person to feed, ride, pet or approach with the intent to feed, ride or pet any wild horse. (Sec. 3-36. – Feeding, riding and petting prohibited)
These laws are not meant to prevent visitors and locals from enjoying the Banker Mustangs but rather to protect them. With such a small population, even one injury, illness, or death can be very detrimental to the herd. Unfortunately, many visitors do not understand the full extent of their actions by assuming the wild herd enjoys the same treats that a domestic horse would like. Sadly, one treat could easily kill the horse who eats it. Additionally, although they may appear calm and inquisitive, keeping your distance is absolutely necessary, no matter what your experience level is with domestic horses. At the end of the day, the Spanish Banker Mustangs are a feral species meaning they are wild, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous.
To learn more about the majestic wild Outer Banks horses, click here.
Frequently Asked Questions
I have an AWD vehicle. Can I drive on the beach?
While many consider 4-wheel drive (4WD) and all-wheel drive (AWD) to be similar, there are certainly some differences when it comes to which better performs on the sand of OBX beaches. In AWD. torque is sent to the axles, but usually in a way that automatically engages, with no input from the driver. With 4WD, you have control over when to engage and send torque to the axles. When you start to feel your vehicle getting stuck in the sand, you’ll want to have the control that 4WD gives and not rely on the series of electronic sensors that tells your vehicle when to engage both axles, as in AWD. The deep, soft sand of the Outer Banks is typically only forgiving for 4WD vehicles. So, when in doubt, 4WD is the way to go when exploring the driving areas of OBX beaches.