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 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, then paid a fishing guide to shuttle us out to the cut 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. In my book, 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 oversize 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. Two others melded into the group more recently.
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.
I take a look around. 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. I look out to sea; the ocean glints like a mirror.
I clamber back over to our side 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. (It also turns out to be the only fish of the weekend.) 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 about high school and past surfing trips. For this group, reconnecting with old friends means as much as the surfing, fishing and camping.
"The fact that here we are in our 50s – it's a pretty special thing," Schlegel says. "We're not just sitting around watching a Facebook video. We're still doing the same thing we were doing in our teens, and it's active."
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 the middle of the day, 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, since Mansfield Cut is fairly remote. (You can, however, get a cell signal if you stand in just the right spot on the jetty.)
"If you don't like to be gritty and sandy, don't do it," says Neil Haub, 52, who runs a logo merchandising company in Pflugerville.
Despite the minor discomforts, beach camping comes with its own payoffs: beautiful sunrises and sunsets, for one, sand dollars to collect and birds to watch. And, I'm told, the sweetest surfing spot in Texas, when conditions are right.
"It's always an adventure. You never know what you're going to find," says Carlos Nunez, a packaging broker who lives in Brownsville.
He and Rodrigo Esparza made the three-hour drive up the beach from South Padre Island, a shovel and extra provisions packed in their truck for emergencies. "If you don't know what you're doing, you get stuck easily," he warns. This time they encountered no troubles in the soft sand, parked on the south side of the cut and paddled, with their gear, across the channel on surfboards.
By the following 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 more high-profile surf destinations like 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, which is typical.
"Being as isolated as it is, we usually have it to ourselves because it is a trek to get here," Nunez says.
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.
"Oh, man, getting together with old friends, childhood friends you don't see that often. That's the main thing. All this other stuff is bonus," Haub says.
This crew will return.
IF YOU GO
We paid Cliff Moody of Backlash Charters and Rods to shuttle us from Port Mansfield to Mansfield Cut in his fishing boat. The ride takes about 45 minutes, depending on conditions. For more information, go to fishingbooker.com/charters/view/8899. Beach camping is allowed at Mansfield Cut, but there are no facilities or fresh water. Bring water, a shovel and toilet paper, and pack out all trash.