Little Tybee Island: Your Own Private Beach

May is our time of year for secluded beach adventures, it seems.

Last year we took a bikepacking trip to False Cape State Park, which still remains one of my favorite beach trips ever. Living in Tennessee, beach trips are fewer and further between, but we are finding ways to fit them in regardless. We went to Little Talbot Island State Park in Florida back in January (and I will review this at some point!). Hoping for something a little closer with camping directly on the shore this time, I did some research, and we settled on Little Tybee Island, off the coast of Georgia near Savannah.

There is a campground on Tybee Island proper, but it’s expensive, a good half a mile from the shore, and definitely geared more towards RVs than tents. We wanted oceanfront camping. Camping where we can look out of the tent and see the sea. Little Tybee Island promised this, but at a price: there is no vehicular or foot access in. The only way to reach the island is by boat or kayak, and once there, there is, well, nothing. At least, nothing man-made. A state nature preserve, the island is entirely undeveloped, and other than the kayak tours that run from the main island and anyone adventurous enough to camp there, it’s fairly untouched by humans at all.

The paddlers in the background were the only other people there for a long time

Most importantly, we LOVED this trip. I need to preface with that, because this was not an easy trip, and not one that I broadly recommend. Most of my takeaways from this trip are ways to prepare, things we learned, and warnings for anyone looking to head out there–but also that it was incredible. We just stood there a few times just talking to each other in awe. “This is GEORGIA.I kept repeating. “Who knew you could have this in Georgia?”

So with that said, here are some facts about this island that made me question upfront if it was a good choice, and that made it one of our more challenging family adventures:

  • Accessing it. You need to have your own boat/kayak (or have the means to hire someone to take you out there) and need to be able to navigate ocean currents.
  • Wildlife. The island is home to alligators, several species of venomous snakes, wild hogs, raccoons, and tons of bugs, in addition to waters FULL of jellyfish.
  • Tides. The tides on Little Tybee are extreme, and once the tide came in we were fully and completely trapped where we had chosen to camp. Because many areas become inaccessible once the tide comes in it’s important to know when and where it will rise.
  • The elements overall. The areas accessible for humans have little shade, and the place we camped faced southeast. It makes a beautiful landscape, but one with direct sunlight that lasts most of the day, and little reprieve from the wind.
  • There is no drinking water on the island–not even water that can be filtered.

So, why did I look at all of that and think, hmm, this sounds like a great trip to do with a three and five year old?

Because of this:

We are a family of beach bums, but we are also a family of nature-lovers. While taking a day trip to the boardwalk at Virginia Beach and sitting with the crowds for a couple of hours was always welcome beach time, Billy and I have gladly sought out quieter coastal spaces since we’ve been together. It was true before we had kids, but now especially, we love being in a place where the kids have so much flat, open space to explore. And this island had the added bonus of an “oak graveyard” right next to one of the recommended camping hammocks, which made an amazing natural playground for the kids when the tide was out. They could be as loud as they wanted, could run as far as we could see them, could splash and come right back to camp, and we had a home base steps from all of this natural play space–no dealing with hotel elevators or having to drive back to a campground. Plus being in an undeveloped area allows so many teaching moments. We saw sea turtle tracks. The kids found a live horseshoe crab and a live starfish. They dug up clam and oyster shells. We talked about the tides, and ocean currents, and water safety, and lunar gravity. There were so many different birds–and while not a pleasant learning experience, there was even a bird carcass near us that allowed for a conversation about decomposition and why bugs are important even if they are a nuisance.

So going back to the challenges, how did we prepare for them, and what advice do I have for anyone else hoping to make this trip?

  • Know your water skills. This was our first time sea kayaking, so in addition to time out on local waterways, I did a lot of research, watched videos of other people paddling at this location, talked to experienced sea kayakers, and we asked locals for the best place to land on the island. Preparation is essential.
  • Learn about the wildlife, and talk to your kids about it. We didn’t end up seeing any land critters (except some lizards), but once we planned the trip we talked about what to do if we saw a gator or hog, and we played “snake” with phone cords. Make it fun and make it a learning experience–for everyone. I have been scared of alligators forever, but after preparing for this trip I am admittedly a teeny bit disappointed we didn’t see any. And bring bug spray, because they are relentless.
  • Have a way of monitoring tide charts. Before you go, and while there. Head out to the island while the tide is going out, and leave when the tide is coming in, or you’ll be fighting the current your whole ride. (And hug the sandbar on your way back in! We missed this piece of advice and really could have used it!) Make sure to set up camp well above the tide line as well. We got cell service out there, but something like this emergency crank radio from Midland to monitor weather was also really helpful.
  • In addition to sunscreen, I strongly recommend UPF resistant clothing. Sunscreen is no fun to apply when covered in sand–which you will be, the whole time you are there. And as the day moves on, the UPF clothing (or towels, like the ones from luvbugcompany) protect not just from sunburn but keep your skin cool against the heat of the sun. I think of all my warnings, this is the one I need to stress the most–it is harsh out there. There really is no reprieve from hot sun and high temperatures, and when the tide is coming in the wind picks up. Failure to adequately prepare for this can make everyone miserable.
  • Make sure however you come in, you are able to pack in lots of water. We used it for drinking, cooking, first aid, and hand-washing. I usually bring electrolyte tablets like the ones from Nuum with us on hikes, but this time I brought packets of Liquid IV hydration boosters because I was worried about running out of water, and wanted what we brought to go as far as it could. We took a 5 gallon container in addition to some water bottles and that was enough–but if we had stayed any longer it wouldn’t have been, and that was with also having sparkling water, juice boxes, and beer in the cooler for extra drinks.

Instead of a family-friendly rating, I’m going to break this down more into categories. The family-friendliess of it has way more to do with your individual family’s adventure preferences and everyone’s comfort level.

Privacy: 5/5. You don’t have complete isolation. There are companies that run kayak tours here during the day in addition to the locals who come out, and when we pulled in Sunday morning the hammock that had been recommended to us for camping was occupied with a group who spent the weekend there–but once the tide started coming in Sunday afternoon, everyone left and we had the place entirely to ourselves. And even at the most “crowded,” there was still far fewer people than you’d find on a mainland beach in May. Plus, the island is huge, so depending on your paddling skills you can always find somewhere else to camp if the hammock near the oak graveyard is occupied.

Safety: 3/5. There are far more environmental hazards here than I think anywhere else we have camped as a family. I cut my foot badly on oyster shells our first day there, and that’s in addition to all of the wildlife and elemental dangers listed above. These can all be prepared for, but they do require preparation, and should not be underestimated.

Amenities: 0/5. There aren’t any. Period.

Activities: 5/5. So, so, so many. I mean–there’s kayaking obviously. Swimming. Sandcastle building. Shelling. Bird-watching. Fishing. Downed oaks everywhere that make a natural jungle gym. There is a sandbar that stretches from Tybee Island to just offshore of Little Tybee during low-tide you can paddle to for wide-open running. I saw videos of people harvesting their own oysters. Think of a beach activity that doesn’t require man-made intervention, this place has it.

For the work that goes into this trip, it’s not for someone who only wants to relax at the beach. But if you want the adventure along with the beauty, this trip is so, so, so worth it. Anytime you can combine falling asleep in a tent with falling asleep to the sound of the ocean is a good time in my book, and having so much to explore was great for all of us. We all got sunburnt, and we all came home absolutely exhausted, but despite all of that, I would go back next week if we could.

Have you been there? If you have, or if you end up going, I would love to hear what your experience is like!

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