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Fort Jefferson

Camping at Fort Jefferson | 10 insider tips no one tells you

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


Right there on its own website, the National Park Service warns you: Camping at Fort Jefferson National Park in the Dry Tortugas is “primitive camping.”

I’m pretty sure no one takes that too seriously. These are the days of “glamping,” where camping comes in a huge recreational vehicle with a king-size bed and air conditioning or a tent the size of Texas and wifi. How primitive could it be?

Fort Jefferson is a pack-in-pack-out camp ground. Fewer than a dozen small sites cluster among the scrub trees just outside the entrance to the fort and a few steps from the Atlantic Ocean. What you need, you bring. What you bring, you take out. Food. Water. Gear. There’s no corner store, no takeout delivery — and most assuredly, no cell service or wifi.

And, yet. This is one of the most sought-after, most soul-soothing experiences on the planet.

Forty years ago, my husband, Ed and I camped on the then-desolate Outer Banks of North Carolina for our honeymoon. Over the following four decades, I traded camping gear for resort hotels and he added to his gear with Scout trips to Philmont and the Boundary Waters. When we moved to Key West in 2012, we brought all that gear with us. As our 40th anniversary approached we decided, what the heck, we’ll do one last celebratory hurrah with a camping trip to Fort Jefferson.

We figured we’d ditch the gear after the trip. That was before. We will return. Soon. Because despite the 20-30 mph winds for four days and three nights, despite a gale force storm with pounding rain that threatened to blow away our tent (and did destroy the neighbors’), camping alongside that massive fort, under the stars in the silence is magical.

The national park’s website has the details you’ll need, right down to a darn-near perfect packing checklist. No need to repeat them. But, there are a handful of observations and suggestions we’d offer to round out that checklist.

  • Bring a solar charger: If you’re a Kindle junkie, which we are, then over four days you’re going to need to power-up that book. Ditto your cell phones that you’re using for cameras.
  • You can leave the toilet paper rolls at home: The park service calls them compost toilets. I call them outhouses-with-flare. In other words, they’ve got a “real seat”  and rolls of paper. You can save space by not bringing your own. Bring along those “emergency” pee bottles, too, because walking through the hermit crabs in the dead of night to the outhouse ain’t on anyone’s list of fun things to do. And, there are actual laws about public urination, even if it is dark and is right outside your tent door.
  • Water: They tell you at least one gallon per day per person. Do not underestimate that advice and think you can cheat. I’d recommend two gallons per day per person, especially if you intend to stay decently hydrated. And, forget bringing along all those gallon jugs. Get the big 7.5 gallon camping versions. Water doesn’t count in your total 60-ish pound per person gear limit. And the bigger containers are easier to pack and carry.
  • Kids: Got ’em. Love ’em. Not sure if this kind of camping is going to make kids happy. You know your kids, so consider: There really, really, really isn’t anything to “do.” There are only so many times you can wander around the fort looking for the crocodile (Update: the croc is gone) and admiring the birds. Water sports are snorkeling and swimming; kayaking if you bring your own. And, except for the summer months when it’s hotter than blue blazes on the island and humid like wet wool, the water can be a bit brisk. In the winter months, it’s downright cold. Bring along the iPad and the video games — and the solar charger.
  • Tip the ferry folks: No kidding, these guys work hard to help you load and unload that gear. And, you’ll love that you can use their warm-water showers on the back of the ferry each day. No soap or shampoo, of course, but a good rinse can make your day
  • Staying clean: I’ll admit the only part of primitive camping I don’t like is no showers. So, I decided to take along a box of those baby wipes. Then, it occurred to me: Someone must have invented a bath towel size one of these wipes by now. Sure enough, Googled that puppy and there they were. One does a big guy; two is heavenly, and I even used one to scrub my hair after a salt water adventure. I cannot recommend these strongly enough: Epic Wipes.
  • When to go: Chances are you’ll need to make reservations months in advance. There are only 10 campsites and they are in demand year-round. But, if I were picking the perfect months, I’d go for April, May and maybe June, and late October and November. The water will be warm enough to enjoy paddling around and the days and evenings will be cool enough that you won’t think about trading your first born for air conditioning. Note though that hurricanes can linger in October and November. Just saying.
  • Bring a shade something-something: If you’re not among the four lucky campers who grab one of the campsites in the trees, you’re likely to be right out there in the open. So, if you’ve got one and you’ve got the space, pack one of those shade things.
  • Double — triple — stake your tent: I’m serious. The wind is constant and then there are the big winds and gusts. You’re pounding stakes into sand and coral but, believe me, you’ll be glad you did.
  • Pack yours clothes, then unpack half of them: You will not need them — and it will give you room to pack a couple of extra towels. Towels won’t dry out there, not even the microfiber ones. Extras come in handy.
  • Bonus tip: Take instant coffee or a French press. You’ll never, ever heat water to a boil so making “real” coffee isn’t going to happen. But you can get it warm enough to make a decent cup of joe for the morning and evening. You can only use Sterno and self-lighting charcoal. No gas allowed.
  • And, plan to return. Like I said, it’s magical.

Linda Grist Cunningham is owner and editor of KeyWestWatch Media, which builds websites and manages social media for small businesses. She and her husband moved to Key West in 2012. Ed owns Tree Priorities and is a park ranger at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West.


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