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Dry Tortugas Camping

Dry Tortugas camping | 10 lessons for sissies

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.

05/30/2023

In the beginning… Ranger Ed and I started camping at Fort Jefferson in April 2017, to celebrate our 40th anniversary. From gale force winds and rain to those wonderful sunsets, we decided we’d keep the old gear.

Fast forward to May 2023

In the scheme of things few folks actually camp at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. It’s one of the least visited national parks, likely because it’s 70 miles from Key West, it’s expensive to get there and there’s pretty much nothing to do once one does.

I suspect, though, that most of the 63,000 or so annual visitors love to dream about silent nights under the stars and an ocean of wonderfulness in which to snorkel, paddle and fish and beside which to ponder the meaning of the universe away from the madding crowd, so to speak.

Such is the stuff of which marketing campaigns are made. Words like these from the Dry Tortugas camping ferry folks are a siren song: “Imagine sleeping under the stars, on an island 70 miles from civilization, with the warm tropical breezes blowing through palm trees and the rhythmic sound of the ocean waves playing in the background.”

Even camping neonates get to itching to grab a gallon of water, a tent and a handful of MREs and spend the night.

Ranger Ed and I returned last Friday from our annual three-nights-four-days. We’d do it more frequently if it weren’t all-out Hunger Games for reservations — and the ferry isn’t booking at all at the moment as it negotiates with the National Park Service over the concessionaire contract. (PS: Seaplanes don’t take campers and gear. Private charters are for folks above my pay grade.)

We’ll do it again and again until we’re flat out too decrepit to schlep the gear, stake the tent and get up off the ground in the middle of the night to unzip the tent and stagger in deep sand to the outhouse. It takes a week to get ready and days to put it away. The gear’s piled up on the porch, in the living room and in the yard. We’ll get to it eventually. Or keep it around for hurricane prep.

Fort Jefferson camping ain’t for sissies. When the National Park Service says it’s primitive camping with a no-exceptions pack-in-pack-out rule, be a believer. And, still I watch the uninitiated wandering around hunting for a cell signal. Sigh.

Key West Island News

Dry Tortugas camping | The parts that aren’t for sissies

After years of camping here’s how Ranger Ed and I decode the marketing:

  • What they say: Warm tropical breezes.
    • What that means: You’re going to sweat through your clothes. There’s no such thing as a breeze in your tent even with the screens down. You’re going to lie there, sweat dripping onto your mat, your hair stuck to your face and you’re going to swear. Crikey, don’t bring a sleeping bag except maybe in January or February, and even then a sheet is enough. Winds can swing from becalmed to gale in moments. Pro tip: Solar chargeable mini fan. Two of them.
  • What they say: No bugs to speak of.
    • What that means: Well, I’ll speak of them. Compared to Key West or the mainland, mosquitos not so much. But, there’s plenty of flying, crawling and biting things. Pro tip: Insect repellent of the on-your-skin variety. Or just ignore them and swallow an antihistamine with breakfast if the itching is annoying.
  • What they say: No rats.
    • What that means: The park service has done a yeoman’s job of controlling (not eradicating) the rats that have run amok for years. So, yeah, we didn’t see any. That doesn’t mean your campsite is animal free. Welcome to the thousands (not an exaggeration) of hermit crabs that prowl the campsites shortly before sunset and on through the night. Stepping on them is unavoidable and they do crunch. They’ll scritch and scratch alongside your tent and occasionally crawl inside and across your toes but you’ll be awake sweating anyway, so what the heck, right?
  • What they say: Two gallons of water per person per day.
    • What that means: Just do it. Don’t argue. Yes, you can buy a bag of ice from the ferry and you can fill up a measly water bottle, but you can’t get a jug. Pro tip: Just do it.
  • What they say: Great snorkeling.
    • What that means: Not so much. Fun? Yes. If the wind gets up, as it’s wont to do, the turbidity means you can’t see anyway. Pro tip: Sit up high on South Beach and watch as the tarpon, jacks, snappers and barracudas swim circles just outside the lines of sight of unsuspecting snorkelers, all lamenting the lack of things to see under water. If only they knew. Pro tip: This is not Disney World. There are sharks, too.
  • What they say: Oh, the stars.
    • What that means: There is literally a boatload of ambient light. When the boats are in, when your neighbors feel the bougie need for LED head lamps, when the Fort Jefferson supply boat is in and when contractors are working on repairs, that place is akin to Key West Bight at Christmas. Pro tip: If you have any hope of seeing a canopy of Van Gogh stars, don’t camp during a full moon.
  • What they say: Grab the shady campsites.
    • What that means: There’s never been much shade at Fort Jefferson, and after Hurricane Ian crashed right through the island in September 2022, most of what was there is gone, dead or diminished. Pro tip: Bring your own shade. Choose a campsite in the field and don’t get back in the trees. See warm breezes above.
  • What they say: X is the best month to camp.
    • What that means: If you camp during the winter months, you may not sweat as much. The tradeoff is the really cold ocean temperature. Be prepared (bring lots of extra stakes) for tropical storms and high winds any time of the year. Spring camping through May is a decent balance between water and air temps, but you’ll share campsites with a bazillion people who are there to fish. I prefer the hardcore fishermen with minimal supplies. They’re off by dawn, back at dark and in bed by 9. We shall not speak of the entitled, arrogant, oblivious glampers who pile in on private boats with crews to set up McMansions and full-on blow-up beds and mini-kitchens. Pro tip: We’ve done it, but summer camping through October is not for the faint of heart.
  • What they say: Ah, the quiet peace.
    • What that means: Nah. It is never silent. Birdsong 24-7. You will hear your neighbors’ whispered argument two sites over. Babies cry, too. Pro tip: If snoring bothers you, bring earplugs because you can hear those snorts across the campground.
  • What they say: It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
    • What that means: If I weren’t a veteran tent camper who can go days without a shower and air conditioning, I would never make Fort Jefferson my once-in-a-lifetime choice. The gear is expensive. The prep is exhaustive (remember, you have to plan, prepare and pack meals, too, and even the best coolers with dry ice struggle with keeping the bacteria at bay.) If one needs emergency medical care, it’s four to six hours before you’re close to help. Pro tip: Do your first-time primitive camping in July in your backyard for a week. No cell. No Wi-Fi. No cheating and going inside to get the first-aid kit you forgot to pack and now you’ve stepped on broken glass. See how that goes.
  • What they say: Dry Tortugas camping is not for sissies.
    • What they mean: Dry Tortugas camping is definitely not for the unprepared. But if you get your lists in order, adjust your expectations and bring along the right (or no) companions, you’ll have a simply splendid time. Join me and Ranger Ed for the 2024 Hunger Games for a Fort Jefferson reservation. It’s worth it.

Read about a couple of previous Dry Tortugas camping trips

4 Comments

  1. Ted

    Call me a sissy! Say hi to Dr. Mudd. And give me a couple of nights at the Marquesa!

    Reply
    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      LOL. That’s why Key West has WAY more luxury hotels than primitive camping sites. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Sandi

    Thank you so much. I winter in Key Largo and have always wanted to go camp there. Now that I am older it is unlikely but after reading this I almost feel like I have experienced it. THANKS

    Reply
    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      What a wonderful note, Sandi. A writer loves when a reader can experience vicariously. Even if you can’t camp, be sure to take a day trip. It’s worth it even for a few hours. Oh, and take along one of those lovely parasols. Not only will you be super stylish but you’ll have your own portable shade.

      Reply

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Avatar of Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham

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.

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