What to Know Before You Visit the Outer Banks

Updated July 21, 2020.

It’s Travel Tip Tuesday! If you’ve been following along on Instagram and Facebook, you know I recently took a quick girlfriend getaway to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was my first time to the Outer Banks, and I can see why people love it there! But since it was my first trip there, I found there were several things I wish I had known in advance. So here’s a quick list of things to know before you go!


Every place I’ve been has its own terminology. Whether it’s invented words, dialect, or specific terms, it’s always good to know what the locals are saying!

  • OBX: This is the accepted abbreviation for the Outer Banks.
  • Sound Side: This is the west coast of the island, on the west side of the road. It’s called this because it faces the Sound between the Outer Banks islands and the mainland. The Outer Banks Sounds are the Currituck Sound, Albemarle Sound, Roanoke Sound, Croatan Sound, Pamlico Sound, Core Sound, and Back Sound.
  • Ocean Side: This is the east coast of the island, on the east side of the road, and it faces the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Ocean Front: The next few terms are good to know when looking for a vacation rental on the Outer Banks. “Ocean front” implies that there are no other homes or anything else between your rental and the ocean.
  • Ocean View: Alternatively, this term implies that you can see the ocean from the property, but it’s not right on the water, and there may be a house or other structure between your rental and the ocean.
  • Beach Access: This term implies that the beach is walkable from the rental property, but it is not right on the beach.
  • 1st Row, 2nd Row, 3rd Row, etc.: This is also good to know if you’re looking for a vacation rental because it refers to how far back the accommodation is located in relation to the beach and the ocean or sound.
  • 4X4 Beaches: There are some homes and vacation rentals on beaches that can only be accessed by 4-wheel drive vehicles. There will be signage, and you’ll know when you get there because the paved road will end!
  • Dunes: Sand hills. Basically these are large piles of sand that form naturally and are an important part of the islands’ ecosystem. Where designated, please keep off! Those dunes serve to protect the inner part of the island from high water during hurricanes or other storms.
Keep off dunes! 
Keep reading: What to Pack for the Outer Banks

Good to Know

Now that we have some terminology down, we can get into the facts of the matter!

  • High season lasts from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.
  • Off-season is from mid-September through mid-May. Many businesses close up entirely, but you’ll have much of the islands to yourself if you go during this timeframe!
  • Hurricane season lasts from June-November, but the most hurricane activity is typically between August and October. Don’t let this discourage you, just pay attention to the forecast!
  • Harris Teeter closes at 8:00pm! This was a big deal to some in our group because living in the D.C. area means that many businesses, including grocery stores, are open 24 hours, or at least open until 10:00pm or 11:00pm! Plan accordingly, since many people come to the Outer Banks with the intention of going to the grocery and make their own meals.
  • Bring your bug repellent! There are ticks in the grass and sometimes in the sand as well.
  • There are protected wild Spanish horses just north of Corolla, on the northern end of the Outer Banks. One theory of how they came here is that a Spanish ship sank off the coast, and the horses onboard swam to shore. All the horses on the island are descendants of those horses!
  • If you want a tour to see the horses, you must book it well in advance. Just do an Internet search for “wild horse tour Outer Banks,” and choose the tour that suits you!
  • If you plan to hike at the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, bring the appropriate footwear! I wore my sandals that day, and I really should have brought hiking shoes! You can also learn to paraglide there.
  • Your vacation rental will likely have a lot of stairs! Some properties, especially hotels, will have elevators, but most vacation rental homes will not. Homes are traditionally on stilts to prevent flooding, so their homes have lots of steps. If you cannot do steps, be sure to look specifically for a home or rental property with an elevator.
Our vacation rental, named “Reader’s Digest”: multiple floors and multiple flights of stairs!

Getting Around

  • The Outer Banks is a long series of thin islands along the North Carolina coast. They are connected by a series of bridges, and from end to end, the islands are about 200 miles from north to south!
  • There are only a few roads running north to south, and the speed limits are low, so exploring all of the Outer Banks and its beach towns is not possible in a day or even a weekend! Choose your activities wisely.
  • If you go walking on the beach, pay attention to the letter and number system on the stairs that take you up over the dunes. The beaches are long, and it all starts to look the same after a while!
Number and letter designating this set of stairs
More here: What to Eat in the Outer Banks

The Wright Brothers and Birth of Aviation

I am about to shock you:

  • The Wright brothers took off from Kill Devil Hill, not Kitty Hawk! I had no idea. Why does everyone talk about Kitty Hawk being the birthplace of flight and the location of the Wright brothers’ first manned flight? I have no idea. Kill Devil Hill is not far from Kitty Hawk, though, just a little farther south.
  • The Wright Brothers National Monument is part of the National Park Service. It costs $7 per person (not per car), but military, student, and senior discounts apply.
  • There is a kite flying program at the National Park, which is great for kids and is included in your admission.
Wilbur and Orville Wright Monument

What do you think? Do you feel more prepared for your trip to the OBX? Check out all my OBX posts and more on my United States Page!

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3 responses to “What to Know Before You Visit the Outer Banks”

  1. Kelly Shumate Avatar

    I love the cover photo!

    1. Thank you! Amanda caught it at just the right, wind-swept moment!

  2. […] more on the Outer Banks? Check out What to Know Before You Visit the Outer Banks and 10 Things to do in Corolla, Outer […]

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