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Outer Banks Beach Safety Tips

A trip to the Outer Banks' beautiful beaches is an enjoyable and memorable experience for many visitors and families. Whether you’re going swimming, sailing or surfing, taking strolls in the sand or laying out to catch some sun, or participating in any of the many other activities at our coastal attractions, we want your time at the beach to be as safe as it is fun.

Love the Beach Respect the Ocean and Current TV have produced several quick Beach Hazard PSA videos for beach safety on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Here, you will learn how to love the beach, while respecting the ocean. They provide hints and tips for staying safe and informing others of this lifesaving knowledge.

Beach Safety

1. Digging Holes on the Beach

Current TV, in partnership with the Town of Kill Devil Hills, has released a video designed to educate and inform the public about the dangers of digging deep holes on the beach and the risks they pose to public safety. The video aims to spread awareness about the sand collapses that can occur when deep holes are dug and also highlights how large holes become extremely dangerous obstacles to unsuspecting beachgoers as well as ocean rescue personnel patrolling the shoreline in vehicles or on ATVs.

2. Exposure to the Sun

Enjoying the sunshine means also being aware of the dangers of prolonged exposure to the sun. Proper and regular application of sunscreen to exposed skin will help protect your skin from sunburn and sun damage. Remember to reapply sunscreen every time you get out of the water and use a water-resistant broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher. Seek shade during the warmest parts of the day when the rays are strongest from 10AM-3PM. Lastly dress to block the sun; sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats, long sleeves and pants will lower the risk of a serious sunburn.

3. Rip Currents

Rip currents are channeled currents of water that flow away from the shore, and can quickly pull even the strongest swimmers out to sea. Since the current flows underwater, it’s important to know the signs of a rip current and avoid the water in that area.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), indicators of rip currents include:

  • A channel of churning, choppy water.
  • Notable differences in water color.
  • Lines of foam, seaweed, or debris moving steadily seaward.
  • A break in the incoming wave pattern.

Check the National Weather Service Surf Zone Forecasts for the latest rip current, high and low tide and surf height information. You’ll want to check the Outer Banks regional forecast.

Flags on public beaches also indicate rip current alerts: green for low hazard and calm conditions, yellow for medium hazard with moderate surf conditions, and red for high hazard with rough conditions indicating rip currents. Be sure to look for flags on lifeguard stations and read the sign keys when arriving at the beach.

If you see warning signs of rip currents or moderate or high hazard flags, stay out of the water and alert others to do the same. If caught in a rip current, you should stay calm to conserve energy and allow yourself to think clearly. Don’t try to fight the current. Instead, swim out in a direction following the shoreline and swim toward shore once you’re out of the current.

4. Beach Warning Flags

Watch for flags posted at many beach access sites signifying water conditions.

5. Lifeguarded Beaches 

The Outer Banks welcomes several million guests annually and many of these people enjoy our shores and waters. For travelers who prefer swimming on beaches with lifeguard stations, please consult this chart.

6. Jellyfish

Jellyfish and Portuguese man o’ war stings are best avoided by staying aware of beach surroundings. In the case of a sting, it should be treated quickly.

Jellyfish have clear, jellylike bodies, with tentacles with stinging structures hanging below, and swim underwater. The Portuguese man o’ war has a colorful air-filled bladder that keeps it afloat on the surface of the water, with tentacles stretching underneath. If you spot either, stay calm, get out of the water, and alert others.

Both inject venom when they sting, and can sting even after they’re dead, so avoid touching those washed up on the beach. Common sting symptoms include red welts, blisters, pain, tingling, and itching. To treat a sting:

  • Wear gloves or other hand covering to remove tentacles.
  • Wash the affected area with vinegar or rubbing alcohol.
  • Do not rinse with water, which could release more venom.
  • Contact a lifeguard or doctor for further treatment as needed.

7. Sharks

Most shark encounters with humans are cases of mistaken identity. Swimmers, surfers, and others in the water may splash and present visual targets that mislead the shark, causing it to mistake people for prey. Most attacks occur in near-shore waters, between sandbars, or near steep drop-offs where sharks feed.

Chances of encountering a shark in North Carolina waters are very low. To further reduce your risk, consider the following tips from the North Carolina Aquarium:

  • Do not enter the water or swim near a pier, as they attract baitfish that sharks feed on and are a very likely place for sharks to swim if they come close to shore.
  • Avoid waters being used by sport or commercial fishermen, especially if there are signs of baitfish or feeding activity. Diving seabirds are good indicators of such action.
  • Always stay in groups. Sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual.
  • Avoid being in the water during dusk, darkness, or twilight hours. This is when sharks are most active and have a sensory advantage.
  • Wearing shiny jewelry in the water is discouraged because the reflected light resembles the sheen of fish scales.
  • Avoid wearing brightly colored contrasting clothing in the water. Sharks see contrast particularly well.
  • Refrain from excess splashing to minimize your risk.
  • Exercise caution when swimming between sandbars or near steep drop-offs. These are favorite hangouts for sharks.
  • Do not enter the water if bleeding. A shark's sense of smell is acute.

8. Severe Weather/Hurricanes

Be attentive to any weather-related watches or warnings issued by the National Weather Service or local authorities, and follow carefully any precautionary directions or evacuation notices from public safety officials. When thunderstorms or lightning threaten, seek cover promptly in a large enclosed building, or if not possible, an enclosed metal vehicle. The National Weather Service recommends waiting 30 minutes until after the last thunder crack before returning to the beach. You can always get the latest on tropical storm forecasts from the National Hurricane Center.

You'll also find these beach safety tips in this downloadable guide.

9. Frequently Asked Questions


Where can I find beach condition reports for ocean beaches in Dare County?

  • Check LovetheBeachRespectTheOcean.com for daily beach condition reports.
  • (You can also text OBXBEACHCONDITIONS to 77295 to register for these daily Dare County beach condition reports.)
  • Visit Weather.gov/beach/mhx and click the closest umbrella to view a condition report for your area.
  • Check in with a lifeguard when you arrive at the beach each day.

What should I do if I’m caught in a rip current?

  • The most important thing to note is that rip currents pull you out- not under.
  • Remain calm.
  • Yell and wave for help.
  • Stay afloat.
  • Swim parallel to the shore. Don’t try to swim against the current.

Why is it dangerous to dig and leave holes in the sand?

  • Sand collapses can occur in holes just a few feet deep. Never dig a hold deeper than it is wide. Children and adults should not dig holes deeper than their knees when standing in them.
  • Sea turtle laying and hatching season is from May through September. Holes in the sand are obstructions for female sea turtles laying nests on the beach at night and hatchlings heading out to sea roughly 60 days later.
  • If you do dig a hole, be sure to fill it in before you leave the beach.

How can I be a safer swimmer in the ocean?

  • Always have a buddy with you and take a floatation device that will help you float if you become tired or get caught in a rip current.
  • Avoid swimming right at dawn or dusk and when it is dark outside.
  • If the weather conditions show that a storm is approaching or you hear thunder, immediately move off the beach and seek safe shelter.
  • Most importantly, it is always best to swim near a lifeguard.

How can I avoid rip current problems?

  • It is important that you are sure you know how to swim in the surf and that you never swim alone, even if you are an experienced swimmer. The ocean is not the same as a pool or lake.
  • Swim near a lifeguard.
  • Look for posted signs and warning flags, which may indicate higher than usual hazards.
  • Check in with lifeguards before swimming and follow the lifeguard’s instructions.
  • At unguarded beaches don’t enter the water unless you are wearing a personal flotation device or attached to a float like a surfboard or bodyboard. Never swim alone.
  • Be cautious.

How can I assist someone who is caught in a rip current?

  • Alert the lifeguard. If no lifeguard is available, call 911.
  • Yell to the victim to swim parallel to the shore line until they escape the pull.
  • If possible, throw the rip current victim something that floats- a boogie board, pool float, etc.
  • Remember- many would-be rescuers have drowned trying to help others. Don't become a victim while trying to help someone else.
  • Call for help.

Why is a moderate rip current risk posted when the ocean looks calm?

  • Long period swells sometimes result in minimal wave action where the ocean surface is hardly perturbed, yet there is a greater than normal transport of wave energy into the surf zone which may result in an elevated rip current risk.
  • Look for posted signs and warning flags, which may indicate higher than usual hazards, even if they aren’t

How do I keep my dog safe at the beach?

  • Drinking salt water is a bad idea but many dogs try to lap up the ocean. Be sure to bring plenty of fresh water and a bowl so your dog isn’t tempted to find his own water source.
  • Even on days that you might not expect it, the sand can become hot enough to burn your dog’s paws.
  • Always test the sand with your bare feet to determine if your dog needs protection for his paws.
  • You’re not the only one who needs to be concerned with sunburn. Bring an umbrella or tent that will accommodate you and your dog.
  • Running on sand is strenuous, so don’t expect your dog to be able to fetch as long as he can at the dog park.
  • When you’re done playing, take time to rinse the salt and sand from your dog’s coat.

What are the symptoms of heat stroke?

When enjoying the beach on the hottest days of the year, it is easy to become overheated. Take care of
yourself and your family, and look out for the signs of heat stroke which can include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness, disorientation, agitation, or confusion
  • Sluggishness or fatigue
  • Seizure
  • Hot, dry skin that is flushed but not sweaty
  • A high body temperature
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Hallucinations

How can heat stroke be prevented?

  • Stay hydrated! Drink more water than usual and don’t wait until you’re thirsty.
  • Those at high risk for heat-related illness– young children, the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions– should stay in an air-conditioned environment on days when the temperature exceeds 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Pace yourself while exercising or playing in hot weather. Be sure to take breaks in the shade.
  • Protect your skin, using reef-safe sunscreen and reapplying every two hours.
  • Cover up with a wide-brimmed hat. Wear lightweight and light-colored clothing.
  • Provide your pets plenty of water in shady areas.
  • Sign up for beach condition alerts on OBXAlerts.com, including extreme heat alerts and safety tips.
  • Do not leave children or pets in parked