Camping on Shell Key

There are no trash cans on Shell Key.  No county employees are paid to remove trash from the island.  All of the cleaning and unwanted trash removal is done by hard working volunteers and individual visitors just like you.

Why are we asking you to help clean up trash on the island? Even trash that is not yours?

Because we need your help to preserve the future of camping on Shell Key.

The county does not have the funding or resources to clean up after visitors to the island.  However, they do have the authority to ban any activity that they believe is a threat to order and preservation of this preserve.  We know – because it has happened before. We do not represent any official state or county authority.  Yet we know that our continued right to camp on Shell Key absolutely depends on how well we can keep this island looking and functioning like a pristine ecosystem.

Camping Rules & Guidelines

Rules are enforced by county law enforcement as follows …

Overnight Camping  the South Public Use Area Only
Primitive camping is allowed only on the South Public Use area of Shell Key. 

Camping Permits
Camping Permits are required for any overnight activity on Shell Key. Permits can be obtained for free from the county.

Leave No Trace
We are required to remove absolutely all trace of our camp – including food, refuse and anything that came with us on our boat.

You must remove all trace of your campfire before you leave.  This means removing (not burying) all the charred wood from the fire.  Remember that you are not at a permanent campsite.  You are in a nature preserve and are required to leave no trace at all.

NEVER Cut Any Native Vegetation for Firewood
This is perhaps the worst thing that people can do to the island – because it can’t be cleaned up.   Besides the fact that freshly cut wood on the island will barely burn,  it is a blemish on the land that will take years to regrow. Please bring plenty of firewood with you and remove it from the island when you are done.

No Bottles Or Cans In The Campfire
As cool as it may be to watch your beverage bottles melt in the campfire, these things leave a nasty mess in an area where people regularly walk barefoot.  And again, please remove all trace of your fire – even the partially burned wood and coals.  Burying it is not good enough.  Erosion will expose a buried campfire in no time.

Portable Toilets Required
The county requires all campers to bring a portable toilet for overnight activities. A simple DIY toilet can be made with a 5 gallon bucket, a trash bag and some sand.  Place the trash bag in the bucket as a liner, put in a scoop of sand and use the toilet.  When done, put another scoop of sand on top.  Some people even bring some scented cat litter to use instead of sand.

Your brother’s keeper
We are asking you to, whenever possible, take a little extra trash off the island – even if it is not yours. The overwhelming majority of visitors to Shell Key are conscientious and tidy. Yet, a few inconsiderate visitors to the island have the ability to ruin it for the rest of us.  Also, trash drifts onto Shell Key from the gulf and bay on a regular basis.  If we don’t do it, it won’t get done.  Keep a few garbage bags on the boat and grab a few items as you are strolling the beach or exploring the pines. You will feel great about making a difference.   If a lot of people make a little effort, we can sustain this resource despite our growing local population..

No Pets or Alcohol
It doesn’t seem fair to leave the member of the family that would perhaps get the most joy out of island wilderness camping.  However, pets are completely banned from the entire preserve including all of the aquatic boundaries.  Read more about the pet ban.  Alcohol is also forbidden within the preserve boundaries.

Camping Etiquette
Please be considerate of nearby campers and keep loud noise or bright lights to a minimum at night.

Camping Checklist

  • Sunscreen, First Aid & bug repellent.
  • First Aid kit should include
  • Water and Food
  • Extra sunglasses, towels and a hat.
  • Dress for worst case weather
  • Fully charged Cell Phone
  • Chairs, tent and bedding.
  • Toilet Paper, garbage bags & portable toilet.
  • Sandals or water shoes (see sandspurs!)


Questions and Comments

Article: Camping on Shell Key
62 comments on “Camping on Shell Key
  1. Spencer Watral says:

    Is Hammock camping a possibility on this island?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Spencer,

      There are not a lot of large trees on the island – so it may me challenging to find a place to rig your hammocks. At one time, there was an Australian pine forest on the south end of the island – but it was removed because the pines were not native. There were several native trees planted in that area – but I’m not sure if they are plentiful enough for Hammocks. Also, when the pines were removed, the area became overrun with sandspurs. The sandspurs are fewer this time of year, but this area generally has more than areas closer to the beach.

      Hope this helps. If you find a good spot, please let us know!


  2. Connie Young says:

    I have received my permit for camping on Shell Key For November 25-27th. Could you tell me how busy it will be. Is there a limited number of many people allowed on the island . Is it correct that we can park at Fort Desota Boat Ramp overnight?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Connie,

      It should not be busy at all this time of year. Groups of over 50 people require a special permit as described on the county website. Ft. Desoto Boat ramps are definitely the best place to park overnight. (don’t forget your parking pass on the way in)

  3. Caricia says:

    hi. It has been years since I have camped on Shell Key. I’ve gitten my permit but am wondering if we are still allowed to park overnight at the bridge just north of the Ft. Desoto boat ramps. I will park at the ramp is necessary but am a little uncomfortable with all the boat traffic on my little kayak. Thanks in advance.

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Caricia,

      A lot of people do park overnight on the side of the Bayway. I believe it is legal to do so, however, you should look out for any parking signs as rules can change over time. I usually park at the boat ramps because it seems a little safer for the car. If you paddle north across the channel you can get to the preserve waters fairly quickly – then head west to the island in the shallow calmer waters.

  4. Denis Trottier says:

    I have a little RV to 20 feet. Do you thing is possible to have a campsites in the Shell Key park?

  5. Nolan campbell says:

    I don’t like to go anywhere without my firearm so the question is can I bring my pistol with me? And what’s the chances and fines for camping about the south line?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      With regard to the firearms, you can check out the discussion at the bottom of the rules page. Camping is permitted in the south public use area. All other areas are subject to fines for overnight camping.

    • Paul says:

      Last I heard it used to be no firearms, but they passed a bill allowing them. I remember reading somewhere that they had to change the signs to remove the no firearms part.

    • Rob Wallace says:

      Seriously? If your that insecure, I recommend you stay locked in your home. I’m so proud to be Canadian and not feel the need to be armed. That is the true definition of freedom.

  6. Narlin Smith says:

    I am looking to camp overnight on the south end Dec 19-20, already applied for a permit. Do you know of any nearby places to rent a kayak overnight, and any suggestions as to when is the best time to launch and head out there?

  7. Marjie Millard says:

    I am coming to the area in early January from Oregon. How is the camping that time of year?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Marjie,

      Early January should be ideal camping weather. My favorite months to camp on the island are January and February. In early January, the days could still be a little on the warm side, but the nights should be very cool and comfortable. Also, the sandspurs will be far fewer for winter camping.

      Here’s hoping you have a great time. Feel free to share your pics on our Facebook page 🙂

      Clear Skies!

  8. Island Ferry does indeed permit kayaks on our boats, with the maximum length limit of around 22 feet. We charge $39 per person for the camping dropoff service, and that includes pickup at a prearranged date and time. Also included is free parking at the Pass-a-Grille Marina, our home dock.
    Please contact us at 727-742-2277 for more information.

  9. Lisa says:

    We are planning a camping trip in early November. For a campfire, do we need to bring a fire pit of some sort? I am assuming ground fires are not allowed. Also, just how bad are the sandspurs at this time? We will have some young children with us and I want to protect their feet. Thanks.

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Lisa. You do not need to bring a fire pit as long as you remove any trace of the fire before you leave. Just bring a shovel and a bucket to remove unburned wood. Bottom line is: ‘Leave no trace”. Sandspurs are still a problem in November – although they are waning. When sandpurs are green in the summer, you can remove them relatively easily – but when the burs start to die, they can leave splinter in your skin. As long as you stay near the beach, you will be ok. Sandspurs only grow in areas that are ‘never’ flooded with salt water. The southeast tip of the island is a good camping spot and is relatively sandspur free. Everyone should definitely bring shoes. Hope this helps. Have fun!

  10. marek says:

    Hi i have 3questions.wbere exactly call for permit(any#?)?where can leave car at night if comming at inflatable boat from northest point of de soto to south shell key? I trying bring at night my telescope and hd camera .triyng get some pics of planets and stars.maybe milky way.and i guess its less city light at shell key.thanx if reply..sorry for my eng.language .still learning 🙂 .Marek

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Our camping permit page has links to the county’s online permits. You are not allowed to leave your car at Ft. Desoto Park – but you can leave it at the Ft. Desoto Boat ramp if you pay for overnight parking (about $7). You should get some great stargazing on the island. I have observed a Quasar from the south end. You will get magnitude 6 skies on a good night. Have fun!

  11. Scott says:

    Great aerial photo graphics on how to navigating A Boat Around Shell Key. Do you have others that cover the Tampa bay, Treasure island and Egmont Key areas?

  12. Nathan says:

    Thank you for your information. And sorry I posted this question again, for some reason I didn’t see this.

  13. Nathan says:

    Are you able to hammock camp there?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Nathan,

      I would certainly not discourage you from trying. You might find a few trees to string up some hammocks and gear. I would not try hanging a hammock from any of the mangroves – and most of the older trees werer removed from the island by the county. Once upon a time, there was a pine forest covering most of the south public use area. Because they were non-native (Australian Pines) the forest was cut down by the county. Although there were some native species of tree planted, they are rather sparse. You might find a stand of trees dense enough to support some hammock camping setups, however, another consequence of the removal of the forest was an explosion of sandspurs in the area that was once covered with tree canopy. This time of year is especially treacherous since the sandspurs are in full bloom. Seems like another example of the folly of heavy-handed resource management.

  14. Thomas says:

    Regarding the campfire ban during summer, the guidelines mention grills being excluded from this ban and still being allowed. We have a small portable grill we use whenever there is no fire ring, do you know if that would be acceptable? I have been researching but haven’t found a definitive. Thanks!

    • Jack Coletti says:

      The ordinance (62B-55.005) specifies “The building of campfires or bonfires.” as prohibited. Grills are not mentioned and so are not prohibited. The likelihood of your grill causing a problem for hatchlings seems remote – but if you are concerned that you might disturb them, you may consider using a barrier of some kind to block the light. Either a berm of sand or some camping equipment could work. Of course, you should never leave a flame of any kind unattended – so definitely extinguish the grill before going to sleep. Hope this helps.

  15. lisa says:

    Hi there, My husband and teenage son have a camping permit for 3 days next week. We are trying to figure out the transportation to shell key. They really wanted to bring a tandem kayak but I am guessing that is not allowed on any shuttle. How much can you bring out there? I am expecting them to want a fire, so what do you recommend? They do understand that they have to pack in and out.
    Anyway, we called down to fort desoto camp office and they said there is a shuttle from Fort desoto and you can leave your car there, but they were not sure where it was or how much…
    Is it possible to kayak from tip of PAG to Shell Key?
    thanks so much for any insight.

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Lisa. As I understand it, The Island Ferry will take campers to the south end and leave them overnight. You can contact them for details. I do not know if they allow kayaks on the ferry. It is absolutely possible to just paddle the kayaks to the south end island for camping – but you would be limited in the amount of gear you can carry. I have also seen people tow a small dingy behind their kayak to bring extra supplies. You are allowed to bring any amount of gear to the island – and your own firewood for campfires – so long as you pack out all of the unburned wood and leave no trace of the fire pit. If you don’t have a lot of room for gear, you might try bringing one or two of those wax fireplace logs for an ambiance (not cooking) fire. Also, avoid the sandspus by choosing a campsite on either the gulf side beach (west side) – or bunces pass beach (South Side). The interior of the island usually has too many sandspurs for a comfortable campsite. Hope this helps. Have fun!

  16. Gracie says:

    For overnight camping, can I anchor my boat off the key or so I have to dock it at ft desoto?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Gracie. You can definitely anchor off of the island (or even beach your boat if it’s small) while camping. You would not be able to access Shell Key if you were docked at Ft. Desoto.

  17. william says:

    We are coming on June 11 th and are very excited. We are hoping to do some diving and fishing. Do you have any advice for first time guests?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi William,

      Most of the diving in our area is out in the Gulf (inshore is often too murky) – either on shipwrecks or on the extensive artificial reef system.(we don’t have any natural reefs). The artificial reefs are mostly in about 30-40 feet of water and are great for spearfishing or just observing sea life. There are also some larger structures and wrecks in deeper water, further out in the Gulf. The USS Blackthorn is a popular dive spot in about 80 feet of water. You can look for some other spots here. I would contact one of the local dive shops to see if you can charter a dive – or participate in a planned group dive.

      There are a great many options for fishing in our area. You will need to obtain a permit if you plan to fish from a boat (but not from land). Permits are available at most bait shops – or even big-box stores where they sell fishing equipment. Or you can get one online here. If you want to fish from land without a permit, the old span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is an excellent spot. You could also rent a boat to do some inshore flats fishing. If you want to hunt larger fish out in the gulf, you could rent a larger boat – or look for a fishing charter service. Many of the dive spots listed above are also popular fishing spots.

      Hope this helps – and that you have an enjoyable visit to our fair coast.


  18. danny says:

    I would like to know if you can snorkle on the shell key and if this is a good place to do that if not where is a good area?

    • Jack Coletti says:


      You can certainly go snorkeling on Shell Key. There are not a lot underwater structures around the island, so you will be snorkling along a sandy bottom much like the other beaches in our area. In my experience, the water is less clear in the summer due to more algae growth – but that’s not always the case. Your best bet for good visibility is probably to stay on the west (gulf) side or south (Bunces Pass) side of the island. The inside (east) of the island is generally more murky because it is an estuary with less circulation. In general, snorkeling on Shell Key will be similar to other beaches in the area. I would say that Egmont Key is *probably* the best place in the area to go snorkeling. The clarity will be better and there are some more interesting structures along the bottom including old fort ruins and a small fishing reef ( on the east side of Egmont. Snorkeling on the west coast of Florida is generally not as magnificent as the Florida Keys or the Bahamas, but you can still see a lot of cool stuff on a good day.

      Have fun!


  19. Tom & Becky Berlin says:

    Hello and thank you in advance for taking time to respond. We will be visiting around Feb. 23 & 24 and thinking of camping on Shell Key for a night. Two questions:
    1. Should we expect many others camping on the key?
    2. Is there a favorite launch for kayak campers?
    Thank You,
    Tom & Becky

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Tom and Becky,

      I doubt you will see many other campers on those dates. For one thing, those are Sunday and Monday nights. The island is more likely to have more campers on friday and saturday nights. Also, being February, it may be a little chilly – further reducing the numbers of campers. If I had to guess, I’d say you’re unlikely to see more than a couple of camp sites on the entire south end. I prefer to camp on weekdays (and in the winter) for that reason – and because I like the cold 🙂

      A lot of kayakers like to launch from the Pinellas Bayway S – just before the bridge to Ft. Desoto:,-82.72021&spn=0.001139,0.002064&t=k&z=20 . However, if you are staying overnight, you might want to spend the 6 bucks and park at the Ft. Desoto boat ramps. It’s a *little* safer than leaving your car on the side of the road.

      Have Fun!


  20. The checklist should also include a well stocked first aid kit. One hopes they never need it but its there if an emergency occurs.

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