Hilton Head Beach Tides

How The Tide Effects the Hilton Head Beach

Understanding the tides and how they affect the beach of Hilton Head Island can make a big difference if you want to plan the best beach vacation possible. Imagine packing up the car with all your beach toys, loading the family in the car, and showing up at the beach access just to find out there’s not an inch of sand available for your towels and beach chairs? Or maybe the kids are looking to go bodyboarding or surfing, and you show up to a flat calm sea with no waves? The tides play a critical part in what’s happening at the beach, so read on to understand more and plan your best beach vacation.

First, let’s understand the sandy beach itself. Hilton Head Island’s beaches are shallow sloped, not steep. You could head out a mile and expect to find depths of less than 20 feet, sometimes much less. The sand itself, is extremely fine-grained, the product of crushed seashells, now densely packed into a rather firm surface. This solid beach is perfect for walking, biking, and running, unlike softer, mushy beaches that are difficult to trudge across. This solid beach surface with a very shallow slope means that just a small change in the tide (current sea level) results in a big change in how much actual sandy beach is uncovered and available for you to enjoy.

Our average tidal range in Hilton Head is around 7-1/2 feet, and that’s a vertical change in sea level in just over 6 hours. Combined with the shallow beach slope, that means there is a HUGE difference in the beach depending on whether it’s high tide, low tide, or somewhere in between.

While ~7.5 feet is an “average” tide, it varies as the moon phase changes, and also as a result of atmospheric conditions. An extreme tide in Hilton Head could be as much as an 11 foot vertical change, and that means that at dead high tide, the sandy beach completely disappears, swallowed by the ocean. And at an extreme low tide (as much as 2+ feet below the normal low tide), the water’s edge recedes dozens of yards, practically doubling the “normal” size of the sandy beach.

In general, you’ll find the following characteristics:

Low Tide on the Beach

It’s a beautiful sight when Hilton Head’s beach stretches out far in front of you towards the distant water’s edge. A big beach means plenty of space for everyone! Low tide on Hilton Head is the best time for beachcombing, because the lowest stretches of sand are uncovered, exposing shells and sea creatures to greet your curiosity. Please be sure to leave sea life where you find it. Occasionally you’ll get lucky and find a dead sand dollar shell, an empty whelk shell, or a dead starfish. But most of what you find are actually living critters, and it’s illegal to take them. Low tide on the Hilton Head beach also means that tide pools are sometimes formed in areas with sand bars that trap in some water as the ocean ebbs. These are great spots for youngsters to play in the water, and sometimes you’ll find small fish and other curiosities enjoying the tide pool as well. For young children, low tide is absolutely the best time to enjoy the beach. Waves are usually much smaller, and the sea is the friendliest. But if you’re looking for big surf, you’re going to want to wait for higher water.

High Tide on the Beach

As the tide rises, the sandy beach disappears under the encroaching waves. The available “real estate” between the dunes and the water’s edge becomes narrower with each incoming wave. Everyone who was set up closer to the water at low tide is gradually moving their beach chairs and umbrellas back away from the rising tide. On a busy summer day, that can result in a lot of people packed into a very small area. You might have a tough time finding some area to stake out with your towels, chairs, and umbrellas if you don’t arrive in advance of the higher tides. This is more of an issue on the highest of high tides, ~8.5 feet and above. Average or below average high tides still leave plenty of room for most beach-going folks.

High tide on Hilton Head can mean bigger waves (when the wind and swell cooperate), so there is a range of a couple hours prior to dead high tide until just after, where you’ll have the best surfing waves. Whether you’re bodysurfing, bodyboarding, or board surfing, this is usually the best time to have a shot at a big wave.  “Big” is a relative term. On an average Hilton Head surf day, we’ll have 2-3 foot surf, rather soft and “mushy” waves. For families, this is ideal because the waves are much more forgiving and less powerful. But all it takes is a strong onshore wind to kick up the waves to a bigger, stronger form, where they can become unsafe for those who aren’t prepared and properly skilled. Always be careful in the water and waves, but use extreme caution if the waves get over 3-4 feet. With higher surf levels, the likelihood of rip currents and dangerous undertow increase. If you’re unsure about current conditions, talk to a lifeguard about what to expect.

Tide Charts for Hilton Head Island, SC Waterways and Beaches