Shady Lake, Ouachita National Forest (Photo courtesy of Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism)

You Can Still Go Camping – Dispersed Camping in Arkansas


With bikepacking, gravel grinding, and an overall push to play outside, we decided that it was a good time to resurrect this article on dispersed camping in Arkansas.

While most improved campsites are closed during the COVID-19 public health emergency, there are other camping options available for Arkansas residents. It’s called dispersed camping and it’s available in both the Ouachita National Forest and the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest. The National Forests define dispersed camping as:

Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground. Dispersed camping means no services; such as trash removal, and little or no facilities; such as tables and fire pits, are provided.”

Due to the lack of services, those wanting to enjoy dispersed camping have a few responsibilities, here are the basic rules:

  • Groups of over 75 people who wish to use the forest, need to obtain a special use permit. Permits can be obtained at the nearest District Office. NOTE: Due to COVID-19, groups larger than 10 people are discouraged from congregating.
  • There is privately owned land within the forest boundaries so be sure to not encroach on private land.
  • You need to be self-contained. No amenities are provided; such as water, restrooms or trash cans.
  • You may camp in a dispersed area for up to 30 days. After 30 days, you must move at least 5 road miles for camping in another dispersed area. Campers may not return to the same campsite within the calendar year.
  • Please place your campsite at least 100 feet from any stream or other water source. Showers can be locally heavy and occasionally have been known to produce 5 to 10 inches of rain in a few hours. Such storms will cause flooding in the rivers and tributaries within the forest. These same streams will usually be dry in the late summer and early fall. Carry water or a water filtration device with you.
  • Keep a Pack-In Pack-Out camp. Follow Leave No Trace guidelines.
  • Contact the local Forest Service office to see if any restrictions, especially fire restrictions are in place.
  • Be Bear Aware. There are bears on the National Forest, so camp accordingly. (hang your food or store it in a bear safe container)

So where do you go to do this? Dispersed camping is NOT allowed in the vicinity of developed recreation areas such as campgrounds, picnic areas, or trailheads. Many people drive out on Forest Service roads into the woods and find a clearing or a spot near a stream or with a view of the mountains. Do not drive on meadows to access your camping site. Drive on existing roads to prevent resource damage. Dispersed camping is allowed in a one-mile perimeter away from campgrounds and 100 feet from any stream. To prevent resource damage please keep your campsite within 150 feet from a roadway.

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The Forest Service recommends using already used campsites to limit the impact on local flora and fauna. Also, remember, there are no bathrooms, and streams, although clear and beautiful may have dangerous bacteria in them. So again, use Leave No Trace guidelines for using the bathroom if you don’t have a self-contained bathroom and bring drinking water or treat with proper filters or boiling techniques.

It is a great time of year to camp and you can do it, just without the amenities of bathhouses, paved spurs, or leveled tent pads. You even find a new way to enjoy camping.

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You can find more information on dispersed camping in Arkansas at the Ouachita National Forest and Ozark-St. Francis National Forest websites. Also worth remembering IT’S FREE!

For more adventurous ways to enjoy Arkansas, go to our news page.

Searcy County Waterfall

2 Responses

    1. The forest service roads near Lake Sylvia Recreation Area in the Ouachita National Forest are full of them. Best thing is to go explore them and find something that suits your needs.

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