Missouri Free Dispersed Camping: The Complete Guide

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Missouri is home to a wide range of incredible natural landscapes, from vibrant wetlands to enchanting forests and everything in between. There are millions of acres of public wilderness just waiting to be explored, if you know where to look. Even better, you’ll find tons of great opportunities for free, dispersed camping in some of Missouri’s most beautiful natural places. Many dispersed camping areas are just a hour or two from the state’s larger urban centers, making it easy to escape to the peace and solitude of nature.

Whether you’re new to dispersed camping or a seasoned pro, this guide will provide everything you need to plan your perfect trip. We’ll help you navigate the rules, regulations, and must-know information about free camping in Missouri.

We’ve even included a few of our favorite campsites in the final section to give you some inspiration for your next campout.

Let’s jump in!

Missouri Dispersed Camping Guide

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Waterfall in Mark Twain National Forest.
Mark Twain National Forest.

The Basics

Before you head out on your trip, it is important to have some basic information on dispersed camping in Missouri. The following sections provide just that, including key details on where camping is permitted, how to find individual campsites, and how to ensure you are keeping these wild places beautiful for everyone.

This is the essential information before you head out there!

Where is Dispersed Camping Allowed in Missouri?

Given the fact that there is no BLM land in Missouri, one might be inclined to think that there are few opportunities for dispersed camping on public lands. Luckily, there are actually two other entities that manage millions of acres of camping-friendly public land in the state: Mark Twain National Forest and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Although both allow for free, dispersed camping, the rules and regulations in place are a little different for each.

We’ve outlined the basics you’ll need to know for each dispersed camping option below.

Mark Twain National Forest

With over 1.5 million acres of public lands, Mark Twain National Forest is Missouri’s largest area for dispersed camping. It is comprised of seven non-contiguous wilderness areas spread out across the southern part of the state. Most of the Forest is situated within the Ozark Highlands, a geographic area characterized by its springs, streams, caves, rock formations, and ancient volcanic mountains. With so many beautiful places to explore, opportunities for dispersed camping are virtually endless in Mark Twain National Forest! The map below provides a helpful overview of the different wilderness areas within the Forest:

Map of Mark Twain National Forest
Mark Twain National Forest is comprised of seven unique wilderness areas. Map courtesy of USFS.
Rules and Regulations

To begin with, let’s get clear on what we mean when we say “dispersed camping.” If you’re new to this concept, be sure to check out this helpful guide to dispersed camping, but broadly speaking we mean free camping outside of a developed campground.

There are many opportunities for dispersed camping in Mark Twain National Forest, and their dispersed camping webpage has a helpful list of all dispersed camping destinations, as well as an outline of the rules and regulations.

Here are some important things to know about dispersed camping in Mark Twain National Forest:

  • You must camp at least 100 feet from buildings, trails, water sources, and designated recreational areas.
  • If possible, set up camp on an already established site to minimize environmental impacts.
  • Before you go, check for current fire restrictions and learn about campfire safety.
  • Do not cut trees for firewood without a permit. Collecting small amounts of dead wood is allowed.
  • Permits are not required for dispersed camping in Mark Twain NF, but you may need to purchase a pass and register upon arrival. Check with the specific ranger district you’re visiting to learn about what is required.
  • Treat all water before drinking or cooking.
  • Pets are welcome. Here are some guidelines for bringing your dog to a National Forest.

Be sure to visit the Forest Service webpage for a full list of rules and regulations.

Download Our FREE Dispersed Camping Cheat Sheet

Our free printable cheat sheet outlines how to find the perfect dispersed campsite for your next trip.

Missouri Department of Conservation

With over 300 Conservation Areas that allow free camping, the Missouri Department of Conservation another great place to look when planning your dispersed camping trip. This agency was created to protect and restore Missouri’s fisheries, forests, and wildlife populations, and they manage over half a million acres of forest. The Conservation Areas offer a wide range of diverse habitats and landscapes to explore, including sparkling streams, peaceful woods, and fascinating rock formations. Although these areas tend to be much smaller than the National Forest, they are located throughout the state, making it easy to find one near where you live.

Click here for a map and list of all camping areas managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation

Rules and Regulations

Here are some important things to know about camping in a Conservation Area:

  • Camping is permitted for up to 14 consecutive days within a 30-day period and a total of 30 days within a calendar year.
  • Camp at least 100 yards from water sources, parking lots, and roads.
  • Check the regulations in the specific area you’ll be visiting. Some areas do not allow dispersed camping and others require permits.
  • Groups of 11 or more require a special use permit.
  • Before you go, learn about fire safety and plan to use only local firewood.
  • Follow these important bear safety guidelines to prevent unwanted encounters with hungry guests.
  • Pets are welcome, but must be kept on a leash.

Be sure to visit the Missouri Department of Conservation camping webpage for a full list of rules and regulations.

Tent in the woods

How to Find Dispersed Campsites in Missouri

Now that you have a good overview of where dispersed camping is permitted in Missouri, let’s drill down a bit further into how to go about finding a a campsite.

The first step is always to reach out directly to either the USFS District Office or the Missouri Department of Conservation to inquire on current conditions and get the latest information on camping availability.

Mark Twain National Forest technically has twelve Ranger Districts, but they have been consolidated into the following six offices:

Mark Twain National Forest Ranger Districts Map
Mark Twain National Forest Ranger Districts, map courtesy of USFS.

Additionally, the Missouri Department of Conservation is managed by seven regional offices. Click here to find a map and contact information for the Missouri Department of Conservation Regional Offices.

These offices will be able to give you the most up to date information and have the best recommendations for campsites.

There are also several excellent online resources that can help in your dispersed campsite search, which we’ve outlined below.

Check out our Dispersed Camping App guide here to get more information on how to use these resources to find free campsites.

Dispersed Camping Checklist

Our dispersed camping checklist has everything you need.

Want to know the essentials for your next camping trip?

Our dispersed camping checklist has all the camping essentials plus specific items for dispersed camping.

Know Before You Go

Leave No Trace Principles & Dispersed Camping

One of the most important considerations when dispersed camping is to follow Leave No Trace principles. This will minimize your impact and ensure your campsite can be enjoyed by future visitors. Here are the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping:

  • Plan Ahead & Prepare: Have an idea of where you’d like to camp and always be sure you are camping in an area that permits dispersed camping.
  • Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces: Never camp on fragile ground or create a new campsite.
  • Dispose of waste properly: Pack out all of your trash and bury human waste away from water sources. Ideally, carry out human waste or use a portable toilet.
  • Leave what you find: Never take anything from your campsite. Other than trash of course!
  • Minimize campfire impacts: Never create new fire rings and only have fires if permitted.
  • Respect Wildlife: Properly store food at all times and be aware of the area’s wildlife.
  • Be considerate of Other Visitors: Pack out your trash, don’t be loud, and leave your campsite in better condition than you found it.

You can read more about the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping here.

The Best Dispersed Camping Areas in Missouri

Now that you have a general overview of what dispersed camping in Missouri is all about, we’ve gathered a list of the top dispersed campsites in the Show-Me State.

Check out the map below to see where each site is located.

Berryman Campground- Mark Twain National Forest

Restrooms: Vault toilet

Alright, the first recommendation on our list doesn’t technically fit the true definition of dispersed camping, but it is worth a mention nonetheless. Located at the start of the gorgeous 24-mile Berryman Trail, this primitive campground has just 8 sites tucked deep into Mark Twain National Forest. This completely free campground allows you to enjoy many of the great aspects of dispersed camping, while still having access to toilets, picnic tables, and level sites.

The peaceful Berryman Campground is less than two hours from St. Louis, making it a convenient place to escape from the stressors of modern life. It can accommodate RVs and trailers up to 21 feet. Permits are not required for camping at the Berryman Campground. Although there are toilets available, you’ll need to bring all of your own water.

A campsite at the Berryman Campground in Mark Twain National Forest
The Berryman Campground has 8 primitive sites and a picnic structure. Photo courtesy of USFS.

Piney Creek Wilderness- Mark Twain National Forest

Restrooms: Vault toilet at the Pine Tower Trailhead

This Wilderness Area, located in the heart of the Ozarks and just west of Table Rock Lake, is a beautiful place to truly immerse yourself in nature. There are tons of great options for dispersed camping throughout the area, including three established sites near the Pine Tower Trailhead. The 12 miles of nearby trails are great for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. If you need anything, there are plenty of amenities just fifteen minutes away in Shell Knob and Cape Fair.

Given that this area is so dense and wild, ticks are quite commonplace. Be sure to take appropriate precautions and check yourself regularly. Additionally, pay close attention to where you set up camp, as the Piney Creek Wilderness Area is surrounded by private property.

Noblett Lake Recreation Area- Mark Twain National Forest

Restrooms: Vault toilets at the picnic area (about 1 mile away)

This lovely camping area strikes a nice balance between a primitive campground and true dispersed camping. There are vault toilets at the nearby picnic pavilion, and the campground itself consists of several gravel sites with fire rings (and not much else). It is free to camp and no permit is required. To get there, take the old loop road up Sugar Hill, across from the picnic area. The area has plenty of great hiking and biking options, including the 7-mile Short Loop around Nobett Lake and the longer Ridge Runner Trail that connects to North Fork Recreation Area.

Due to its proximity to the lake, this dispersed camping area can be especially buggy at certain times of year. Be sure to pack plenty of insect repellent so you can make the most of your trip. The nearest town, Willow Springs, is just 20 minutes away.

Whetstone Creek Conservation Area

Restrooms: Vault toilet

Whetstone Creek Conservation Area encompasses over 5,000 acres of wetlands, forests, and rolling hills that are managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation. Camping is permitted in the primitive campground, situated on the north end of CR 1003. This area map shows the campground location. Some sites have picnic tables and fire rings. This area is popular for fishing, hunting, and shooting.

Camping is not permitted at Whetstone Creek during the fall deer firearm hunting season, so be sure to check for seasonal closures before setting out. It is free to camp and no permit is required, although you may need a permit for hunting and fishing.

A creek and fall colors at Whetstone Creek Conservation Area.
Whetstone Creek Conservation Area, photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Robert E. Talbot Conservation Area

Restrooms: Vault toilet near the north entrance off highway 96

This small primitive camping area is less than an hour from Springfield. The Conservation Area protects the wild riparian habitat surrounding the Spring River, and there are great opportunities for wildlife viewing, hunting and fishing. Additionally, there are several miles of trails that are great for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Camping is permitted in the primitive campground on the west side of the Conservation Area. This campground has no amenities and feels more like dispersed camping.

The camping area can accommodate small RVs or trailers, but it’s not suitable for larger rigs. The trails are not accessible during the hunting season, so check ahead of time for closures. It is free to camp and no permit is required, although you may need a permit for hunting and fishing.

Baltimore Bend Conservation Area

Restrooms: No

Not only is Baltimore Bend Conservation Area rich in natural beauty, it also has a fascinating and storied history. This iconic bend in the Missouri River has seen its share of travelers, including the 1800s Lewis and Clark expedition. Nowadays, the area offers beautiful hiking trails, as well as hunting and birdwatching opportunities. Camping is permitted along any of the interior roads and in any of the parking lots. There are tons of peaceful places to spend the night, although it can be tricky to find a good place to pitch a tent along the road. It is also possible to find walk-in sites throughout the area, but walk-in camping is not allowed during the hunting season.

This area is best for smaller RVs and trailers, as well as tents. This area is used for hunting throughout the year, and it’s a good idea to check for seasonal closures ahead of time. Keep in mind that there are no facilities in Baltimore Bend Conservation Area, so come prepared and leave no trace.

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Our Top Camping App – The Dyrt PRO

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Have a great trip!

That’s it! We hope you’ve learned everything you need to know to plan your Missouri dispersed camping trip.

Be sure to let us know in the comments below if you have any questions and be sure to tell us about your time out camping

Looking for more dispersed camping content? Don’t forget to check out our other state specific dispersed camping guides:

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