Off-Road Camping in Arkansas

The first leg of my recent road trip was across Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and into New Mexico. One of my goals, as it is every time I hit the road in the Wanderer, was to stay in the wilderness and avoid civilization except for the need to gas up.

As I noted in my previous post, I usually sleep in the cargo bed of the Wanderer. During this trip, I tent-camped only once. Using the cargo bay has a lot of advantages: it gets me off the ground on a smooth and level platform. It’s much faster than putting up and taking down a tent. I used a bug net over it several times until I got up to altitude. I never had to use the camping tarp to prevent rain, because the weather never threatened rain.

Here are keys I look for: National Forests, Wilderness Areas and BLM land.

National Forests generally allow dispersed camping, unless it’s specifically marked off-limits.

Understand that National Forests are not National Parks. A good example of that is when I did the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you’re on the parkway or the roadside adjacent, you are in a National Park. Dispersed camping there is a no-no, but they have well marked campgrounds (usually all spots reserved during high season and on weekends). But if the Park goes through a National Forest, as it does in many stretches of the Blue Ridge, if you get beyond the Park on a dirt road into the NF, you’re good to go.

Wilderness Areas all have different rules. I’ve found it useful to stop and google things ahead of me to see what the rules, especially state parks.

BLM land is land we all own out west. Dispersed camping is allowed there.

To determine boundaries, I use the Gaia App, which has as one of its overlays, a shading showing what land is what. This is often key as many National Forest contains private tracts. Also, often the public roads crossing privately owned land to get into the National Forest, aren’t marked.

Other options? Campgrounds. Some of these aren’t well marked. State parks often have campgrounds. National Parks have designated campgrounds or camping locations. Occasionally in a NF, along a NF Road, will be a sign “Camp in designated locations only”.

My free slideshow on maps describes how Gaia works but also points out the value of paper maps. I’ve often found campgrounds on the state topo maps I buy on Amazon. Local National Park/National Forest maps are invaluable.

The bottom line? Every night I was able to find a place to park and spend the night with little trouble. Sometimes I drove up an overgrown trail in a National Forest that obviously hadn’t been used in a long time. My first night in Arkansas I went about a quarter-mile in on a rough trail and parked next to a nice stream in the Ozark NF. The image above is from there– although I did adjust the Wanderer to be more level before crashing for the night.

Sometimes I got lucky, such as the night in southern Colorado as I began looking for a forest road to pull off into as the sun went down and saw a campground site and spent the night there—the only night I pitched a tent. Also, the only night I paid to camp—the staggering figure of $18.

Locally, I love going into the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests and the Cohutta Wilderness in Northern Georgia. They have very little private land in it and lots of NF roads.

One technique I’ve used is to find where a NF Road is gated off (lots of those) and back into it, up to the gate and camp there. I’m off the main NF Road but able to pull right on in the morning. I’ve seen people simply pull off to the side of a NF Road and set up camp.

Another thing I’ve done, such as in Big South Fork, is park the Wanderer, shoulder my backpack, and walk in to a camp site along a trail and tent camp. This is why the gear I have stored on the truck is light and can easily be packed in a few minutes.

More to come including Whites Sands National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park and the beautiful hidden drive out of the latter.