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Here is a detailed recap of our first ever overlanding trip to Ozark National Forest in November. I've attached some photos, but sadly I can only add 10 photos to the post! (Unless somebody wants to enlighten me about the gallery embed feature...) I would also love to attach my .GPX file if anybody is interested....but it isn't an allowed extension for an attachment...How do I share?

17 November 2020:
Heading into the forest it was already getting near dark. We had started our journey toward the forest somewhat late and the days are short this time of year so we had to find a campsite on the first areas of public land we could access. The intention was to go further down the forest service trail we ended up camping on and into the larger block of public land, however a very large downed tree was blocking the trail. The tree was directly on the boundary of where the forest service trail crossed through a bit of private land – its presence felt intentional. ATVs had been circumventing the tree, but the bypass was not large enough for an OHV. It was getting dark so camp had to be made where we could. We found a small clearing which was unfortunately only maybe 100 yards from a tree stand and automatic deer feeder on the main trail. It was a decent site honestly, but something felt off about the whole thing. We got the feeling that whoever owned the connecting private land had more or less “claimed” this area of public land as their own. We dug a pit and collected firewood for a bonfire, set up the tents, and cooked a nice meal of pasta and meatballs for dinner. The weather was brisk, but not cold – probably in the low 50’s.
Night 1 Campsite (2).jpg


18 November 2020:
Upon leaving our campsite we happened upon a locked gate. The property owner of the private property that you must cross through on the public forest service road to access the public land seemingly locked us in. Thankfully we had tools to defeat the gate hinges and get out, but realized not having bolt cutters with us was a major oversight. Honestly I would not be upset if anyone interested in the Ozarks noted where this was on the GPX file and also went there, removed the downed tree and reclaimed this public land. It probably made me more mad than it should have, but you don't just trap somebody in because you want the land to be yours. I have a real problem with that. Call it spite camping if you will, but those people crossed a line. And if we were truly on their property they would have just approached us. We stopped in Winslow, AR for gas and decided to head into Fayetteville, AR to go to Lowes and purchase bolt cutters in case of continued troubles. Finding camp was again a rushed affair since daylight hours were getting slim. We were starting to see that we were in a less visited part of the forest that is mostly occupied by permanent residents and hunting camps – with predominant building materials being old tires and pallets. Some signs of pervious camps were found, but it appeared more and more like we were in a mostly unvisited part of the forest. I had used GAIA GPS to loosely plan a route and according to the forest service ranger I spoke with on the phone campsites would be all along the access roads. It was more difficult than I anticipated to find campsites – at least in this part of the forest. The first trail we tried was a closed trail. There was a large berm built up by the forest service to close the road to vehicles. Even the Jeep would have high centered on it. We headed back the way we came and checked out one more dead end before heading up a trail that generally meandered up a mountain. We found a decent place to set up on the hillside and called it good. We got to collecting firewood, setting up camp, and cooking dinner. And then doing dishes…which by day 2 was already getting old!
Night 2 Campsite (1).jpg


19 November 2020:
We took off from our campsite at a decent hour and decided not to drive further up the mountain. I had taken a morning walk maybe a ½ mile up the trail and found a few more signs of past camps. If we had arrived with more time the previous night, I would have noted the site we stayed at and kept driving to see what else was further up. Generally speaking, this was a very quiet part of the forest and a very accessible road. Finding a site on this trail for 2-3 vehicles would not be impossible, but more than that would likely not be so easy. The driving wasn’t super exciting and the scenery wasn’t breathtaking, but it was quite and secluded. We drove back to the main route I had mapped then deviated south on Potato Knob Road into a large network of trails in a large area of public forest. We turned west onto FSR 1003 (Eastbound FSR 1003 was closed). We stopped at a small river/large stream which was perfect for refilling our water supply with our Katadyn Vario water filter. We then continued on to look for a campsite, again with darkness looming. The map indicated several trails off the main road, but the first three did not exist. The motor vehicle use map (MVUM) indicated a trail to the north so we took that. It was easy driving, but not much for clearings or potential camp spots until we happened upon a large flat field that had clearly been mowed with a brush cutter. We ended up choosing this place as night was closing in, but this was hands down the worst site of the trip. People had camped there before as was evident by the existing fire ring. A large, mowed clearing sounds like a perfect spot, however the cut off twigs and made it very risky for a tent floor/air mattress puncture and it was very uncomfortable on the dog’s paws. This was the only site where he pretty much just stayed on his bed or in the tent because he didn’t want to run around. In addition, there was slim pickings for downed wood for a fire. I honestly have no clue why this clearing was mowed halfway up a mountain. We used our BioLite to cook some chicken for dinner. This was more work than it was worth and the BioLite, while a novel idea, is likely going to stay home in the future.
Night 3 Campsite (1).jpg


20-21 November 2020:
Feeling somewhat disheartened about the slim pickings for campsites we decided to head south to the Mulberry River which we correctly assumed would be a more visited part of the forest. The first trail we tried to access the river by (1501C) was fun to drive, definitely a 4X4 trail, but had no river access. There were a large number of downed trees and overgrown thorn bushes blocking access and no good place to set up camp. Thankfully we had plenty of daylight left to continue looking for a site. We headed back to FSR 1501, which is a well-established and well-travelled gravel road. We turned off on FSR 95426E which did have river access and a beautiful campsite, but it was already occupied by a large camping party with trucks, campers, and ATVs. We backtracked and took the less travelled fork called Nix Hollow Road toward Campbell Cemetery, which from this direction required you to cross a dry creek bed. The bluff had been recently logged and made for a great campsite only accessible to OHVs and ATVs (not trucks and campers) as you had to get up onto the bluff. Due to the recent logging there was plenty to firewood at this site. It was probably close to 70 degrees when we arrived and this was by far the warmest weather we encountered. We stayed for 2 nights since the next day was supposed to be rainy. There was access to a beautiful part of the river not far away and a small creek that crossed the trail right near the site made for a perfect place to filter water. This trail seems well travelled mostly by ATVs. It was nice to spend 2 nights in one place and relax, however there was a decent amount of traffic going by on the main road not far away and we could regularly hear ATVs. We were fortunate that it did not rain until late the following night and cleared up by morning so we could pack up while it was dry.
Night 4&5 Campsite (1).jpg

Night 4&5 Campsite (3).jpg


Surrounding Areas:
Areas Around Night 4&5 Campsite (1).jpg
Areas Around Night 4&5 Campsite (10).jpg


22 November 2020:
We packed up and headed back out to the main road along the Mulberry River. We intended to drive further, however the first offshoot trail we took to check out was such a nice campsite we decided to stay. The other campsite option I had marked on the map was at a higher elevation (2000 ft.) and a cold front had rolled in so higher elevation was not an ideal place to make camp. This campsite had clearly been well used and targets and shot up beer cans littered the site. The river view was beautiful. This was the coldest night we stayed getting down into the low 30’s. This site was much quieter than the last.
Night 6 Campsite (8).jpg
Night 6 Campsite (3).jpg


23 November 2020:
The previous night had been the coldest yet with the cold front projected to continue though that evening. We did not have the appropriate gear to comfortably spend another night in that cold so we decided to do some exploring then head home. On our way toward the Oark General Store we decided to try to take an offroad loop that went down closer to the river. It appeared that this trail is frequently used for mud bogging as it was very wet even in fall. I can imagine it would be impassible to most vehicles in spring time. Where the trail meets the river was a beautiful campsite. There was a recently downed white pine blocking the trail to continue on from the campsite which we easily towed out of the way. Unfortunately the trail from here became impassible very quickly. The original trail was overgrown with bamboo (which I’m assuming is invasive to the region), and an alternate route was passible only for a short while. We had to turn around and head out. This area was the toughest terrain we encountered. We continued on to the Oark General Store which had excellent food and service. It was operating as a concession stand due to COVID-19, but they had a large pavilion with picnic tables set up for dining. We were able to fuel up the vehicles with ethanol-free fuel before leaving. We took Highway 34 north from the general store to check out a possible campsite. The site was near a small pond at about 2000 ft elevation. It is an established site and we considered staying the night, but remembered how cold the previous night had been an decided against it. We headed back south on 34 back to the general store to air up and headed south out of the forest passing through the Yarbough Gap. It was a very beautiful and scenic sunset drive out.
Oark General Store (4).jpg


General Notes:
---With daylight hours being short and not getting going first thing in the AM it was hard to go find trails to just drive for the fun of off-roading as well as find a good campsite and get setup before dark. While it was easier to find campsites in the more commonly visited part of the forest there was more traffic. People on ATVs, cars driving on the nearby more established roads, fellow campers, etc. While it was more difficult to find campsites in the far western part of the forest, the solitude was actually really nice.

---There are a TON of thorn bushes. More than you could even imagine. You have to be okay with pinstriping if you are traveling here. I would imagine it is even worse in spring and summer.

Lessons Learned:
---Cook less complicated meals. The cleanup effort and time was not worth it. I would have rather spent more time exploring than washing pots and pans. This is particularly true for breakfast. In the future I will pre-cook bacon if we decide to bring it. Bacon grease is not easy to deal with in the wilderness. Washing dishes sucks at home and it sucks in the woods. I think going forward we probably eat a lot more Mountain Houses!

---Plan campsites better considering proximity to private land, elevation, topographical line density (steepness), proximity to water/rivers, etc. Toward the end of the trip I was better at identifying campsites, however the solitude of the first 3 nights was actually very nice in retrospect.

Gear:
---Tents: Rooftop tents would have been faster set up, but ground tents were not actually too bad. We pretty much had a complete Kelty sleep system – Kelty Salida 4 tent, Kelty queen size camp bed, and Kelty tru.comfort double sleeping bag. No complaints with any of these items. The double sleeping bag is super cozy and way better than you and your significant other sleeping in separate bags for a week. Plenty of room for the dog too!

---Quality axes/splitting mauls are needed to be able to get a good amount of firewood if you intend to have a nice bonfire. The forest service told me chainsaws were not allowed. So we didn’t have one. But in the future I would probably have one as an insurance policy from getting trapped by a fallen tree honestly.

---7 gallon Aquatainers were impractical for water. We mostly used them to refill gallon jugs, but just lugging them around was difficult and the cube shape wasn’t ideal for packing. We’ve since replaced them with 5 gallon military surplus jerry can style plastic water jugs which I hope pack better and are easier to use.

---10x10ft. canopy was great to have particularly the night it rained on us. It made a nice area to cooking and we were also able to sting a piece of 550 cord across it that we could hang clothes and towels to dry from as well as clip our walkie talkies to.

---Walkie talkies were excellent especially with NOAA weather radio which helped us prepare for a coming rain storm and cold front. We used the Midland X-talkers and had no complaints. Note: the privacy bands offered by many walkie talkies are not what they sound like. If you have the privacy code active you can only receive signals from other walkie talkies with the same privacy code active, however any walkie talkie on your channel without a privacy code active can hear what you are transmitting. They are used to mitigate interference, not to have a private conversation.

---LED collar for dog. Made him easy to keep an eye on at night. Highly recommend!

---Dewalt cordless compressor. We used this to fill air mattresses and air back up tires. Obviously, no issues with the air mattresses – that’s an easy task. It filled my Jeep’s tires (stock size) from 28 psi to 40 psi in 4 min 15 sec (so 17 minutes total for all 4 tires). One 2ah battery lasted long enough to fill 2 tires.

---Katadyn Vario water filter was a champ, although pumping gallons of water by hand is still a pain in the butt. Make sure you are on high flow mode otherwise it is going to take you an hour to pump a gallon of water. This water filter is the best on the market and I highly recommend it for throughput as well as ease of use and ease of cleaning.

---GAIA GPS was invalueable with the maps I downloaded. The GPS never faltered and the maps were crisp, clear, and had all the info I needed. Highly recommend the GAIA premium membership – I could not have navigated this trip with any confidence without the map layers the premium membership got me (~$40 for a year). (Layers: USFS Classic, MVUM)

---ICECO JP:40L Fridge. Runs off 12V gets down to -9F. Super impressive. Highly recommend. However, in the future I would probably just fill it with beer and eat Mountain Houses! Basically this fridge works really, really well but ultimately what we had it filled with was not so necessary.

---Jackery Explorer 240 battery pack. This little battery pack ran the fridge for almost 2 days. It was able to charge all of our electronics and recharged quickly while we were driving. This is the most impressive battery pack on the market. Expensive, but worth it for peace of mind.

Rules:
---Supposedly you aren’t allowed to have alcohol of any kind, but there were beer cans littered everywhere in the forest. I would bring beer next time. (But not litter of course).

---Supposedly you are supposed to keep your dog on leash in physical control at all times, but we didn’t not see one dog on leash nor did we have a problem keeping ours near us. We did use an e-collar like we do at home just as insurance if he decides to not listen.

---Supposedly you are only supposed to shoot at designated shooting ranges, but we saw tons of makeshift targets and shot up beer cans at the more established camp sites.

---Supposedly you are supposed to adhere to leave no trace….but there was trash everywhere. Please, if you go out to the forest clean up after yourselves!
 

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Great write-up, thank you for putting this together!
 

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Indeed! Thanks for the comprehensive camping report! Our national 4x4 club members either use Gaia or Back Country Navigator (Android.) I have a paid version of BCN and run it on an 8" HD tablet in our Rubi.

I don't think I can add GPX (navigation tracks) format to the permitted files since I'm not a Super Admin :mad:. Anyone interested can PM you and make arrangements for email or whatever.

We stayed in a New Mexico state park campground a few years ago (40' motorhome) and the weekend was crazy with all of the locals - thousands of kids, bikes, (trash) running and driving around. That was our first and last time there. Colorado and Alaska has some of the nicest state parks in the entire country. Also Army Core of Engineers and Forest Service has some good ones here and there.
 

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Nice recap!
 
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this is a really awesome write up - thanks for taking the time to share with us your experiences OP. it definitely gives others a good idea on what to expect out there when they head out to a natl forest for the first time. and litter is always bad anywhere!
 
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