Conservation Camping

By Barry Rabe | February 2, 2005
From Missouri Conservationist: Feb 2005

Many Missourians are taking vacations a little closer to home this year. Those who might have traveled to Florida or the Gulf Coast are rediscovering Missouri’s natural beauty and the bounty of its diverse landscapes.

Missouri has a wide range of camping destinations. The state has many privately run campgrounds, and the federal government offers camping in areas managed by the Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service, and the U.S.D.A. Forest Service. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources manages Missouri’s state parks, which offer a variety of camping opportunities, from tent camping to motor home sites with water and electrical hookups.

You also can camp on many areas owned by the Missouri Department of Conservation. Conservation areas offer only primitive style camping with no hookups and few amenities. They appeal to campers who really do want to get away from it all.

People like camping for different reasons. Some use it to escape the complications of modern life. Others simply enjoy sleeping outdoors. Some folks travel in RVs and camp as a lifestyle. Some campers may spend a single night out in the tent, but a backpacker may spend a week or more on a trip. The “deer camp” is a favorite event for many Missouri hunters.

In general, camping gets you closer to beautiful misty rivers, elusive bucks, leaf-covered trails, and our treasured natural heritage.

When Missouri voters approved the Conservation Sales Tax in 1976, they wanted more outdoor recreational opportunities. Although hunting and fishing is a primary use for some conservation lands, camping also helps connect people to our fish, forest, and wildlife resources.

There are two main types of camping available at conservation areas: “Designated” camping areas and “Open” camping areas. Designated camping areas are maintained specifically for camping. Designated camping is divided into “Designated Primitive” and“Designated Improved.” The difference between these two is that improved areas have individual campsites, rather than just a general camping area. Designated camping areas may have picnic tables or grills. Not all designated camping areas have restrooms. There is no reservation system to camp in these areas, but they are seldom crowded, except during some hunting seasons.

“Open” camping means that there are no designated camping areas or sites. The primary rule for open camping is that campsites must be at least 100 yards from parking lots and roads. This camping category is great for those campers who want a more adventurous experience than can be found at designated camping areas.

Group size is limited to 10 people for camping on conservation lands, unless you obtain a special use permit. Smaller groups are recommended to reduce impacts on camping areas and to respect other campers. A four-person group is recommended for backcountry travel. In case of emergency, two people can go for help while one stays with the injured person.

Camper-vans, pickup trucks and tent camping are the most popular camping units on conservation lands. Vehicles much larger than a full size van are usually not recommended. This is due to the width and quality of some of the rural roads where these areas are located. Larger vehicles may not be able to turn around in some of the back roads and turnouts.

Beginning campers should probably camp in a designated camping area. Designated area camping allows you to set up a campsite near your vehicle. This means you do not have to own a backpack. You can simply bring your pillow and a good sleeping bag and pad.

Also plan for whatever the weather might bring, and check the forecast before you leave. Practice setting up a new tent a few times before your trip to avoid frustration in the field. Don’t wait until dark to set up the tent.

You may have trouble sleeping in a strange new environment, but many people claim to have experienced the best sleep of their lives during a rainy night in a waterproof tent. A leaky tent, on the other hand, creates nothing but misery. Take care of your tent, and never put it away if it is still damp. Also use good stakes. I have seen more than one tent blowing like a kite across a campground, lofted by an unexpected breeze.

Where permitted, campfires are great places to socialize. After dinner, build the flames up a little and listen as the conversation builds with the fire. Small fires take less fuel and are easier to control and put out. A candle lantern is great for lighting when fires are not permitted. Check bulletin boards for specific regulations that apply to the area.

Make absolutely sure to control your fires at all times. Make sure it is “dead out,” with no smoke or embers, before you break camp. Remove all litter, and don’t leave anything, even a small piece of foil from a candy wrapper, in a fire ring. From my own experience I can tell you that most shoes and boots are assembled with hot glue which, when heated, turns back into glue. Keep your shoes away from the fire!

Camping Basics

Basic rules to make your camping trips fun and unforgettable

  • Plan for your trip.
  • Prepare for unexpected changes in weather.
  • Minimize your impact on the land. The best campers are the ones who leave no signs of their passage.
  • Respect and enjoy wildlife and plants. Control pets at all times.
  • Report anyone abusing our public lands.
  • Dispose of all waste properly. Pack out everything that you packed in.
  • When hiking or backpacking, carry a good map and compass. Always be aware of your location.
  • Be responsible and alert. In the outdoors help can be difficult to reach.
  • Never trespass. Always respect private property.

Camp at least 100 feet from streams. Missouri streams, especially those in the Ozarks, can rise very quickly from rainstorms far upstream. The Jack’s Fork has risen more than 10 feet in one hour! Look closely for signs of previous high water marks, such as clumps of dead leaves stuck in willow branches, and try to camp above these markers. You may be surprised at how high flood waters can reach.

If you do camp on a gravel bar, place a stick at the water’s edge that will be visible from your tent so that you can monitor changes in the river level. The river is one of the best places to camp, but it can be deadly if you are not prepared.

Always take care in selecting your campsite. Erect your tent on level ground to keep moisture out of your tent and to keep your nylon sleeping bag from sliding off of your sleeping pad. Don’t set up your tent under dead tree limbs. These may break off and fall, causing injury or even death.

Some campers may choose to pursue a more rugged type of camping in the backcountry. This requires carrying everything that you need in a pack on your back. Backpacking is the next best thing to living outdoors.

Basic backpacking necessities include good boots, backpack, tent or tarp, sleeping bag and pad, and a pack stove. Any of this gear can have critical effects on the quality of your trip, so each piece of gear should be of the highest quality.

Every good camper has a different way to enjoy camping. The important thing is to get outside and have fun! For information about specific conservation areas, try the On-line Atlas at <>. You can also call the nearest Conservation Department office. Regulations governing camping on Conservation Department lands sometimes change, so if you are traveling to an area that you haven’t visited recently, contact the area manager or the on-line Conservation Atlas for the latest information.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - TomCwynar
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Editor - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler