How To: Backpack the Ozark Trail

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The Ozark Trail (OT) is one of America’s premier distance hiking trails. Mostly divided into linked sections, the trail winds through 390 miles of rolling hills, stone bluffs and cool streams in central and southern Missouri.

Whether you’re planning an epic thru-hike or an out-and-back weekend excursion, this guide will help you get started on your Missouri adventure.

Why Hike the Ozark Trail

Exploring Missouri’s scenic Ozark backcountry is one of the best reasons to head out on the trail. The Ozark Trail Association marks and improves the trail and ensures backpacking campsites are well maintained. What’s more, the OT offers many things to see and experience for both seasoned and first-time backpackers.

At mile 15 in the Trace Creek section, you will find scenic Council Bluff Lake, which has a 12-mile loop to explore the beautiful landscape of southeast Missouri. 

The OT connects two of Missouri’s most famous natural wonders: Taum Sauk Mountain and Johnson’s Shut-Ins. Taum Sauk Mountain State Park is the highest natural point in Missouri and home to Mina Sauk Falls, the tallest wet-weather waterfall in the state. Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park is a natural water park where visitors can play in the chutes and water pools along the Black River.

Further south, you can find Klepzig Mill, a historic building constructed nearly 100 years ago along the banks of Rocky Creek. Taking a short detour from the main trail, hikers will find a spectacular waterfall: Rocky Falls.   

Planning Your Trip

A good backpacking trip starts with good planning. The Ozark Trail Trip Planner is a fantastic resource to help you get out and enjoy the trail, with these considerations:

  • How long do you want your trip to be? Are you prepared to be out for multiple days at a time, or maybe just an overnight trip? 
  • If this is your first backpacking trip, go easy on yourself. You might be able to go on a day hike for 15 miles without issue, but that same hike can be tougher with a fully loaded backpack. 
  • Will you be hiking out and back, or will you need to coordinate transportation from point A to point B? 
  • What is the terrain of your hike? Will you have to cross rivers or streams? Is your footwear adequate to handle the trail? 
  • What is the weather going to be? Will you be traveling during a season with temperature swings? Is there potential for inclement weather?

What to Bring?

Tent lit up in the night


One of the best parts of backpacking is settling around a campfire and enjoying a hot dinner after a long day of hiking. You may find it helpful to make a list of meals for each day you are out on the trail to ensure that you are not over- or under-packing for your trip. 

Backpacking stoves are a convenient way to boil water for dehydrated meals and instant coffee without adding a lot of weight to your pack. 

The black bear population is growing in Missouri, so keep your trail mates and the local wildlife safe by staying bear-aware. Bring a dedicated bear canister or hang a bear bag for any food or aromatic items that might attract attention.


Bring enough water for your trip or a way to purify water to make it safe to drink. Many of the creeks and streams look crystal clear, but it’s still smart to make sure any impurities are removed with pumps or tablets before drinking. 

Water sources like rivers and streams may only be available seasonally. OT maps are a great resource to help identify places where you can access water. 

Sleep, Shelter and Clothes

Tents, hammocks or open-air camping — you can do it all according to your comfort level. Just be prepared to face changing weather conditions out in the wilderness.

Temperatures can swing from chilly mornings to sweltering afternoons. Wear layers to be comfortable in any weather. Pack rain gear to stay warm and dry, and consider bringing one set of clothes to change into at camp as well as one or two sets of clothes for hiking.


The Ozark Trail Association maintains a number of maps to help you traverse each section of the trail. If you are using your phone for navigation, bring a paper copy of a map in case you lose signal or find yourself without battery. Trail maps are free to print at home or available for purchase at the online store. 


If you’re on the trail for several days, toilet paper and a cathole shovel are necessities. When you do have to answer the call of the wild, make sure to stay at least 100 yards away from a water source and bury any solid waste at least 6 inches deep. 

Insect Repellent, Sunscreen and First Aid

You’ll encounter insects, including mosquitoes and ticks, throughout the Ozarks. Use a repellent with DEET to keep unwanted critters away. 

While much of the trail is under shaded tree canopy, you’ll still want to use sunscreen to prevent any burns.

Cuts, nicks, bruises, aches and bug bites are normal issues for any backpacking adventure. Make sure you have first-aid items to deal with these common problems so they don’t derail your trip! 

Before You Leave the House

Make sure to let a friend or family member know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Tell someone how many days you’ll be gone and approximately where you think you’ll stay each night. Physically check in by filling out a backpacking card at dedicated trailheads. Also, learn the seven principles of “Leave No Trace” to keep the backcountry beautiful. 

Are you ready to get out and explore the Ozark Trail? Share your adventures with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.