- Tips and advice for thru-hiking the Ozark Trail
- How and when to attempt thru-hiking the Ozark Trail
- Planning your Ozark Trail thru-hike
- Stories from recent Ozark Trail thru-hikers
The cold Starbucks Via instant coffee was starting to do its magic. The sun had just cleared the eastern ridge as I lifted my 20-pound pack to my back. Breakfast would be eaten on the trail: a 370-calorie Superberry & Greens ProBar Meal bar.
My trail running shoes were still wet from multiple stream crossings the day before, but I knew my Merino wool socks would warm my feet in little time. The 38-degree air temperature actually felt good, perhaps more so since I knew the sun was about to warm up my 16-mile trek to Klepzig Mill.
This was day nine of my 16-day thru-hike of the Ozark Trail (OT).
I’ve carried out many extraordinary “adventures” in my 53 years, but hiking the entire 230-mile OT through the Mark Twain National Forest in southeast Missouri was one of the more fulfilling. I’ll forever cherish the memories made and accomplishments achieved — and my own cherishing quickly turned to wondering about other OT thru-hikers’ experiences.
So, I reached out on the private Facebook group “Ozark Trail Section Hikers and Backpackers” and eventually talked to seven other successful OT thru-hikers. Here are their (and my own) stories and advice for conquering this rugged, beautiful, rewarding excursion.
Hometown: Elkhorn, Wisconsin
Trail Name: Hobbit
Thru-Hike Date: Winter 2020
Pack (Base) Weight: 37 pounds
Luxury Items: Camp chair
Lorentz loved the topography, the hilltop views, the caves, and the springs she found on her winter hike. “No bugs, cold nights, rain and snow. It took longer than expected. I almost thought I’d finish in snowshoes,” she said. “[The OT] doesn’t have the extended climbs of the southern Ozark trails, but don’t take that for granted. It’s tough and serene.”
Lorentz’s sleep system included a Big Agnes UL2 tent, Columbia Omni Heat sleeping bag, and Klymit air mattress. As for food: “I love biscuits and gravy. I add some scrambled eggs. Awesome…unless, of course, you forgot your food at home [like I did],” she said. “I borrowed some granola and Clif bars from a couple of campers to supplement my snacks.”
Lorentz averaged 14 miles per day, with her longest day being 19 miles. She enjoyed many “zero days,” visiting local attractions with her brother, who followed her in a support vehicle.
“I travel with my brother, who pulls a 29-foot RV,” Lorentz explained. She met a bunch of the locals and “learned how to harvest mistletoe using a .22 pistol. You shoot it out of the trees.”
As you might expect, preparation for a thru-hike is key, Lorentz said. “Know the trail, read books and online forums, and be sure of skill levels. The Hiking Project [app] helped out a lot in areas with downed trees…and worked well, even with no signal.”
Hometown: Blue Springs, Missouri
Trail Name: Megaman
Thru-Hike Date: Fall 2020
Pack (Base) Weight: 12 pounds
Luxury Items: Journal
“I was surprised that Missouri could have a wilderness that still gives a feeling of solitude. I was also surprised by the amount of trail maintenance on such a ‘less talked about’ trail,” Tils said.
A Triple Crown hiker, he’s traversed the 2,654-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), 2,193-mile Appalachian Trail (AT), and 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Tils favors Merrells — “they’re good, all-around shoes” — and uses just one trekking pole, enhancing balance and control while still leaving one hand free.
“I hiked during the late fall. The river crossings were thus easier overall, but the trail [was] more covered in leaves, making a sprained ankle more probable,” he said.
“I had four days of hard rain around Peck Ranch, and everything was flooded. This changed my water crossings from being a foot deep to being almost chest deep with raging currents,” Tils told me. “The rain added a lot to the beauty.”
With regard to food and water, Tils could be considered something of a minimalist: “I’m a no-cook hiker. I’ve always just eaten chocolate and Slim Jims,” he said. “I never filtered water on the trail and felt fine drinking it straight from the rivers.
“The wild boars startled me a time or two, and I saw two black bears, but there was no encounter that turned nasty. All of the animals just ran off,” Tils said. “What surprised me was how quiet the boars sounded while sprinting away.”
Hometown: Charlotte, North Carolina
Trail Name: None
Thru-Hike Date: Summer 2020
Pack (Base) Weight: 20 pounds
Luxury Items: Chinese folding fan, book, and CBD balm for her feet
“I was cautioned by members in the OT Facebook group that a July thru-hike would be brutal. They weren’t wrong,” Fear said. “Extreme heat increased water intake, and the summer storms were fierce. Lightning struck just 350 feet from me, and the winds destroyed my shelter system…so I had to spend an unexpected $150 for a new Hennesy hammock system.
Overgrowth also was a problem. “Park services all but abandoned trail maintenance because of COVID. Ticks were unavoidable given the amount of growth encroaching on the trail,” she said.
“Never again will I bring a poncho,” Fear added. “I thought it would be a great, lightweight option to keep both me and my gear dry. They’re nothing but sweat factories, at least in the heat of the summer. I lasted three minutes before just opting to walk in the rain with the rainfly over my pack.”
Fear downloaded trail maps from AllTrails onto her cell phone. “These were a lifesaver at times when the physical trail was impossible to make out. I also brought two portable battery banks, and I’m grateful I did,” she said. “They were important backup when I needed to rely on AllTrails more frequently, when taking pictures, and when I wanted to compose a blog post in the evening.
Eight to 10 miles a day was her sweet spot. “When trail conditions were good and with an early morning start, I had time to explore side trails, take my pack off and enjoy lounging stream-side, and was still able to do more than just set up [camp] and scarf down a meal. If trail conditions were bad, I knew I still had plenty of daylight hours to make it to camp.”
Fear called the OT a hidden gem. “The AT, PCT, and CDT have a higher profile, but not many people can take three to five months out of their lives to do a thru-hike. The OT is within grasp. Be prepared to adjust plans based on the conditions you encounter. Have backup plans in case of gear and equipment failures. Technology can and will fail. Be prepared to function without it.
“A couple of places along the OT afford you the opportunity to stay at a campground,” she added. “This is like getting reservations at the Hilton. At Greer Springs and Sutton Bluff, the camp hosts were incredible, interesting human beings.”
Hometown: Belleville, Illinois
Trail Name: Donkey Kong
Thru-Hike Date: Spring 2019
Pack (Base) Weight: 10 pounds
Luxury Items: None
“[The Ozark Trail] is more raw than other trails I’ve thru-hiked. There are few bridges over creek crossings and hardly any developed campsites,” Letner said.
He chose March for his hike because there are fewer ticks and daylight hours start getting longer.
“I carried all of my food from the start, and I didn’t resupply or go into any towns,” Letner said. “My favorite food on that hike was Gatorade chocolate chip whey protein bars. I carried 40 of them.”
His base equipment consisted of a Zpacks Arc Haul backpack, a Zpacks Duplex tent, and a Zpacks 20F quilt with a Therm-a-rest Neoair Xlite sleeping pad.
“I would sometimes use the Hiking Project app to see my location on the trail and compare that to the Ozark Trail Association [OTA] maps to determine where I was in relation to the next water source, etcetera,” Letner said.
“I hiked the trail in 9.5 days, so my average miles per day was 23-plus. My longest day was about 29 miles. I didn’t have any zero days,” he said.
“My backpack already had 2,200 miles of use on it, and during that time the hip-belt had been rubbing on the lower shoulder strap webbing, causing it to wear. I suppose I’d forgotten about it, and on the first day, it broke. It wasn’t a big deal, though, because there was extra length on the webbing, allowing a quick fix.”
Hometown: St. Louis, Missouri
Trail Name: None
Thru-Hike Date: Fall 2019
Pack (Base) Weight: 14 pounds
Luxury Items: Inflatable pillow
“I was surprised by how few other hikers I met on the trail. Only two hikers in the first seven days,” said Woronets. “The fall colors are amazing. The weather is fairly predictable, and there are less bugs to deal with. But with any shoulder season, it’s prone to weather swings in both temperature and precipitation.”
Woronets used to survive on Backpacker’s Pantry meals but has since moved on to dehydrating his own meals. “I carried my lunches in bulk bags, and of course, I over-portioned them and ran out by the end,” he said. “Lesson learned: pre-portion my meals.”
Woronets used a Garmin InReach to communicate with friends and family. He told me, “I planned on using the Gaia app to navigate but didn’t update the maps, so it was useless. Fortunately, I’d downloaded the PDF maps to my phone from the OTA. That saved my butt.”
He averaged 25 miles per day, with his longest clocking in at 32 miles.
His advice to other OT thru-hikers was brief: “Know what you want to get out of your hike, do the research to build a custom plan, and hike your own hike.”
Hometown: Leopold, Missouri
Trail Name: None
Thru-Hike Date: Fall 2018
Pack (Base) Weight: 17 pounds
Luxury Items: None
Beussink thru-hiked southbound (SOBO) in the fall. “Despite the difficulties and my inexperience, my first hike of two weeks was a great success,” he said. “Experience is the best teacher, and I learned lessons I’ll not soon forget. I found that I enjoy the physical aspects of backpacking and love the freedom of having only basic needs to consider, leaving all the cares of life far behind.”
One lesson learned: “Ever since trying a hammock, I find I sleep much better than on the ground in a tent,” he said.
Beussink planned two resupply spots: Brushy Creek Lodge and Highway 60 near Van Buren. “Oatmeal or pancakes for breakfast. Lunch was tortillas with either peanut butter or pepperoni. Snacks were nuts combined with some M&Ms, granola bars, and Honey Buns. My dinners alternated between Mountain House, Knorr rice, pasta and broccoli, and macaroni and cheese.”
Beussink suggests going with a buddy for all or part of the trip. “For me, having company is more enjoyable than hiking alone. Not one time did I build a campfire while alone. Those times I had a fire and company added much the enjoyment of an evening in the woods,” he said.
“The OT is a treasure, and the effort it took to build it are beyond conception,” Beussink continued. “There are miles and miles of trail scratched out of steep hillsides one can hardly walk on without the trail. I plan to find ways to help with trail maintenance and building in the future.”
Hometown: Columbia, Missouri
Trail Name: None
Thru-Hike Date: Fall 2020
Pack (Base) Weight: 15 pounds
Luxury Items: Earphones
“Every unfavorable turn of weather brought some reward,” said Berchek of his fall hike. “A cold front bringing thunderstorms was preceded by a spectacular cloud show on Stegall Mountain. A sub-freezing night brought beautiful, delicate frost flowers. Water from a full day of rain and a nighttime thunderstorm brought life to the small waterfall in Wolf Pen Hollow.
“While the OT has a few great views, most of its beauty is of a more intimate sort: bluffs, caves, springs, rocky streams, tiny waterfalls, wildlife, and delightful forest,” he added.
“Mid-November is one of the best times to hike in Missouri. With the seasonal overgrowth fading quickly, wildlife is easier to spot. The trail is likely to be in better condition this time of year because a lot of trail work begins in the fall,” he said. “Some nights were a little too cool, and I found I needed warmer gear. Another big downside of this season is the shorter daylight hours available for hiking.
Berchek continued, “Water is easy to find on the OT, even in the drier seasons. The problem is there are a lot more water sources than indicated on the map, so…you end up carrying more water than needed. Water sources indicated on the OTA maps are mostly reliable.
He suggests carrying paper copies of the Ozark Trail maps, which can be purchased through the Ozark Trail Association, Alpine Shop, or printed free from the website — as well as a GPS device.
“Having hiked the OT in several different seasons, I strongly recommend treating clothing with permethrin. I had no ticks at all. Finally, avoid firearms deer season. Besides being safer, you’ll have more quiet and solitude. Also be sure to check the closure dates for the Peck Ranch Conservation Area.”
In His Own Words
Hometown: New York, New York
Trail Name: The Professor
Thru-Hike Date: Winter 2020
Pack (Base) Weight: 19 pounds
Luxury Items: Camp chair and pillow
I’d been on numerous backcountry hiking trips but nothing longer than three days when I began my southbound (SOBO) thru-hike in February 2020. I planned the trip for over a year. The two things that surprised me the most were going days without seeing other humans and the many river crossings.
Over the course of the year, I carefully watched sales and got about $3,500 worth of quality, lightweight equipment for much less than its suggested retail price. An Osprey Levity 60 backpack, Nemo Hornet one-person tent, and REI Magma 15 sleeping bag accompanied by a Therm-a-rest Neoair Xlite sleeping pad made up my “big three.”
Altra Lone Peak 3.5 trail runners were my shoe of choice, along with Darn Tough Merino Wool Hiker Boot socks. I brought water shoes to navigate streams with but only used them once; way too much trouble to switch at every crossing. I was fine hiking with wet Altras and mailed my water shoes home at Brushy Creek.
My food cost me around $300, not counting what I ate on my town day in Van Buren. For breakfast, I had Starbucks Via instant coffee added to a liter of cold water and a ProBar Meal bar. Lunch was mostly another ProBar, Primal Strips vegan jerky, and Kitch Fix granola. Dinner was freeze-dried hiking food from Backpacker’s Pantry, Patagonia Provisions, and Food For The Sole. I mailed food resupply boxes to Bushy Creek Lodge and The Landing in Van Buren.
Drinking water is a serious consideration for any thru-hike. Even at the driest part of the year, there are many water sources on the OT, but it shouldn’t be taken for granted. Filtering or chemically treating water is overwhelmingly recommended. I used a Katadyn BeFree 1-liter filter and only needed to clean it once in my 16 days. I carried my water in two, 1-liter SmartWater bottles.
Similar to many of the other thru-hikers, I downloaded the OTA’s excellent GPS maps, but I loaded them into the Gaia GPS app on my iPhone. I used this mostly to make sure I was on the trail when blazes were hard to find, and I logged my campsites and where I filtered water. My Suunto Baro 9 GPS watch has a battery that would last a whole day, and I brought the Anker PowerCore 10000 power bank that weighs a whooping 20 ounces. I needed to charge my headlamp, watch, and iPhone, which I used often for GPS, photos, video, and journal entries.
There are few towns along the OT. I believe Van Buren is the closest at about 3.5 miles from the trail. On my SOBO trek, I hit Van Buren on day 10 after a 24.4-mile, almost 11-hour hike. Pro tip: If you’re staying at a hotel in Van Buren, ask them to pick you up at the trailhead. I tried to hitchhike along Highway 60 and got stopped by a police officer who thought I was a vagrant. After I convinced him I was thru-hiking the OT, he was kind enough to drive me to The Landing; the kind folks there drove me back to the trail after a wonderful zero day.
Although I saw many diggings from feral hogs, I was fortunate to have never come across any. I did meet a hunter in the woods whose hands and arms were covered in blood. She had just shot a wild hog and had cut out the “back straps” to eat. My first night out I heard coyotes howling just before I fell asleep, which half startled me but was also beautiful to hear.
The OT is a great “starters thru-hike” in both length and technicality. The one place this trail may be considered more advanced is the lack of towns along the trail for resupply and a bed, shower, and town food. Streams and creeks can run deep and quick during heavy rains, and temperatures can dip below freezing in the spring and autumn. There are long stretches without cell phone service.
Do your research, contact other area hikers, know your limits, have an emergency plan, and as they taught us in Boy Scouts: be prepared. The Ozark Trail should not disappoint.
Author: Morgan Paar is a contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Lead Image: Mark Nettles.