Can You Hunt in a National Forest?

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Yes, you can hunt in U.S. National Forests, and in nearly all states it is quite common. Hunting in a national forest is not much different than hunting on most public lands, but there may be rules about seasons, species, and areas in which you can hunt. 

National forests are not national parks, the latter of which tend to have more strict regulations about hunting. The key difference is that national forests are managed for multiple purposes, including timber, recreation, grazing, wildlife, fish, and more. National parks, however, have a vested interest in preservation, keeping the land and its wildlife as minimally altered as possible.

Use the Government Lands Layer in onX Hunt to find public hunting land.

National forests are managed by the United States Forest Service, a division of the United States Department of Agriculture. National Parks are managed by the National Park Service, a federal bureau in the Department of the Interior. The U.S. Forest Service manages, altogether, 193 million acres of public land (more than twice that of national parks) in 44 states, comprised of 155 National Forests, 20 National Grasslands, and one National Tallgrass Prairie.

Here is a quick guide for you to understand hunting in national forests:

Hunting in National Forests

All state laws apply to national forest lands. However, most national forests that are legally accessible via a public road, navigable waterway, or adjacent state or federal land are open to hunting. Keep in mind there may be land-use restrictions in some areas, so it’s always best to check in with the local Ranger District Office before hunting in a particular national forest. 

Rules for Hunting in a National Forest

While hunting is regulated at the state level, with each national forest also being governed by the rules of its GMU (a single national forest can fall under multiple GMUs), there are important, nationwide guidelines to follow while hunting on these public lands. The U.S. Forest Service promotes the following rules for hunting while in a national forest. 

  • All firearms and bows with arrows should be cased and unloaded while in a recreation area or other public areas.
  • Discharging a firearm (including a bow and arrow) is prohibited in or within 150 yards of a developed recreation site, a residence, or any place where people are likely to be.
  • Shooting across bodies of water or a Forest Service road is prohibited.
  • Shooting into or within any cave, mine, or open shaft is prohibited.
  • Private land is interspersed with public land and you must obtain written permission from the private landowner to hunt on their property. Obtain a map and use caution to ensure you don’t inadvertently stray off public land onto private.
  • Only portable stands or blinds are allowed. Check with your local ranger district for restrictions and time limits.

How to Hunt in National Forests

North American Whitetail published an article by Dr. James C. Kroll recounting an “experiment” he did with one of his students, being challenged to find a quality whitetail buck on national forest land in Texas. The experiment, and subsequent research, was carried out in Davy Crockett National Forest, “one of the most heavily hunted public properties in Texas.” 

The article breaks down how Dr. Kroll and his student approached scouting the public land and choosing where to hunt in it. Broadly, this is what they did to find the best hunting spot:

  • Find national forest maps (or use the Government Lands Layer with onX Hunt)
  • Applying what hunters know about deer behavior (and human behavior), start mapping out the terrain where deer might prefer to be. Dr. Knoll also considered that in his studies he found most hunters never stray more than 1,500 feet away from their vehicles to hunt – information he used to determine low-pressure hunting areas.
  • Scout those potential areas, looking for saddles between drainages. Through e-scouting, look for the best ways to approach the area and what the winds do in that area. Look for water. Look for rubs. Look for bedding areas. Look for game trails. 
  • Commit to your spot and hunt it if the conditions are favorable according to your plan. 

Boiled down, Dr. Knoll’s article shares the simple keys to hunting in national forests – research, scout, and go. 

Use onX for Hunting National Forest Public Lands

With onX Hunt it is easy to scout any national forest in the U.S.* Simply open onX Hunt on either a smartphone or computer, turn on the Government Lands layer, and look for blue color-coded land. You might find other types of color-coded public lands as well, including BLM, National Parks, State Lands, etc. Then turn on the Private Lands layer to see adjacent private landowner information, including names and tax addresses.

After identifying the national forest you plan to hunt, you’ll need to know what hunting restrictions and licenses you’ll need for that area. The free onX GMU Hub will give you all that information, and more (check out the Alabama A Deer GMU as an example). 

With our beta 3D Maps, you’ll be able to better visualize drainages and saddles and then mark them with customizable Waypoints for your on-the-ground scouting or for sharing with your hunting partners. 

Once you’re in the national forest and looking for promising signs of game, you can easily mark things like rubs, wallows, bedding areas, and water sources with Photo Waypoints, mapping out an entire hunting strategy with data and visual aids. 

* For step-by-step instructions on how to scout public lands, including national forest lands, in the onX Hunt App, please visit the following support article.

List of National Forests, in Alphabetical Order

Alabama National Forests

Alaska National Forests

Arizona National Forests

Arkansas National Forests

California National Forests

Colorado National Forests

Florida National Forests

Georgia National Forests

Idaho National Forests

Illinois National Forests

Indiana National Forests

Kentucky National Forests

Louisiana National Forests

Maine National Forests

Michigan National Forests

Minnesota National Forests

Mississippi National Forests

Missouri National Forests

Montana National Forests

Nebraska National Forests

Nevada National Forests

New Hampshire National Forests

New Mexico National Forests

New York National Forests

North Carolina National Forests

Ohio National Forests

Oklahoma National Forests

Oregon National Forests

Pennsylvania National Forests

Puerto Rico National Forests

South Carolina National Forests

South Dakota National Forests

Tennessee National Forests

Texas National Forests

Utah National Forests

Vermont National Forests

Virginia National Forests

Washington National Forests

West Virginia National Forests

Wisconsin National Forests

Wyoming National Forests


Ryan Newhouse

Ryan Newhouse was raised hunting squirrels and whitetails in the deep South but has spent the last two decades chasing Western big game in Montana. He has written professionally about his travels and the craft beers he’s consumed along the way. He loves camping, fishing, boating, and teaching his two kids the art of building campfires and playing the ukulele. His great-great-uncle, Sewell Newhouse, invented the steel animal trap.