When I was planning my first hunt, I wasn’t sure how to find public hunting land. How do I search for it? How do I know if I’m on public or private land? Where can I find access locations to get to my hunting spot? If these questions are all too familiar, read on.
There are millions of acres of public hunting lands across the United States that provide ample opportunities. It will take some research and planning, but I’m going to walk you through it. This guide will teach you how to easily find and access public hunting areas for your next whitetail, mule deer, elk or other big game adventure.
- Check state wildlife agency websites for interactive maps of public hunting areas
- Study National Forest and National Wildlife Refuge maps to locate promising zones
- Hunting apps are the best and easiest way to explore boundaries, terrain and access locations
- Understand regulations and proper equipment for public land hunting
- Join local hunting groups to discover community insider tips
- Follow ethical conduct as a guest on shared public lands
- Savor the entire experience of escaping into nature and wildlife habitats
Check Your State’s Natural Resource Agency Website
The first place to start your search is on your state’s department of natural resources, fish and wildlife, or parks and recreation website. These agencies manage public lands specifically for recreation and conservation. If you’re really lost on how to find these websites, try using the following search terms:
For example, since I’m in Georgia, I typed in “Georgia public hunting land” and the first result was the GA DNR website with an interactive hunting map.
Iowa provides the Hunting Atlas, an interactive map showing all public hunting areas. The Michigan DNR website lists dozens of state game and wildlife areas open to hunting. Most states have similar resources.
It is important to understand that hunting regulations may vary throughout your state, so always confirm the specific regulations for the public land you want to hunt BEFORE planning your trip.
Continuing on from our GA DNR website example, if I drill down in the interactive map and look at the regulations for a specific WMA, there is a detailed breakdown of the regulations.
Scout National Forests and Grasslands
America’s national forests and grasslands offer some of the very best public land hunting opportunities. Deer, elk, bear, turkey, upland birds and other popular big game species thrive on these expansive tracts of wilderness managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
Each national forest provides maps divided into zones highlighting the predominant wildlife. For example, the Arapaho National Forest in Colorado contains over 750,000 acres of mule deer, elk, moose, black bear, and turkey habitat.
Study the maps to identify promising areas. Roads and trails provide access deeper into the forests. You can also take advantage of Forest Service designated campgrounds when planning multi-day hunts.
Locate National Wildlife Refuges
Operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Wildlife Refuges span over 150 million acres across the country. Nearly all of these public lands allow regulated hunting while also conserving habitats.
Refuges in the upper Midwest offer exceptional waterfowl hunting, especially for ducks and geese. Birds flock to the wetlands and marshes. Hunting for elk and deer is popular on western refuge sites like Wyoming’s National Elk Refuge.
Contact your nearest refuge to learn about open seasons and permitted species. A small usage or access fee may be required.
Find Bureau of Land Management Property
As part of the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees millions of acres of public lands, predominantly in western states like Wyoming, New Mexico and Alaska. These areas allow hunting along with camping, fishing, hiking and sightseeing.
BLM maps and brochures detail animal densities, terrain, distances, trails and other helpful information for planning your hunt. Fees or usage passes may be required depending on the location and facilities available.
Research State Parks and Forests
Every state manages parks and forests funded by tax dollars to support recreation, conservation and wildlife. State agencies develop facilities and maps specifically for hunting certain species during the appropriate seasons.
For example, New York has nearly 5 million acres of state lands divided into wildlife management areas, state forests, conservation easements and more.
Regulated hunting keeps animal populations healthy. Check state park websites for maps and details on seasons and permits.
Use Online Mapping Tools
Digital maps have made finding hunting areas easier than ever. Both government and private platforms allow you to search for public hunting land.
The Iowa Hunting Atlas mentioned above is an interactive GIS map showing all public hunting areas. The Hunting Atlas in Georgia similarly highlights WMAs, refuges, and public lands using an intuitive interface.
Paid services like onX and HuntStand feature overlays on satellite imagery to clearly delineate boundaries. This helps you identify parking areas, trails into hunting zones, and adjacent private property.
Use Apps to Find Public Hunting Land
Hunting apps are by far the easiest and best way to find public hunting areas. These apps can provide helpful data like property lines, terrain contours, species maps and regulations. In the above example you can see private land clearly marked with red lines.
For example, onX Hunt shows public and private land boundaries based on your GPS location. You can mark hunting areas, navigate to them online or offline, and share locations.
Search your device’s app store for titles specific to the state and species you plan to hunt. Paid versions unlock more features.
Ask Local Hunting Groups
Joining local hunting organizations, forums and clubs can provide insider access to new areas. These experienced members will know the public (and sometimes private) hotspots that hold big game.
Attend meetings or talks, browse online message boards, and explain you’re hoping to discover new public land hunting opportunities. Folks are usually eager to share advice to help a fellow hunter.
Understand Regulations on Public Land
While public hunting lands offer accessibility, they also involve important regulations. Differences exist between federal, state and local areas in licensing, seasons, weapons, limits and more.
Carefully study the public land hunting regulations relevant to the state and location. Public resources like state park hunting handbooks summarize the laws. Strictly follow all guidelines.
Use Proper Gear and Equipment
Hunting public land often requires more preparation than hunting private land. You may need to hike further or navigate unfamiliar terrain.
Proper gear like footwear, survival items, weaponry for the game hunted, GPS, rangefinder, field dressing and hauling equipment are essentials. A safety vest and supplies for dressing game far from your vehicle are recommended.
Be Respectful on Public Hunting Areas
Excuse me while I go on a bit of a tangent. As hunters, we must hold ourselves to the highest standards when accessing public lands shared by all outdoor enthusiasts. Practicing ethical, sportsmanlike conduct is our duty not just to the wildlife, but to fellow hunters and other users of these wild spaces.
A good rule of thumb is to treat public land even better than your own property. Pack out all trash you find, refrain from messy field dressing (bury it), and basically leave no trace of your presence. Report any injuries or incidents promptly. Follow all regulations diligently.
Consider your impact on the land itself. Don’t cut trees or vegetation to improve shooting lanes or vision. Portable tree stands that leave no trace are preferred. Taking care of the habitat means better hunting for years to come.
Leave other hunters alone. Public land can get crowded, but it’s first come first serve. If another hunter beats you to your hunting spot, be respectful and find another place to set up. Don’t use another hunter’s treestand.
Fair chase principles must guide your actions when pursuing game. No baiting, electronic calls, or other unnatural advantages. The satisfaction comes from matching your woodsmanship against the animal’s instincts. Keeping this tradition alive preserves the heart of hunting.
Enjoy the Whole Experience and Scenery
While harvesting an animal is often the end goal, embrace the entire public land hunting experience. Enjoy reconnecting with nature, testing your skills, and making memories with fellow hunters.
Savor the sunrises, the tranquility of the wilderness, and sights of animals in their natural habitats. Public lands grant us these privileges. The more hunters grow to appreciate them, the more they will fight to preserve them.
Finding places to hunt on public land just takes some homework. But the payoff is enjoying America’s wide-open spaces with hunting opportunities rivaled by few other nations. With research and planning, you can gain access to millions of acres of public forests, parks, and wild areas where big game await.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I find the best public hunting lands in my state?
Start by checking your state’s department of natural resources website. Most agencies offer interactive maps highlighting the top public hunting areas. Study the maps to identify locations with abundant habitat for your target species. Areas near you with large acreage tend to be the best options.
What type of hunting is allowed on public lands?
Regulations vary between federal, state and local public hunting lands. Some only permit bowhunting while others allow rifle and shotgun seasons. Small game like squirrel and turkey are often legal year-round. Big game like deer and elk follow specific seasons. Always verify what methods and species are permitted.
Can I access hunting areas on public land that are far from parking lots and trails?
Yes, you can hike into remote sections of public lands for hunting. But be sure to dress appropriately and bring survival supplies in case you get lost, injured or weather moves in. Also be mentally and physically prepared to haul meat long distances back to your vehicle.
What options exist for camping on public hunting lands?
Many public lands prohibit dispersed backcountry camping. Check for designated campgrounds and RV sites on federal and state hunting lands. Backpacking is allowed in certain wilderness areas and forests. Research dispersed camping regulations on Bureau of Land Management property.
Is it possible to find secluded hunting spots on crowded public lands?
Even the most popular public hunting areas have overlooked corners and hidden hotspots. Rather than following crowds on opening weekend, study maps for hard-to-reach locations. Be willing to hike farther and settle for smaller game. Finding “hidden gems” on public land just takes more scouting.
Can I access private land that borders public hunting land?
Never trespass onto private property, even if it borders public land you have permission to access. Hunters must avoid areas marked no trespassing and remain within public land boundaries. Treat fences as walls not to be crossed unless explicitly allowed.
What resources help me identify exact property lines and borders?
Online and mobile mapping tools clearly delineate between private and public property using overlays on satellite imagery. onX, HuntStand and other apps use GPS to show your location relative to boundaries. Some states also have free Hunting Atlases highlighting public lands.
How can I discover new public hunting areas and opportunities?
Joining local hunting organizations and talking with experienced hunters is the best way to find hidden hotspots. Attend meetings, read forums, and explain you’re hoping to discover new public lands. People are usually happy to point fellow hunters in the right direction.
When hunting public land, can I use deer feeders, tree stands, and ATVs?
Feeding and baiting game is prohibited on most public hunting lands. You can only use portable, non-damaging stands that are clearly marked with your name or contact info. ATVs must stick to designated roads and trails. Follow all rules to maintain access privileges.