Cowboy Camping for Beginners

Cowboy camping for beginners

Cowboy camping is a good way to make your backpacking trips more efficient while falling asleep to a view of the moon and stars. If the forecast is good, you can roll out a foam pad and a sleeping bag/quilt and camp in the open. In the morning there will be no tent to pack up and you’ll be on the trail in no time. There are numerous experiential benefits to cowboy camping too, including a deeper degree of wilderness immersion. All that said, cowboy camping can be psychologically challenging for some. There is an intense feeling of vulnerability that comes from being completely exposed to the surrounding desert, forest, mountains, or sky. But after a few nights out, most people acclimate to the experience.

Time Savings

One of the main benefits of cowboy camping is the time saved by not setting up a shelter. If you are putting in the miles and walking into camp after dark each night, it’s nice to just unroll a foam pad on the dirt and crawl into your sleeping bag. Of course, this works best when you know it’s not likely to rain.

Experiential Aspect

The other and arguably main benefit of cowboy camping is experiential. Cowboy camping allows you to stargaze before falling asleep. I think most hikers would agree that seeing the stars is one of the most wonderful things about backpacking. Many of us live in cities where the light pollution limits us to only the moon and occasionally Venus or Jupiter. Falling asleep with the milky way above you is a near-primordial ritual experience. Whenever I get to do this I feel rejuvenated, almost like rediscovering an essential part of myself I’d forgotten about.

Camping amidst natural feature can be a sublime experience
Camping amidst natural feature can be a sublime experience

Psychological Element

Cowboy camping can be either psychologically beneficial or detrimental depending on one’s state of mind at the outset. Let me explain. Cowboy camping can be challenging for some of us who are afraid of animals, snakes, scorpions, and other creepy crawlers.

There is a certain feeling of vulnerability to cowboy camping which is both part of its appeal and partly what makes it so unsettling. But also, isn’t it some degree of vulnerability that drives us to go backpacking anyway? Cowboy camping allows us to experience a greater degree of vulnerability than traditional tent camping. It’s up to you whether you want to lean into this vulnerability and see how it feels, or just prioritize a good night’s rest.

While it doesn’t “feel” that way, a tent actually provides very little protection from bears, mountain lions, raccoons, and marmots when it comes right down to it. It’s really only there for weather protection. Once you internalize this, camping without a tent or shelter becomes a little less intimidating.

A large piece of polycro packs down to nothing and only weighs about 2-3 oz
A large piece of polycryo packs down to nothing and only weighs about 2-3 oz

Recommended Cowboy Camping Gear

Groundsheet

If you’re carrying an inflatable pad, cowboy camping necessitates the use of some sort of groundsheet. In most situations, a thin sheet of ultralight polycryo plastic should suffice. A big piece of polycryo only weighs a few ounces but is as tough as nails.

Foam Pad

If you are using foam, you may not need a groundsheet at all. I spent an entire summer cowboy camping on a Therm-A-Rest Ridgrest without any sort of groundsheet.

Quilt or Sleeping Bag

Whether you use a quilt or a sleeping bag, really comes down to personal preference. I prefer a quilt in warmer weather and a sleeping bag when it gets colder under 20 degrees. If you’re feeling more exposed without a tent to protect you from critters, a sleeping bag may provide you with a great sense of security. But both options work perfectly well when coupled with a warm sleeping pad for ground insulation.

Cowboy camping with a bivy sack
Cowboy camping with a bivy sack

Bivy

If it’s bug season you can take a bivy like the Enlightened Equipment Recon Bivy. At around 6.6 oz you will have a floor and insect protection. It can also help offset the fear of snakes and spiders. Another option is a waterproof bivy such as the Outdoor Research Stargazer Ascentshell Bivy. With a waterproof bivy you’re wrapping up a floor, bug protection, and rain protection into one ~19 oz item. There’s a simplicity to this option that is very appealing. No need to fuss with a tarp in the middle of the night.

Backup Tarp

It pays to bring along a minimalist waterproof shelter that you can quickly set up, even if rain is unlikely. The Zpacks Pocket Tarp w/ Doors is my personal favorite backup tarp at only about 6 oz. Though small, it has 4-sided protection which I appreciate immensely. A simple tarp like the 7.5 oz Gossamer Gear Solo Tarp is also another excellent option.

There are plenty of other tarp options, but the bottom line is that if you are cowboy camping often then you are probably in a place with intermittent weather, so your shelter probably does not need to be super substantial. Your backup shelter will not be a three-season dome tent or a double-wall pyramid style shelter. Your shelter will be a minimal tarp with either four-sided, three-sided, or two-sided protection.

And because cowboy camping often relies on natural shelters as part of your system, a cheap, flat tarp actually makes a lot of sense. If you’re next to a rock wall or a tree, you may only need to block the rain from one side in the middle of the night with a lean-to design. Or if the rain is very light, maybe you will simply roll up in your flat tarp like a burrito until it passes.

Ponderosas provide a protected site ideal for cowboy camping.
Ponderosas provide a protected site ideal for cowboy camping.

Campsite Selection

Most of the cowboy camping I’ve done has either been in the ridiculously arid parts of southern Utah and northern Arizona where it almost never rains. Here, I mainly look for flat campsites and sleep best when my pad is as level as possible. Sand is good because you can sculpt it if need be to achieve flatness. Because you don’t have to set up a shelter or pound in stakes, you now have the option of camping on rock too, which can actually be very comfortable.

But when I’m moving fast and don’t know much about the forecast, I try to tuck under a tree, in an alcove, or next to a boulder. These partial shelters will block some rain, and more importantly, some wind which can sometimes keep me awake. If you’re a light sleeper like me, the light breeze on your face while cowboy camping can be enough to make it pretty unpleasant. Finding natural shelters to block the wind cuts down this risk significantly.

Parting Thoughts

Cowboy Camping may not be for everyone, but if you’re feeling an aversion to it, don’t discount it too quickly. Not only can it increase the efficiency of your fast and light trips, but it could provide you with a more immersive experience of nature, one that will last well into your work week. You will see more shooting stars than you would in a tent. Maybe even a UFO if you’re lucky. You will feel a breeze on your face. You may see a deer walk right beside you. There may be something you could learn about your own fears and anxieties by sleeping out under the night sky. And through this immersive experience, maybe some of those fears and anxieties will dissolve.

About the author

Ben Kilbourne has been backpacking at least once a month every month for the last twelve years. His explorations have taken him all over the west, but especially the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau. The geography of the west has become familiar to him. He has developed a rudimentary understanding of its geology, and an awareness of the subtle changes in flora and fauna due to soil, elevation, aspect, and precipitation and how these elemental things interact with both ancient and modern humans. His experiences on the land, whether triumphant or thwarted by events either in or out of his control, have provided the foundation for the work he does. Find Ben’s paintings, songs, and essays here http://benkilbourne.com/.

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47 comments

  1. Thanks for writing this up. I’m going to give cowboy camping a shot at the next opportunity (I’ve already slept in my hammock without a rainfly and loved it). Given that I’m in the mid-Atlantic, my opportunities for cowboy camping aren’t as frequent or as guaranteed, so I appreciated the advice on mitigating small-but-not-zero chances of rain.

  2. Great piece thanks.

  3. I have cowboy-camped on trips to the south-western U.S., but rarely in the region where I live. In the wet mid-Atlantic, you are likely to wake up with your gear damp from dew, fog, mist or frost, even if there was no regular precipitation, so cowboy camping is risky. If a high barometric pressure weather system pushes the humidity away and you are not too near a stream or in a moisture-trapping hollow, on the other hand, you should be fine. The clearest nights are often the coldest, so you may want additional insulation if you don’t have some form of cover. Tom P’s approach of sleeping in a hammock without a rainfly makes sense, especially in warm weather, since it gets you up off the moisture in the ground. You can always put a hammock rainfly up, but roll it out of the way, so it is ready to deploy in a hurry if rain or snow comes in.

    • I haven’t camped much in the mid-Atlantic, but I trust you’re right about this. It works better in drier alpine environments like the Rockies and of course deserts like the Colorado Plateau. Could probably overlay a cowboy camping map with John Wesley Powell’s “Arid Region of the United States” map and they would match up. Most places west of the 100th meridian haha.

  4. I may try it someday, but I’m definitely in the irrationally-afraid-of-this group.

    • Maybe there are places it would bother you less. I personally do better in piñon and juniper woodlands than in alpine forests though I’m not sure why. And alcoves are better than barren badland exposure. Just my particular psychology.

  5. The 6 person group next to us at Bright Angel campground in the Grand Canyon were all cowboy camping. They were trail running out in the morning and only brought running vests with minimal gear.

  6. Robert P Stephenson

    Cowboy camped a lot in my life mostly in my home state of Montana. There is something about the simplicity that minimalism provides and the sense of freedom that comes with it. Yes there have been downpours and one memorable blizzard but I would not have changed a thing. It’s an experience you owe to yourself to try if you love the outdoors. Thanks for the write up!

  7. I grew up camping out in West Texas on a ranch the cowboy camped all the time but not the way you’re describing it we roughed it sometimes we all we had was a tarp but that was okay we were at home in nature we were kids but you’re describing sounds like City cowboy camping

  8. Good article. I enjoy Cowboy Camping, but I have gotten bit by something each time. Even in my netting, something has managed to bite me – when I pressed against the netting I suspect. Bugs like me.

    I’m a light sleeper so I usually wake up during the night and go enjoy the views before going back to hide in my tarp-tent for the night. :-)

  9. Not a cowboy camping specific question, but do you have any suggestions on how to layer a zero degree quilt i have with a summer(?) sleeping bag to more comfortably winter camping/backpacking?

    • I’d stack the quilt on top… It will also block the drafts that get past your quilt.

    • I was going to say quilt on top too assuming the other one is a mummy bag or something. That said, the preferred system for a lot of folks is usually a thicker bag or quilt inside (maybe 20 degree) and a thinner synthetic quilt on the outside (maybe 40 or 50 degree)

      • That’s what I’ve done in the past, based on recommendations to place the synthetic quilt on top to capture any condensation. And let me tell you, it was an amazingly warm combination. Twenty degree down bag with 40 degree synthetic quilt in mid-teens weather.

    • I have a roomy “spoon-shaped” Nemo down bag. When I go below its rating, I put a narrow-cut, sewn-footbox quilt inside it. That works well since the outer bag is big and the inner quilt is narrow. I’ve tried draping a flat quilt outside my down bag, but I find the outer layer slides off. I haven’t wanted to secure the quilt with straps, since I don’t want to compress the inner bag’s loft. The bag-and-quilt system is heavier and bulkier than a sub-zero bag, but if you get condensation in your system, you can separate the pieces for drying. I found it very flexible where some nights would be pretty warm and others very cold. You may want to experiment someplace where you can retreat easily to your car if you miscalculate until you get your system dialed in.

  10. I’m from New England like Philip so I don’t get to cowboy camp very often (I don’t ever trust it not to rain), but once when I did so on a rafting trip in Utah I woke up way too early from ants crawling over me – I’d put my sleeping pad right over a giant ant’s nest, oops. Not only was this really annoying but when I went to pack up my gear, I discovered a scorpion had made itself at home under my pad (snacking on yummy ants, probably). I’m generally not terribly nervous about critters but my yelp upon seeing the scorpion skitter out from under my pad woke a few others in my group who were nearby.

    So I guess the moral of this story is to make sure you don’t cowboy camp on top of a giant ant’s nest.

  11. I have had enough bears sniffing around the outer edges of my rip stop tents that I would never ever be in just a sleeping bag unless > 9500 ft alritude

    • Thanks Randy! You just ruined it for most of us, LMAO! Oh man luckily most of the places I camp and have camped bears were not a problem Texas and Louisiana to Florida. Grew up in tbetween west Texas with my hippy parents and south Louisiana with the grandparents. Snakes don’t bother me. Learned to repel bugs and camp in the winter in the swamps and Deep South. Now we camp in the Ozarks of Arkansas and we’re wanting to venture off into bear county some. I’m having mixed feeling about being around bears. Sitting here imagining waking up with a bear sniffing around me in a bivy bag has got me laughing my ass off and a little concerned. Oh man.

    • Randy,Does the rip stop fabric on the tent help repel bears? Asking for a friend.

  12. Phillip, or camp with a friend who runs with a limp!

  13. I really enjoyed this article. I always enjoyed sleeping out underneath the stars and it was nice to hear someone else’s take on that. Thanks again for sharing the article. Sincerely, River Smith.

  14. If I’ve looked at the forecast & there isn’t really a chance of rain, and it’s not particularly buggy, I cowboy it. I typically go with groups of people who pair up to share tents (one person carries the stakes & body, the other the rainfly, footprint & poles), & we’ll lay down the tent footprint & set our pads on top of that. There’ve definitely been some mornings in the Sierra Nevadas that I’ve woken up to frost on my sleeping bag from cowboying it, but it’s well worth it.

  15. I’ve cowboy camped many times by myself and once tried it with my grandson and another friend in Big Bend NP when grandson was eight. That experience didn’t work too well. He needed the security of some sort of shelter. We found he slept better when he was between the two adults–it gave him more of a sense of protection. My take away from that is that children may not take to cowboy camping too readily even if they’ve camped and backpacked quite a bit. Bugs weren’t an issue because it was right about New Year’s that we camped.

    A few years earlier, I hiked the South Rim Trail in Big Bend the same time of the year. There was fresh snow on the ground and I just put my ground sheet, pad and sleeping bag on the ground. It was a glorious refreshing night as I lay there star gazing in the darkest skies of the Lower 48. During the night, I could hear footsteps in the woods and animals sniffing around my campsite at various times.

    The following morning, as I sat on the edge of the 500′ cliff that makes up South Rim, gazing a hundred miles into Mexico and looking at the Rio Grande snaking through the desert and canyons a mile below, I did my personal daily Bible reading from a photocopy of the section of the Bible I was in. It was Psalm 104 which talked about mountains ascending and valleys descending, springs of water in the valleys between the mountains, animals of the forest coming out to roam when the sun sets and then withdrawing to their dens when the sun rises and man goes to work. As I drank my water collected from the canyon of Boot Spring, it hit me: I am living this Psalm right at this very moment! It was a very moving cowboy camping experience I’ll never forget!

    • My wife and I spent an anniversary in the Big Bend area. After a day on horseback, we cowboy camped along the Rio Grande and I remember waking up during the night and being startled by the clarity of the stars overhead. I also remember her being excitedly startled awake by a pig, explained next morning to have been from the Mexican side, snorting not three feet from her! In retrospect, the memory makes me realize I don’t cowboy camp nearly enough!

  16. Anyone have a good solution for condensation when cowboy camping? When I was on the PCT, I often found that unless I was under heavy tree cover, I’d wake up at 3am absolutely soaked with condensation on my bag–it was enough to get me to set up a shelter a couple times just to have something else for the condensation to attack.

    • Same suggestion as for avoiding condensation on a tent, don’t camp near water, in meadows, or other depressions in the landscape. The only time I’ve had condensation problems were when I camped near water. I guess fortunately it’s always been cold enough that I woke up with frost on my quilt that I could mostly shake off.

  17. Sounds awesome and worth a try – maybe not here in central FL.

    I can suggest that a simple solution to seeing stars while “regular” camping is take the fly off your tent!

  18. Great article!

  19. I finally tried cowboy camping 3 years ago and now I cowboy camp whenever possible. I love the simplicity and the views. That thin nylon or dyneema isn’t protecting you from anything except mossies. As for other insects, they will try to avoid you same as the ones in your bedroom. You don’t have spiders, earrings, etc in your house? Suuure.

  20. Great article and comments. Love the different perspectives! I also had a near religious experience camping under the stars at the South Rim of Big Bend. Amazing light show! I woke that morning to the sounds of snuffling near my head… opened one eye and saw a pair of skunks less than 3 feet away, trying to get in my pack. What to do? Simple: go back to sleep. Woke again 30 min later and they were gone. No harm no foul, but next time I moved the pack a bit further away from my sleeping spot…

    • I was in the Coast Guard for a dozen years, and the first two cutters I served in made long-distance trips on the Pacific. One moonless night, one of the engineers was up on the bridge for some reason. He was out on the bridge wing, staring at the sky, agape. Several minutes in, I asked him if he was okay or if he needed anything. He explained he’d never been topside at night when we were underway. I nodded – when the sky is so dark you can see faint stars, it really takes your breath away. It’s magical, and something humans in industrialized countries are generally denied.

      I told him to take all the time he wanted.

      • Kim Kremer: This comment of yours is one of my favorites I’ve ever read on this site. Yes, stars are mesmerizing.

      • Thanks!

        It’s a pleasant memory. I cannot remember his name, but sharing his awe will always be etched in my memory.

  21. The only experience I had Cowboy camping was many, many, years ago at the Hale trailhead. (Well before the current ‘lot’ was built.) I pulled in very late at night, so just slept on the ground behind my car. As I was falling asleep I heard “Thump, thump, thump” coming closer… and something, probably a squirrel, landed on my stomach. My legs and arms all shot out, and I heard nothing for a couple seconds, until he landed, then a very rapid retreat. I’m not sure who had been more surprised him or me. :-)

  22. I envy y’all that are willing to do this.

    Several years ago, I left the bug netting home because I knew it would be cold enough at night that bugs wouldn’t be a problem. One night, I heard/felt something walking on the hang strap for my hammock. Then a wee rodent walked across my face. My instinctual reaction was to fling it off of me. I was camped atop a ridge, and I suspect that poor critter didn’t hit the ground until it hit Trap Lake 1000′ below.

    If I’m confident there’ll be no rain, I don’t put the tarp up. While the bug netting diminishes star gazing a bit, I can still see all around me. Unless the tarp is really battened down for a storm, I can feel the breeze around me — that’s one of my favorite things about sleeping in a hammock. But without the netting, I would assume every noise was something risking it all to walk on my face.

    Cowboy camping sounds really attractive, but I am far too much the housecat to attempt it.

    • A simple bivy sack like a Borah Ultralight Bivy or Bug Bivy would keep the small critters off.

      I would love to try this, but New England is not the right climate for it. We’ve been using double-walled tents to handle the rain and condensation, but I’m hoping to try out a hammock and tarp this year.

  23. One of my favorite times cowboy camping was on a summer night up in the Uintas of Utah. I was about 30 yards away from a mountain lake sleeping under a star filled and moonless canvas. I dozed off. I began to hear foot steps all around me! I couldn’t see what was causing the noise. My sleeping bag had a little zippered pocket near my chest and in it I had my flashlight. I slowly unzipped the pocket. Found my flashlight. Turned it on. Suddenly there were multiples of eyes all starring at me!

    It was a herd of deer coming down to the lake for a drink. A great night!

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