The Art to Cowboy
(All pictures in this article are of me cowboy camping; of spots I cowboy camped; or were taken while cowboy camped)
What is Cowboy Camping?
So you want to be a cowboy, baby? …No? Well, do you at least want to camp like one? If you do, then I can help (and then some). Firstly, what exactly IS “Cowboy Camping?” Basically, it’s sleeping on the ground without a shelter; no tent, no tarp, no hammock, and no bug net. Camping like this may sound like you’re asking for trouble, and in some cases you would be. However, there are many perks and rewards to camping like a cowboy as well…
Advantages and Disadvantages to Cowboy Camping
Let’s kick this off with some of the drawbacks to cowboy camping, this way we can end on a more positive note. Firstly, Cowboy Camping can be scary if you’re not used to it. Even if you are used to it, it can be scarier in certain areas, like say…Grizzly Country. The feeling of vulnerability while sleeping on the ground in the wilderness without a shelter is positively palpable. Unfortunately, the only way to overcome that scary, vulnerable feeling is to simply face your fears and “just do it.” You do it enough times, and have enough pleasant experiences that it becomes natural. However, there are ways to ease into it, as well as increase your chances of pleasant experiences; but I’ll mention those later.
Another drawback to cowboy camping is the bugs. You’ve got no shelter or cover to keep them out, so bugs will for the most part have free reign over you, as well as whatever parts of you are most exposed.
Weather is the next disadvantage. When you cowboy camp, you usually want to be sure of good weather ahead of time, although there is always the slim chance that something might roll up unexpectedly; be it wind, rain, snow, etc. You accept this risk every time you decide to cowboy camp, regardless of what the forecast says.
Animals are the next potential negative factor. With no shelter to keep them at bay, they might take the liberty of getting very close to you. Without a shelter to keep all of your gear in, the chances of animals coming over to investigate increases exponentially. This includes mice, deer, porcupines, raccoons, bears, and anything else that might find you and your things enticing.
Less insulation is the final drawback I’ll cite. You’re not bundled up within the confines of a shelter, so there is one less layer to insulate you in your sphere of warmth. You’ll be exposed to wind, which can further expedite heat leaving your body, as well as garments.
Now for the positive! Firstly, cowboy camping is an incredibly fast and convenient way to camp. It’s as simple as throwing down a ground sheet (optional, but recommended), a sleeping pad, you’re sleeping bag, and then yourself; bing, bang, boom! You could go from hiking to sleeping in less than two minutes without the hassle of setting up a shelter. Not to mention, packing up only takes a few minutes as well. Cowboy camping saves time, effort, and energy.
Nextly, you will gain a supreme boost of confidence and assured-ness in yourself, as well as your own abilities. It’s sometimes a tough method of camping to get used to, but if you can overcome your own fears and misgivings; the personal rewards of added confidence, adaptability, and bravery throughout other areas of your life are invaluable. Honestly, I would consider this the greatest positive aspect of cowboy camping; outweighing all other drawbacks.
You will also notice that cowboy camping will help you to be more productive with your time. If you have a tendency to sleep in late in your shelter, cowboy camping will go a long way to helping you rise with the sun (literally), and get the early start you’re after. Shelters tend to delay the extra heat (or cold) and brightness of a new day, encouraging you to sleep in. When you’re a little more exposed to the elements like the brightness and heat of a new sun, or the cool breeze of early morning… it refreshes and wakes you up much quicker than if you were walled up in a shelter.
Adaptability in a pinch. Let’s say weather conditions are perfect, but you’re having a tough time finding trees to hang from, or a large enough area to set up a tent. Perhaps all you can do is squeeze into a little flat spot to lay down in a particular area; being familiar with cowboy camping will help. It will also help when making the dicey decisions to camp in certain locations specifically for a view or sunrise opportunity. If you were to camp on a rocky slab or outcropping as a method of avoiding wet/cold vegetation, or to attain a specific view; cowboy camping will help you to do this. It’s always nice to be comfortable and familiar with it ahead of time.
Lastly, the closeness and peace you will feel with nature is unequaled. You will have a 360 degree view of your surroundings (including the sky!!), and you will be rewarded with sights and experiences that shelter sleepers simply won’t get. Imagine opening or closing your eyes to visions of the Milky Way, a meteor shower, or a full moon shining above you. I’m getting nostalgic just typing about it!
Knowing When, Where, and How to Cowboy Camp
When deciding when and where to cowboy camp, it’s about 75% choosing your battles, and 25% “F*** it.” What I mean by this is that 75% of the time you’re going to be examining every positive and negative factor of possibly cowboy camping in your potential spot, or not; bug presence, current conditions, future conditions, wild animal presence, etc. The other 25% of the time, there may be no way to immediately know some, or even all of those factors (or don’t care); so you just say, “F*** it,” and cowboy camp anyway. What would be a situation where you don’t know if there are a lot of bugs? Well, it’s not always flying, biting insects that harass you when you cowboy camp. There could be an unseen ant pile nearby; there could be a lot of Wolf Spiders and Daddy Long Legs roaming around; or there could be a higher percentage of millipedes, and other creepy crawlies just walking around doing their thing. You won’t always know, so it’s always a chance you take. Personally, I’ve woken up with these sorts of insects on my face, or in my bag more times than I can count; I’ve made peace with it, and it really doesn’t bother me anymore. If you’re not feeling so “peaceful” about those potential incidents; there are extra measures you can take to prevent them.
So when you’re deciding whether to cowboy camp or not, the first thing you will examine is the weather. You have to make an accurate/educated guess based on current conditions, and/or forecast-ed conditions (assuming you have enough service to look up the most updated forecast, or save an extended forecast of where you plan to be). If the weather is going to be bad, then no other factors really matter. Good Weather = your first green flag to cowboy camp. If you’re really not sure what the weather might be throughout the night, you can play it safe, make an educated guess, or say “F*** it,” and do what you want.
The second green or red flag (for most people), will be insects. Are there a bunch of them in the area or not? If there are a ton of flying biting insects around, most people will opt not to cowboy camp. Here is a tip: camping away from standing water or muddy areas will go a long way towards decreasing the amount of winged, biting insects in the air. Sometimes it won’t matter where you go, but staying away from standing water is a sure bet (ponds, lakes, big puddles, very slow rivers, and muddy areas). But what if you decide to cowboy camp near one of these places, or there are bugs around regardless? You’re first line of defense is going to be to bundle up (this is obviously more pleasant if temperatures are cool). Cinch up your sleeping bag, put on some long sleeves, put on your gloves and socks, put on a beanie or a balaclava, and put on some leggings. Unfortunately, mosquitoes can bite through most soft, thin fabrics like those; so you might opt instead to put on your wind or rain shell jacket, as well as shell pants. I have yet to find any insects that can consistently bite through those types of garments… so it helps. If it’s too warm, then you might think about putting on those shell layers with nothing else underneath them; this way you lessen the insulation, and thus the heat. You may decide to wear a ball cap with a “head bug net” on as well; or just the bug net over your head by itself. Having the bill of a baseball cap to hang it on will go a long ways to keeping the netting off your face (which is annoying), as well as not letting the bugs bite you through netting that is flush against your skin.
The next way to lessen the blow from insects and arachnids that aren’t necessarily flying around is a little more nuanced. Bundling up helps protect you from getting bit or feeling the insects landing/crawling on you; but how do you decrease the chances of the walkers walking onto you in the first place; possibly crawling inside your bag? The answer is to “bathtub” your ground sheet (this is why I strongly recommend using a ground sheet). What I mean by “bathtub” your groundsheet, is to get the perimeter edges of your groundsheet lifted off the ground as much as possible; you want them to curl up (or at least just lift off the ground) like the edges of a bathtub (a few inches at most). How do you do this? I do it by placing sticks, rocks, my shoes, water bottles, and whatever else I can find underneath the edge of the sheet – all the way around. This will ensure that any night walkers happening by will walk underneath the edge of your groundsheet (not over top of it), hit the bottom wall and turn around or follow the perimeter of the bottom until it leads them in another direction. Most bugs will not be able to gain traction to climb up ground sheets made of materials like “Tyvek,” “Polycro,” or “Cubin Fiber.” If you want to shell out the money, you can also buy pre bathtub-ed ground sheets like this one. This technique can also help with snakes, but for the most part, snakes are not a really common threat at night, even in the desert. They are a possibility, although very, very rare. The bathtub technique is also vital to use not just when cowboy camping, but also tarp-ing. It ensures that if it rains enough to flood the ground, the water will run under your groundsheet and not over it and onto you (groundsheets are waterproof).
So those are the most effective ways to dealing with insects while cowboy camping. You can always spray 100% deet on your exposed areas, but the health risks are out there. Also, you do not want to spray 100% deet on your sleeping bag, or down jacket – it will degrade them. These precautions are really only necessary if the conditions are extra bad or the individual is extra paranoid. There are plenty of times when you can cowboy camp without taking any of these precautions; I cowboy camp with my limbs hanging out in the dirt or above my head far more than I do bundled up like a mummy. After you’ve taken (or not taken) these precautions, everything else regarding dealing with bugs while cowboy camping falls under the umbrella of “F*** it.” Ask yourself; “How great IS my tolerance for F*** it?” Don’t worry… it will increase with time and practice 🙂
So where are the best places to cowboy camp? This mostly comes down to a personal decision depending on your preferences and tolerances; but there are some factors to consider when it comes to making your night a little more pleasant, pending certain conditions. After you’ve considered weather and insects, your next biggest decision is choosing the exact spot you want to cowboy camp in a particular area. My first consideration is trees; I will always cowboy camp under a tree if one is available. If conditions are simply perfect and I know they are going to remain perfect; then I might pass up the tree even if it’s there. Trees can provide a wind break, as well as a rain break. Rather than get caught in the open during a freak shower, a tree will soften and slow the initial fall of rain long enough for you to make new arrangements. Also, when you cowboy camp under trees (especially low hanging conifers) it will reduce the potential for condensation on your sleeping bag or your gear (your shelter too if you set up beneath one). Trees suck moisture out of the ground and the air; as well as provide an extra canopy of insulation that could be the thin line between reaching the dew point in that exact spot, or not. Even if the dew point is reached, the tree will help to absorb extra moisture in the air. This is a brilliant thing to consider when cowboy camping or camping in general.
If there are no trees available and it’s windy or breezy; I will look for rock cover, or bush/brush cover. Look for anything that can block out extra wind and provide a natural wall to further insulate and reflect heat back to you. Also, sleeping with an object on one side or even multiple sides helps to lessen the feeling of vulnerability. I don’t know how many of you have beds that are against walls, but some people can only sleep (or sleep better) when pressed up against a wall. The same effect can be simulated with rocks, trees, bushes, brush, or a natural berm. I’ll sometime build or dig one myself if camping in sand or dirt (on a beach or otherwise). Keep in mind; if you decide to use a natural/unnatural depression in the earth as your cover, you are putting yourself at risk of flooding, should such a freak occurrence occur. If there is no water nearby or bad weather on the horizon; you’ll be fine 99.99% of the time.
When weather or temperatures are absolutely not a factor; you can Cowboy Camp just about anywhere you please without fear of major or minor repercussion. This is all part of choosing your battles. In another breath, there are techniques to choosing spots that are naturally going to be warmer than others. This goes for any kind of camping, so take note. Many people (including me at one time) are under the impression that higher elevations mean “Cold,” and lower elevations mean “Warmth.” While it is true that the ambient temperature naturally drops three to five degrees for every 1,000 feet in elevation you ascend (go up), it is not always warmer to get as low as possible. Hot air rises, and cold air settles; hot air will push cold air down into every little low nook and cranny available. This includes valley, canyons, ravines, and even depressions as small as what a stream or river might produce around its banks. Word to the wise; if you’re trying to avoid cooler temperatures and the subsequent extra condensation that comes with them… DO NOT camp in valleys or any low spots/depression, no matter how small they are. Going up as little as thirty to fifty feet higher than the valley floor can make the difference between ten degrees or more sometimes; this means it could be the difference between condensation or even ice all over you and your gear. This doesn’t mean head for high elevations; it simply means avoid immediate low areas by getting just a little bit higher in any way you can. If you find yourself in a large or small valley; go a short way up the nearest mountain or incline, it’s as simple as that. Any experienced backpacker/long distance hiker will know this information through experience or second hand knowledge. It’s invaluable how far this information will go to keeping you warmer, and dryer on any given night; especially the cooler ones.
So these are all the major factors to consider when choosing how, when, or why to Cowboy Camp; as well as ways that you can improve your comfort, or decrease your chances of having a bad time. The rest really comes down to personal preference, as well as your tolerance for “F*** it.”
Other things to consider
Aside from weather, bugs, animals, and locations; there are a few other things you should know. I do not recommend nor advise you to cowboy camp in Grizzly country. Pretty much everywhere is black bear country, so they are always an inherent risk; but Grizzlies are a different story. When you’re in a shelter, most grizzlies will see a big, unnatural object in the forest and steer clear of it; when you Cowboy Camp, Grizzlies see an object lying on the ground that might be worth inspecting. More often than not, they will smell you and leave you alone, but there is always that extra risk you are taking. If you are in more densely populated Black Bear areas, then you are taking a similar risk; however Black Bears are far more manageable to deal with than a curious Grizzly. You can also say “F*** it,” and do it anyways; I know I have and I’m still here. I cowboy camped a great deal through parts of Montana and most of Wyoming on the CDT, and I have only good experiences to relay to you. Choose your battles!
(I might also add that it is not advised that you Hammock in Grizzly Country, due to your appearance of looking like a low hanging food bag. If you do decide to hammock, then at least set up your rain fly/tarp so that you have a more “tent like” appearance to any Grizzly passing by)
Another thing you can possibly expect is visits from deer, porcupines, or other little critters. The two aforementioned animals are addicted to salt, and a sweaty pack or sweaty clothes lying on the ground or attached to a person can be irresistible. It can also be heart attack inducing to wake up to an animal chewing on, or trying to carry off a piece of gear next to you, or attached to you (especially if it’s a deer standing standing over you). It’s happened to me, and it’s not a pleasant way to wake up, although it is comical afterwards.
As far as increasing your comfort while cowboy camped, there are some extra steps you can take. When I cowboy camp I keep any extra clothing in a dry bag and use it as a pillow, or lay it next to my face as an extra barrier for crawling bugs or wind. As far as my other gear and my pack goes; I will stuff anything else that can’t be used as a wind/bug barrier (or used to bathtub) inside my pack, then put my pack down under my feet/legs. This helps to elevate my lower half (which I find very comfortable at the end of the day), but also helps to provide extra insulation from the cold ground. If you use an inflatable mattress, this isn’t really necessary, but I don’t use one, so it’s a great technique for me. Also, sleeping next to fires is wonderful, no matter how long you’ve been accustomed to Cowboy camping. The extra warmth and safety that fire brings is unparalleled. Be wary of how close you sleep next to a fire depending on wind or the fire’s size; sparks and embers can destroy sleeping bags and clothing.
If you are particularly terrified of breaking yourself into cowboy camping, there are ways to make it easier. Firstly, you could practice in your backyard or somewhere very familiar. Secondly, you could practice by sleeping on picnic tables, which is actually a very popular technique utilized by long distance hikers when available at various parks or other locations. If I’m planning to cowboy camp somewhere that has picnic tables, you better believe I’m sleeping on the table… or under it (if weather is a factor). The next best way to ease into cowboy camping is to do it with a friend. Safety in numbers, and the added security of not doing it alone can really help. Lastly, if you are with a group, try cowboy camping next to one of their shelters, or in the most central area to their shelters; this will also help give you the feeling of added security, subsequently boosting your confidence to take the next step…
Have a plan! If you’re worried about weather, insects, or other animals; always have a backup plan that you’re comfortable with. If you think the weather might possibly deteriorate, then keep everything within easy reach where you can protect it, if need be. You could even set up your shelter, but cowboy camp outside of it (this could also be a step towards easing yourself into cowboy camping), so it’s there in case bad weather rolls in. If you don’t set your shelter up, maybe work something out with another person/friend nearby to be able to duck in theirs real quick to sort out your situation without getting sensitive items completely drenched. I personally always keep my largest dry bag next to my head while I cowboy camp; in the event of a sudden rain/downpour, I can begin stuffing everything into it immediately (sleeping bag, cell phone, battery pack, worn clothing, etc.). Plainly put: make your fall back plan easy to implement, should things go awry.
So there you have it; that is about everything I can think of in regards to the art of cowboy camping. I can’t help but feel like I missed something, but for now this is all I could think of. If there are any glaring questions or pieces of information you think I failed to address; please post them in the comments and I will promptly answer them or add them to this article! Cowboy camping is by no means a foolproof method of camping; nothing truly is. The risks are there, but so are the rewards. When armed with the correct knowledge that is implemented correctly, the rewards will always far outweigh any risks; and when they don’t… “F*** it.”
If you enjoyed this article or any other content on this website; you can help support it by shopping through Amazon Affiliate Links like the one provided below, or any link on this website that takes you to Amazon (NO fees or Sign Up). All you have to do is click on the link and shop normally!