How to Cowboy Camp the Right Way

There’s something special about cowboy camping. Being able to settle down wherever you are and sleep under the Milky Way. What really appeals to me about cowboy camping though is the simplicity of it all. It’s about being comfortable with what I have and knowing that I don’t need a tent or anything else to go camping. It builds confidence and rigor.

Special note: The experiences and advice in this article are primarily for the USA. Always take note of your local environment when camping.

In this post, we’ll cover:

  • What cowboy camping really is
  • The cowboy camping philosophy
  • The pros and cons of cowboy camping
  • How and when you should cowboy camp
  • What you should bring cowboy camping

Let’s get started!

What is Cowboy Camping?

So what is cowboy camping? Cowboy camping is camping outside without a tent, hammock, or any other type of shelter. It’s what some people call “roughing it”.

Tarp camping is very similar to cowboy camping but technically different. Tarp camping is the same thing as cowboy camping but with an overhead tarp shelter. There are many overlaps and a lot of the philosophies are the same, so even if you are tarp camping, this article will still be useful.

The Cowboy Camping Philosophy

Camping under the stars
Camping under the stars

The cowboy camping philosophy to me is all about being comfortable with what I have and enjoying simplicity. Sleeping on the ground when camping won’t sound appealing to everyone, but there’s something really cool about being able to sleep next to a fire with only a wool blanket with the stars above.

There’s a different level of connection with nature when you aren’t surrounded by synthetic material. It’s about working with nature and using only what you need. It’s about feeling the breeze and waking up with the sun. There’s something primal about connecting with nature on a deeper level that you can’t get when sleeping inside a tent.

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Simple Means Fast, Light, and Flexible

Cowboy camping means hiking fast and light
Cowboy camping means hiking fast and light

The main benefit of cowboy camping is its simplicity. Less gear means less weight to carry and things you need to take care of. But there are other good reasons too like connecting with nature and building confidence.

Some of the best reasons to cowboy camp are:

  • Saves time with setup/breakdown
  • Travel lighter and faster
  • More places to camp
  • Builds confidence
  • More connected to nature

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Quick Setup and Teardown

From a purely practical view, one of the biggest advantages of cowboy camping is that it’s just easier. You find a spot that you like, set down your ground cloth, sleeping pad, take out your sleeping bag. That’s it. This is especially great after a long hike when setting up a tent, tying knots, and driving stakes into the ground are the last thing you want to do. And in the morning? Pack a few things up and get an early start.

Travel Faster and Lighter

Less gear means more room in your pack and more weight savings. And you might not even need a sleeping bag (check out my sleeping bag alternatives). With the extra space and weight, you can afford to bring luxury items that might have otherwise be left at home. Cowboy camping is really the lightest type of camping you can do.

Find the Perfect Spot

In a sense, cowboy camping means you can camp in more places because you don’t need trees or a spot large enough to camp. If you’re looking for that perfect sunrise spot or want to move in the middle of the night, you can.

Connect with Nature and Build Confidence

After you cowboy camping a few times, even if you didn’t have the best experience, you’ll gain a lot of confidence and realize that camping without a tent isn’t that big of a deal after all. Chances are, you aren’t going to catch and diseases, lose a limb, or die. There are lots of other ways to get injured and sleeping outside on the ground isn’t one of them.

Having experience cowboy camping will teach you that you don’t need fancy equipment or to be constantly thinking about doing things “the right way”. It frees your mind so you can experience nature and what’s around you.

When you cowboy camp, there’s a lot stronger connection to nature. All the sights, sounds, and sensations are enhanced. Being able to see the full sky and wilderness at night is a feeling you can’t get when you are sleeping under a shelter.

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Why Cowboy Camping Can Suck

Camping solo by the fire
Camping solo by the fire

Okay, I admit it. Cowboy camping can sometimes suck. While it might seem great, with all romanticism aside, there are sometimes drawbacks. The biggest questions people have is “what if it rains?” and “what about bugs or snakes?”. Yep, those can be huge disadvantages. A lot of these factors are going to really depend on the local environment and time of year.

The biggest disavantages are:

  • Forces you to sleep on the ground
  • Less protection against rain and wind
  • Less protection against bugs and animals

Of course, these issues aren’t necessarily going to be issues for everyone all the time.

Sleeping on the Ground

This is the biggest one for me. While some people can the natural ability to get a good night’s sleep anywhere, I am not one of those people. The ground most of the time is way too hard.

Ever since I discovered the joy of hammocks, I don’t camp on the ground if I can help it. When I do sleep on the ground, my hips hurt in the middle of the night and especially when I wake up.

Unpredictable Weather

While cowboy camping might provide more places to camp where your tent wouldn’t fit otherwise, the flip side is it can be less flexible in regions with unpredictable weather. A short downpour can leave you wet and cold. Even heavy wind can blow sand and debris in your face.

Being Eaten by Bugs

Bugs can be a real problem in certain areas. Insects on the ground usually aren’t that big of a deal, but mosquitoes and other biting insects that fly can be a huge nuisance.

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Doing Cowboy Camping Right

Okay, so you could just plop down anywhere and sleep in the dirt or grass and sleep for the night, but you probably want to be a little more strategic than that.

The biggest consideration to consider before you camp are:

  • Weather
  • Insects
  • Animals

And a lot of these factors will really depend on where you are camping.

Pay Attention to the Weather

The biggest cowboy camping tip I have, which is important for any type of camping really, is to pay attention to the weather and your local environment. Cowboy camping in the desert out west is going to be different than cowboy camping in New England.

If you are in certain parts of California where it hasn’t rained in months, then it’s a pretty safe bet. Mountainous regions are less predictable and have been known to rain with “0% chance”. Be safe and be smart. If there’s a chance of rain, come prepared and bring a backup tent or at the very least a tarp.

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Find a good spot

When you are ready to turn in for the night, make sure you pick a good spot to sleep on. Look for softer areas and avoid the rocks and sticks that are uncomfortable and may ruin your equipment.

Other things you want to look out for are anthills and burrows. Inspecting your site in the daytime will help detect them.

Also avoid standing water, including ponds, puddles, and mud. These are breeding grounds for mosquitoes, dragonflies, and other flying biting insects.

And if it’s windy, consider finding a spot out of the wind. You might even want to build a windbreak using logs or rocks.

Avoid the Buggers

The next thing to look at is insects and animals. If you’re in a cooler climate, bugs are going to be more sparse and allow you to feel comfortable while bundled up. So go on and put on the long socks, sweaters, hats, and anything else you need to feel comfortable. In warmer climates, this won’t be as comfortable, so consider a netted bivy or tent instead.

If you’re going to be bitten alive, then yeah… it might just be easier to get yourself some protection. Nobody enjoys having their face and ankles beaten off by mosquitos. The ALPS Mountaineering Lynx Tent is a lightweight, great for backpacking, and has lots of great reviews on Amazon.

Check for Snakes, Tarantulas, and Scorpions

I remember my first time cowboy camping in Colorado. It was my first time out West and I had no idea what was out there in the desert. I ended up talking to some nearby campers who gave me some peace that sleeping on the ground was safe.

And having heard from many others who cowboy camp in the desert, encounters with snakes and other crawlers are quite rare and not really a problem. Snakes sleep at night and are most active when temperatures are between 80-90F. So when you are sleeping, the snakes are too.

The chances of being bitten are small compared to the risk of other environmental injuries

California Department of Fish and Wildlife

While snakes might not be dangerous at night, it’s always good to shake out your sleeping bag, check your boots, and check your bag and other gear before you use them.

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Cowboy Camping Gear

Cowboy Camping gear including ground sheet, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag
Cowboy Camping gear includes ground sheet, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag

Technically speaking, you don’t need any gear to go cowboy camping. I’ve heard of campers who literally sleep in the dirt. Of course, this isn’t for everyone and I certainly don’t recommend sacrificing comfort for the sake of being viewed as the “tough guy”.

Generally, at a minimum, there’s certain cowboy camping gear you’ll want to bring with you:

  • Ground cloth – Keeps your gear dry and protected
  • Sleeping pad – Keeps you off the cold hard ground
  • Sleeping bag or sleeping bag alternative – Keep you warm and prevent buggers from biting

One thing that is optional is a bivy. Some hikers camp with a bivy, and others do not. There are a few advantages to using a bivy when cowboy camping:

  • Keeps your gear dry from dew
  • Keeps the buggers and crawlers out
  • Offers some wind protection
  • Helps keep everything clean and tidy

If bugs are especially bad in warm weather, you can get a bug bivy. Outdoor Research, in particular, makes great bivys for summer and winter. Check it out on the REI website. And also check out the Ionosphere on Amazon that also has a lot of great reviews.

Outdoor Research bug bivy for cowboy camping

Final Tips

A lot of learning simply comes from experience, but if you are going cowboy camping, here are a few tips that can give you a head start:

  • Try cowboy camping in your backyard to get a feel for it before your trip.
  • If there’s a chance of rain, set up your tent just in case. If it rains, you can quickly move inside.
  • Watch for anthills, sticks, rocks, and other dangers before you find a spot to sleep.
  • Stay away from standing bodies of water and avoid low spots.
  • To avoid critters, avoid layout out your sleep system until you are ready to sleep.

Photo credit: simonov on / CC BY-SA