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.
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.
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.
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.
Recommended Cowboy Camping Gear
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.