How To Go Cowboy Camping

When did camping become so complicated? There are more gear and gadgets to head out into the wilds than some people have in an entire home. Yet people used to explore with less stuff than can be crammed into a backpacker’s bag. Thus, those craving for simpler ways turn to cowboy camping.

Cowboy camping is a minimalist backpacking style that doesn’t involve a tent. Instead, folks sleep out under the stars in good weather and use a tarp to erect a rudimentary shelter in poor conditions. When cowboy camping, it is essential that every item you bring is durable and dependable.

Cowboy camping is no longer like what people see in the movies. For starters, hikers typically require permits to roam, nor are folks allowed to sleep wherever they like. Even those wanting to avoid traditional campgrounds with facilities still have to use areas primitive camping is legal. Thus, before heading out into the wilds, research and ensure you’ve got the paperwork.

What Is Cowboy Camping?

Cowboy camping is a misnomer, as it no longer refers to people who look after cattle for a living. Instead, it is a minimalist style of camping, often used by backpackers who want to lighten the load. However, it is also favored by folks who just want to camp peacefully without a lot of gear weighing them down.

Cowboy camping is usually only for short trips, such as weekend adventures. While some do it for longer, it is far more uncommon. Also, the lack of a tent means the weather (always check it) significantly influences people’s enjoyment, and the pleasant nights only last so long.

Do You Have To Use A Horse For Cowboy Camping?

A horse is not required for cowboy camping, although it can be fun. The drawback to using a horse is that it severely limits where you can go, and horses have many more needs than Hollywood movies would have you believe.

Thus, people who don’t live on a ranch or farm with a lot of their own land to explore typically horse camp in large groups. Thus, for horse trail adventures and dude ranch round-ups, there are prearranged destinations that have plenty of supplies waiting, including ample food and water for the horses.

Consequently, most people who cowboy camp are venturing out on foot. However, some will use an e-bike or four-wheeler, much like motorcycle campers.

What Equipment Is Used For Cowboy Camping?

Equipment for cowboy camping is minimal. You want the clothes on your back layered, a good hat on your head, excellent hiking shoes on your feet, and maybe an extra pair of socks.

Basic cowboy camping involves:

  • Ground cloth/tarp
  • Sleeping pad
  • Sleeping bag

However, it is wise to also bring:

How Many Tarps Do I Need To Bring For Cowboy Camping?

It is advised to use at least one tarp as a ground cloth that can be reworked as a shelter if required. However, if you only bring one, then you are choosing between potentially sleeping on wet ground or getting rained on. Thus, it is best to bring at least two or a ground cloth and a tarp.

Bringing a tarp isn’t “cheating” at cowboy camping. It is best to remember that old fashion cowboys didn’t have as many rules and regulations back in the day. Thus, whacking down trees or using an abandoned or unoccupied shelter was less controversial or potentially illegal.

Also, many cowboys traveled with a chuck wagon that could be slept under during rain. Sure, if you park it in the wrong spot, water would run under, but cowboys typically learned how to avoid this after the first mistake.

In addition, a cowboy’s bedroll was wrapped with a canvas tarp before strapping it on the horse. The canvas was treated to make it waterproof. They’d use things like beeswax and linseed oil. This outer canvas wrapping could also be used to create a basic shelter when nothing else was available.

Is Using A Bivvy Cheating When Cowboy Camping?

A bivvy bag makes purists of cowboy camping cringe. However, they offer better protection than just sleeping on a tarp. Some bivvies can be used instead of a tarp. Others are just a net to keep mosquitos and other critters from cozying up to you as you sleep.

Thus, a bivvy bag could potentially reduce your gear. They can also ensure you get a bit of sleep during high-insect seasons. Cowboy camping doesn’t come with awards, so it might make sense to do it in a way that allows you to enjoy it.

Why Do Cowboy Campers Need A Camping Stove?

It is tempting to utilize survivalist skills and make a fire with whatever is to hand. After all, some campers only require two sticks, while others use a fire starter, such as UST STrikeForce. Thus, bringing a camping stove can appear unnecessary and “cheating.”

However, times have changed, and forest fires are a growing problem. Thus, swaths of the outdoors now forbid campfires completely, or at least during the high-risk season.  Consequently, starting a fire is often illegal and can attract a ranger to your location like the proverbial moth to a flame.

Thankfully, camp stoves are typically still allowed, even in areas that forbid fires. A user-friendly and compact option is the Jetboil MicroMo. It comes with its own .8-liter cooking mug, negating the need to bring an extra pot or cup. An MSR WhisperLite is good for those wanting flexibility in fuel options.

How Do I Deal With Mosquitoes When Cowboy Camping?

Mosquitoes can make a cowboy camper miserable. So, some folks will stick to tent camping during peak biting insect season. Others say you’ll sleep fine and won’t notice the critters as long as you pack enough whiskey (they’re joking, maybe).

Using a net bivy will help lessen mosquitoes’ access to the buffet (you). Other people use a net-tent, which is pure mesh, aside from the floor, but will give better head clearance.

For those who crave “pure” a cowboy camping experience, the other option is wearing a soft sun hat with mosquito netting when you tuck down into your sleeping bag. Then, of course, folks can also slather themselves in insect and tick spray and hope for the best.

Also, it is essential to choose your overnight site wisely. Hunkering down in an area close to a pond or mud will have more bugs than one further away from the damp.

Do Cowboy Campers Have To Deal With Condensation?

Cowboy camping can get damp even if there isn’t rain. Morning dew and condensation can lead to wet gear and chill. Bivvy users can build up enough moisture to create their own terrarium if they’re not careful.

The key to avoiding contributing to the problem is ventilation. Of course, you lose heat, but keeping your mouth and nose free of the bivvy or having a net over the face, will significantly reduce waking up to a wet bivvy bag (at least on the inside).

On the outer side of the issue, the two biggest factors are weather and location. Condensation is reduced by camping in:

  • Low humidity
  • Temperatures higher than 45F (7C)
  • Avoiding days of high fog or mist
  • Sleeping under trees
  • Avoiding sleeping in depressions and tiny “valleys”
  • Avoid meadows
  • Avoid sleeping close to water, such as a pond or river
  • Use a tarp above you
  • Use a bivvy to protect your sleeping bag but don’t zip it over your face unless the mesh

Are Snakes A Problem When Cowboy Camping?

Snakes are not a common problem, but they can happen. There are a few ways to reduce the chances of finding extra occupants in your bag.

The first is using a bivvy. You are essentially a zipped-up UPS package, and nothing will accidentally slither in.

The other is lifting up the outer sides of your groundsheet, turning it into a shallow bowl. Then, using logs, rocks, and other debris, you create a tiny wall so snakes don’t easily slide right onto your tarp.

The bowl method is also a helpful deterrent for bugs and scorpions. These animals, snakes included, are not looking for trouble, so the extra effort makes them reluctant to try to find a way up.

Lastly, remember to leave any shoes upside down. Stake sticks a foot or two long into the earth as “shoe trees” helps get your boots off the ground and are less attractive to critters. It also helps keep them dry. Just stick your boot over the stake so it balances like a weird lollypop, and you’re good.

Is Cowboy Camping Safe In Bear Country?

Camping in bear country comes with risks, no matter how you do it. However, it is slightly safer if you are in a tent. Bears are curious, and the experience of having one sniffing your tent slightly differs from sniffing your bivvy.  It is also advised you sleep with a can of bear spray.

Mind you; bears are not actively looking for trouble or hunting humans. Instead, they’re hungry and seeking food. Thus, you must ensure you don’t smell like lunch.

Camping around bears means making sure nothing you sleep in or around smells like food. Your actual food needs to be in a bear canister or bag (not allowed in some parks).

You need to have any equipment used near cooking or has an odor (toothpaste, sun cream, deodorant) kept far away from where you sleep, preferably in a tree.

Also, do not set up camp for the night anywhere there are signs of a bear passing through, including prints or scat.

Author at Wilderness Redefined camping website

James has been escaping to the outdoors for as long as he can remember. This first started in family camping trips but soon turned into adventure camps and hiking through the Scottish Hebrides. Now he has turned towards trying to make camping more comfortable and accessible.