Cowboy Camping: A Minimalistic Way to Enjoy Nature

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When you hear “cowboy camping,” you probably imagine a few ranchers hanging out around a fire, tipping their hats forward as they fall asleep under the stars. It’s a rugged and somewhat romanticized way of sleeping outside that’s definitely worth trying, no matter where you are or how much experience you have as an outdoorsman.

Whether you’re hanging out in your backyard or pursuing an intensive backpacking trip, there are some common points to keep in mind. So, let’s dive into cowboy camping, and the steps you can take to get the most out of this extreme hobby.

What is Cowboy Camping?

Cowboy camping is a minimalist’s dream come true. In its purest form, cowboy camping can be thought of as a gearless way to enjoy nature – no tent, no bivy sack, not even a tarp (unless you feel like cheating a little bit). Protection from the bugs and elements is a thing of the past, and it has no place in this rugged pastime. You can still bring a sleeping bag and pad, as well as your kitchen supplies and other odds and ends, but any form of shelter will need to stay at home.

Why Cowboy Camp?

person standing under a night sky with the milky way

There’s something enchanting about a minimalistic camping experience. When you cut out the shelter, and many of the synthetic materials that are commonly found in camping gear, you’ll immediately feel closer to nature. This style of outdoor exploration is all about simplicity, and connecting with the wild on a much deeper level. However, there are also a few other reasons why you should consider cowboy camping:

It saves time. If you find yourself rolling into your campsite after dark, after a long day of trekking, the last thing you want to do is take the time to pitch a tent. Cowboy camping saves you the effort by cutting that step out of the equation. Now all you have to do is throw your pad into the dirt, unroll your sleeping bag, and call it a night.

It’s exhilarating. Not everyone will feel this way, but the vulnerability you experience while cowboy camping is very exciting. Being exposed to everything around you will give you a rush you’ve never felt before, and it can honestly become addicting once you give it a try.

It provides new experiences. Haven’t you always wanted to fall asleep under the stars? Tent camping can get you close, especially if you don’t have the rainfly on, but there’s still going to be a layer of mesh between you and the night sky. With cowboy camping, it’s just you and the massive Milky Way above – an experience that you may not get anywhere else in your daily life.

Check the Weather

I think it goes without saying, but you’ll need to keep a close eye on the weather. By nature, cowboy camping means that you have no protection against the elements, so you’re going to get soaked if it rains. Hail will land right on your face, and you may even experience some snow if you’re camping in an alpine climate.

Purists won’t like what I’m about to say, but I would recommend bringing an ultralight tarp on any cowboy camping trip. Weather forecasts aren’t perfect, and it’s possible to get caught in a freak storm without any warning. Tarps are usually pretty lightweight, and you can keep most of the precipitation off of you by using them. And hey, you don’t have to use it if you don’t need it. But at least you have some form of protection, just in case there’s an emergency.

Find a Water Source

water flowing through a green forest

Water is going to be your lifeline on the trail, whether you’re cowboy camping or doing something a little more traditional. Aside from drinking, you’ll also need it to cook and clean up, so it’s important to know where the nearest watering hole is at all times.

Rivers are better than lakes and ponds, simply because moving water tends to be healthier than stagnant water. It’s not as big of a deal for drinking water, if you have a proper filter, but it’s a different story for cleaning and cooking. However, beggars can’t be choosers, so you’ll have to use whatever is close at hand.

On the topic of filters, make sure you get yourself a good one. I swear by my Grayl GeoPress to get the job done, and it hasn’t failed me yet, despite using it in some sketchy places all around the world. Most cowboy campers are interested in staying minimalist and ultralight, so a water bladder might be something you’d rather avoid. In that case, all the more reason to get yourself a heavy-duty filter bottle, while ensuring you always stay close to a water source.

Read More: The Complete Guide on How to Purify Water in the Wild

Prepare for Wildlife Encounters

When you don’t have a shelter to act as a layer of protection and privacy, wildlife will have a much easier time sneaking up on you. Deer, squirrels, bears, foxes, bugs, and any other living creature in the area will have direct access to you as you lay there in your sleeping bag. If you aren’t prepared for that possibility, you could open your eyes to find yourself in an unpleasant situation.

Always store your food (and other smelly items) properly. Use a bear canister or hoist everything up into a tree using appropriate bear bag hanging techniques. The last thing you want is the local carnivore smelling something delicious in the area, only to find you lying there unprotected.

Bugs will also be a major concern for you, especially if you’re in mosquito or fly territory. Give yourself and your sleeping arrangements a good coating of bug spray, to help reduce the number of bites you’ll wake up with in the morning. Additionally, I have a friend who enjoys cowboy camping, and he once woke up with a bug in his ear after a night on the forest floor. Needless to say, I’ve been a little paranoid about insects ever since!

Leave No Trace

a pile of garbage outside a litter bin

Anytime you go camping anywhere, the principles of Leave No Trace (LNT) should be at the forefront of your mind. As outdoorsmen, it’s our responsibility to ensure the natural landscape remains well preserved for the generations to come. With that in mind, here are the points that you’ll want to pay attention to:

1. Leave what you find. Follow the saying, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.”

2. Plan ahead and prepare. The more prepared you are, the less likely you’ll make rash decisions that impact the environment.

3. Respect wildlife. It’s their home, not yours, so keep your distance and don’t try to feed them.

4. Dispose of waste properly. Pack out any trash or human waste, so you don’t muck up the area for future campers and wildlife.

5. Be careful with fire. 90% of wildfires are caused by campers – don’t become a statistic!

6. Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Stick to locations that are already worn down, instead of making your own paths.

7. Be considerate of others. We’re all in this together, so respect the privacy of other campers, taking care not to impact the experience they want to have.

For a full explanation of LNT principles, check out our guide: The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace

Choosing a Location

It’s good to know where you’re going ahead of time, so you have some idea of what to expect (and how to prepare). However, since it’s not always possible to scout a location before you leave home, you’ll have to look for certain things on the fly.

Natural protection is going to be your best friend, since you won’t have a tent to act as a barrier. Look for a grove of trees or some large boulders than can block strong wind gusts, and always pick the higher ground, in case there’s a flash flood. Bodies of still water will attract bugs at night too, so as tempting as that lake view might be, I’d suggest picking a different location.

If you’re camping on public land, also known as dispersed camping, you can sleep just about anywhere. However, it’s always smart to check in with a ranger before you set off. Are there certain locations you should avoid? Do you need a permit? What about that landslide that happened last week, destroying part of the trail? A trip to the ranger’s office will help clarify many of these points.

Sleep Setup

man lying under a tarp on the ground

As you know by now, true cowboy camping means you’ll have to go without a shelter. But there’s no reason for you to sacrifice on your sleep setup, too!

Grab a high-quality mummy sleeping bag to keep you warm, while staying lightweight and portable. If you’re going to be in a colder climate, consider checking out sleeping bags specific to extreme cold weather. You’ll also want to bring a sleeping pad with you as well, as a way to stay better insulated, while providing a bit more cushion between you and the ground. Self-inflating mattresses and air pads are going to be the best for comfort, but closed cell foam is the way to go for portability and weight reduction. All things considered, that’s probably what you’ll want to go for.

Sleeping bag liners are always something I recommend campers purchase. In warmer climates, they can substitute for a sleeping bag entirely, and in colder climates, they provide much needed warmth. Aside from that though, the liners are more comfortable and easy to wash, making it a lot easier to maintain your gear over time.

Read More: What is a Sleeping Bag Liner? Do You Need One?

Cowboy Camping Gear

We’ve talked about your sleep system, but you’ll want to bring more than a sleeping bag, a pad, and liner on your cowboy camping trip. A groundsheet can be nice to have, but it’s not necessary if you don’t feel like bringing one. I will say that they’re nice to have if you’re using an inflatable air pad, just as a way to keep sharp objects from poking through your mattress.

A bivy sack is a great way to keep the bugs out of your hair by putting some mesh netting between you and them. Some people don’t like to use them because they still technically classify as “shelter,” but I think it’s fine to cheat a little bit from time to time. Just grab something like the Outdoor Research bug bivy, as a way to stay lightweight and minimalistic while still staying protected from the creepy crawlies.

We already mentioned it briefly, but always have an ultralightweight tarp handy. It will be useful either as a groundsheet or as a rainfly, especially if you find yourself getting caught in bad weather. Along with the tarp, bring several feet of paracord – its uses are endless, especially when you need to string together a makeshift shelter. A few tent stakes will also make sure your tarp stays attached to the ground.

Pay attention to your camp kitchen as well, since there are few things more important than mealtime! If you’re cowboy camping, you probably want to stay as lightweight as possible, so traditional cookware won’t be for you. Instead, get yourself a single propane burner with a small can of fuel and a lightweight pot. You’ll be able to keep your ounces to a minimum, while still being able to boil water and prepare other, simple meals.

Make Some Cowboy Coffee

pot over an open fire

Are any of you caffeine junkies? Whether you’re enjoying a rugged night under the stars, or indulging in a bit of glamping, coffee is a necessity for many of us. In that case, why not enjoy a cup of cowboy coffee to go with your cowboy camping?

The beauty of anything that starts with “cowboy” is how simple it is. If you want to make coffee like you’re in a Clint Eastwood movie, you need a minimal number of supplies: a pot, water, an open fire, coffee grounds, a spoon, and a mug.

You’ll need to know the proper ratio of coffee to water (usually 2 tablespoons of coffee for every 8 ounces of water) in order to make the perfect cup. Once you’ve got that down, just bring the water to a boil and add the coffee grounds, giving it a good stir every so often. Let it sit for a few minutes before stirring again – at this point, you should notice the grounds starting to float.

After 4 minutes of brewing, dump in a cup of cold water. This will make the grounds sink to the bottom of the pot, allowing you to minimize the amount of grit that ends up in your mug.

Read More: Easy Brews: How to Make Coffee While Camping

Enjoy the Stars

Ease and convenience aside, I find that stargazing is one of the primary reasons why people choose to go cowboy camping. If you live in the city like I do, it can be hard to appreciate the beauty of the night sky. Bright lights from buildings and streets make it almost impossible to pick out anything short of the most radiant stars and planets.

Even if astronomy isn’t your thing, you simply can’t help but appreciate the beauty above you. Bring a star chart or download an app on your phone to help you pinpoint certain constellations and planets. Trust me, you won’t regret it!


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Spencer Yeomans

Spencer Yeomans

A lover of the outdoors, and especially the mountains, Spencer has always enjoyed pushing people to step outside their comfort zones. His mission is to help others get out of their homes to have fun and stay active in nature.

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