When you look back to the wild, wild west times in the United States, it wasn’t actually all gunfights. In fact, this time period is better characterized by hardworking men and women just trying to survive.
The key to cowboy camping is simplicity. This type of camping is today’s way of emulating these times by slowing things down and taking a minimal approach to surviving for a while. As you can imagine, back in those days, there wasn’t nearly as much technology or as many nifty products that we are fortunate enough to use today. If you want to enjoy true cowboy camping, you won’t even use a tent.
When you go cowboy camping, the goal is to take as little with you as possible and just enjoy the nature around you. This can mean no camper, no electronics, and no heated blankets.
If you want to enjoy true cowboy camping, you won’t even use a tent, a hammock, or even a tarp. You can decide for yourself how nitty-gritty you’d like your experience to be. Check out this helpful list of tips and products.
1. Bring the Best Cowboy Camping Gear
Every good cowboy has a great set of gear. Keep in mind that great doesn’t have to mean fancy, expensive, or high-tech. In fact, cowboy camping calls for the simple and the minimal. A few staple pieces of equipment include:
- Ground cloth
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
As far as gear for your basic campground goes, this is pretty much all you need. Remember, the key is to keep things simple. You’re not going to bring a nice folding chair, a deluxe tent, or even your favorite fluffy pillow.
Some people don’t even like to bring something as luxurious as a sleeping pad, so you can make that decision for yourself. We’ll talk about other supplies like food and water a little later on.
2. Choose a Great Campsite
If you want to have the full cowboy camping experience, you need to choose the best possible cowboy camp. Ideally, many people choose areas where the rain is rare because that makes it easier to reside outdoors for a few days.
However, any campsite that is flat and sparsely populated will do the trick. You’ll be sleeping on the ground, so you don’t want a campsite that’s full of bumps and hills. Surfaces like flat dirt, sand, and even rock will do just fine.
You can check out tons of awesome campgrounds, like the Cowboy Camp Campground, with the Bureau of Land Management. There are plenty of secluded campsites with no RVs, trailers, or campers, and sites are available on a first-come basis.
3. Check the Weather Ahead of Time
If we’re being completely honest, camping like a cowboy can definitely have its awful moments. Connecting with nature and the beauty of simplicity aside, there is the very real possibility of poor weather conditions.
When you’re planning for your big trip, it’s critical that you consistently check the weather for any types of precipitation for your campsite leading up to the day you leave – especially if you plan on doing it with a tent, a tarp, or any of the other elements of traditional tent camping.
Overall, safety is the most important thing. So, if you’re less than a day out from your trip and all you see are thunderstorms in the forecast, you might consider rescheduling your trip.
Even if the weather seems pretty decent, we all know how quickly that can change. Just be sure to have a backup plan and think about what you will do should certain weather conditions arise. We’ll talk about that a little more below.
4. Make a Plan for Poor Weather
Let’s say you did everything right. You checked the weather up until the last hour before you left for your trip, and everything looks clear and safe.
But sometimes, the weather can change in a matter of minutes. What now?
Before you set out on your weekend camping trip, it’s a great idea to piece together a game plan should poor weather occur. While true cowboy camping usually doesn’t include the use of a tarp, you can still bring one to use as a very last resort option. The Amazon Basics Waterproof Camping Tarp is an excellent option.
Tarps can be extremely useful for protection against inclement weather. You can still keep it simple by choosing a low-hanging branch and draping the tarp over it. You can also get a little creative and try to pitch a makeshift tent using sticks.
Other campers have found success curling up under trees, in small caves and alcoves, or simply camping against rock formations. Not only can these natural structures keep some of the rain off, but they can also block the wind. Plus, you get to keep your 100% cowboy camping cred.
5. Prepare to Make Fire
Fire isn’t just a staple for any kind of camping trip, traditional or otherwise; it’s also a basic necessity for human life. When you have a fire, you have warmth, protection, access to clean water, and the ability to make food.
So, yep – I’d say fire is pretty important.
The days of the wild west may be far behind us, but don’t be fooled; even cowboys used matches. That’s good news for us because it means we’re free to use them, too. No need to start rubbing sticks together.
Cowboys were also known to use flint, like the Bayite Store Flint Fire Starter, so you can certainly take that route as well. Just know that matches are a lot easier.
You should prepare yourself for making a fire by doing a little bit of research and perhaps even practicing if you have access to a safe place to do so.
Finally, make sure you look into fire regulations for your campsite. Some areas have camping rules and may have bans on fires due to dry, hot weather, while others might require you to make fires in designated locations only. Always remember to practice fire safety and make sure your fire is completely out before leaving it unattended.
6. Consider a Bivy
Many would consider a bivy not a part of the true cowboy lifestyle. However, given the sheer lack of shelter that comes with cowboy camping, there are several individuals who might consider blurring the lines on this one.
A bivy is a lightweight protection device that lots of people use when camping. It’s a large sack-like product that’s large enough to fit over both you and your sleeping bag.
There are different types of bivys. Some protect you from the weather, using waterproof capabilities and even insulation to do so. The Go Time Gear Bivy is a good example of this.
Others are made of mesh, and they can protect you from bugs and creepy-crawly creatures roaming your campsite.
Someone who is looking to truly experience cowboy camping for what it is may go with a mesh bivy over a weather-proof bivy because the mesh allows you to experience the elements and sleep under the stars while still providing some protection.
7. Select Ideal Clothing
Anytime you go camping, your clothing selection should be a careful consideration. The goal is to pack light, while still bringing enough weather- and environment-appropriate options. Of course, when it comes to cowboy camping, your clothing list should be as minimal as possible.
Something you should definitely include is some kind of jacket. Even if you’re going to be summer cowboy camping in a warm climate, you have to keep in mind that it does get colder at night. There’s not a cowboy in history who would be caught in nature without some kind of outer layer.
You may also consider packing a long sleeve shirt that you can easily put on and peel off, like a light, casual button-up. Another good option is a Henley Shirt, which is similar to something cowboys would have worn.
Even if it’s hot, the long sleeves will help protect your skin from the sun. Additionally, long sleeves capture the sweat that your arms release and keep it pressed against your skin, keeping you cooler.
A durable pair of hiking pants and a comfortable t-shirt are also good clothing items to keep on your list. On a weekend trip, you shouldn’t need more than two outfits, and some people will stick to only one.
8. Pack Tools for Protection
Any well-equipped cowboy knows to always have some form of protection on him. In the good old days, that may have included a gun. However, everyday campers like you don’t necessarily need to be quite so armed.
As far as protection in the great outdoors goes, most campers opt for some kind of knife. There are several different knives that are appropriate for camping. Classic hunting knives like the Mossy Oak knife set are heavy-duty and multi-use – perfect for any outdoor setting.
Is a hunting knife needed, though? If you’re feeling uncomfortable about carrying such a sharp weapon like this, know that you can do so safely. It’s also critical that you take into consideration all of the things a knife can help you with.
Cowboy camping is not like traditional camping; you often have far less protection than you would in a cabin, an RV, or even a tent. Not only are you exposed to the elements of rain, snow, wind, and heat, but you’re also a potential target for curious and hostile animals.
Having a knife is a great way to keep you safe should the worst occur.
Additionally, a knife can help you get things done around your campsite. It can be a useful tool in clearing out space to sleep. It’s also perfect for cutting down branches to pitch a makeshift tent or cut up kindling for a fire.
A pocket knife makes for an adequate substitute for anyone who feels a little weary about carrying a large hunting knife. It won’t be as effective as a hunting knife, but it is very compact and easy to pack, even when you’re trying to keep things light.
9. Purchase the Right Shoes
If you have ever been in a situation that left you with sore feet or soaking socks, you already know how important a good pair of shoes is. In fact, I’m a firm believer that your shoes can make or break your entire experience.
The obvious choice for camping shoes is a pair of high-quality hiking boots. Hiking boots deliver everything you need in comfortable, safe footwear. They provide robust support so you can hike to your destination and explore the area around your campsite.
Many hiking boots are also waterproof, which can be a huge relief if you need to tread through a stream or get hit with a big rainstorm.
If you’re stuck on finding an excellent pair of hiking shoes for your camping trip, check out our list of affordable hiking shoes under $150. They’re made from 100% leather and have a waterproof yet breathable membrane.
Otherwise, keep an eye out for shoes with great support, reliable traction, and high-quality construction.
10. Bring an Extra Tarp
We mentioned the possibility of using a tarp with your cowboy camping setup earlier – after all, it can be extraordinarily helpful when those dark clouds turn up. But some campers like to take their precautions to the next level by packing a tarp they intend to use along with an extra backup tarp.
Two tarps? That doesn’t sound very cowboy-like.
Well, maybe, and maybe not. While cowboys back in the day may not have had the same exact tools that we have now, it is likely that they traveled with some kind of campsite setup. Sure, many would have slept under the stars with nothing more than a blanket, but they most certainly would have prepared for poor weather conditions.
With that in mind, it’s okay to be prepared. It’s okay to even be a little over-prepared. If a rainstorm does hit, you will be glad you have a tarp under you on the ground and another one over you to shield you from the moisture.
11. Stay Hydrated
Staying hydrated is an important part of everyday life, but it’s especially vital during a camping trip. Camping, hiking, and other outdoor activities are physically demanding, so you need to keep your water intake higher than ever.
Cowboy camping can make access to water difficult since you don’t have an RV or a sink nearby. But there are some things you can do to make sure you’re staying well hydrated.
For starters, choose a large water bottle to carry with you when you take off on hiking expeditions. Something simple like the Nalgene Tritan Narrow Mouth will hold a good amount of water, and it’s BPA-free.
Of course, 32 ounces isn’t nearly enough to sustain you for a whole camping trip. Even if you’re only sleeping out under the night sky for one night, you still need much more than that.
If you don’t mind carrying a little extra weight, you can carry some kind of water reservoir. Backpack reservoirs and water bladders are good choices because you can carry them on your back. Other reservoirs require that you hold them like a suitcase.
Additionally, you can try using a portable water filter. Manufacturers like Lifestraw make water filter systems like their own personal Lifestraw GO water filter bottle for you to drink water from lakes and streams safely.
12. Learn About Snake Safety
A lot of cowboys camped out in the desert, so they knew a thing or two about snakes. Many people looking for the full cowboy experience decide to camp in hot, desert areas in order to avoid the rain as much as possible.
If that’s the case for you, you need to be aware of snake behavior and how you can stay safe in their territory. The same goes for a lot of wooded areas too.
Most snakes do not have a natural tendency to sneak up on humans and attack them for no reason. If a snake bites you, it’s because you scared them and they feel threatened. Since they don’t intend on having you as a meal, their bite is considered self-defense.
Since your campsite will consist of so few items, it shouldn’t be hard to keep it snake-free. Many cowboy campers will put their sleeping bag and blankets away when they get up in the morning. If you don’t, just make sure you check out your bag thoroughly before sliding in. Snakes like to hide in shady, cool spots.
If you want to feel more like the heroes of the wild west, opt for a good pair of snake boots instead.
It’s common to feel uneasy about cowboy camping for the first time, so check out the frequently asked questions below for more info.
Is it safe to sleep outside without a tent?
Sleeping outside without a tent is an excellent way to connect with nature, but it’s best to be prepared just in case. Always research your surroundings and bring a tarp in case of rain.
What does cowboy camping mean in backpacking?
Cowboy camping makes backpacking easier because you typically carry fewer things. So, when you move from place to place, it takes less time and effort to pack up your camp and set it up somewhere else.
How did cowboys sleep in the rain?
Cowboys of the wild west always had a slicker on them. A slicker is a raincoat made of a smooth, waterproof material. If a cowboy wasn’t wearing it, he’d keep it rolled up and tied to his saddle. He could also use it as a makeshift shelter in the rain.