For someone who has spent at least a cumulative year hiding under the slanted corners of one tent or another, I recently experienced a disturbing revelation: I hated almost all of those nights. I had been cramped under claustrophobic sheets of canvas or matching hi-tech fabrics and snorting recycled air over the shoulders of a mountain or in the bowels of a canyon. That realization, at least, came in the form of a new love, a primitive idea that actually revolutionized the way I approach and enjoy hiking: cowboy camping.
“Cowboy camping” is exactly what it sounds like: sleeping (almost) on the ground and (almost) under the stars, much like the cowboys of old. Whether driving cattle through the high desert of the Southwest or across the plains of the Midwest, cowboys often wore an elaborate system of heavy quilts, blankets, ropes and tarps lined with rings and snaps. , stepping away from the elements like human burritos in what they’ve dubbed a cob bed. “It is built to provide the service and comfort demanded by the hands working on the stove,” writes Fay E. Ward in his detailed history of the customs of the cowboys, The cowboy at work, “And it should keep a person warm and dry in all weather.
Every night not spent in a tent is a treat, the border between me and nature itself is thinner than a mosquito net.
But I have long viewed cowboy camping as an emergency option, the last resort at the end of an exhausting day when I quit walking far too late to have fun pitching a tent. For example, hiking the always wet Appalachian Trail, I did it exactly twice, at the end of two 30 mile days as I hiked the last stretches of New England well after dark. Both occasions were near catastrophes. The first time around, a rainstorm hit me on top of an outdoor fire tower, soaking my things on a cold Vermont night. Several hundred miles later, at the foot of the northern terminus of the trail, I had thrown my sleeping bag in the middle of a gravel parking lot the day before, mistaking it for a campground. It wasn’t until then that I realized I had camped a cowboy – and, what’s more, ate a PB&J with a headlamp – on top of a huge mound of shit from fresh deer.
But, now, 1,200 miles from the Pacific Crest Trail, I have slept in my tent less than ten times, trading his simple suggestion of safety for the manifold splendors of cowboy camping. Almost every night, especially in the desert section of the PCT, which is perfectly dry, I spread a groundsheet on a flat expanse of dirt, put a foam pad on it, and climb into my sleeping bag. The time it takes to set up camp – and, the next morning, take it down – has been cut in half.
I can now stretch and massage my tired legs without knocking over the tent, cooking without worrying I will turn her dear white Dyneema fabric into s’more. I can watch the sun go down and the stars come up without leaving my bed, and buried in my bag I don’t have to listen to the wind slamming tent walls all night. It’s less humid, less crowded, less smelly – all the things that I realized I didn’t like living inside a tent only after stopping by. No, I don’t care about the animals anymore, and, no, I don’t really miss the privacy that a tent offers, since I’m already nestled in the woods with people I mostly know. (My wife, Tina, says changing clothes without a tent is slightly more difficult, surrounded by grizzled guys, but it’s a skill she’s learned.) Sleeping under the stars, ironically, offers more comfort than my current room, and it has become camping, once my least favorite part of the hike, has become a real joy for the first time.
Cowboy camping isn’t just for extreme hikers. It can be as revealing for the occasional weekend camper as it is for the committed hiker, an opportunity to commune a little more intimately with nature. With that in mind, here are five principles to start reinventing the way you camp.
Get a groundsheet
Between the craggy passes of the Sierra Nevada, I recently met a mustached hiker named Cowboy Dave who insisted that the most important piece of his cowboy kit was his groundsheet, that is – say the barrier that separates you from the earth. Floor mats can be inexpensive sheets of crumpled Tyvek, pieces of ultra-thin polycryo like paper, or ostentatious expanses of branded Dyneema. But for Dave, size mattered most; his groundsheet had to be large enough to hold both his body and his gear, so that the ground did indeed look like a house, full of his few things. He’s right, especially since you don’t want to pull out of your warm sleeping bag to collect your scattered things. Having a floor mat that fits you is essential.
Invest in a sleeping bag you love
With or without a tent, your sleeping setup will largely stay the same – neither your pillow nor your sleeping pad needs to change for cowboy camping. Your sleeping bag itself, however, becomes paramount. You should like to climb it, because it is your last line of defense against everything else. For the same reason, it should be as versatile as the camping conditions themselves, as it will need to provide the flexible barriers that your tent could have offered. There is no right answer here. Some perpetual cowboys insist on synthetic padding because it dries faster and insulates even in unexpected rain – you know, one of the main reasons you have a tent – while others prefer the compression and the breathability of down. The differences are endless, tedious.
For my part, just before I started the PCT, I put more money on a single hiking item that wasn’t a tent like never before – a gorgeous red Apache MF made by the longtime stronghold of bags. Sturdy sleeping arrangements, Western Mountaineering. I have never regretted the indulgence, especially in my new life as a camping cowboy. It is so comfortable that I named it “Romy” for the person who sewed it. Its deep hood and fluffy down mean I haven’t been cold once. And its zipper allows me to unroll it like a duvet on hot nights, so as not to feel like a clam stuffed in a soggy shell. One night when light rain hit my wife and I at the start of PCT in the Sierra Pelona mountains, she wrapped herself in our tent for protection. But the Apache’s smooth coating wicks water like a windshield, so I woke up dry from an unconscious sleep.
Study the conditions
You can fully engage in cowboy camping by forgoing a tent despite rainstorms or swarms of insects. A bivy bag basically does what tarps did for cowboys – wraps you in a second skin and keeps unwanted elements out. But these are advanced tips, and this is a beginner’s course. So before you leave the tent in your bag, look for the overwhelming clouds. Think about how the winds and conditions have changed during your day. And stay still for a while, giving mosquitoes a chance to target and attack their prey. Everything looks good? OK, leave the tent in your bag.
Have an emergency plan
The joy of hiking – really, the essence of any adventure – is its unpredictability. You will inevitably be surprised by a downpour that was not in the forecast or a horde of biting insects that only emerged after settling into your cowboy quarters for the night. So think of your tent as the emergency exits of an airplane: know where it is and how, if need be, to use it as efficiently as possible. If the rain is light, you might get away with wrapping yourself in your tarp, as I mentioned above. But if you need to set it up quickly, make sure you sleep somewhere with enough space for your tent’s footprint. And it’s a good idea to keep your headlamp and stakes handy, so you don’t run into a black rain to begin with.
Enjoy your surroundings
In 2010, artist and astronomer Tyler Nordgren coined the slogan “Half the park is after dark” to promote the night sky viewing afforded by the lack of light pollution in many national parks. Cowboy camping works much the same way: you’ve swapped your tent’s ceiling for the space one, so you can watch the stars emerge as the sun fades. Stay upright to watch and you will also notice entirely new animal sounds, especially since you no longer have to worry about the harmful noise of tents rustling in the wind. There is an inherent, albeit slight, risk ranging from precipitation to creatures and oblivious privacy creeps to cowboy camping; witnessing the other half of a day, or nature itself, is a fair reward.
After about a month on the PCT, we slowly got out of the desert and entered the Sierra Nevada. I assumed our days of carefree cowboy camping in the barren desert were over. It is colder at these high altitudes, with intense storms often forecast. And summer in the Sierra is the annual bacchanal of the mosquito feast, which have been so aggressive this year that they’ve forced many of the more modest hikers to don mosquito nets or douse themselves in DEET like an androgenic teenager. bathed in Ax.
But besides the bugs, spring and summer have been mild here, with little snow cover and negligible storms. Most nights we just put up a pyramid-shaped mosquito net instead of our tent, which is always on hand in the event of a sudden thunderstorm. It’s like a cowboy camping out under a thin black canvas, the sunset and stars still visible, the air still fresh inside and out. Every night not spent in a tent is a treat, the border between me and nature itself is thinner than a mosquito net. I will be grateful for the tent, of course, the next time it shelters me from a storm. But I already regret the stale taste of its recycled air and another night of no cowboy camping.
Special thanks to Dustin “Honest Abe” Rucker, my cowboy camping mentor.