Have you ever heard the term “cowboy camping” but not sure what it means for backpackers?
Definition of cowboy camping in backpacking:
Cowboy camping is defined as any type of camping where you sleep outside under the stars without the use of a tent or another type of shelter to protect yourself from the elements. It can be a nice way to catch some Zzzs outside on a clear night, but it’s not very comfortable or practical if you’re camping in a cold, rainy, or buggy environment.
If you’ve never been cowboy camping, you probably have quite a few questions about how it all works. In this article, we’re going to discuss the ins and outs of cowboy camping and the logistics behind snoozing under the stars.
Pros and Cons of Cowboy Camping while Backpacking
Cowboy camping is a specific type of camping where you sleep outside without the use of a tent or a shelter.
When you cowboy camp, you simply sleep under the stars on your sleeping pad and don’t have any sort of roof over your head. This makes it different from regular backpacking, where most people opt to sleep in a tent or under a tarp.
Depending on who you ask, some people might consider hammock camping to be a type of cowboy camping, so long as you don’t have a tarp or bug net over your head at night. Sleeping in a bivouac sack (bivy sack) could also be considered a form of cowboy camping, especially if you don’t have a tarp or another kind of shelter overhead.
There are many reasons why people opt to go cowboy camping, though they mostly have to do with a desire to sleep out under the stars. Some people also prefer to go cowboy camping because it reduces the amount of time you have to spend setting up your campsite each night.
But, as you might imagine, there are some drawbacks to cowboy camping. The biggest downside to cowboy camping is that it leaves you completely exposed to the elements.
That means you’re at the mercy of the weather when it comes to staying warm and dry at night. Cowboy campers are also more likely to get bitten by bugs while they snooze. Therefore, cowboy camping isn’t a great idea in very buggy areas or whenever there’s a risk of precipitation or heavy winds at night.
How Do You Backpack Without A Tent?
Backpacking without a tent, or cowboy camping, is a time-honored practice. People have slept out under the stars for countless generations, but the modern form of cowboy camping has seen a resurgence in recent years among minimalist campers.
While it might sound difficult, the actual experience of backpacking without a tent is fairly straightforward. People who backpack without a tent still need to bring a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and shelter. The only difference is that they use something other than a tent to keep them warm and dry at night.
There are a few different tent alternatives that people use while backpacking. These include:
A tarp is perhaps the most common tent alternative among backpackers. With a tarp, you can create a shelter that offers good protection from the wind and rain. Most people who opt for a tarp instead of a tent do so because tarps tend to be quite lightweight.
The downside to a tarp is that it can be tricky to set up properly. They also don’t provide any bug protection (so you’ll need to invest in a bug net) and they don’t offer as much wind and rain protection as a true tent.
Hammock & Tarp
Some tent-free campers opt to use a hammock and tarp combo as their shelter. The idea here is that your hammock will serve as your sleeping area and the tarp will protect you from the wind and the rain. When pitched properly, this can be a very effective tent alternative and some people actually find hammocks to be much more comfortable at night.
The major drawback to hammock camping is that it can only really be done in forested environments as you’ll have a hard time pitching a hammock above treeline. Some people also find that hammocks aren’t as warm as tents on cold nights.
The other tent alternative that you’ll see is called a bivy sack. You can think of a bivy sack as basically a really small 1-person tent that can fit only you, your sleeping pad, and your sleeping bag. They became popular in the climbing community as an emergency shelter on overnight routes, but they’ve since become more mainstream among ultralight backpackers.
Some bivy sacks are fully waterproof while others are just water-resistant. While bivy sacks are lightweight and easy to set up, however, some people really don’t like sleeping in them because they can feel a bit claustrophobic.
There are some other ways to backpack without a tent, including by creating primitive shelters, but these aren’t as common. It’s important to note that backpacking without a tent is oftentimes more difficult than camping with one, especially when it comes to keeping yourself warm and dry at night. Therefore, it’s really only suitable for experienced hikers.
Is It Safe to Sleep in the Woods Without a Tent?
Sleeping in the woods without a tent is a somewhat common practice among ultralight backpackers, and it’s not necessarily unsafe if it’s done properly by an experienced hiker. However, there are risks to sleeping in the woods without a tent, so anyone looking to do so needs to come prepared with the right skills and equipment.
The biggest risk of sleeping in the woods without a tent is getting hypothermia from exposure to the elements. If you’re camping without a tent, you’ll be exposed to the wind and the rain, which could make you very cold and wet. Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition, so it’s critical that hikers avoid it at all costs.
Additionally, depending on where you’re camping, sleeping in the woods without a tent can put you at a higher risk for insect bites. While some insect bites are more a nuisance than a real danger, getting bitten by ticks and mosquitoes that may carry illnesses like Lyme disease or Zika virus can also lead to a life-threatening condition.
A skilled backpacker can find ways to protect themselves from the elements and the bugs. Doing so normally involves using either a bivy sack, tarp, hammock, bug net, or some combination of these pieces of gear.
So, in other words, it is possible to camp without a tent, but you need to have the right gear and skills necessary to do so safely.
Cowboy Camping: Better than Backpacking?
Cowboy camping is a form of backpacking that involves sleeping out under the stars at night. While some people really enjoy cowboy camping on clear nights, the reality is that it’s not for everyone.
Even though cowboy camping can be really fun, it does have its risks, especially if you’re camping in a buggy place or if it rains at night. If you do opt to cowboy camp, be sure to pack an emergency shelter as a backup so that you can still stay warm, dry, and bug-free if the conditions don’t cooperate.
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David Parnell is the founder and lead editor at Trail and Summit, who enjoys writing on a wide range of topics from travel trailers to trail running. He’s an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.