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Cowboy Camping

What is Cowboy Camping?

Cowboy camping is a form of minimalist camping where a person relies on basic gear and sleeps under the open sky. The term comes from the romantic notion of the American cowboy – setting out alone to sleep under the stars while on a long cattle drive. This idyllic concept calls up emotions of freedom, self-reliance and forging a strong bond with nature

Sleeping near mountains
Cowboy camping is a way to mindfully connect with nature (and yourself)

While many people relish these experiences, cowboy camping isn’t for everyone. The vulnerable feeling of being exposed to the elements combined with the physical and mental strain will be a significant deterrent for many.


  • Sleep under the sky without a shelter
  • Can break camp quickly and easily 
  • Requires courage to overcome sense of vulnerability
  • Can boost sense of confidence and self-worth


Camping Without a Tent … But Why?   

Why, you ask, would anyone lunatic want to sleep without a tent in the middle of nature? 

The thought of camping without a tent is an anxiety-inducing proposition even for the most experienced campers. With the technology of modern camping equipment continuing to evolve, it may seem pointless, or even downright dangerous, to spend a night or two without the protection of shelter. 

It wasn’t long ago that our ancestors traveled across North America sometimes with little more than the clothes on their back. Today, with modern camping comforts such as insulated shelters, electricity, and electronics we’ve managed to surround ourselves with residential comforts even while out in nature.  

Mountain at night
Cowboy camping is a rare chance to disconnect from the world.

The allure of cowboy camping is that it can offer us a beautiful reminder of just how small we are in this world. Without the protection of shelter, it becomes just you, your thoughts and the surrounding earth. Gazing up at the nighttime sky can help put your life in perspective – all the stresses, worries and fears you have at home can all just melt away when you realize just how truly insignificant they are compared to the grandeur of nature. 

Not only can cowboy camping put our own lives in perspective, it can also give you an incredible boost of confidence and self-worth. Camping without shelter is an activity that only a small amount of people will ever attempt to do. Just by taking the step to try camping without a tent, you are demonstrating to yourself that you are brave enough to face your vulnerabilities and fears. 

Is Sleeping Without a Tent Safe?

While no type of outdoors camping is 100% safe, cowboy camping can be done safely if the proper measures are taken. If you plan on cowboy camping, an extensive knowledge of the terrain, weather and local wildlife is essential to ensure your safety. 

The main danger you will face while cowboy camping is not from predators, but rather exposure to the elements. Even the most flimsy shelter will offer moderate protection from the cold, wind, rain and extreme heat. Without a fixed shelter in place, cowboy campers are vulnerable to quick and sudden changes in weather (lightning, flooding, extreme cold) that can potentially be dangerous or life-threatening if not handled properly. 

Anthill in forest
Watch out for anthills and other biting creatures

Campers are always at risk from large mammals such as bears and deer, but cowboy campers need to be especially aware of hidden wildlife such as rats, snakes, spiders, scorpions or fire ants that live on forest floors and grass. Cowboy sleeping may expose yourself to bites from small creatures you may not normally expose yourself to while tent or RV camping.

Pros of Cowboy Camping

  • Ease: Cowboy camping is the easiest and quickest way to travel by foot while camping.  The time and effort to set up a full campsite when traveling between locations can become a long and labor-intensive process. The ability to pack up camp in less than 5 minutes is a huge advantage if you are looking to cover a long distance in a short period of time. 
  • Weight: Typical camping gear packs, which include fold up tents, pillow, blankets, etc. can become very heavy and cumbersome when traveling by foot. Shedding the shelter and the accompanying accessories frees up much needed space and weight when traveling between campsites or hiking long trails. 
  • Connection with Nature: Cowboy camping offers the opportunity to connect – connect with nature, loved ones or even with yourself. Being free of screen time, enjoying the wonder of nature and experiencing the quiet of nights under the stars all create an environment to clear you head and free you from everyday stress. 
  • Confidence: Out in the wilderness all alone, your only resources are knowledge, strength and determination. Many of us go through our lives with never truly knowing what it is like to be all on our own and cowboy camping offers that chance to test just how mentally and physically strong you really are. 

As an added bonus, you’ll get to experience the glory of the night sky without light pollution, which is a truly awe-inspiring event.  Living like the wanderers that came before us can be an eye-opening and deeply meaningful experience.  

Cons of Cowboy Camping

  • Vulnerability: Modern humans are accustomed to falling asleep with a roof and walls surrounding us. Camping without a tent you will experience a raw vulnerability which you may have never experienced before in your life. While some find this exhilarating, others find the exposure quite frightening. 
  • Adverse Weather can be a big negative to cowboy camping. Extreme climates are simply not suitable for sleeping without protection from the elements. Campers take it for granted that when it gets extremely hot, cold, rainy – they can simply retreat to their tent for protection. Cowboy camping offers no such protection from adverse weather and prolonged exposure to elements can grow uncomfortable and even dangerous if not handled properly. 
  • Age, fitness level, and allergies are considerations for cowboy camping. Cowboy camping can be hard on the very old or very young, or those with medical conditions that require attention. Additionally, exposure to the elements can cause great discomfort for those with allergies. People allergic to things such as insect bites and stings may be particularly vulnerable.

Choosing Your Cowboy Camping Spot

The beautiful thing about cowboy camping is that it can be done in almost any public land that permits tent camping. However, choosing the right camping spot can mean the difference between an eye-opening night of self-discovery and a night of cold, soggy misery. 

man camping
Choose your camping spot during daylight hours.

Here is tried and tested advice on how to pick the best cowboy camping spots: 

  • Select a spot during daylight hours. Hazards like anthills, animal burrows and prickly plants are difficult to spot in the dark. Waking up to hundreds of ant bites or stumbling over a thorn bush on a midnight bathroom break is sure to put a damper on your trip.
  • Choose a spot that is flat with soft soil or sand. Steer clear of any spots that are at steep inclines, below loose or falling debris from trees or directly near bodies of water. 
  • Choosing a site with natural windbreaks offers some protection against the elements. Dense treeline or rock formations will cut down on the wind. Even light wind can cause disturbed sleep, so having some natural protection will be helpful.  
  • Under no circumstances is it a good idea to cowboy camp in a cave. While it is possible that large forest animals like bears or mountain lions may shelter in caves,  you’re more likely to encounter animals of the smaller variety. The bites and diseases carried by rats, mice and spiders are a real – and very dangerous threat to your safety. Bottom line: steer clear of caves and other natural enclosures!

Cowboy Camping Gear List

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Cowboy camping is all about minimalism. The whole idea centers around camping with as little gear as possible. However, to keep yourself safe and comfortable, some gear is fairly essential. Unless camping in perfect weather, there are a few things needed to keep you safe: 

Essential Cowboy Camping Gear

  • Sleeping bag: Keeping yourself warm and dry is essential to staying healthy, so a sleeping bag is a must-have. 
  • Ground cloth: While it’s possible just to plop down and sleep on the bare ground, things will be a lot more pleasant with a ground cloth or tarp laid down first. A ground cloth will keep you and your gear off the bare dirt, grass or sand, which keeps it clean and dry.
Portable Water Filter
A portable water filter is a great way to keep your bag light.
  • Water: Forget sodas or sugary drinks – water is essential for cowboy camping. If you are camping close to a fresh water source, we recommend taking a  portable water filter to keep your gear light. Our knowledgeable friends at Geek Prepper have put together a comprehensive resource on how to choose the best portable water filter for your trip. 
  • Food: The key is to pack the most nutrition in the smallest space. Dried meats, nuts and dried fruits are great options as they will nourish you with the required proteins and carbohydrates for your cowboy camping experience. 
  • Reliable fire starter: Having a reliable fire starter will provide you with warmth, safety, light and an option to cook food. Many fire starters can be unreliable. Matches can get wet, lighters can run out of fluid and solar starters are highly unreliable unless in perfect weather. Before you start a fire, you must make sure you know the fire regulations in your camping spot. In many areas, particularly during the summer, fires are strictly prohibited and can subject you to both civil and criminal penalties.   

If you do plan on having a fire at your campsite, it’s absolutely critical that you take the proper fire safety precautions

Optional Cowboy Camping Gear

  • Ground pad: Something you may not consider is that the bare ground gets much colder than the surrounding air. Additionally, the ground can be very hard! Laying directly on the cold, hard ground usually makes for a lousy night of sleep. Having a ground pad will keep you up off the bare earth and provides some softness for a better sleeping experience.
  • Tarp: While this is an optional item, bringing a tarp is an excellent idea if space allows. It can be used for shelter if the weather takes an unexpected turn, replace a lost or ruined ground cloth and the durable material has all sorts of emergency uses.
  • Bivy: Bivys are made for various purposes: keeping you dry, warm, cool and bug-free. They are small, portable shelters that offer some protection from the elements while sleeping. A bivy is big enough to fit a sleeping bag inside and maybe a tiny amount of gear, but little else.
  • Cooking Supplies: Just because cowboy camping is simplistic doesn’t mean your food has to be! Taking along a simple skillet, a utensil or two, a few cans of food, and a bottle or two of spices won’t take up much pack space and will make your campfire cooking more enjoyable.

Cowboy Camping vs. “Primitive Camping”

Many people ask, “What the difference between cowboy camping vs primitive camping?” While cowboy camping and primitive camping are similar in their minimalist style, there are a few important differences.

Man under tarp
Primitive campers bring shelter.

Primitive Camping means a style of remote, non-reservation camping where the camper lacks basic amenities such as running water, restrooms or electricity. The major difference between primitive camping and cowboy camping is that primitive campers will have basic shelter such as a tent to keep them protected from the elements.

Cowboy Camping vs. “Dispersed Camping” 

Dispersed Camping is generally defined as camping anywhere in a National Forest outside of a designated camping area. Dispersed camping is all about camping in areas without common camping amenities such as picnic tables, restrooms, fire pits, etc. Dispersed campers will have shelter typically in the form of an RV, trailer or tent

The Final Word

Cowboy camping can be a fun, exhilarating activity that recalibrates your mind and reconnects your soul back to nature.  Sleeping out in the wild with no shelter and minimal supplies can prove to be one of the most impactful adventures you take in your life.  It is the rare opportunity to fully disconnect from modern day stresses and leave the world behind – even if just for one night. 

Camping without a tent isn’t for everyone. Sleeping out in the open can be a very unnatural and scary feeling that leaves you feeling extremely vulnerable. Even in mild weather, you can expect to encounter mental and physical challenges that you didn’t expect. 

If you want to test the cowboy camping waters without fulling jumping in, a good idea is to start out in the backyard. Scope out a good area for a bed, then set up a tent nearby. This way, if you wake in the middle of the night and decide that sleeping a full night under the stars is a bit much, you have a ready-made shelter in which to retreat. Practicing at home a few times will give you a good idea if cowboy camping is something you’d like to try out in the wider world.

Related RV Terms

For related RV terminology, please reference the RV definitions below:

  • Primitive Camping: A style of remote, non-reservation camping where the camper lacks basic amenities such as running water, restrooms or electricity.
  • Boondocking: RV camping on private or public land away from developed campgrounds and with no hookups (sewer, water, electric).
  • Walk-Up Camping: Camping where visitors must physically show up at the campgrounds to reserve a site on a first-come, first-serve basis. 

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