Cowboy Camping – My blanket is the stars above


The painting done by Jen D’Enise. 

There are many shelters to use when backpacking from simple tarps to hammocks to palatial 4-season tents big and stout enough to weather out a blizzard.

But my favorite way of sleeping outside is the simplest: Under the stars, aka “Cowboy Camping.”

Why sleep under the stars when shelters are so light in addition to being quick and easy to set up?

I have a few reasons why I enjoy cowboy camping:

  •  Simplicity – thrown down my ground pad, layout my quilt, and set up some essential gear for the evening. I am good to go. It takes minutes to set up and minutes to repack in the morning. I am on the trail again quickly in the morning hours. Naturally, finding a spot at night is more manageable, too.
  • Immersion – I feel more in the wilderness when there is no barrier between myself and my surroundings
  • Aesthetics  – I find looking up from my sleeping bag or quilt at the stars above to be one of the most beautiful parts of the camping experience
  • Romanticism – Under the stars, sometimes by a campfire and nestled in the trees… A bit of the romance of the cinematic version of the  American West experienced in real life.
Sunset over the southeast Appalachians on the Benton MacKaye Trail.

Of course, cowboy camping is not for all times and conditions. I use a tarp or tarp-like shelter when it is more appropriate.

Namely when:

  • There is snow or rain. Though I have been known to “burrito wrap” myself in my tarp when the precip is light and comes at 3 AM.  🙂
  • Insects. I’ll only semi-cowboy camp and rig up my mosquito netting when conditions are esp. adverse (Yosemite during the early summer snowmelt, for example. Ack!)
  • When it is cold. If I am pushing the envelope of my gear, sleeping under a shelter helps trap the body heat I am producing. A shelter can add 5-10 of warmth depending on the accommodation, the pitch of my tarp, and various other conditions.
  • Backpacking with some past partners:  A roof, a wall, and a floor are mandatory. Not optional! 🙂
Cold rain in the Indian Peaks Wilderness means I am tarping it!

I backpack primarily in the Rockies and the Southwest, where the conditions are both drier and (overall) more predictable.  I have cowboy camped in the Appalachians but rolled the dice a little more with the chance of rain moving in at night.

When cowboy camping, the optimal campsite conditions are similar to traditional tent camping, but more so.

Besides making an educated guess about the possible evening weather conditions, I also try to:

  • Not camp in a meadow.  Too much moisture and dew. Colder, too
  • Camp in the trees.  Wind protection, a little more warmth, and light rain protection for those 3 AM rain sprinkles.
  • I am not camping at a low point. For micro selection in the campsite itself, I try not to camp in a low point/valley — cold air sinks. And so does water! 😉

My ideal site is by the edge of an open spot or meadow while under some trees. Water is nearby but not too close. Great views, also.  Happens more than you may think. 🙂

La Garita sunset. Also, from my sleeping bag.

Cowboy camping is not for all situations and is not something everyone is necessarily going to enjoy.  But, I encourage everyone to try it. The beauty and simplicity of sleeping under the stars can be extraordinary. Give it a try. You may like it.

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8 years ago

I have always loved the idea of cowboy camping BUT…Creepy crawlies totally creep me OUT! Black widows, brown recluse, tarantulas, ants, and mosquitos are at the top of my ‘No Snacking On Laura’ list. What (if anything) do you do to deter them? I really love the idea of backpacking, I already love the camping we do. I’m just trying to find the courage to take that next step. 🙂

7 years ago

Really nice tips you have in such an informative article. The point which I like the most is Not camping at a low point. I had suffer one in my previous trip when the water level rised a bit hight.
Thank you for sharing this and please keep it up

6 years ago

I camp all over the southwest and California. I always want to leave the tent behind but I worry about scorpions, which want to get in your shoes and I worry into my sleeping bag/into my clothes, and snakes. There are a lot of rattle snakes out here and people say they search for warmth. Have you had an issues with these or have tips? Thanks!