Imagine waking up surrounded by your best friends in a giant cuddle puddle — just like the sleepovers you had when you were a kid, snuggled in your comfy sleeping bag, the sounds of birds singing, and the sun gently warming your entire being, reminding you the day has begun? That’s what cowgirl camping feels like to me — well, most days.
Cowboy/ cowgirl/ cowperson camping is the act of refusing to set up your tent (sometimes out of laziness and sometimes for the sake of simplicity) and instead laying out all of your sleeping materials in the cold hard, surrendering yourself to mother nature’s mercy.
I first was introduced to cowboy camping in the Army, although not really by choice and it definitely did not feel as magical/ whimsical as it does on the Pacific Crest Trail now. My first experience with cowboy camping was fine, a little intimidating but the exhaustion from the day's activities allowed me to collapse into a deep sleep almost immediately. What struck me about that first experience was how beautiful the morning was. I woke up before my peers and got to experience the serene peace of dawn. I only got a few moments of serenity before the day's chaos began but the experience stuck with me.
When I came out to the PCT this year, I brought my 2 pound 1 person North Face Triarch tent, a Thermarest Z-Pad, and an Enlightened Equipment Enigma quilt for my sleeping system. I used my tent for the first week in the desert and very quickly realized I hated being confined, and not being woken up naturally by the sun. My tent felt like a cocoon, safe but away, separate from my environment. I wanted to be immersed in nature, after all that's what I came out here for.
So I began cowgirl camping. My first night cowgirling on trail was on a ridge by myself. I walked 15 miles that day (that was so much to me in the desert — LOL). I dry camped in a spot with maybe room for a few cowgirls, and to my surprise two friends who I hiked with earlier that day showed up and asked to camp with me. I was ecstatic. I love camping with new friends and was grateful for the company. (S/O Wonder Woman and Smiley, miss you girls!)
The following morning was one of the most magical mornings I had ever experienced to date. The weather we woke to was cold, with a slight breeze. The sun was peeking through the huge wispy clouds that felt so close that we could touch them. It was ethereal watching the clouds roll through the mountain tops and witnessing the sun rays peek-a-boo through the clouds. I hurriedly made a cup of steaming coffee to warm my bones as I sat in my fluffy, comfy, sleeping quilt. Being able to watch the morning unfold, while in the comfort of my sleeping bag is one of my favorite experiences on trail. I love being immersed and at one with my surroundings. Plus it's an added bonus being able to pack up camp a bit quicker since I’m a slower hiker than most of my hiking companions!
Cowgirl camping has had such a profound impact on my thru-hike. I love waking up to my tramily members smiling, sleepy and puffy faces with their gnarled morning hair. It makes my heart so happy to be able to share my nights and mornings with them. So much so that I sent my tent home to force myself to be present with my surroundings and cowgirl camp every night. Yes, I am that committed and that crazy about cowgirl camping.
The only real con/ concern for the no shelter badass lifestyle is that when mother nature decides to rain, she usually doesn’t hold back. Luckily, I have a Garmin GPS device that gets signal maybe once a week. It helps me check weather reports and plan my nights accordingly. Also, thanks to climate change (wow, never thought I would say that!), I haven’t been soaked while sleeping yet. During the two storms so far — yes, only two in my three months on the PCT — I have found shelter immediately. The first instance was just drizzle and I jumped into my hiking companion Sunny B’s spacious and luxurious Big Agnes Tiger Wall tent. The second instance that it rained I was camped safely inside a hut on trail.
Sometimes mother nature really smiles upon the stupid. In short, with proper planning, you too could not carry a shelter, hang out with your best friends and wake up to the wonder of the wilderness’ full glory every morning. 10/10 recommend and will be doing it over and over again.
Also, it’s 2021 guys, can we please find a gender neutral/ nonbinary term for cowboy/ cowgirl/ cowperson camping? Comment your ideas, we need to change this asap.
Happiest of trails to my fellow dirtbags,
Cartwheel aka Carti V aka “V” in the real world is a California born and raised twenty something latinx hiker trash who enjoys long walks, singing cringey karaoke songs and extreme dreaming. She is currently on the Pacific Crest Trail trying to fulfill her dream of becoming a thru-hiker.
I too was wondering about the morning dew. That’s my main memory as a kid when I slept under the stars on a field with my whole summer day camp. I thought it was gonna be amazing, finally a sleep over camp,even if only one night.The wet grass and my wet garbage bag under my little sleeping bag was not enjoyable.I remember looking around at all the sleeping bodies and realizing they would soon be waking to the same yuckyness. I quietly snuck out of my bag ,gathered it all up,wet in my little arms and headed for the school.I did not want to hear all the girls screaming from disgust of the soupy conditions they were laying in ! I called my mother and was gone while girls were tiptoeing on their bags waiting for the sun to come out and dry the morning out.
When i was a kid we just called it what it was " sleeping out"….i never saw any reason to call it something else….unless i was climbing and then i did use the term “bivy” especially sleeping on ledges and in other weird situations ….the brits used the word " doss" a lot…as in….i just dossed behind that rock late last night….or, you can doss here….kind of similar to “crash”. Bivy is a verb and a noun but “doss” and "crash"were just verbs. I only really heard people using the term “cowboy camping”a few years ago.
Great article, I’ve been trying to work myself up to,
‘roughing it’ and sleep out in the open. I won’t lie the idea of snakes and critters is what has stopped me. Like others have said here I think the term cowboy camping isn’t referring necessarily to the person doing it as much as it is the act of sleeping out in the open. You’re camping like a cowboy would. Sort of like yelling out, ‘hey you guys, time to go’; to a large group of friends, doesn’t mean that I was only talking to the men.
Haha, thanks for the push for a gender-neutral version. I’m non-binary, though I don’t find offense in the term “cowboy” (and that likely stems from the traditional sense of male things being the default terminology for a lot of things in the English language that I’ve come to understand as a native speaker).
“Cowpoke” is a fun alternative but doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily, “open camping” isn’t as fun as cowboy (feels too technical!)… what about “Star Camping”? I love to sleep without my tent but I end up so distracted by the night sky that I barely sleep a wink, haha! I like Star Camping (:
We just called it sleeping under the stars when I was a kid.
I don’t identify as a “person”
I am offended by Cowperson Camping, or any pronouns suggestion I am human
Cowpoke camping? 😁
Years ago, a wee rodent ran across my face while I was sleeping in my hammock without a bug net. NEVER AGAIN.
One advantage of a hammock is they can be breezier than a tent. I love the feeling of the air moving around me. If I’m confident there’ll be no rain and it’s not too cold, I don’t put up the tarp. All the views, none of the rodents.
For those who are suggesting that “cowboy” is a gender-neutral term and asking the author not to use “cowgirl/cowperson,” I ask this: if you’re a heterosexual male, how would you feel about kissing a cowboy?
Great article, beautifully written.
I can’t bear tents myself, although all my nights out are in SoCal which is pretty predictable in summer, even up at 9000 ft.
I roll my air mat, quilt and Bivi up as one, and sleep on top of the bivy till it starts raining.
Rolled up it sits on the back of my dirtbike like a proper Iron Cowboy/girl/person.
Added bonus, you can deploy for a quick nap whenever (I’ve done this for hangover abatement traveling back from Vegas), and getting moved on by irate LEO’s is pretty painless.
It is great that you had good luck with the weather, but in the mountains a serious cloudburst can happen anytime. For safety sake I think an UL tarp should always be the minimum.
Outta tent experience, if you can’t get past the cowboy/cowgirl/cowperson gender specific reasoning. We’re all in it together.
Don’t lose the historical romance represented in the term, Cowboy Camping. Name the event, such as ‘High Line Inclusive Campout,’ vs. messing with a well-recognized reference for sleeping under the stars; Cowboy/Cowgirl Camping.
I’ve been doing it most of my life and we usually just called it “sleeping out” or “sleep under the stars”. While “cowboy camping” monicker has been around a while, it’s only become ubiquitous the last few years IMO. Unless required due to weather or insects, my family and I camp sans canvas, even with temps in the 20s. We recently returned from a trip in UT & WY and for a few weeks facilitated some off grid adventure for some friends who are normally RVers. We convinced this family to join us sleeping under the stars and it became one of the favorite parts of their vacation laying out watching the amazing night sky and learning to be comfortable in and with nature.
Do we really need a gender neutral term? I mean the men that do it aren’t cowboys, they’re still backpackers. It may be a bit over-sensitive to think that somebody referring to the method is actually calling you a cowboy and not a cowgirl. You are still neither. It is just a term for the act, not the person doing it.
Yes john H. Cowpoke works for me. Although Cowboy rings truer and seems gender neutral anyway.
I’m a snake magnet. I’ve awakened numerous times with a suspicious weight on my chest in my mummy. Ten pound 3 bag Army issue down to my ultralight downtek. You do lateral pancake flips and hope the eyes don’t open under your face. Emergency bivy has a head cover at least. Not romantic or back to nature experience I want anymore. I’ll sleep in a hammock with a ridgeline bug net thank you. Call it what you want in 2021, but be prepared for heat seeking reptiles to be your new pals. At least they don’t snore or have a Therma rest potato chip sleeping pad!
Fantastic article but why do we need to inject political correctness and politics into everything? I’ve noticed this lately on corporate websites. “Cowboy” camping is referring to the way people(like cowboys) slept outdoors before there were portable tents. It’s a slang term and not meant to describe who is actually camping. Call it whatever you like but why does everyone else have to comply and why did we need that tag at the end of a great article?
My buddy and I generally ‘bivvy’ out when we are exploring in New Zealand. We either stay in the open with bivvy bags for extra protection of find a decent bivvy rock if the weather is looking ominous. Bivvy comes from the French bivouac which in turn came from Swiss German – traditionally used by mountaineers and soldiers. Go on line and check out the Rock of Ages bivvy in the East Matukituki Valley in NZ. We’ll be staying there briefly this coming summer en route to elsewhere. Happy bivvy rock hunting 😜
What about bugs and little creatures? I have no experience with this, but it sounds fun. Are critters an issue?
The term. “Cowboy camping” means sleeping in the open without shelter. People know this. Cowgirl camping, same thing. Use which ever.
We don’t really need a gender neutral term. A cowboy can be any gender. It’s pretty simple.
what about condensation? I find everything is wet in the morning from condensation.
I love cowboy camping, but wow, every photo in this article to me is an absolute nightmare! Sardines!
What say we just call it “open camping”. Done.
Good article, good luck, keep finding the wonder.