Sleep Under the Stars: A Guide to Cowboy Camping on Your Thru-Hike

Cowboy camping lets you sleep under the open sky with minimal gear on a thru-hike. Learn when and how to try it safely, plus tips for choosing a site, gear, and more.

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Josh Koop

I live with my wife and daughter in Katy, Texas and my local trail is the Lone Star Hiking Trail which is an amazing way to experience the Sam Houston National Park!

Hiker laying in a sleeping bag under the stars using a tyvek groundsheet
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A six-month thru-hike is a long trek, there is a wide variety of ways you will set up camp over the 150+ days which will change from built shelters to backpacking shelters, and then there is cowboy camping which is a highlight for many thru-hikers, so what is cowboy camping you may wonder?

Cowboy camping is when you sleep out under the stars with no shelter, just your sleeping pad, or sleeping quilt/bag, its focus is on simplicity and minimal camp setup. Allowing you unfettered access to watch the stars and the sky, taking in the beauty.

If you’re considering giving cowboy camping a try on your upcoming thru-hike, what do you need to know about camp selection, when you should, why you should try it, and where to focus to get the most enjoyable experience?

Essentials for Cowboy Camping

While relatively simple on the surface you do need to think about some key items before just throwing down your sleeping pad anywhere.

Picking the Perfect Cowboy Camping Spot

What are you hoping to get from your cowboy camp overall, is it just a quick camp to get up and moving in the morning fast and efficiently, or is it to take insights?

If it is to move quickly, then the site choice could be as simple as decently clear of issues and not in a low depression on the ground to ensure water wouldn’t pool on or under you from dew.

But if you are trying to take in a sunset or a sunrise, then positioning and location are key to maximizing the view, and this means knowing where sunrise or sunset is early enough to find a place and get prepared.

If only want to stargaze and watch the night sky your focus on camp location would be on finding a good area with an open view of the sky the clear ground for the setup without obstructions from trees and similar obstructions.

So even choosing a simple site has some things you need to know before ever starting, you need to think about your sleep setup and protecting your gear.

Sleep Setup for Optimal Comfort

When setting up your sleep system, you would normally have your shelter , like a tent, helping protect the ground and any sharp or dangerous objects.

Since you aren’t going to be setting up this shelter you need to ensure the area is as free and clear of clutter as possible which includes rocks, pinecones, branch parts, or other obstructions.

At this point, I would suggest always using your tent footprint or ground cloth, whether poly, Tyvek, or the tent manufacturers as a good extra layer of defense. Especially if you are someone who uses an inflatable sleeping pad as this will help keep it from being punctured while providing valuable ground insulation.

After this your sleeping quilt or bag will be what you stay inside, note that this could be damp with dew in the morning and need enhanced drying with a towel and then sun exposure early and often in the day until fully dry again.

Safely Storing Food Away from Camp

As with being in any shelter or campsite, you need to make sure that you have looked for whether the site is an animal travel location for your own safety as well as keeping your food bag, bear bag, or bear canister far away from you.

Many on a hike can get lazy and push it until night encroaches and this can lead to issues like deciding you can keep it with you for just one night, or it won’t happen here as there are fewer people and noise.

This is a way to get yourself into serious trouble and should be avoided, even if it means you have to get up and move your camp a bit further away from water or what you wanted in the first place.

Planning for Restroom Needs

Since you will be away from a main shelter and privy and could be located near actual physical dangers like dropoffs, finding and locating where you will use the bathroom can be highly important to work out in the daytime hours with better vision.

This way, you know where you will need to do your LNT trowel work, as you can choose an appropriate area that is easy to dig in and allows you to get there safely and back without issue when it gets dark.

Benefits of Cowboy Camping

When you stay out on the trail for weeks and weeks on end sometimes you are just looking to “change it up,” and cowboy camping can provide that change with a different set of risks and rewards.

It could be as simple as wanting to see what it is like without the setup hassle of your shelter, or you may enjoy the challenge it provides to find new ways to stay safe and comfortable in what some would consider less-than-ideal conditions.

For some there is an opportunity for a unique experience along a section of the trail like a sunrise or sunset, connect with nature by sleeping near a stream or waterfall area where you can hear it, or sometimes just to change up the start and end of travel.

Embrace a Sunset or Sunrise

There is something to be said about taking in a natural light show that can be breathtaking and make all day’s hardships seem worth it.

This is one of those moments you may even choose to have your camera ready to go as well these will be very unique and satisfying long-term memories.

Nothing is as amazing as just sitting out, waking, while the world around you is busy changing and adapting to the new day or night.

Take Advantage of Star Gazing

One of the best things about cowboy camping can be what you gain access to see at night, a star-filled sky that can be breathtaking.

This is especially true if you are in an area with little light pollution where you can see the Milky Way with your own eyes.

On a clear night, this can be an unforgettable experience that has you in awe of what is above you.

It can also help to remind you how small you are in comparison and provide some much-needed perspective.

Change the Monotony of the Days

Sometimes all you really want is to end and start the day in a new and unique way, even if it means finding your space out from the crowds to get your camp on.

This could be as simple as cowboy camping near a water source so you can have an early morning cup of coffee or tea while listening to the birds start their day.

It is these little changes that can help break up the true similarity that a thru-hiker experiences from day to day, helping to change it up and make what feels long and never-ending much more different and enjoyable.

Connect With Nature

Maybe you want to watch the birds, check out the flora, and experience what it is like to sleep out under the trees.

You can listen to the animals, watch them go about their business, and feel what it is like to live in their far more natural world, even if just for a little while.

It can be an amazing experience to feel like you are one with what is around you, something that can be very difficult to do in the hustle of the trail life, especially on a more social trail like the Appalachian Trail .

The Pros and Cons of Cowboy Camping

Benefits to Cowboy Camping

There are a lot of pros to choosing to camp this way on your next thru-hike or backpacking trip, learn more about the true benefit of cowboy camping:

Quick Setup and Teardown

It can help you set up camp and leave fast in the morning, there is no need to fiddle with a tent, and most of your gear can stay packed up until you are ready to go to bed.

This can save you time in the morning and evening, giving you more time on the trail and less messing around in camp.

Find That Perfect Spot

You get a chance to take that perfect spot and enjoy what is around you. We all want that perfect campsite, and sometimes cowboy camping is the only way to get it.

Whether it is along a stream where you can hear the water all night or in an open meadow with a great view of the stars, cowboy camping allows you to find what you are looking for without the hassle of setting up your full shelter.

Build Confidence

When you get out on the trail, you may have little overall experience and taking the chance to camp out and away could be a huge confidence boost you didn’t know you were looking for!

This can be an excellent way to help build that confidence as it will force you to use what you brought with you and know that you can make it work.

Drawbacks to Cowboy Camping

Alongside the benefits come some cons that may worry you or keep you from choosing this method on your next hike.

It forces you to sleep on the ground

For some people, this is near panic-inducing, and sleeping can be difficult if you are not used to it. There are a few ways around this, but it will take some extra effort on your part, especially if you are used to a hammock or other off-the-ground option.

Less protection against rain and wind

You are fully exposed to what nature can throw at you, be it rain, snow, or high winds. If the weather is bad you may want to rethink cowboy camping as it could make for a very miserable experience.

Less protection against bugs and animals

This one is a given, but it needs to be said. You are out in the open with little to no protection from what may come your way.

This could include all manner of things like animals, bugs, and people. While there are ways to help protect yourself, it is something you should be aware of before you choose to cowboy camp.

Ideal Conditions for Cowboy Camping

Now the vital part of knowing when is the right time to choose this method of camping.

Know the Weather

The first thing you need to consider is what the weather is like. If it is hot and dry, cowboy camping can be an excellent choice as you will have little to no shelter from the sun during the day.

At night, however, you will want to be aware of what the temperature will be doing. If it is going to be cold, you will want to bring a warmer sleeping bag as you will have little to no way to insulate yourself from the ground.

Bug Season

You don’t want to be swatting at bugs all night, so knowing what kind of bugs will be out and about is vital to a good night’s sleep.

Acknowledge Wildlife

This one can be a bit more difficult to determine, but if you know there are animals in the area that could pose a threat, it might be best to find another method of camping.

Have a Plan for When it Goes South

What is your plan for when the rain comes out of the blue or similarly if an animal should come upon you in the night?

You need to have a plan for what you will do should something go wrong as you will have little to no way to protect yourself if things take a turn for the worse.

Cowboy Camping Gear Essentials

Even if you are camping like a cowboy, you will need some equipment. That equipment will vary based on your experience, location, and the time of year when you’re thru-hiking but here are the basics you need for a night under the stars:

For those worried about bugs and encroaching insects or snakes, you can bring a bug bivy, which can give you a view of the sky while providing you a mesh in-between.

FAQs on Cowboy Camping

For those of you who are still with us, we know you might have some questions about cowboy camping. Let’s answer a few of the most common ones:

Is it safe to sleep outside without a tent?

This is a difficult question to answer as it depends on so many factors. If you are comfortable with the risks and are willing to take them, then yes, it can be safe.

If you are not comfortable with the risks, then no, it might not be safe for you. It is important to know what those risks are and make an informed decision before choosing a cowboy camp.

What does cowboy camping mean in backpacking?

Basically choosing to camp without a cover, just you and the great outdoors. Minimally set up, just your sleeping quilt, pad, and a groundsheet if conditions warrant it.

How cold is too cold to cowboy camp?

This highly depends on your gear, a sleeping pad with an R-value of 4+ can go into those near winter conditions, so you must ensure your bag is “comfort” rated to a minimum of the expected outside air temperatures.

In addition, the sleeping pad needs to be ASTM-rated to at least enough insulation to buffer you from the ground.

Final Thoughts on Cowboy Camping on Your Thru-Hike

It is an excellent way to enjoy nature, but a night of cowboy camping does come with some risks. You need to be aware of what those risks are before you choose to build your connection with nature.

There are a few things that will help protect yourself from the elements like having the right gear along with knowing the upcoming weather and what animals might pose threats in the area.

Overall, cowboy camping is an excellent way to enjoy the great outdoors and we hope this article has helped you better understand what it is and how to do it safely. Thanks for reading!

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