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Cowboy Camping

How to Sleep Without a Tent and See the Stars

The phrase “cowboy camping” evokes a simpler, nostalgic mode of sleeping under the stars. A few blankets, a can of beans, perhaps a flask of something strong, good stories, and the starry sky above on a crisp, clear night. While you can still camp as modestly as a couple of Texas Rangers in 1870, a little extra planning can go a long way toward ensuring safety and good times on a tent-less excursion.

Here’s how to go camping without a tent to see the stars and bond with nature.

Cowboy Camping 101

When planning to sleep under the stars, details about your location and expected weather can make the difference between “never again” and “great success.” If you’re camping in the east, for example, you’ll need to prepare for different challenges than those out west. Before camping cowboy-style, consider the following:

  • Are there any weather or safety alerts for the area you’ll be staying?
  • What’s your water source?
  • Do you need a permit to camp?
  • What local wildlife should you be aware of?
  • Are there any other rules or regulations you should know about? For example, some parks and regions require food to be in a bear-resistant container.

Sleep Setup

When camping without a tent, a waterproof ground cloth is critical. Lay your ground cloth—a tarp will do the trick—on the ground to protect yourself from dampness. If it starts to rain in the middle of the night, you can also wrap yourself up in your tarp for protection.

From there, keep your sleeping arrangement as simple or as sophisticated as you want. Purists might argue that if you bring extra gear, you’re not really cowboy camping. But just because you’re camping without a tent, it doesn’t mean you have to be uncomfortable. Some campers, for example, might opt for a sleeping pad under their sleeping bag, while others might prefer to stick it out with just their ground cloth.

There are also a couple of sleeping arrangement options that may not count as true cowboy camping in the eyes of some, but will still give you a full view of the stars if that’s your goal. One option is an all-mesh bivy, which provides a barrier from bugs, while still allowing you to observe the night sky. A more traditional bivy offers more insulation, ground protection, and waterproofing, without the full weight of a tent. Your clothing can also offer additional bug protection and insulation.

Another possibility? Sleep in a lightweight hammock that packs down small and can be tailored to local conditions with a rain fly or mosquito netting.

Camping Location

Knowing where you’re headed can help inform your sleep setup. The better you know the land, the easier it is to pick a campsite with natural protection from the elements, and come with the right cowboy camping setup. If you’re using new equipment or new to cowboy camping, consider doing a test-run in a known environment.

For example, if you’re backpacking in the mountains, find a grove of trees that  can offer a bit of shelter and allow you to create a tarp lean-to for your gear. In places prone to flash flooding, plan to set up camp slightly up a hill or mountain. And avoiding fields and bodies of still water—as attractive as that lake may be—can reduce the likelihood of bugs and unwanted nighttime visitors.

Cowboy Camping Tips

  1. Check the Weather. Of course, Mother Nature can be fickle, but if it looks like a storm is coming, it’s probably better to put off your tent-free excursion. Because the weather can change quickly, it’s important to plan for different conditions. What will you do if it starts to downpour? What about snow?
  2. Weather Protection—Cowboy Style. If you’re in a situation involving rain, snow, or strong winds, create a tarp lean-to or an A-frame tarp “tent” (using a rope and tent stakes). As a friend put it, using a two-tarp system—one above and one below—is the ultimate luxury.
  3. Don’t Be Cavalier About Wildlife. You can be minimalist with your sleep setup, but don’t skimp on protection from the bears, lions, and other critters. Secure your food in wildlife-proof containers and consider hanging your pack off the ground.
  4. Leave No Trace. Follow the Leave No Trace principles to minimize your excursion’s impact on the environment.

Cowboy Camping Gear

Even if you are true cowboy camping, you will need some equipment. Those requirements will vary based on your experience, location, and the time of year when you’re camping. Here are the basics you need for a night under the stars:

Of course, you’ll also want to have a plan for food, water, and a campfire (if allowed) as well.

Start Stargazing

Part of the beauty of sleeping in the open air is the light show in the sky. To fully appreciate the views above, consider bringing along a star chart or studying up on what constellations might be visible ahead of time. If you don’t mind a little technology at your campsite, you could also use a stargazing app to help you identify the heavens above (we like Night Sky). And then? Take in the views and open air.


Katie Abbondanza is a writer based in Washington, DC. She gets out of the city on weekends to walk along the local trails and paddleboard. She’s the former editor of Girls’ Life magazine, and her work has been featured in SELF, Eater and Women’s Running.