Beginner Skills

Start Cowboy Camping With These 4 Tips

There's sleeping outside, and then there's sleeping outside. Learn to camp without a tent or tarp using these easy tips.

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There’s sleeping outside, and then there’s sleeping outside. Cowboy camping—sleeping out without a tent, tarp, bivy, or any other protection beyond your bag—lets you really commune with the wilderness, leave gear at home, and see some of the best stars of your life. In our members-only section, former Backpacker editor and guide Dennis Lewon shares a story about learning to sleep out. Not an Outside+ member yet? Get a few of our best tips below, and sign up today.

Tips for Cowboy Campers

Avoid low-lying spots, where moisture and chilly air collects. If it’s raining, you’ll obviously want to sleep in a shelter. But even when the skies are clear, morning dew can make your bed downright soggy if you’re not careful about site selection. Cold air also pools in low spots, which can be uncomfortable if the weather is anything but broiling.

Seek breezy ridges if bugs are buzzing. Forget about spiders, scorpions, or snakes: Mosquitoes, no-see-ums, and other flying insects are the real bane of cowboy campers. Getting swarmed? Relocate to a windy ridge to keep them at bay. Not an option? Don your head net, or just spray yourself with bug repellent (be careful, DEET can eat away at fabric), cinch up your hood, and hope for the best.

Clear away sharp objects to protect your pad. Cactus spines, sharp sticks, rocks: All of these can spell doom for your inflatable pad. If you don’t like waking up on hard ground, make sure to sweep and carefully check your sleeping area. Alternatively, ditch your inflatable for a closed-cell foam pad, which won’t pop when it encounters prickers. We’re big fans of the eco-friendly Big Agnes Twistercane Bio Foam Pad.

Get to know the skies. The biggest pro of going tent-free? You can stargaze all night long. To prepare, grab an app like Google’s Sky Map, and plan your trip to coincide with a new moon, when the lack of reflected light off of Earth’s satellite makes it easier to spot faint stars.