Why Cowboy Camping is the Ultimate Way to Celebrate Summer

Tear down the walls: Sleeping without a tent gives a true backcountry experience.

Photo: Westend61 via Getty

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

This story is for Outside+ members only. Not a member yet? Get a preview of the story here. 

“WHAT ABOUT BEARS?” asked one of the girls.

“And spiders?” added one of the boys.

I had suggested they and the other eight teenagers in our group lay their sleeping bags on the ground and sleep under the stars. It was a warm summer night in Northern California’s Trinity Alps. No rain threatened and no mosquitoes buzzed. The other guide and I threw our bags on the ground and I said, “See, there’s nothing simpler.”

But there was no dissuading them from seeking shelter on the first night—all 10 kids zipped themselves into tents.

It was the beginning of a weeklong backpacking trip with teens who had never been in the backcountry. Over the coming days, the other guide and I would teach the kids how to use a map and compass, plan a route, hike off-trail, select a campsite, care for their feet, hang a bear bag, cook their meals, filter water, pitch a tent securely, and—hopefully—enjoy not pitching a tent at all.

Why am I such an advocate for cowboy camping? It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of a good tent. I’ve weathered plenty of rain, cold, and bugs from within a nylon refuge—and I know I would have been miserable without one. But that thin sheet of fabric does more than protect from the elements. It also creates a barrier between you and the wilderness. Without it, every chirp and rustle sounds a little closer. You feel the softest breeze on your cheeks. The dome of stars overhead shines as bright as a planetarium.

On most trips I guided, the kids were reluctant to sleep outside for the first few days. This one was no different. But as often happened, something changed between the first day and the last. As they got dirtier, they also got more comfortable. And on the final night, when I suggested they skip the tents, all 10 of them rolled their pads out in a meadow, in a circle with their heads together, so they could stay up late whispering—and watching for shooting stars. No one mentioned spiders.

Tips for No-Tent Camping

Sleeping in the open may be the oldest form of camping, but there’s still some technique to it. Keep these simple tips in mind to have a better time on your sleep-out. —Adam Roy

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.

Store food safely. We all know not to sleep with food in our tents in bear country. But even if the biggest animals you have to worry about are chipmunks, your chow isn’t necessarily safe: Rodents can chew through a backpack’s fabric in no time flat. In areas with feisty varmints, consider carrying your food in a gnaw-resistant container like the Ursack Minor.

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.