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I want to go camping without a tent, but I don’t know where to start. What are the best places for a first-time cowboy camper to try it out? — No Tent Needed
Dear No Tent,
There are plenty of reasons to go cowboy camping (camping without shelter, like the cowboys did during long cattle drives). Maybe you’re tired of futzing around with a tent at night. Maybe you want to feel more connected to the environment around you. Maybe you want to stargaze until the moment you fall asleep. Forgoing the tent is a backpacking rite of passage.
You’ll need a couple things to do it right. First off, make sure your sleep system is solid: a waterproof groundsheet, a sleeping pad, and a sleeping bag that can handily manage your expected low temperatures. It’s smart to bring some kind of emergency shelter with you, at least a tarp or bivy, in case it storms. Not bringing any form of shelter is a surefire way to turn an ultralight camping experience into “stupid light.”
How Do You Deal With Bugs While Cowboy Camping?
You’ll find the best tent-free conditions in states with arid desert trails, such as Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah. You could also go tentless in dry, high-altitude pine forests. Unless you want to wake up covered in damp dew or bugs, avoid humid areas or still bodies of water. Your goal is dry, low-moisture air. Bonus: Because you don’t need to worry about tent stakes, you can sleep directly on rock.
Some of the most experienced cowboy campers still get wary of going tentless—phantom itches can quickly turn to mental images of thousands of creepy crawlies all over you. But picking the right campsite can help quiet worries in your mind when vulnerable without the armor of a tent. For more on this and why cowboy camping is the superior form of adventuring, read our tips from executive editor Adam Roy and former Backpacker editor and guide Dennis Lewon.
Side note: One thing most cowboys had in common is that they were in dry environments. If you’re somewhere muggier, you’ll have to adjust your expectations a bit. If you’re in the southeast or anywhere near a large body of water, you might need to bring a bivy treated with DWR to avoid waking up to a damp, clammy sleeping bag.
Cowboy Camp Campground, Utah
It’s right there in the name: This Bureau of Land Management campground near Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park is one of the best places to test out a tentless night. Ease your way into it with the comfort of some amenities: There is a toilet, but no running water or hook-ups, and cell service is pretty reliable. You’ll also be around people, but with only seven campsites available, you won’t feel overcrowded. Best of all, you can watch the sunrise and sunset along a ridge on the mesas above Moab with perfect views of canyon country below.
If this first-come, first-served campground is full, check out Elephant Canyon in nearby Canyonlands. A 2.5-mile hike from the Needles District’s Elephant Hill Trailhead takes you to this backcountry campsite. The overlook along this trail up Elephant Canyon gives you one of the best views of Druid Arch you can find.
Superstition Mountains, Arizona
Just an hour drive outside of bustling Phoenix is a remote labyrinth once described by Teddy Roosevelt as the “Alps of the Sonoran.” Test out your cowboy camping adventure on this easy overnighter within the Superstition Wilderness Area. About 25 million years ago, volcanoes here erupted and collapsed into their magma chambers, becoming the depression-like calderas you see today.
The Superstitions offer a well-developed trail system, but be prepared for rugged terrain and limited water supply. There are no official campsites, so you’ll be able to roam and find a comfortable spot just for you. Maybe you’ll just strike gold.
Cabezon Peak, New Mexico
Lots of Continental Divide Trail thru-hikers find themselves keeping their tent in their pack for most of the Land of Enchantment. The terrain is prime for going tentless, and setting up camp night after night seems futile when sleeping under the stars is just as good—maybe even better. At an elevation of 7,786 feet, Cabezon Peak, also known as Big Head, has 1,300 feet of prominence and offers gorgeous views of the desert valley below. The cragginess of this peak, actually a volcanic plug from an eruption 1.5 to 4 million years ago, stands out against the juniper trees and cholla cacti in the rest of the area.
This peak is a geological wonder, but that also means it has lots of loose scree and dirt. The views at the top are certainly worth it, but if you’d prefer a more family-friendly place to hike before cowboy camping, check out the nearby Cibola National Forest.