Often times men and women like to go back to the basics when camping and attempt to live as their ancestors did. This could involve various things, including but not limited to the removal of all technology that would pre-date 1900. In essence, you’re “cowboy camping.”
What Is Cowboy Camping?
[callout]Cowboy camping is the idea of camping in the most minimalist ways known. It basically involves sleeping out in the open under the stars without a tent, rain or shine. It can be a game of chance, especially with the threat of inclement weather, creepy crawlies on the ground, wild animals, or other unforeseen situations.[/callout]
So why cowboy camp? Minimalist backpackers love to do this because there is less to carry, and it allows them to, quite literally, live like an old school Cowboy.
However, they should probably know that a lot of what they see in the movies regarding Cowboys is complete crap and vastly overhyped. Movies that John Wayne starred in, for example, involve people within a time period that attempted to show old school glory days.
In reality, they were showing a lot of Hollywood magic and that was it. In fact, most of the towns that randomly popped up were mostly thanks to women and random prostitution. But hey, that is another story for another time. What’s important here is that they lived quite minimally at that time.
The reason they did this was that, quite frankly, they did not have the choice you and I have. We can choose to be minimalist or use as much modern-day gear as possible when we camp. There is no shame in using this modern gear either, especially for those that just want to enjoy themselves.
However, if you truly want to be as minimalist as the American Frontier Cowboys, we’ll tell you how to do exactly that. Everything we recommend would have been used in this time period. While we cannot pretend to believe exact brands and types of things existed then, the supplies themselves would have been used then. Let’s get to it!
Cowboy Camping Gear
When it comes to the type of gear Cowboys took with them while camping out, it’s kind of rare to say they were minimalist. These guys were high-maintenance for their time. Remember, Cowboys get their name from the fact that they herded cattle. Very few of these guys were having shootouts with the local Native American Tribes.
We’d recommend using a watch to help with time, as this can help you keep an eye on when the sun rises and sets and when you need to be making camp. A compass is also obvious here, as it is for anyone who is cowboy camping or just hitting the trails for a bit. Getting lost can be terrible, but a compass can help you avoid this.
Making use of anything available for shelter is game when bad weather strikes and sleeping out in the open is not feasible. Most of the time, caves were great shelters for these Cowboys if they knew bears weren’t using them. Rocky areas were also great because they could make a lean-to where they created an easier to maintain & construct a shelter. However, they also used regular tents too. Not a bad idea as a backup plan when cowboy camping.
Let’s examine the types of tents they would have used, but in modern form:
There are not a lot of modern tents that they would have had. However, there are some that they could have likely constructed and they still count as minimalist. Therefore, it would work quite well for you.
One of these tents is called the Kelty Cabana Tent. While it may seem in the name to be luxurious, it’s certainly not. There are mesh windows but for the most part, it’s an open construction. This is a type of shelter that could be made, minus the windows, right near one of the famous rockfaces that Cowboys had in abundance around them. You can actually buy the Kelty tent from Amazon. It really is a tremendous product.
If you’re worried about insects (and you should be), another tent that could fit this minimalist cowboy camping set-up is a type of tent that requires you to be suspended up in the air via the help of trees. It is called the Tentsile Stingray 3-person tent. This tent is big enough for three people but it requires you to use trees all around you to tie it up and thereby keeping it suspended.
On the lands that Cowboys often camped out, several creepy crawlies could be out at night. That includes things like spiders and even scorpions at times, not to forget things like ants or other random insects. Therefore, you want to be off the ground if possible. This stingray tent is an easy set-up and would have been possible then.
They would have used strong rope that could be netted to keep people in place. Making a top to this could have been as simple as using the tree leaves and branches. Sadly, it only would have worked in a wooden section and only certain areas had this.
Contrary to popular belief, Cowboys had several easy ways to make fire. A lot of them used matches, as matches were invented by the Chinese centuries ago. It’s often debated whether it happened in the 900s or 1300s, so let’s just say it’s a safe bet Cowboys would have had them. Cowboys might also use flint, which is often referred to as a “fire striker.” You simply needed to hit it with a sharp object to get a spark.
Therefore, it’s perfectly acceptable for a minimalist to use both. We still use these things today when camping, even when we’re not doing it in a minimalist way. Why? Because it works, people. You don’t need much more than this.
However, if you want to do things in the B.C. or B.C.E. way, then we recommend you find some sticks and get started with a bow-drill. Good luck with that!
Again, a lot of Cowboy clothing was made from animals often by the families themselves. Sometimes, however, you might be close to a town and thus, you could go in and see if they had something in your size. If not, they merely ordered some that might come in sometime in the next few months.
The type of clothing one might wear when camping in a minimalist way often depended on the amount of time you’d be camping as well as the time of year. Usually, no matter what, every cowboy took a jacket with them. Sometimes forgotten is that, while it could get mighty hot during the day, some places could get very cold at night. In fact, in some places, temperatures dropped as much as 30 to 40 degrees between day and night periods.
No cowboy camping experience, clothing-wise, is complete without a proper jacket as well as a long sleeve shirt. The shirts they wore were often a bit light, as they were worn for work reasons. Something unknown by people today at times is that it is best to wear long-sleeve shirts in even hot temperatures. When you wear shorter sleeves, sweat from your arms goes into the air and you dehydrate quicker.
The long-sleeves end up catching this moisture and allowing you to stay cooler from the shirt catching it. Sometimes the shirt then just puts it right back onto your skin, proving some slight hydration.
Today, these types of shirts are vast but likely the closest to what Cowboys wore are the Henley Shirts. They are made out of cotton and very durable. It’s likely something they would have made themselves or had made for them.
There are a ton of brands that will have proper backpacks you can use. Depending on where you will be going, you’ll know the type of bag you might need. Of course, cowboy camping only here, you may want to avoid using backpacks at all and might prefer a satchel instead. These old school bags are still used today. The Herschel Supply Co. is known for some great ones too.
Yet if you’re wanting to just keep to the minimalist ideology and not remain totally true to the cowboy camping ideology, there are better bags. Ospreay may be the leader in this department. In hotter places, you may enjoy using a hydration backpack. However, just for normal camping needs, there are many from the brand that’ll work just fine.
The Hunt & Protection
These guys often supplied themselves with enough food to get them through their camping period. This allowed them to not have to hunt while camping. Though sometimes they ran out and had to do their best to find something.
A lot of the time, if they killed an animal they also tried to use the rest of the animal where they could. Meaning they’d skin the animal and use its fur. Several animals could be thanked for keeping humans warm, especially deer and bison (buffalo). Even small animals like raccoons and rabbits were used for things beyond their meat.
In order to hunt as well as protect yourself, you needed proper gear. Often, guns were carried but they were not always reliable. What was reliable? A Cowboy’s trusty knife. Let’s examine some modern-day knives minimalists could carry while cowboy camping that would be authentic to something from that period.
Most knives from the period use most of the same contents we use today. That means things like steel were certainly going to be involved, yet we have made or invented different types of steel since the 1800s and early 1900s. We also invented many different types of knife designs since that period that none of them would be using.
Honestly, the classic hunting knife was their usual go-to. Most men carried around a hunting knife in these areas and others carried around a good pocket knife. Some people carried around both, with several other knives being hidden depending on the circumstances.
Handles in this period usually involved bone and wood. However, sometimes you may see other materials used for handles. This was often something seen overseas in Europe or Asia than in America. Bone and Wood handles were easier to maintain and they are capable of holding onto in wet conditions too. Especially with some of the coatings eventually put on them.
They may also use some animal skin to make knife handles. This really just depends on the area and maker you dealt with.
The “boot knife” was popular in this period as well as your classic knife carried at the hip.
This involved a lot of fixed-blade knives, both small and long-blade too. Boot knives are generally small, so you likely would have seen something like the Blackfox Zebra Wood Knife.
Cowboy Camping In The Desert
Camping in the desert can be a trippy experience. Temperatures here can drop and rise incredibly quickly. However, the biggest thing to remember in this situation is that the temperatures may not always drop very far but your body won’t adjust well. Imagine you’re in 105-degree temps all day long. You are in this sunny, hot temp most of the day and now nighttime has come.
The temp may only drop to perhaps 85 degrees. It is STILL hot outside at the 85-degree temperature. However, this is a drop of 20 degrees. People have actually gotten hypothermia in the desert in situations like this. Your body has to adjust, which can be hard to do when our normal 98.6-degree temp jumps to over 100 in adjustment.
To then fall down can be horrible to our system, which is why layers are important to have. In fact, tropical places where it remains quite warm have also seen deaths due to hypothermia. India has seen this happen quite often. Therefore, do not overlook the possibility of this happening. People assume heat stroke is all you’ll deal with in the desert…that is far from true.
While some believe wearing layers in the desert may seem counterproductive to staying cool, it’s quite important to wear them. As mentioned, the layers are often worn in the desert as a way of staying cool, not warm. Essentially, layers do help to trap moisture so it does not escape your body as quickly. This is essential to remember in a place like the desert.
Therefore, when you go camping here, things may go south. Anyone who is trying to go cowboy camping better do exactly as they did and consider wearing layers. If you get lost or have to deal with a lot of issues with temperatures, you’ll be glad you did.
Of course, layers are also important for another reason. They protect you from the harmful sun rays. While it is true that our bodies do need some UV-Rays from the sun, essentially sun radiation, we do not need too much of it. This can literally destroy our skin. The sun often was responsible for a cowboy having incredibly chapped and burnt skin.
They were able to get wise after a while and found ways to cover parts of their body exposed to the sun. However, this all began with layers that could breathe, like those made of cotton. Wool was a popular material for the time as it was easier to find and make things with. Yet cotton was quite similar, as clothing made from this popped up thousands of years ago.
Thus, you can remain relatively cool with breathable material while wearing layers that keep moisture in AND protect you from the sun.
Cowboy Camping On The Appalachian Trail
When you consider cowboy camping on the Appalachian Trail, you must remember that the things you need here may wildly differ from the desert. Yet there are some things that will remain the same too. You will still need proper fire starting material as well as protective things like a trusty knife.
The differing comes with your clothing truthfully. This will affect the jacket you wear, the pants you may use, and even the backpack you will likely need. Heck, you may even need climbing gear to navigate this area too. Thus, this is far bigger than just going to the woods and cowboy camping like it’s nothing. Let’s dive into some of the stuff you’ll need out here.
Here, unlike with the desert, the shoes or boots you wear may very well make life easier or harder on you. In places like this, walking will be harder for some as there are far more hills and valleys you’ll be navigating through. Some of these areas can be very cold and even very wet.
This means you need to be prepared with a few different clothing items beyond shoewear too. However, if you want to pick something good to use out here shoe or boot-wise, KEEN is known for having protective yet innovative and comfortable shoes. Take for example the KEEN Targhee line. Several of these shoes are waterproof and some are even insulated.
There are a lot of jackets that could make sense for this area. Depending on the part and time of year you go, it’s best to use certain jacket types that make sense for both. For Spring periods here as well as some points in the Fall, you can look toward a company like Arc’teryx. They have some terrific shell jackets, as well as insulated versions, that can be perfect.
The Shell Jackets you’ll likely do best with are those from the GAMMA, INCENDO, SABRE, & ALPHA lines. Meanwhile, the insulated jackets they have are great too. This involves those from their ATOM, PROTON, THORIUM, & CERIUM lines.
If you are looking for something thicker, you can try types from Patagonia, The North Face, and many more. Of course, if you want to stay true to cowboy camping, you may try those used with fur as well as jean jackets. The jean version won’t be as warm but could be worn throughout a given year.
For pants, you want to find jeans but there are several insulated types you can use too.
The desert will often be the place you see snakes pop up the most but do not count out those you may see in wooden environments too. Cowboys managed to avoid snakes pretty well but they were also hunted by people. This gave rise to things like snakeskin boots. They are pretty useful boots to wear in various areas.
However, the way cowboys handled them was that they wore boots with their pant legs inside them. The boots these men wore often were made of nice, thick leather. In spite of this, they were not really the best boots as some snakes could bite into them even still. To be properly prepared, you need to know where you’re going to be.
If you’re in the desert, most of the snakes will be hard to spot until they creep up on you. They will come out of the sand and attack. However, most snakes do not just attack humans randomly. You have to be making them pretty angry or step on them. So boots that you can walk well in and still keep you safe are of prime importance.
If you’re cowboy camping on the Appalachian Trail, the needs will be different but similar. Here, you may randomly step or sit on one too. Yet some hang out in trees at times and may even be aggressive and attack you just for being present.
In places like this, it is best to wear comfortable yet protective boots.
There are tons of snake boots that protect you from the slithering savages. While some think of snake boots as the snakeskin type, do not be confused by this. Those are not exactly great at protecting you.
What you are looking for are boots that are “puncture resistant.” These are typically made for people who work in factories or construction, yet they will also work for you too. Snake fangs will have to “puncture” your shoe or boot to get you, right? So, these types of shoes can work for you and many of them are comfortable. KEEN has quite a few.
The KEEN CSA Philadelphia line is puncture resistant. They are also comfortable for hiking.
Meanwhile, one boot specifically made for protection from snakes is called the LaCrosse Men’s 4X Alpha Snake Boot. Irish Setter is another great boot/shoe company with specific products to guard against snakes. They have 4 different boots within their VAPRTREK™ line that are perfect.
Cowboy camping can be quite an adventure if you’re used to camping with many amenities. Sleeping under the stars can make you feel vulnerable to nature more than ever before. There’s just something about being inside that thin polyester hut we call a tent that makes us feel safer in a lot of ways. But if the weather is good and the bugs aren’t that bad, it can be quite fun.
I also like a full moon where there’s plenty of light. I don’t like pitch-black darkness. But that’s totally a personal preference. Just be sure to check the weather beforehand as this can be your biggest obstacle should it become foul. And, of course, always have a backup plan.