I bet my bottom dollar anyone who’s done a thru-hike has had a night where they regretted the method of camping they chose, whether this realization hit them in the middle of the night, in the morning, or even right after settling into their sleeping bags.
I cannot answer the question asked here. I can, however, break down the benefits and drawbacks of both methods of camping, and summarize my experience with these methods, so that those with less experience can choose what is right for them. What I can say with certainty is the right method will always depend on the weather, the environment, and the circumstances. It is my hope that with this article, readers can use my experience to circumvent some of the heuristics of finding what method is right for them.
These trials for me have entailed searching in the night for my flown-away pillow, waking to sudden rain with no protection, being blinded by the morning sunrise, falling off my sleeping pad countless times, and setting up my tent to no advantage. This could have all been avoided had I had some insight beforehand, something like this article.
Pros of Cowboy Camping
The obvious of these is the labor cowboy camping saves, and if you keep your tent kit separate from your sleeping bag and pad, you won’t even have to draw the toggle on the kit for a good night’s sleep. Camping with no cover provides a magnificent opportunity to stargaze on a clear night, but if like me you wear glasses, you must accept a blurry sky as one still of beauty, or risk falling asleep with your spectacles on.
If you’ve never done group cowboy camping, this is a must try. Cowboy camping in groups allows for social opportunity that would not be there otherwise. Sure, I’ve had some late-night conversations from the comfort of my tent, but the face-to-face element of cowboy camping creates an authentic social environment that can stir conversation for hours past proposed slumber times.
Immersion in nature is often considered therapeutic and biologically fulfilling, and from a camper’s perspective, can only be fully achieved by cowboy camping. There is some element about the exposure that is noble and profound. It is a privilege of season and weather to be able to cowboy camp. As soon as the first glint of sun breaks through the landscape in the morning, cowboy campers will either be rising or covering their eyes. This can be considered a con, but I’ve met many hikers that love the sunrise-induced awakening.
Cons of Cowboy Camping
If you cowboy camp, you are exposed. This is why it is imperative to know the weather before choosing this route. If there is any possibility of rain, fog, high winds, or high bug densities, it is best to opt for the tent. What may seem like fair weather can change quickly, and not much is worse than a well-needed sleep being interrupted by a downpour.
Less obvious than some other drawbacks is the lack of packaging cowboy camping provides. In other words, there is nothing to stop cowboy campers from falling off their pads, as opposed to sleeping in a tent, where I know for me, there is no room to stray from my Therm-a-Rest NeoAir. The trick is sliding your pad inside your sleeping bag. This is not possible with my equipment. So, if waking up on soil with the sun gleaming in your face is a sure recipe to spoil your day, you’re probably more of a tenter than anything else.
Pros of Tenting
With a properly pitched fly, a tent should allow full protection from precipitation and wind. The privacy is nice, too, and this is likely a more influential factor for hikers than most will admit. Privacy is one of the best parts of traditional life. Only with isolation or a tent can this be achieved while backpacking, and as I said—tent walls can keep hikers aboard their pads.
Cons of Tenting
Who in their right mind would want to hike all day only to get to camp and have to do more work? Not a cowboy camper. But yes, sometimes we must tent, and the process required can feel toiling. No stars will be seen from these tents, unless you’ve accessorized your nylon quarters to have a sunroof, but I believe this may defeat the purpose of the tent.
Tenting is more reclusive than other methods of camping, thus precluding face-to-face interaction. A tent is also a barrier to whole immersion and can deprive our senses of our immediate surroundings.
My Experience with Cowboy Camping
Not cowboy camping on the Appalachian Trail made me feel like I missed out when I returned home and heard stories of others’ experiences with this, and I guess this was part of the problem: I hiked the trail in a nontraditional way, a way that was less influenced by the culture.
I lay in the shelters many nights without the tent, but I have yet to hear anyone refer to this camping style as cowboy camping. I cowboy camped for the first time on the climb up San Jacinto in southern California, and when I laid my pad down without a footprint, I was laughed at. I had no clue what I was doing. I expected to be cold and uncomfortable, but to my surprise, I was warm and snug.
This began a trend of cowboy camping for me, and I estimate I cowboy camped forty percent of the times I camped on the Pacific Crest Trail. Two nights later, on the northern side of Jacinto (in the article’s feature photo), I cowboy camped in the high desert. I woke up to pee in the middle of the night, and when I returned to my pad, my inflatable pillow was missing. The wind must have blown it away. After a few minutes of search, I found the pillow resting on a bush twenty feet or so from the pad.
Another night in southern California, I woke up in the early morning amidst a cowboy camp to find myself enshrouded in a thick, exuding fog. My sleeping bag was sodden.
As difficult as it was to pitch my tent in the susurrating winds of SoCal, I always tried my best to do this to create a barrier against this force of nature. I found myself in open desert plains one night as I neared Kennedy Meadows South. The unrelenting winds and lack of conducive staking ground convinced me not to bother with the pitch. I cowboy camped, and despite the consistent winds and low temperatures, was comfortable. The main obstacle, I found, was keeping the pad grounded until I lay on it.
I camped with a triple-crown thru-hiker in southern Washington. He told tales of armies of tarantulas scurrying around desert terrain at night. Had I known about this when I was down south, I would have reconsidered some of the times I cowboy camped. I have also heard stories of snakes curling up into hikers sleeping bags at night for warmth. Whether or not this is true, I’m not sure, but jeez. I don’t want to think about what I would do if I woke up and—you know (hiss). It may also be notable that I never cowboy camp without a bug net on, not that this will protect me from snakes.
My Experience with Tenting
I have found more of a home in my tent than anywhere else. Sometimes cowboy camping is just the way to go, but for me, it is most often the tent. Some of my most coveted memories have been in my tent amidst torrential downpours.
Something about the weather being adverse, yet knowing I have the tools, and have used them to protect myself from an offense of mother nature as such, is sweeter than pie. And to be comfortable, cozy, instead of just tolerative, gives me an ultimate sense of control. Humans are smart, smarter than the weather is powerful. We can create comfort when there should not be any, and this ability should not be underestimated.
A middle ground between cowboy camping and tenting is tenting without a fly. This may be ideal if you are looking for protection from bugs but still want a view of the outside. I did this one night in Connecticut on the Appalachian Trail, and as soon as I slipped into a dream, I was woken by rain. Not wanting to get soaked in the process of staking the fly, I lazily threw it over the tent and accepted whatever damage may have been done. I should mention that tenting without a fly is difficult without a free-standing tent.
I move frequently in my sleep, so the tent is key for keeping me on my pad. I fill the extra space between the pad and the tent wall with my backpack.
The extra work required to set up a tent? Eh. It’s not that bad. I’ve become so used to it that the process is almost wholly muscle memory; I can complete the task with much distraction and little attention to what I’m doing.
The work is worth the tranquility of sleeping in a tent, so, in light of this, don’t cowboy camp to save work. This is not what it is for. Cowboy camping is for the unbeatable moments, when there is an open-vista site on a clear night, when you and your friends land at the same campsite and want to stay up extra late, or when the air is so fresh it would be robbery to shelter yourself from it. Oops—looks like I’m getting into tips on camping—and well—this is for another week.
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