Cowboy camping under the stars…
In the desert section, we should have the opportunity in the evenings to cowboy camp and keep the tent in the backpack. Basically, it’s sleeping on the ground without shelter. Some people use a little tarp over them to shield from rain. Usually, it’s without a tarp, bug net. Usually, the disadvantages are you feel vulnerable to animals or if you are in bear country… it’s hard to sleep when keep hearing noises in the distance. The more you do it and get used to it… you have many pleasurable memories of the feeling of camping under the stars. You always have to plan ahead and make sure the weather is on your side. You just can’t help animals coming around to check on you since we probably smell enticing. The positives are that it’s easy and fast to set up camp and take camp down when it’s time to roll in the morning.
It helps make you brave and you understand more what you can survive in. It will also help us get a head start in the morning since it’s harder to sleep in when the warmth of the sun comes up and shines on you. Also with the experience of cowboy camping is that if you end up in a pinch and can only find a small area to lie down… you know you can do it if you need to find a place to sleep quick… instead of pushing forward to get to that place up ahead way to far to get that perfect sunrise in the morning.
When deciding when and where to cowboy camp, it’s about 75% choosing your battles, and 25% “F*** it.” What I mean by this is that 75% of the time you’re going to be examining every positive and negative factor of possibly cowboy camping in your potential spot, or not; bug presence, current conditions, future conditions, wild animal presence, etc. The other 25% of the time, there may be no way to immediately know some, or even all of those factors (or don’t care); so you just say, “F*** it,” and cowboy camp anyway. What would be a situation where you don’t know if there are a lot of bugs? Well, it’s not always flying, biting insects that harass you when you cowboy camp. There could be an unseen ant pile nearby; there could be a lot of Wolf Spiders and Daddy Long Legs roaming around, or there could be a higher percentage of millipedes, and other creepy crawlies just walking around doing their thing. You won’t always know, so it’s always a chance you take. Personally, I’ve woken up with these sorts of insects on my face, or in my bag more times than I can count; I’ve made peace with it, and it really doesn’t bother me anymore. If you’re not feeling so “peaceful” about those potential incidents; there are extra measures you can take to prevent them.
So when you’re deciding whether to cowboy camp or not, the first thing you will examine is the weather. You have to make an accurate/educated guess based on current conditions, and/or forecast-ed conditions (assuming you have enough service to look up the most updated forecast, or save an extended forecast of where you plan to be). If the weather is going to be bad, then no other factors really matter. Good Weather = your first green flag to cowboy camp. If you’re really not sure what the weather might be throughout the night, you can play it safe, make an educated guess, or say “F*** it,” and do what you want.
The second green or red flag (for most people), will be insects. Are there a bunch of them in the area or not? If there are a ton of flying biting insects around, most people will opt not to cowboy camp. Here is a tip: camping away from standing water or muddy areas will go a long way towards decreasing the amount of winged, biting insects in the air. Sometimes it won’t matter where you go, but staying away from standing water is a sure bet (ponds, lakes, big puddles, very slow rivers, and muddy areas). But what if you decide to cowboy camp near one of these places, or there are bugs around regardless? You’re first line of defense is going to be to bundle up (this is obviously more pleasant if temperatures are cool). Cinch up your sleeping bag, put on some long sleeves, put on your gloves and socks, put on a beanie or a balaclava, and put on some leggings. Unfortunately, mosquitoes can bite through most soft, thin fabrics like those; so you might opt instead to put on your wind or rain shell jacket, as well as shell pants. I have yet to find any insects that can consistently bite through those types of garments… so it helps. If it’s too warm, then you might think about putting on those shell layers with nothing else underneath them; this way you lessen the insulation, and thus the heat. You may decide to wear a ball cap with a “head bug net” on as well, or just the bug net over your head by itself. Having the bill of a baseball cap to hang it on will go a long way to keeping the netting off your face (which is annoying), as well as not letting the bugs bite you through the netting that is flush against your skin.
So where are the best places to cowboy camp? This mostly comes down to a personal decision depending on your preferences and tolerances; but there are some factors to consider when it comes to making your night a little more pleasant, pending certain conditions. After you’ve considered weather and insects, your next biggest decision is choosing the exact spot you want to cowboy camp in a particular area. My first consideration is trees; I will always cowboy camp under a tree if one is available. If conditions are simply perfect and I know they are going to remain perfect; then I might pass up the tree even if it’s there. Trees can provide a windbreak, as well as a rain break. Rather than get caught in the open during a freak shower, a tree will soften and slow the initial fall of rain long enough for you to make new arrangements. Also, when you cowboy camp under trees (especially low hanging conifers) it will reduce the potential for condensation on your sleeping bag or your gear (your shelter too if you set up beneath one). Trees suck moisture out of the ground and the air; as well as provide an extra canopy of insulation that could be the thin line between reaching the dew point in that exact spot, or not. Even if the dew point is reached, the tree will help to absorb extra moisture in the air. This is a brilliant thing to consider when cowboy camping or camping in general.
If there are no trees available and it’s windy or breezy; I will look for rock cover, or bush/brush cover. Look for anything that can block out extra wind and provide a natural wall to further insulate and reflect heat back to you. Also, sleeping with an object on one side or even multiple sides help to lessen the feeling of vulnerability. I don’t know how many of you have beds that are against walls, but some people can only sleep (or sleep better) when pressed up against a wall. The same effect can be simulated with rocks, trees, bushes, brush, or a natural berm. I’ll sometime build or dig one myself if camping in sand or dirt (on a beach or otherwise). Keep in mind; if you decide to use a natural/unnatural depression in the earth as your cover, you are putting yourself at risk of flooding, should such a freak occurrence occur. If there is no water nearby or bad weather on the horizon; you’ll be fine 99.99% of the time.
When weather or temperatures are absolutely not a factor; you can Cowboy Camp just about anywhere you please without fear of major or minor repercussions. This is all part of choosing your battles. In another breath, there are techniques for choosing spots that are naturally going to be warmer than others. This goes for any kind of camping, so take note. Many people (including me at one time) are under the impression that higher elevations mean “Cold,” and lower elevations mean “Warmth.” While it is true that the ambient temperature naturally drops three to five degrees for every 1,000 feet in elevation you ascend (go up), it is not always warmer to get as low as possible. Hot air rises, and cold air settles; hot air will push cold air down into every little low nook and cranny available. This includes valley, canyons, ravines, and even depressions as small as what a stream or river might produce around its banks. Word to the wise; if you’re trying to avoid cooler temperatures and the subsequent extra condensation that comes with them… DO NOT camp in valleys or any low spots/depression, no matter how small they are. Going up as little as thirty to fifty feet higher than the valley floor can make the difference between ten degrees or more sometimes; this means it could be the difference between condensation or even ice all over you and your gear. This doesn’t mean head for high elevations; it simply means avoid immediate low areas by getting just a little bit higher in any way you can. If you find yourself in a large or small valley; go a short way up the nearest mountain or incline, it’s as simple as that. Any experienced backpacker/long-distance hiker will know this information through experience or second-hand knowledge. It’s invaluable how far this information will go to keeping you warmer, and dryer on any given night; especially the cooler ones.