Cowboy camping is a wonderful thing. For those of you who may not know what this refers to on a thru-hike let us tell you. Almost everyone that you are going to run into on a long-distance trail will be carrying some form of shelter system. Whether that is a tent, a hammock, a Bivy, a tarp, they will have some type of material that keeps the elements off of them. We also say almost everyone because even though it is 99.9% of people that will carry something, we have met a few that do not carry any shelter system, and we weep for their souls. So, cowboy camping is when you get to a campsite for the night, and chose to opt out of setting up your shelter system. Instead you lay down whatever ground mat you have, and sleep exposed to the elements. The only barrier between you and the Earth, is your sleeping bag and sleeping mat. It is truly a wonderful experience. Nothing obstructs your view of the stars at night, nothing obstructs the feel of the ground beneath your hands, and nothing obstructs the crisp breaths of the morning. You feel so connected the the Earth without a barrier. Many hikers when the elements are right, and the terrain is hospitable, will choose this any day over setting up a shelter. Another huge benefit is that you do not have to take the time to set up and break down camp each night and morning. You throw your sleeping bag on the ground and poof! Camp is set! So, maybe it is also from hiker laziness? (hikers are experts at being lazy where miles on trail are not involved) Yet, however you choose to experience it, you hear some beautiful stories....and a few horror stories.
There is no room for philosophy when its 2 A.M., it is just above freezing outside, you were sleeping off a 30 mile day, and it begins pouring buckets of water on you. Very pretty quote but, honestly, if you are cowboy camping and get rained on in the middle of the night, its going to be a bummer!
We have Cowboy Camped in almost every state that we have walked through. We really do prefer it when the conditions are right, and even sometimes when the conditions are not right! We have cowboy camped in California, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Arizona, Wisconsin, Alabama, Georgia, Canada (not a state but still on the list). If we have hiked through it we almost certainly have cowboy camped in it. We are excluding many of the AT states (even though we have slept in the shelters) , because shelter systems for out east hiking are a NECESSITY! Bugs, brush, rain, be prepared!
We have many stories of when cowboy camping went wrong and many many more of when we could not have been happier. Some of the less than happy scenarios contain situations such as being poured on in the middle of the night and having to use a rain fly as shrink wrap to keep "somewhat" dry. We have been licked in the face by animals at night, as they tasted us in our crunchy burrito. We have been hailed on, snowed on, rained on, stepped on (usually by our own trail family in camp), rolled down a hill and woken up in a gully, slapped mosquitoes off our face, had mice play ping pong with our chests and faces, it truly is beautiful! We would not trade those experiences for anything in the world because before falling to sleep we got to see the immense beauty and feel everything around us. Even if that meant feeling everything around us!
So, we are not going to go too deep into every story, instead we want to tell you one of our most funny ones where cowboy camping went "wrong". It was our own fault, as it usually is, and our own stubbornness that led to this situation. This story comes to you from the Continental Divide Trail. We began this trail system in 2018, and had many miles underneath our belt at this point. We had experienced desert hiking, we had experienced high mountain passes, we had experienced it all, or so we thought!
The CDT (Continental Divide Trail) truly a beautiful trail!
Coming out the gates, we began cowboy camping every night in New Mexico. Why wouldn't you? The desert is usually by far one of the best places to cowboy camp. Dry, soft beds of sand, and you do not have to worry about to many critters joining you at night. So, as the days wore on we thought to ourselves, "How cool would it be if we could say we cowboy camped the entire CDT?" This question would circulate around our head as only a thought with many miles and more time can do. Finally, the question cemented itself into, we were going to do it! We cowboy camped the entire state of New Mexico (besides 1 day on Mangus Mountain due to a ferocious hail storm). So, even though our perfect record was blemished, we believed it would still be cool to say we only set up a shelter less than 5 times on the entire CDT! Our goal had realistically changed, as the trail changed.
This brings us to Colorado. This brings us to Colorado in May, This brings us to the San Juan's in May. This means high snow levels, extreme cold, and tough travel. The snow did not yet have time to melt off, instead it was stuck in the in-between phase, where you had to get up at 4 a.m. to walk across the frozen tundra, because by mid day the snow on top would be rotten and you would continue to post hole all day. It was as if we had crossed an invisible line that separated the two states of New Mexico and Colorado. Gone were our warm days and chill nights in New Mexico, and instead a consistent wall of cold met us with every step in Colorado. We should have known right then and there, it would be impossible to cowboy camp every night in Colorado, but our stubbornness prevailed and we vowed to try.
Would be our skull on the sign, if we did not prevail past our own foolish stubbornness!
The first two nights were extremely uncomfortable. We tossed, we turned, we shivered, and we swore at our own stubbornness. We hoped as we continued hiking into summer, the weather would get warmer. Yet, all we were met with was higher elevations and more snow. So, finally the third night rolled around, and we decided to give it another try. We got into camp as the sun was setting and knew it was going to be a biting night. Already our hands were frozen, and already a frost was upon the ground, after we had climbed down out of the snow to find a suitable campsite. Our friends quickly set up shelters, and we laughed at their extra labor as we sat snuggly in our warm sleeping bag. Yet, as the night crept deeper and deeper in, our laughter would soon turn to sadness, and they would have a chance to laugh in the morning.
We will skip over that night, Yes, we tossed, we turned, we were uncomfortable, but we had committed ourselves so unless it turned dangerous we were going to see this night through. We did finally get to sleep in the earlier hours of the morning. Next thing we knew we heard our friends rustling as they began to pack their tents. We continued the half awake and half asleep snooze, knowing it would take us only a minute to pack up, and it would take them longer since they had shelter systems. Then as our friends stepped out into the crisp morning, we started to hear laughter. The tides had turned! We wondered what they were laughing over, until one of them walked over to us and asked if we were alive. Groggy and puzzled we mumbled of course. Through hiccups of laughter they said well if you see what we see, you would question this as well. As our eyes, opened we began to take in the scene around us. Every piece of our gear and every piece of ourselves was frozen! We were a frozen burrito upon the landscape. When we say frozen we do not mean, "oh that's cold". We mean actually FROZEN like bricks of ice. Our sleeping bag was frozen, our electronics bag was frozen, our shoes were frozen, our pack was frozen, literally everything we owned was frozen. We chuckled along with our friends, but internally we were wondering how we were going to hike that day.
FROZEN BURRITO! EVERYTHING FROZE!
As the sun continued to bask us in morning "warmth", we used our body heat to de-thaw everything we could. Pain was sent through our body as the harsh cold bit into our warm flesh. Once everything was "manageable" we limped out of camp like a wounded animal. Our body hurt, our gear hurt our body with rigid lines, our mind hurt from lack of sleep. everything hurt to a degree. It was no longer worth it. We were still at the base of our ascent into the San Juan's. It would only get more rugged and more winterized as we hiked into summer in these epic mountains. It was then and there that we broke our own stubbornness. We would only cowboy camp when it was practical and convenient, and when we would get enjoyment out of it. It frustrated us to break our unofficial pact that we had made to ourselves, but necessary. Again it was our own stubbornness that convinced us to do this in the first place, so it was our own stubbornness that we had to fight to get out of it. Thank everything that is holy we did.
The CDT turned into it's namesake catchphrase of "Embrace the Brutality", especially in Colorado. The San Juan's were epic but also brutal. We got caught in a blizzard, we got poured on in cold rain, we got caught in lightning storms, we experienced everything Colorado had in that small section. It would have been extremely reckless and downright dangerous to cowboy camp in those conditions, and we were not that foolish. So, as the trail continued, we still loved cowboy camping but chose it's prime locations.
We cowboy camped on many clear mountain tops in Colorado, we cowboy camped in the Great Basin of Wyoming, we cowboy camped on the rolling hills of Idaho, and of course we cowboy camped in Glacier in Montana. So, we still loved this aspect of thru-hiking, and utilized it as frequently as we could, but not as a necessity, only as a perk.
Thinking "Oh this snow field would be a great place for cowboy camping!"
So, is cowboy camping really all that great? Yes! We painted a picture of the mishaps that can happen during cowboy camping, but these occurrences are rare when done properly, maybe 1 in 100 nights. We highly highly recommend it, if you are comfortable with it. We haven't told you of every night in New Mexico that the desert sunsets met our unobstructed view and bathed our eyes and bodies in light. We haven't told you of the fresh air on top of a mountain in Colorado, on a clear night, as the stars were too numerous to count. We haven't told you of the many nights in Wyoming as the coyote howled us to sleep, and the wind swept across our bodies in a loving embrace. We haven't told you of the many nights on any trail that we would wake in the middle of the night, with our hands upon the Earth, and feel no disconnect between ourselves and the trail. No barrier, but instead us and the Earth together in this moment. Cowboy camping is essential to our hikes, and with a little less stubbornness from us, only enjoyment and happiness is in store!
With the view of a shooting star and the sounds of a night sky on our minds,