Did Cowboys Use Tents? Camping Life of the Open Range

Updated Jul 21, 2023

Cowboys and tents go hand in hand in the Wild West’s history. These nomadic cattle herders needed tents for shelter during long drives and tough outdoor conditions. Tents offered protection from unstable weather, a sense of temporary stability, and much-needed rest after a long day of work. Not only practical, tents also symbolized the cowboys’ adventurous and hardy lifestyle.

To get why tents were so important to cowboys, we must look into their tough environment. The open plains, harsh climate, and constant movement called for a portable form of housing that could be easily set up and taken down. Tents gave them some security in an unfriendly landscape.

These makeshift homes were usually made from canvas or other strong materials that could stand up to sun, wind, rain, and snow. They were small but big enough to sleep multiple cowboys. Inside their canvas abodes, cowboys could get away from the elements and bond around campfires.

Records from the late 19th century to early 20th century show that cowboys used tents a lot. Memoirs, diaries, letters, and oral histories tell of cowboys pitching tents on prairies and rivers as they worked across long distances.

Background on Cowboys and their Lifestyle

Cowboys, characterized by their ruggedness and independence, immersed themselves in a lifestyle rooted in the American West during the late 19th century. This lifestyle encompassed various aspects, including their attire, work on cattle ranches, and reliance on horses in their daily activities.

The cowboy lifestyle revolved around cattle herding and working in vast open spaces, such as the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. Their primary responsibility was to oversee and manage herds of cattle, ensuring their well-being and guiding them across long distances to reach markets. This required immense physical stamina and expertise in utilizing lassos and other equipment to handle the animals.

Furthermore, cowboys commonly lived in rustic and temporary encampments known as “cow camps” or “range camps.” These camps were often established along trail routes or near water sources and served as a base for the cowboys to rest, eat, and tend to their horses. While cowboys did use tents occasionally as part of these encampments, they predominantly relied on cowboy bedrolls or simple shelters made from natural materials like brush or tree branches.

Cowboys also developed their own cultural practices, including unique clothing styles such as wide-brimmed hats, bandanas, denim jeans, and leather boots to protect themselves during long rides and harsh weather conditions. They were known for their distinct jargon and dialect, with terms like “round-up,” “drive,” and “wrangle” commonly used to describe their tasks.

Working and Living Conditions of Cowboys

Cowboys – iconic figures of the American West – led a tough lifestyle. On horseback, their days were full. Herding cattle, roping calves and maintaining ranches kept them busy. Log cabins and bunkhouses were their austere homes. The weather was harsh, hours in the saddle long, and civilization far away.

They rose before dawn to round up cows. Long hours in the sun or cold tested their skill and courage, as they navigated treacherous terrain and controlled wild livestock. They needed a strong bond with their horses for success.

At night, they rested in simple quarters. Sharing communal spaces with other ranch hands forged friendship in trying conditions. Around a campfire, they swapped stories or enjoyed a starlit sky after work.

Life in these remote places demanded self-sufficiency. Cowboys hunted game for food and relied on supplies brought by wagons or trains. Caring for livestock was their priority – safety, health and overall well-being.

Possible shelter options for cowboys

Cowboys in the Old West had various choices of shelter to protect themselves from the harsh elements of the frontier. These options included tents, makeshift cabins, and dugouts.

Shelter TypeDescriptionAdvantagesDisadvantages
TentsPortable and easy to set up.Provides quick shelter in different locations.Not as secure and durable as other options.
Makeshift CabinsBuilt from available materials like logs and branches.Offers better protection compared to tents.Time-consuming to construct.
DugoutsBurrowed into the ground or hillsides.Naturally insulated and hidden.Limited airflow and daylight.

It’s important to note that each shelter option had its unique features and drawbacks. While tents were convenient and allowed mobility, they lacked durability. Makeshift cabins provided more stability but required time and effort to build. Dugouts offered natural insulation and camouflage but had limited access to fresh air and natural light.


Tents are a great choice for cowboys in need of shelter. They provide flexibility, mobility, and protection from the elements. Here are three reasons why tents suit cowboys:

  1. They are easy to set up and take down, great for nomadic lifestyles. Cowboys often move around, and having a portable shelter is essential.
  2. They offer protection from bad weather like rain, wind, and sun. Tents also give cowboys a comfortable place to rest.
  3. Cowboys can choose different sizes and designs depending on how many people or how much gear they have.

Tents have been used for centuries. In the early days, they were made of canvas for durability and to survive different conditions.

Other Shelter Options

The rugged life of cowboys calls for alternative shelter options, such as covered wagons and natural structures. These offer unique benefits that can’t be found in traditional homes or cabins.

Natural formations, like caves and rock formations, blend into the surrounding landscape and offer protection from harsh weather and predators. Some cowboys even craft their own shelters with materials from the environment.

Historical Evidence

There’s substantial historical evidence to suggest that cowboys indeed used tents. While the romantic image of cowboys might lead us to picture them sleeping under the stars, the reality of life on the open range often necessitated more substantial shelter.

Photographs from the era, as well as written accounts in diaries, letters, and newspaper reports, often depict or mention cowboys using tents. During cattle drives, the ‘chuck wagon’ – the mobile headquarters of the drive – was typically accompanied by a range of tents. The cook tent was a common fixture, providing a sheltered space to prepare meals. Individual cowboys would also carry personal tents, usually simple canvas structures that could be quickly pitched at the end of a day’s drive.

Tents also feature prominently in cowboy literature and folklore. In stories of life on the trail, cowboys are often described setting up camp each evening, with tents providing a modicum of comfort and protection against the elements. These accounts corroborate the photographic and documentary evidence, painting a picture of tent use as an integral part of cowboy life.


In analyzing the historical evidence, it is clear that cowboys indeed utilized tents as part of their nomadic lifestyle on the frontier. These portable shelters provided a practical and flexible solution for Cowboys who were constantly on the move. Tents offered protection from the elements and served as temporary homes during their long journeys across vast open spaces. Additionally, the use of tents allowed for easy setup and teardown, giving cowboys the ability to quickly establish a campsite wherever they deemed necessary. This adaptability was crucial for their survival and efficiency in their rugged and unpredictable environment.


For further reading and viewing about cowboy history, consider the following resources:

  1. True West Magazine’s January 2016 Edition: “The 100 Best Historical Photos of the American Cowboy
  2. National Georgraphic’s The Old West
  3. The Log of a Cowboy” by Andy Adam
  4. The American West” – A BBC documentary series that covers the history of the American West, including the life of cowboys.
  5. Lonesome Dove” – A Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Larry McMurtry, later adapted into a miniseries, it offers a richly detailed depiction of a cattle drive.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Did cowboys use tents?

Yes, cowboys commonly used tents as temporary shelter while out on the range. Tents provided protection from the elements and were easy to set up and take down.

2. What type of tents did cowboys use?

Cowboys primarily used canvas or canvas-covered tents. These tents were durable, lightweight, and could be easily transported from one location to another.

3. Were cowboy tents comfortable?

The comfort levels of cowboy tents varied, but they were designed to provide basic shelter rather than luxury. Tents typically had enough space for a bedroll and personal belongings, but they did not offer much room for extra furniture.

4. How did cowboys set up their tents?

To set up a tent, cowboys would first clear the ground of any sharp objects or debris. They would then unfold the tent and secure it with ropes and stakes. It usually took only a few minutes for an experienced cowboy to set up a tent.

5. Did cowboys use tents while on cattle drives?

Yes, tents were often used during cattle drives as cowboys needed a place to rest during the long journeys. These temporary campsites provided cowboys with shelter while they tended to the cattle and took turns rustling them through the night.

6. Are cowboy tents still used today?

While the traditional use of cowboy tents has diminished with modern advancements, some people still use them for recreational purposes, such as camping or historical reenactments. However, modern camping tents have become more popular due to their convenience and additional features.

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About the Author

Hey there!

We are Derek and Ashley of Know Nothing Nomads. Whether it is hiking, camping, climbing, or just generally being outside, we love it. We are so happy that you have found our little blog and hope that you stick around a while.

Safe Travels,

Derek and Ashley


Know Nothing Nomads

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