What does it mean to cowboy camp the PCT? Put simply, it means camping without a tent. Throwing down a mat and your bag (or your lighter and maybe even warmer down quilt) and using the stars for your night light, and dawn for your alarm clock.
But expand the definition a little and cowboy camping (for at least one older gent) means walking no more than ten hours a day, typically, and not expecting to cover the 25+ miles a day that thru-hikers need if they are to complete the 2650 mile in four months. It’s more than how many miles you traverse: it’s a question of when you call it a day, if beauty plays any part in the decision on where to camp, and how close you choose to be to the wilderness.
Here’s an example of a prime cowboy camp I improvised this year by a little lake on the PCT in Oregon called Jude Lake. In this case it’s on spagnum moss that most of the year would be much too mucky to lie on, but in mid-August was dry and soft to the touch.
To be honest, if a conventional campsite had been available, I would have taken it, and possibly even put up my tent, for the sake of privacy and sanctuary. But I’m glad I had to look around, because I ended up camping in a beauty otherwise unattainable, and I camped lightly, disturbing nothing (and not being disturbed in turn by as much as a single mosquito — believe it or don’t).
More to come on this section, but here’s the point: despite the John Wayneish connotations of “cowboy,” it’s actually a way to get closer to the wild, and enjoy it. To sleep with the earth, unafraid and grateful.