“Mreh,” I mumbled and swatted at whatever had just landed on my face. I was all curled up and cozily sleeping in my beloved zero degree sleeping bag under the stars. Even though I wasn’t quite awake yet my brain was turning its gears as another thing landed on my face. This time when I swatted at it my hand came back wet. I knew what this was! It was rain! Barely half awake, I rolled over and quickly stuffed everything into my backpack and three my pack cover over it.
Considering I was in Southern California, in the Mojave desert, and the weather forecast said that there was a 0% chance of rain for each of the 10 days in the forecast I figured it was probably just one little cloud misting on me and would blow by quickly. I didn’t mind getting a little damp as long as all of my stuff (especially my electronics) was going to be safe, secure, and dry.
As I lay back down I looked up at the sky, the moon and some stars were still visible, but clouds were definitely moving in. Some bigger droplets fell on my face. I checked my watch, it was 2 am, and I was definitely starting to get rained on. Setting up my tent still seemed like a lot of work, so I just pulled out my tent fly and rolled myself up in it figuring that it would keep both me and my down sleeping bag plenty dry.
At that point I still didn’t believe that it was really going to rain. I’d started trusting southern California’s weather forecasts, had started to trust that the low humidity over the desert was a cloud killer. I had come to terms with the fact that a 20% chance of rain meant that I was going to get soaked, but 0% chance, that should mean that I’d stay dry!
As I lay curled up in my rain fly shroud the winds began gusting and moisture continued to drip from the sky. With temperatures in the low 40s or upper 30s I couldn’t afford to let my sleeping bag get wet. *sigh* This was not just one poor misguided cloud weeping at its desert fate, this was an actual storm!
Until that moment I’d been able to make all of my rain preparations without ever really waking up or getting out of my sleeping bag, but as soon as I came to the conclusion it was a storm and not a tiny misguided cloud I was out of my sleeping bag and setting up my tent.
As the winds whipped around me I quickly scooted my sleeping pad and sleeping bag into the tent before staking it out, erecting it, and throwing the rain fly up. It was so windy at that point that I put rocks over the stakes/bottom corners of the tent to help anchor it before quickly scooting into my tent to ensure that it wasn’t going to become a giant kite.
As I crawled back into my tent I could hear the wind howling around it and the rain slamming against it. I threw a bunch of heavy stuff into the bottom my tent to help anchor it down and put the rest of my stuff on the windward side to help buffer against the winds even more.
It had been less than five minutes between when the first drop of water hit my face and when I crawled back into my sleeping bag after getting my tent set up. I was impressed with my half asleep self, and I wondered if the tent was overkill… It was Southern California after all, And I was sure it wasn’t going to rain… At least not much.
The other person cowboy camping nearby heard the commotion I made, realized it was raining and set up their tent as well, so our little camping area was full of excitement at 2 am! As the night progressed the excitement didn’t end. Temperatures dropped, wind speeds increased, ice started mixing in with the rain, and people’s tents started blowing over.
Though my tent was getting whipped around by the wind and making lots of noise, it held it’s ground, and didn’t collapse or lose any stakes. Throughout the night, however, there was intermittent swearing as other people’s tents lost the battle against the wind and collapsed on top of their occupants.
It seems like a lot of people on the PCT cowboy camp (just sleeping out under the stars without a tent) most of the time since we are in the desert and the chance of precipitation is so low. As I started to get used to the desert I started to join the people cowboy camping.
For me the real appeal of cowboy camping is the night sky in the desert, which is absolutely phenomenal! Since the best time to view the stars seems to be well after hiker midnight (sunset), when I pitch my tent the only time I get to see the full night sky is when I get up in the middle of the night and inevitably have to make a bathroom run. When I cowboy camp every time I wake up I can just look up and stare at the stars. Since I often have insomnia this means that I get to look at the stars a lot, which I absolutely love…
Though getting rained on in the middle of the night is not awesome, I expect that the joy of star-gazing from my sleeping bag will eventually tempt me to continue cowboy camping! If I ever wake up with a rattlesnake curled up on my sleeping bag, however, I expect I will be permanently cured of my cowboy camping habits!