Cowboys in the heyday of the West were tough – and they had to be. The gear they carried looks unbelievably sparse and crude to a modern outdoorsman. But it worked, and it was all they needed to survive. If you need to, you can survive on similar gear. Here’s the ten most important items you’d find in a bugout bag, Old West-style
Almost every cowboy carried a gun. In the movies we’re used to seeing cowboys with a pair of Colt revolvers and a lever-action carbine, but the reality was that most just carried a long gun – a pistol wasn’t much use for hunting, and against an Indian’s bow and arrows it was dangerously outranged. Many cowboys were US Army veterans and carried their old rifle musket; others used shotguns, which with the right ammunition could take on most game.
No self-respecting outdoorsman goes anywhere without a good knife, and cowboys were no exception. Most of them carried a sheath knife with a six to eight inch fixed blade, giving them the best combination of strength, portability and cutting power. These knifes had a hard life, being used for everything from cleaning game to splitting firewood, so any time a cowboy saw a suitable piece of stone he’d take the chance to tough up the edge of his knife.
Large parts of the West are pretty arid, so being able to carry water was vital. Every cowboy would have at least one canteen as part of his gear. These were larger than modern ones, usually holding at least two quarts of water and sometimes up to a gallon. Most of them were made of leather, but steel or even wooden ones could be found. Whatever it was made of it would have a cloth cover, which could be soaked to cool the contents by evaporation. Some cowboys also carried military one-quart steel canteens.
4. Cook Set
Cooking on the trail was simple – beans, bacon, cornbread, hard tack or whatever game came within range. Utensils were simple, too. Most cowboys got by with a basic set of a small pot, tin plate and mug, and eating irons. Their sheath knife handled most food preparation. One luxury almost all of them carried was a coffee pot, so even if they were away from the chuck wagon they could have a brew in the morning.
In the movies every cowboy has a couple of rolled-up blankets tied over the back of his saddle. Try sleeping out on a cold, wet fall night with just a couple of wool blankets and see how comfortable you are. A real bedroll was a lot more substantial. The key to staying dry was a large rubberized canvas tarpaulin, about seven feet wide and sixteen feet long. This formed the outer layer when everything was rolled up. At night it was big enough to act as both groundsheet and cover. Inside that were three or four “sougans” – thin quilts. Two of these, doubled over, would give padding and insulation from the ground; another one or two over the top added warmth on chilly nights. The cowboy slept in the middle, wrapped in one or two blankets.
A packed bedroll was over a foot in diameter. It could be strapped to the saddle, but if a wagon was available the cowboys would pack them in that for the day. The bedroll was also where cowboys stored their valuables and small items, usually in a gunnysack in the middle of the roll. The bulky, well-padded roll also served as a seat.
6. Tinder Box
Matches existed in the Old West, but they could be expensive and hard to find. They weren’t very waterproof, either. Cowboys used them if they could get them, but usually relied on a tinder box. This was a small, waterproof metal box filled with tinder – unraveled cotton or linen were common – with a flint packed in. Using the flint and their knife to create sparks, they could start a flame in the tinder; once the fire was lit, closing the tinder box snuffed the flame. Tinder would last a long time, but eventually it got so charred it was useless. Cowboys would scavenge any suitable scraps of cloth to keep their tinder box at peak performance.
7. Rain Slicker
Getting wet is no fun – and, when you don’t have a warm house to dry off in, it can be dangerous. Hypothermia is a killer out on the plains, so cowboys carried a rain slicker. Old-style slickers were capes made of tarred, oiled or rubberized canvas. Most of them didn’t have hoods, because cowboys relied on their hats. Brimmed hats were essential protection against rain and sun and every cowboy wore one. However, most of them didn’t wear the iconic Stetson – that didn’t even exist until 1865. The most common hat until then was the bowler; it was hard enough to give some protection from branches or falls, and didn’t blow off in high winds. Sombreros were also popular in Texas.
Cowboys would have loved paracord, but they made do with leather or rawhide thongs. These were used as “piggin’ strings”, to hobble horses or immobilize cattle, but they had plenty other uses too – securing loose gear, building shelters or as an improvised washing line.
A bandanna might not seem like a big deal, but it was a valuable piece of gear for a cowboy. Riding behind a herd of cattle in dry weather, the air was full of dust; a bandanna over the nose and mouth made a good filter. It had plenty of other uses too – folded into a pad to filter muddy creek water, as a washcloth or a sling for an injured arm, for example.
10. Cold Weather Gear
Rain isn’t the only danger presented by the Western weather; cold winds and snow could also make life miserable and dangerous. Cowboys had basic, but pretty effective, cold weather gear to cope with it. Few saddles were without a rolled-up coat – often an ex-Army greatcoat or similar long woolen garment. Mittens or gloves kept hands warm, and a large scarf – usually silk – kept cold air away from their neck.
Compared to modern camping and survival gear a cowboy’s personal kit was crude, bulky and heavy – but it was also robust and effective. They lived a hard life in a tough environment and they wouldn’t have carried anything that didn’t work. Their everyday bugout bag was minimalist and lacked many of the things we think are essential, but they survived and got their jobs done. Maybe some of our essential items aren’t quite as vital as we think they are.