10 Things Cowboys Carried With Them In The Wild West To Survive

Fergus Mason
By Fergus Mason July 10, 2017 10:11

10 Things Cowboys Carried With Them In The Wild West To Survive

If you understand the value of preparedness you have a bugout bag somewhere in your home, ready to grab if you need to leave in a hurry. You want to stay at home if at all possible, but if you do need to make a run for it you’ll need some essentials to keep you going until you can either return or make it to a new refuge. The last thing you want is to be on the move without at least a basic load of survival gear.

But what if you’re on the move most of the time? That’s the situation the cowboys of the Old West were in. For part of the year they would live in a bunkhouse on a ranch, but through spring, summer and fall they’d be pretty much nomadic – riding the range looking after their herds, or driving animals to market. For a cowboy his basic survival kit wasn’t emergency equipment that he kept handy in case he needed it; it was the gear he used for day to day life. Imagine living on the contents of your bug-out bag almost every day you go to work; that’s what the cowboys did.

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.

#1. Firearm

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.

#2. Knife

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.

#3. Canteen

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.

Related: 10 Awesome Food Ideas for Your Bug Out Bag

#5. Bedroll

Cowboys Bedrolls

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.

Related: How To Make Waterproof Matches At Home In 5 Minutes

#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.

#8. Cords

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.

#9. Bandanna

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.

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Fergus Mason
By Fergus Mason July 10, 2017 10:11
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23 Comments

  1. Reticent Rogue July 10, 12:36

    I always carry a cleaning kit for firearms.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Wannabe July 10, 15:40

    I always carry a bed roll, never know when your wife will be mad at you. Lol

    Reply to this comment
  3. Rocky July 10, 16:28

    It’s the same gear we carry yet today plus a few fence fixins and vet supplies.

    Reply to this comment
    • Sunshine July 10, 18:30

      We’re can I meet a true cowboy.

      Reply to this comment
      • Whiskey Sierra July 20, 17:41

        Come meet our Assistant Scoutmaster! He began herding horses at age 15, rode range till he was 18 or 19, then began running horse packing trips into Zion Canyon National Park. He’s a horse trainer, ferrier, and all round cowboy. The real thing.

        Reply to this comment
  4. Vic July 10, 17:25

    This is the most important list I have yet seen.

    It would be wise to never leave home without them.

    Reply to this comment
  5. Nitethunder July 10, 18:49

    Been Riding Motorcycle’s for the pass 55 years. Never leave home without the Bike Pack, which carries just about all that is mention here (in the article above) give or take a few items, and yes that does include the Side Arm (with a Carry Permit) a Break-Down Long Gun, and hunting Knife too. All stored in a gunny stack with a portable one burner butane cooking stove with enough utensil(s) for two , a Bed Roll, better know today as a the Sleeping Bag, plus two ’12x’12 tarps roll around it. And never forget the Rothco Wine Bota.

    Ride Safe Today and Ride Another Day Tomorrow…

    Reply to this comment
  6. Mae July 10, 19:48

    You forgot the cowboy hat.

    Reply to this comment
  7. Beaver4Badgers July 10, 22:57

    That looks like the list of what I carry in my Jeep whenever I take a trip. Add a big first aid kit. More than once I’ve had to help accident victims. Also I have a small bag that contains tarps and a heating/cooking source for a shelter or if I have to sleep in my Jeep. A UCO 3 candle lantern has kept me warm in sub-freezing temps, and can boil water for oatmeal or dehydrated food. It all boils down to fire, water, food and shelter.

    Reply to this comment
  8. Beaver4Badgers July 10, 23:17

    One thing that I forgot….my favorite firearm that I take everywhere is a CZ Scorpion 9mm carbine with a folding stock. The Hornady 9mm+P ammo is more than capable of taking down a deer at 100 yards, besides being able to outfit it with 20 and 30 round magazines it is my go to firearm if I could only take one.

    Reply to this comment
  9. Mr.Gray July 11, 12:39

    I regularly travel as much as 375 miles from home on business every week. Several years ago I started thinking about what it would mean if I had to walk home, for whatever reason. I could have to walk and camp out for as much as two months so I started putting together a long-term Get Home/Campout Kit.
    In descending order of indispensability:
    Glock 21/ammo
    Buck 124 full-tang, fixed-blade knife
    2 Lifestraws, 1 Katadyn pump filter
    10X16 camo tarp
    Fire kits – 2 small jars of Vaseline-soaked cotton balls with Bic lighters
    Hygiene/First aid kit
    2 small flashlights, 1 headlamp, batteries
    Freeze-dried meals
    Fishing kit
    Leatherman Supertool
    Machete w/ saw back
    Tomahawk
    Poncho
    20 oz/silver
    $100 cash

    I also carry various other things I could probably do without, like a frog gig, a few small pocket knives, twist ties, miscellaneous hardware etc.

    Reply to this comment
  10. Uncle George July 11, 12:45

    That bedroll would be the size and weight of another person. Are you sure about the dimensions of that thing? If you have a wagon or a pack horse it wouldn’t be an issue, but I don’t believe one cowboy on one horse could carry all that.

    Reply to this comment
  11. Jose Lugp July 11, 17:14

    I think the cowboys also used the coffee pot to boil pine leaves for tea, this way they would get the vitamin “C” they needed to avoid scurvy and other vitamin defincy problems.

    Reply to this comment
  12. Beaver4Badgers July 11, 17:28

    A GI sleeping bag with Gore-Tex bivy is lightweight and effective. Another option that most people forget about is having a couple of wool blankets rolled up together. I’m not talking some thin and flimsy wool blanket, I mean a thick, 100% wool blankets. I have some that came from a Swedish hospital ship that were brand new. I bought 8 of them when I found them. They weigh 7-8# apiece and are 6×8 feet. Big enough for two people. Another great find was getting brand new body bags with 6 handles and a heavy duty zipper. I use one for my backpack, and it serves as a great sleeping platform, either on the ground or as a hammock. You have to use a little imagination and use things that are multi-use.

    Reply to this comment
    • Wannabe July 11, 17:34

      I like the idea of the body bag. A little morbid though. Maybe if they found me dead I would have a note attached that reads, if u find me dead just put me in the body bag. Lol

      Reply to this comment
      • SouthernAZ July 12, 18:57

        Body bags won’t make a good bedroll. They are thin and impermeable. Comfort of the occupant is not a consideration! Cold in winter and hot and sweaty in summer if you are still alive. GI system with a poncho liner and goretex outer bag is a great combo for places that don’t get below freezing. Still could use a tarp or canvass for under and over. Mosquito netting is a plus for summer.

        Reply to this comment
  13. Robert July 17, 19:22

    War can I meet a real cow boy go to a rodeo

    Reply to this comment
  14. scotty July 20, 03:53

    Always carry Tea Tree oil. Antibiotic, anti fungal, even kills mersa. Gets rid of abscessed teeth.

    Reply to this comment
  15. Beaver4Badgers July 21, 12:03

    The body bags are used for a hammock. I didn’t say I used it as a bedroll. Many times just getting off the ground makes your night much more comfortable. And if it rains, you’ll zip it up over your head and be glad you did.

    Reply to this comment
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