Those of us who are fascinated with life in the “Wild West,” beyond what Hollywood shows us, realize that our pioneering forefathers had it hard. True history, not the kind shown on Netflix, isn’t filled with gunfighters and stick-up artists, but rather hard-working men and women who faced deadly situations on a regular basis. While some succumbed to the dangers of the West, many more survived.
We can honestly say that each and every person who took part in settling the West was a survivalist — especially those who chose to live outside the city. Whether they were farmers, ranchers, prospectors or shepherds, their first job was to survive. So everything they did and pretty much every item they owned was centered around that need.
The average rancher had few permanent employees. A few hands to check the herds and ride the range to look for dangers that might hurt or kill the cattle were all he needed. Many would try to pick terrain to settle on, which would naturally mitigate against the cattle wandering. One of the best things for this was water.
Cattle, of course, need water, and few will wander beyond a day’s walk from that water, unless being driven by men or predators. In much of the West, where water is scarce, laying claim to land with a spring or creek on it gave ranchers access not only to much-needed hydration, but an easy way of keeping their cattle home where they belonged. That reduced the labor they needed to hire — an important factor in a land where cash money was hard to come by.
But there were times when cattle operations needed more hands than the few semi-permanent staff. That was at roundup time and for a cattle drive. For these all-important events, ranchers would hire some of the many “drifters” who roamed the West, moving from ranch to ranch, often riding the “grub line” until they could find a job.
This made the cowboy’s life one of survival. He literally lived out of his bug-out-bag. Of course, they didn’t call it that back then. Rather, they called it their “bed roll.” His bed roll, his saddle bags (which served as his survival kit) and his saddle were about all the worldly goods that most cowboys owned. Many didn’t even own their own horses, but rather rode those that belonged to the ranches they worked.
So, if the cowboy’s blanket roll and saddlebags were respectively his bug-out-bag and survival kit, what sorts of things did he carry in them?
1. A good knife
The first thing that any cowboy had was a good knife. They didn’t have hatchets, machetes, wire saws and multi-tools like we carry in our bug-out bags today. Their only tool was a knife. So it was important to have a good one. This would usually be a mid-sized sheath knife, which was used for everything from cutting wood to skinning game.
Few had a honing stone, but the cowboys would often sharpen their knives on whatever stones they could find. A good chunk of granite or a piece of sandstone — it didn’t matter. Either one became a honing stone in turn.
2. Guns and ammo
Few cowboys roamed the West without a firearm. While they weren’t all laden down with guns, as we see in the movies, they pretty much all had something. It might be a pistol, but in most cases it was a rifle. The pistol was more convenient, but the rifle was better for hunting game or fighting Indians.
Many of the cowboys had been soldiers in the Civil War. When they were discharged, they were allowed to take their guns with them. This meant that most had long guns, even if they didn’t have a pistol.
Rarely did the cowboy carry his gun on him, unless he was on the trail. It was too cumbersome and got in the way of handling cattle. But when on a trail drive, they pretty much always went armed. In the case of a stampede, that gun might be the only thing to save your life.
A tinder box was an essential piece of every cowboy’s kit. In it, he would store bits of tinder that he gathered along the trail, always ensuring that he had some with him. He’d also keep a piece of flint in it, often sewn into a leather cover, thus improving his grip on it. If he had matches, they’d be in the tinder box, as well.
4. Canteen of water
The canteen was an essential piece of equipment, especially in terrain where water was scarce. The typical canteen was about 2-1/2 quarts. It would be covered with layers of scrap fabric, usually hand-sewn by the owner. By soaking that fabric in water, when he filled his canteen, the cowboy could keep his water cool.
The first thing that a cowboy did when he stopped at water was to fill his canteen, even before drinking. That way, if he had to leave in a hurry, he had a full canteen to take with him. It didn’t matter if he was only going to town, he’d stop at the water trough and fill his canteen, often dumping out the old water to replace it with fresh water.
A cowboy’s cook set was pretty minimal, but he usually had one. This would consist of a small pot, a coffee pot, a tin plate and a cup. That was enough for him to cook anything he needed to, out on the trail. Coffee was prized, and having a coffee pot to make coffee was important to men who spent 14 or more hours per day in the saddle, in all kinds of weather.
A cowboy never left the bunkhouse without taking some food with him. He never knew what the day would bring or even whether he’d make it back to the bunkhouse that night. So, he kept a little bit of food in his saddlebags at all time. This could include:
- Bacon — a favorite staple in the West.
- Biscuits or hard tack.
- Coffee & sugar.
- Dried fruit (if they could get it).
Range eating usually wasn’t all that good. The food that the cowboy carried was intended to keep him going if he couldn’t make it back. Beans and bread were common fare, along with just about any type of meat imaginable. But they rarely carried that with them. Those were things kept in the chuck wagon or back at the ranch.
It was common for cowboys to hunt their meat in order to avoid eating the cattle they were raising. It’s not that cowboys had anything against beef, but rather that those cattle were worth money. If they killed one, it was highly unlikely that they could preserve the meat, so much of it would be lost.
7. Fishing line & hook
Many cowboys carried some line and a hook, so that they could catch fish when they camped by the water. This wasn’t a given, but it wasn’t uncommon, either. They’d dig up worms to use as bait, or find grubs, crickets and other insects.
8. Piggin strings
Piggin strings are thin strips of leather or rawhide, like leather boot laces. Their main purpose was for tying the feet of the cattle when thrown for branding or castration. However, they became the cowboy’s equivalent of paracord, using it wherever they needed cordage. A typical cowboy kept a few pieces of piggin string in their pockets, along with a ball in their saddlebags.
9. Rain slicker
Storms could come up suddenly in the West, especially for those who were in the mountains. Those could be dangerous for cowboys, drenching them and causing hypothermia. They’d keep their rain slicker tied behind their saddle, either in a small blanket roll or alone, where it was ready at hand. That way, they could put it on, without having to dismount.
An actual blanket roll was much bigger than what we are used to seeing in the movies. It could be as much as a foot in diameter. That was too big to carry while riding the range. On the trail, the cowboys would leave their blanket rolls in the chuck wagon, retrieving them at night. In the morning, they’d roll up their blankets once again, with their other possessions inside. At the home ranch, those possessions were in the bunkhouse.
But no matter what, a cowboy would have a couple of blankets tied behind their saddle. Call it the predecessor to the sleeping bag. Few would only want one blanket, as that wasn’t enough to deal with the fall and winter chill.
Just as today, coats were seasonal things. But you’d never find a cowboy leaving the home ranch, without a coat, if there was any chance of it getting cold. If they didn’t wear it, they’d tie it behind their saddle, along with their blankets and rain slicker.
Those that could get them would have gloves, or more likely mittens. A slit would be cut in the mittens, allowing the index finger to slide out when they needed to do something that required some dexterity. But mittens were safer than gloves, as they would allow the fingers to share heat, lowering the chance of frostbite.
Few cowboys could afford work gloves. Rather, their hands became as tough as leather from the work that they did. It’s not that they wouldn’t have used the work gloves, if they had them; but a cowboy’s wage wasn’t enough to afford many luxuries.
The bandana was a useful part of any cowboy’s kit. More than anything, it was used as a dust filter over the nose and mouth. This was especially important when “riding drag” behind a herd. But the bandana served many other purposes, as well, including protecting the neck from the sun, being a handy washcloth and serving as an emergency bandage.
Even cowboys who didn’t smoke tended to carry tobacco. At that time, tobacco was the ultimate trade good. Offering someone a smoke was often the start of many a conversation, especially out on the trail.
Surprisingly, many cowboys carried books with them. A large number were much more highly educated than you’d expect, having come from the East and being products of eastern schools, even universities. They were drawn to the West for a variety of reasons, and many gave up a life of wealth and position for the opportunity to travel.
Reading material was highly prized in the West. Cowboys would carry books along with them, trading them with each other as the opportunity arose. In this way, they were able to experience a wide variety of reading material while not having to carry much with them.
15. Extra clothes
Cowboys didn’t change their clothes and bathe every day, like we do today. Nevertheless, having a bath and getting cleaned up was one of the joys of coming off the trail. While they didn’t have an extensive wardrobe, most had a couple of changes of clothes, including one nice suit. They’d keep that in their blanket roll, taking it out for church and other important events.
A Final Word
When you compare this list to our modern bug-out-bag, there seems to be a lot missing. But the cowboys of the past could stay alive with the things in this list. Few carried more, as their horses would tire too quickly if they were overloaded. And few cowboys could afford a pack horse, in addition to the one they were riding. So, they were limited in what they could carry by their lifestyle.
Nevertheless, the cowboy had the essentials. Of course, they were a much hardier breed than we are today. For them, hardship was a daily occurrence, and danger was their constant companion. They were better suited for survival than we are today. Maybe if we lived our lives on the back of a horse, instead of sitting in front of a computer, we’d be, too.
What would you add to our list? Share your tips in the section below: