The Hootchie – Part 1 – An Adventure Through Time – ADDENDUM

Back in the olden days, at the very dawn of this little blog, I wrote a post covering the evolution of the Australian Army hootchie, the humble “shelter, individual”. In that poorly-written little piece I indicated that the hootchie as issued to Australian forces from the late 1950s onward was the first time Aussie and British Commonwealth military planners had even considered the fact that soldiers might need something a bit bigger than a 7 foot by 3 foot groundsheet to bivouac under in bad weather.

If ever called out on it, I’ll vehemently deny that my incomplete research on the topic led me to being wrong, so rather than call it “new information” let’s all pretend that space constraints on the original post meant I had to leave some important stuff out. Yep, that’ll work.

So what did I miss out? A few things…

From the time of the Battle of Waterloo circa 1815, the British army had adopted the French idea of the tente d’abri (literally “shelter tent” in English). It was a 2-man shelter made from two sheets of linen canvas with a plethora of buttons and buttonholes along the edges so it could be connected to others. Usually two of these tentes d’abri were used, forming a small “A” tent.


US Civil War era tente d’abri style shelter. Usually called a “dog tent” by the troops because it looked like a dog kennel.

The idea is familiar to this day as it had also been adopted by the United States military in the decade before the outbreak of the US Civil War in 1861. The troops there called it a “dog tent” but it was officially known as a shelter half. In the US, the shelter halves were issued right through until after the Vietnam war. These later shelter halves are roughly trapezoidal in shape and when pitched as a two man tent, have both ends closed in. I have a set of two halves dated 1982. It makes a nice, snug and warm windproof and waterproof little pup tent which is great in cold weather.

In British military publications from the 1870s, the shelter was still officially known as the “Tente d’abri” or simply as the “d’abri”. Some time in the mid 1880s, the designation changed to “MkI Shelter”. and it was used throughout the Boer War and into the First World War, also by colonial and later Federal Australian troops.

The dimensions of the Mk I Shelter sheets were approximately 183cm long x 153 cm wide. When two were fastened together, the resulting tent was 183cm long x 214cm wide x 107cm high.

In Australian service, these were used extensively by Australian Light Horse troops during the First World War. They were rolled with a blanket and carried as a swag roll strapped to the rear of the saddle and used as swag-style bedding when bivouacking. They were also used in the camp environment as pitched two-man shelter tents just like the American shelter half “pup tents” of the Civil War.


Mk I Shelter in use by Australian Light Horse troops at a camp in Palestine in 1917. B52640 SLSA.

There was a variant of the MkI shelter which saw the two halves sewn together into a large, hootchie-style tarp, but it seems to have been an interim measure between the Mk I and the Mk II which is described below.

The MkII was more tent-like in design, but could still be used as a tarp if required. It was essentially a MkI sewn up variant with one closed in end. The end of this shelter was made from two triangular sections of canvas which closed using a dutch lacing (grommet and cord loop) closure.


An Australian Light Horse Camp in Palestine in 1918. A combination of single MkII shelters (oriented north/south) and  pair of larger shelters each made from two MkII shelters fastened end to end (oriented east west)

The MkII Shelter became the basic troop accommodation for British and Empire personnel in the field. Later, it was modified with an extension on the rear and a front closed by a pair of canvas flaps. This last model was known as a “Bivy” tent and soldiered on in British Army service until the 1990s. During WWII there was a lighter weight tropical version which was completely mosquito netted, not a bad modification, although it seems to have been used in Europe more than any other theatre of that conflict.


This painting depicts a pair of MkII shelters in use in an Australian AIF camp in France circa 1917. AWM ART03331

I guess it’d be prudent to discuss the various improvised shelters which were made by troops bivouacking. These were usually two or more groundsheets laced together, or even a pair of wool service blankets fastened together with blanket pins. Surprisingly, these blanket shelters did an amazing job at keeping the rain off, but the flip side was that the soldier had to carry a wet blanket around which weighed a ton and took an age to dry out.


Illustration from the 1914 British Army field service regulations showing an improvised bivouac shelter made from a pair of wool service blankets pinned together.



Waltzing Matilda with a swag, Part 7 – Navigation and Direction-finding

Swagmen often didn’t need to navigate “properly” since they followed tracks and roads the bulk of the time. In unfamiliar areas they relied upon directions from other swaggies and from station workers and other locals they might run into and stop to yarn with along the way. In some areas the roads were little more than kangaroo or cattle pads so the swaggie usually had a working knowledge of direction-finding via the sun and the stars as well as other natural cues.

The swag-carrying bushwalkers such as those from the Mountain Trails Club who swagged their way for weeks on end through the dense, trackless expanse of what is now the Blue Mountains National Park, needed to know how to use the map and compass, but since theirs were often the first European feet to set foot on much of the country they trod and much of it was largely unmapped, they also used the lay of the land to navigate. Some of these old time bushwalkers, such as Myles Dunphy, took the opportunity to actually map some of these areas.

Presented here are just a few of the more common methods used by bushmen to find their way in years gone by. For a more comprehensive look at bushman’s navigation lore, see my forthcoming book On the Wallaby Track: A Swagman’s Handbook


The sun was the most commonly-used direction-finding aid for those travelling without a compass. Since most bushmen carried a pocket watch, it could be used to find north in exactly the same way we today might use our analogue wristwatch. The 12 was pointed at the sun and halfway between the 12 and the hour hand is true north. This method can be inaccurate in far northern Australia where the sun can be directly overhead and can even be to the south during the wet season.


Finding true north in the Southern Hemisphere using a pocket watch and the sun.

The sun rises in an easterly direction and sets in a westerly direction regardless of where you are in the world, however in Australia it rises/sets generally southeasterly/southwesterly in Summer, or generally northeasterly/northwesterly in Winter.


Like the sun, the moon rises/sets in a generally easterly/westerly direction. For more precision, keep in mind that the moon’s orbit makes it appear generally opposite the sun from the perspective of an earthbound observer.

When the moon is in a “crescent” state, it can be used to find the general direction of north in the southern hemisphere. Simply draw an imaginary line through both of the points of the crescent and continue the imaginary line down to the horizon. Where the line intersects the horizon is (usually) true north. For more details as well as a diagram of this method, see


In the southern latitudes of Australia the Southern Cross (constellation Crux) method was used to find south. There are several methods for finding the South Celestial Pole using the Southern Cross, but the most common, shown below, uses both the Southern Cross and the two pointer stars.


Imagine a line connecting the two pointer stars. Halfway along this line, draw another imaginary line at a right angle to it and extend this off into the sky. Draw another imaginary line through the Southern Cross lengthways and also extend it off into the night sky. Where the two lines meet is the South Celestial Pole. Now drop another imaginary line down to the horizon. This is True south.

Prevailing winds.

This method relies upon knowing the direction the wind blows from in a particular area. This can be ascertained by observation practice, or from the vegetation. In sparsely vegetated areas especially, trees will usually bend ever so slightly with the prevailing winds. Air from the south will often be cooler than air from the north and wind often blows in from the ocean during the day and towards it in the evenings. These cues, when combined, provide a generally accurate method of direction-finding as long as you have an idea where the ocean lies and you’re within a couple of hundred kilometres of the coastal strip.

Lay of the land.

Much like today’s average bushwalker, the old-time swagman never usually travelled off-track through thick scrub, but if he did, it would have been unusual if he ever became really bushed (lost). Reason being, all that time spent travelling through the country at walking pace gave him an acute eye for the little things, a break in a ridgeline there, a gentle slope there… If you find the watersheds and where they drain, then follow them down hill. Water always drains into more water so eventually you’ll hit the coast, and the coastline where major waterway drain into the ocean is usually populated, or at least visited fairly regularly. The chances of running into a settlement, road or even a decent sized town while making your way to the coast are very good.


Often, a page torn from an atlas was the only form of map available. Some atlas maps included towns, roadways, major pastoral stations, waterways and borders, but they were large scale and usually didn’t show mountains, vegetation types or other useful features found on proper topographical maps. As with most maps, the top of the map was usually true north, which allowed a rough orientation to the ground using a pocket compass or an improvised compass rose despite the lack of a useful-scaled grid.


Map of New South Wales, Victoria and part of Tasmania from the 1916 edition of the Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia. Torn from a book or atlas, this was the type of printed map most commonly available to swagmen and other bushfolk. Click on the map for full size.



My Hunter-cased pocket compass with a printed paper Royal Geographical Society pattern card as used between the 1870s and the 1920s. Don’t get this one wet.

A pocket compass, while nowhere near as precise as a proper prismatic surveyor’s or military compass, was accurate enough for general direction-finding. In use, the compass is opened out flat and a sightline is taken to a distant landmark with the direction on the dial noted. The line of march is noted and while walking, the compass is used as a guide to stay on a relatively straight track, sighting off trees, white ant hills or other landmarks as you go. The closer together your landmarks, the more accurate your line of march.

Waltzing Matilda with a swag, Part 5 – Eating


In this picture showing the contents of the nosebag you can plainly see the eating equipment usually carried.

The swagman’s eating equipment is simple and  concise. I use vintage and vintage-style eating equipment. It consists of a tin plate, a silver-plated spoon, three-tine fork, bone handled butter knife sharpened to a razor edge and the quart pot’s pannikin.

As seen in the last post, the tin plate is a multiple-use item since it doubles as a frypan and hot plate. You could also use it as a pan for gold prospecting if you wish. It’s lightweight and easily slips down the side of the nosebag. Speaking of goldpanning, I have recently started using a 9 inch spun carbon steel gold pan as a plate/frypan/gold pan while swaggin’ it. It’s a bit heavier than the tin plate, but it has multiple uses. More on these in my forthcoming book On the Wallaby Track: A Swagman’s Handbook.

The spoon is probably antique, dating to at least the 1910s. It’s made of brass which has been silver plated. The silver plating is just a non-tarnish finish applied to the spoon, but it’s possible that there are health benefits to using silver or silver-plated utensils, which may be why they used them.

The three-tine fork is a Colonial-era item which could date back as far as the 1870s. It is carbon steel so it can rust and needs to be carefully dried before being placed in the nosebag after use. It has riveted wooden grip scales and a nice patina from more than a century of use.

The bone-handled knife is made from carbon steel and using a butcher’s steel, it comes up to a razor-sharp edge. As described in a previous post, this isn’t your mum’s butter knife, but it will butter damper quite nicely. The knife is multi-purpose and is a very effective carving knife and vegetable chopper.

Like the knife, the pannikin has already been described in a previous post. It is made from tinware and has folding wire handles. Like any tin cup, it can be placed on the fire to boil water when water is at a premium. Another type of tinware cup I use is a colonial-style tin cup which dates from at least the 1910s.  Since I am not sure whether the solder in this one contained lead, I use it very rarely, and never place it on the fire.


Colonial-style tinware cup.