Waltzing Matilda with a swag, Part 6 – Water

A swaggie walking his circuit out west knew where the water was, and he also knew that when water was more than a day’s walk he’d have to carry his own supply. Usually a swagman would carry a flax water bag. This would not only allow him to carry 3 or 4 litres relatively easily, but the slightly porous nature of the bag meant the water was always cool. In fact, the hotter the day, the cooler the water. Other methods of carrying water were, in a 5 pint billycan with the lid tied on, or in a canteen or glass bottle on a shoulder strap.


Water carriage options I use. In this picture you’ll see a homemade six pint water bag, a 950ml enamel water bottle, a 1200ml MkVI water bottle in a Pattern 03 leather carrier, and the quartpot filled for hand carry.

I don’t use a billycan to carry my water, since when I do carry one, it’s usually used to carry fresh food rather than water. A billycan packed with shredded stringybark lets you carry a half a dozen fresh chook’s eggs safely, even if the billy is tied off to your swag strap and the swag thrown around and sat upon. I use a water bag and I use canteens for water carriage on traditional trips.

My waterbag is six Imperial pints (approx 3.5 litres) and it is an army issue vehicle waterbag made in 1941. I have also made an exact replica of this bag using lighter weight canvas and it works perfectly well. The army water bag originally had a porcelain spout. This was a hygienic measure since many people would share the same water bag. I stupidly knocked my bag onto concrete and broke the spout not long after I acquired it, so I made my own spout out of a section of seasoned black wattle and bored a hole through it to accept a water bottle cork. It hasn’t let me down.

To prepare a flax water bag for use it’s necessary to first soak it for up to two days before hand to swell the fibres. I soak these in hot water since that not only swells the fibres, but it shrinks the bag a little as well. Both of these things make it hold water better.


Flax water bag soaking for 24 hours before use. The soaking swells the fibres of the bag, making it hold water better, while still allowing seepage through the flax canvas.

The water bag is hand-carried. A pair of leather straps through the grommet-holes in the bag allow you to push a stick through the straps, which provides a perfect handhold.


Stick used as a handle. Picture stolen from my other site – League of Bushmen

Canteens are also useful. Sometimes I will carry three canteens instead of a water bag. I tend to carry canteens in three main ways – on the belt, in the nosebag or on a shoulder strap. I have a pre-WWI US M1910 canteen which I carry in a belt pouch. It has a nesting cup which is almost identical to a modern Australian Army cups, canteen but it’s made of aluminium. I also have several Australian WWI/WWII enamel water bottles. The most oft-used of these is one set up for Light Horse use in a leather shoulder carrier. The design of the carrier makes it very easy to drink while on the go. It’s almost as easy as sipping from a modern-day Camelbak or similar hydration bladder.


WWII enamel water bottle I actually found off the side of the track during a bushwalk a couple of years back. This one has since been restored with a wool cover and a new cork. Great water bottles, but being enameled steel, they are a lot heavier than the plastic or even aluminium equivalents.

Water purification is a topic which is important. Once you delve into the source material like I have, you read the old swaggies talking about drinking creek water with animal remains in it, stagnant, algae-packed ponds or even muddy puddles. That’s how it was usually done back in the day, but coming from an outdoor industry background, I prefer to treat my water. Getting a bad case of the “hurls and squirts” two days after you’ve drunk dodgy water isn’t my idea of fun, particularly if you’re halfway through a month-long swaggin’ it expedition. There were ways to purify water available to the swagmen of yesteryear and like today, they could be classified into three main types – filtering, boiling and chemical treatment.

Filtering was usually done with multiple layers of cotton such as a neckerchief or a knotted shirtsleeve.

Milbank filter bag in action #ausbushcraft #bushcraft

Milbank filter bag in action.

To filter I use a millbank filter bag, which is a 1940s-era invention. It is a canvas bag which is first soaked and then filled with water. When the water level reaches the marked line you place your quartpot under it and start collecting the filtered water. It’s only useful for removing mud and particulate matter. You still need to otherwise treat the water before drinking. The millbank filter can be made more effective by placing a couple of handfuls of fine sand inside.


Quartpot on the boil. Canteens are ready to fill.

Boiling is the surest way to purify water. Conventional wisdom states that rolling-boiling your water for a minute will kill most of the bugs. To be 100% sure, keep a rolling boil for 10 minutes. If you haven’t filtered the water first, there are a couple of different ways to deal with muddy water or particulate matter. The easiest is to drop a few hefty pinches of fine wood ashes into the water as it’s boiling. The ashes will settle to the bottom of the quartpot or billy, taking the mud with it. You can simply pour the clear water off the top.

Chemical treatment is probably the most convenient. Even if you can’t filter or boil the water then and there, you can make it drinkable using chemicals. The most common chemical agent carried back in the day was condy’s crystals, otherwise known as potassium permanganate. These were a multi-purpose item, so it was worth carrying a small bottle of them. The efficacy of condy’s crystals for use as a water purifying agent isn’t all that good, especially if you need your water quickly. It takes up to 24 hours for a 1g per litre solution of condy’s crystals to kill the nasties. Boiling is quicker and more effective.

One area where condy’s crystals does work well is in removing taste and smell from foul water. If you boil water from a stagnant pool, it will still taste like it’s a stagnant pool. Add three or four individual condy’s crystals to a quartpot of water and the oxidation effects of the chemical will make the water more palatable within a few minutes.

Personally, when it comes to chemical water treatment, I use a modern-day option, Aquatabs, which are Sodium Dichloroisocyanurate tablets used at the rate of one tablet to a litre of water. Contact time is 30 minutes, after which time the water is safe to drink.


Make Your Own Archival Gear – Pocket Strike-a-Light Outfit


Back in the olden days, when matches were scarce in the outlying areas, many bushmen went back to their ancestral roots and used flint and steel instead. I’m not talking about the spark-showering ferrocerium rods sold today as “firesteels”, ferrocerium wasn’t even invented until the early 20th Century. No, what I’m talking about is a lump of steel (high carbon is best) struck against a lump of rock (flint or quartz, etc.) with the resulting spark caught by some form of tinder (charred cloth or dried fungus) and then coaxed into a flame with the addition of some bullswool (such as a bundle of dry grass or shredded stringybark). That’s a crash course in the use of the traditional flint and steel. The good news is that the use of a traditional flint and steel becomes much easier with practice. Continue reading

The Personal Survival Kit – Part 1: the “Survival Tin”

I want to show you something I made up a few years back.

My Personal Survival Kit

My Personal Survival Kit

It’s a relatively compact survival kit designed to be worn on a belt or even carried in a pocket. Evoking the romance and adventure of the special forces operative or a downed airman trapped behind enemy lines, the Personal Survival Kit (or PSK) is a staple among experienced outdoorsmen and their chairborne, keyboard-wielding colleagues all over the internet. Kept on your person at all times, it’s the last-ditch after the enemy soldiers have stripped you of your pack and webbing prior to your heroic escape. It contains vital tools to help you dodge the Gestapo and survive unaided until you can rendezvous with the Maquis agents who will smuggle you down the rat line to freedom.  That’s the general idea anyhow.

Let’s take a look at what’s in my kit:

Contents of the belt pouch

Contents of the belt pouch

The pouch itself is made from a very tough and hard-wearing ballistic nylon cloth. Inside the pouch we have a clear plastic 70 litre bag, we have a specialised survival kit knife which doubles as a spear-tip or an arrowhead, and we have a waterproof, shockproof, crushproof and dustproof Otterbox 1000 tough case containing the kit itself and a 1m paracord lanyard attached to the case.

The pouch has loops on the back which allow it to be carried on a belt, or if you’re feeling particularly “tactical” the loops are MOLLE compatible, so you can mount your kit to your plate carrier or tactical vest. If you haven’t guessed yet, this post contains a heapin’ helpin’ of dry sarcasm. In an emergency, you can cut up the pouch and add the cloth to your fire to make black smoke for signalling purposes. The press snaps can be removed and polished with sand to make a shiny lure for fishing, and the… I’ve got nothin’ – there’s probably a bunch of other uses for the nylon pouch aside from simply carrying the kit and mounting it to your belt.

The 70 litre plastic bag is a genuinely useful item. It can be used as is as a transpiration bag (look out for a future post on this particular method of harvesting drinking water), it can be modified for use as a rain coat, opened out it can waterproof a shelter or can be used in a solar still. Torn into strips, it provides light lashing cordage and when burnt, it gives off a black smoke.

The Otterbox case is too heavy, too thick and too bulky. Although it protects the contents of the kit from becoming crushed or sodden, there’s nothing in the kit which is susceptible to either crushing or water. It’s overkill, single-use and heavy. But it looks cool, huh? “Just let me open my MILSPEC ruggedized personal survival kit case…” says the hero in his deep, husky voice. The lanyard is a great idea. I’m a fan of military issue 550 paracord since it’s very strong when used as is, and when stripped, that one metre of paracord will provide 7 white 1 metre inner strands of cordage, a 1m coloured manufacturer ID strand (like a thick cotton thread), and of course the green nylon tubular outer sheath. So that’s a total of 9 metres of useable cordage just from this 1 metre length of 550 paracord.

The knife… read on.

A genuine special forces survival kit knife

A genuine special forces survival kit knife

This tiny little double-bladed knife was designed to be carried in a military issue personal survival kit (or E&E kit as they called it). I have a couple of issues with this knife – first of course is that it’s double-bladed. Makes it very difficult to handle effectively when cutting. You can’t baton with it and if used as a wedge on the hardwood timbers from around these parts, you’d end up hammering the knife into the wood and would have to burn it out to retrieve it. Plus, it’s really difficult to sharpen. The sheath is great though and it also houses my stainless steel trace wire, which I have exiled from the otterbox because the end seemed to be forever poking holes in my teabag. Being an item which is not susceptible to shock, dust, pressure or water ingress, this knife resides in the pouch next to the otterbox rather than inside it. In fact, I’m going to end up selling this knife – it’s kind of useless for real-world use, but since it’s an Australian SAS-issued item, it’s got some collector value.

Now the otterbox. Let’s look inside –

The box opened.

The box opened.

It’s not very big, but it holds a surprising number of vital survival items.

Contents of the right side of the Otterbox

Contents of the right side of the Otterbox

1. 2 metres of US military issue sand-coloured tripwire. Used as snares or as repair / baling wire.

2. 5 metres of braided nylon cord. Used as general cordage, or can be stripped down to individual strands.

3. Physer SGI brass button compass. The classic British military “escape” compass – so tiny it can be swallowed and retrieved later, or can be sewn into clothing or set into a uniform button. Originally designed for use in escape and evasion kits during WWII. I’ll be doing a separate post on the history and use of these compasses. This particular compass has a bright yellow zip tie attached for better visibility and to the zip tie has been tied an inner strand of paracord as a lanyard or necklace. These compasses are so tiny, they are very easy to lose.

4. 10 feet of heavy thread. Used for sewing, as light cordage or as a fishing line.

5. Folded 30cm length of cloth duct tape, useful for field repairs of transpiration bags and such. Between the layers are four safety pins – used as general fastenings or as improvised fish hooks, and two magnetised large sewing needles – used for sewing or as an improvised compass needle.

6. Leatherman Micra multitool. Contains a multitude of useful tools including good scissors and a razor-sharp cutting blade.

7. Generic mini multitool. A lower-quality version of the Leatherman Micra, but also includes pliers for working with wire or for moving hot objects from a fire.

8. Doan Magnesium Bar military firestarter – a rectangular piece of magnesium alloy with a ferrocium rod (“flint”) set into one side. Despite requiring two hands to use, the Doan mag bar is one of the most reliable sure-fire fire starters available anywhere. To use, you shave a coin-sized amount of magnesium from the bar into a pile and then light it with the ferro rod. The resulting flame is white-hot and will ignite almost any tinder you throw at it.

9. Very basic fishing kit. 4 or 5 hooks of various sizes, 3 x split shot sinkers and a couple of swivels. Used with the heavy thread or with inner strands of 550 paracord.

10. Fox 40 rescue whistle. Works wet or dry. Very loud and shrill.

11. Glass signal mirror. This is a US Air Force small-sized signal mirror. About the same size as a credit card, it works via a retroreflective grid for precise aiming. It’s too heavy, but it’s the only signal mirror in its class that I trust. I’ve had starflash and rescueflash acrylic mirrors delaminate and become useless just from sitting inside the Otterbox in high temperatures I’ve encountered on various trips.

12. A metre of heavy-duty aluminium foil. Can be fashioned into a vessel to boil water or cook food, pieces can be used as a fishing lure, pieces can be used to leave a trail for search and rescue, it can be used as an improvised reflective ground to air signal panel, it can be used as a “veldt blanket” by placing half over each kidney under clothing before sleeping. The reflective material will work like a space blanket, reflecting your body heat back at your kidneys, thereby keeping your circulatory system warm and spreading that warmth throughout your body – that’s the theory anyway.

13. A large scalpel blade. Used in conjunction with an improvised wooden handle sourced locally. Best option for clean and accurate skinning and cleaning of smaller game and fish.


14. 1 Quart (just under 1 litre) Nasco Whirl-Pak resealable laboratory sample bag. Food-grade, it can be used to both carry water and sterilize it (using UV from the sun). Very useful item.

15. A tea bag. A tea bag is the one comfort item in the kit. Even if you’re not a tea drinker, it’s a morale-booster, can flavour water or food, and the bag can be used, squeezed dry and used again a few times. When completely bone dry, the bag makes good tinder for a fire.

16. Fresnel lens. Credit card sized magnifying lens great as a fire starter on a sunny day. Can be rigged to allow an improvised candle or slush lamp to throw more light, or can be used with the signal mirror to extend the range (to a certain degree).

That’s a typical military/survival-style personal survival kit. Seems relatively squared away? A pretty good attempt? I think it’s a train wreck. In fact I think the whole “survival tin” idea is a bad philosophy for the serious outdoors type. let alone the professional soldier or pilot.

Many consider John “Lofty” Wiseman to be the spiritual father of the cult of the survival tin, pointing to the kit he describes in his “SAS Survival Guide”. Using Lofty’s special forces pedigree as their social proof, companies such as BCB in the UK jumped on the survival tin bandwagon and if you wanted to be cool out in the bush, you’d better have a decent combat survival tin.

Diagram from Wiseman's "SAS Survival Guide" showing "Lofty" Wiseman's idea of a survival tin. He has been misinterpreted.

A diagram from Wiseman’s famous “SAS Survival Guide” showing his idea of a survival tin. He has been misinterpreted.

The current incarnation of BCB's Combat Survival Kit.

The current incarnation of BCB’s Combat Survival Kit. A book of MRE matches AND a ferro rod for lighting fires? Oh stop it BCB, you’re spoiling us.

Bushcraft, survival, professional military, backpacking and even zombie hunting forums all over the internet have proven just how popular the idea of the survival tin remains. One small tin containing all the vital equipment to help a lost hiker/injured bushcrafter/downed aircrewman survive in the wilds until they are rescued – it’s admittedly an attractive concept, but it’s not one that Lofty or his SAS colleagues ever embraced or promoted, and in this writer’s opinion, neither should you. There are far better, more workable options for carrying an emergency survival kit which go far beyond some trinkets in a tobacco tin.

In the next post in this series we’ll look at Lofty Wiseman’s holistic approach to survival kits, examine a couple of historical WWII examples of survival kits, and then take a look at my solution.