Archival Gear: Old Vs New Camping Hammocks

1942 US Jungle Hammock on the left - weighs in at 3.5kg. 2003-ish Hennessy Hammock on the right - weighs in at approx 0.85kg. Swiss army knife for scale.

1942 US Jungle Hammock on the left – weighs in at 3.5kg. 2001-ish Hennessy Hammock on the right – weighs in at approx 0.85kg. Swiss army knife for scale.

In this post we’ll be looking at camping hammocks. Specifically, we’ll be looking at a 1942 canvas jungle hammock and an early-noughties nylon Hennessy Hammock. The Hennessy is their first true ultralightweight option, the “Ultralight Backpacker A-sym” with a silnylon canopy.

Item #1 – the WWII US Jungle Hammock

Australian soldiers using American Jungle Hammocks in the Pacific during WWII - AWM collection

Australian soldiers using American Jungle Hammocks in the Pacific during WWII – AWM collection

Developed over a period of several months in early-mid 1942, the US Jungle hammock was an ingenious piece of equipment designed for soldiers operating in the disease-ridden “green hell” of the Pacific islands. It was intended to provide shelter from rain, protection from flying disease-carrying insects, protection from crawling insects and vermin, all with the happy side effect of supplying the user with a comfortable place to sleep in all weathers.

Thousands of Jungle Hammocks were rushed to the Pacific Theatre in late 1942. Here’s what the Official History of the US Quartermaster service had to say about the jungle hammock.

“Conspicuous among the pieces of equipment shipped from San Francisco in late 1942 was the jungle hammock, which was expressly designed for soldiers entering a combat area. This hammock was optimistically expected to take the place of tent, shelter half, canvas cot, and mosquito net in regions where these essential items could not be taken either because they were too cumbersome to carry or because of unsuitable terrain. One of the chief virtues ascribed to the hammock was that it permitted men to sleep off the ground and so avoid insects and dampness. Made of a lightweight duck fabric, it had a false bottom that provided a dead air space and prevented mosquitoes from biting the occupant’s back. Attached to and over this bottom was an enclosed zipper-opening mosquito net, which in turn was fastened to a rainproof canopy stretched over sticks placed in the ground. The hammock itself was suspended between neighboring trees. This ingenious piece of equipment never fulfilled the high hopes of its originators.

Light though it was, it still was too bulky to be carried easily. Most important of all, it proved impractical in operational zones. The Sixth Army reported that front-line troops did “not like to sleep above ground because of possible aerial bombing” and hostile infiltration, and “soldiers behind the line” wanted “to keep out of the way of
shrapnel.” In combat areas, the Sixth Army pointed out, it was “essential that troops sleep in fox-holes, dugouts,” or slit trenches.

Despite such reports, which flowed in from all parts of the Pacific, the OQMG continued to improve the hammock, simplifying its zipper opening and reducing its weight by increased use of nylon. More than 700,000 hammocks were manufactured in 1944, and 600,000 were scheduled for 1945 procurement. These articles, though not widely utilized by the combat troops for whom they had been developed, nevertheless proved valuable in other ways. Rear areas, recurrently afflicted by severe shortages of tentage and cots, found hammocks satisfactory substitutes. During the wet season, when rain fell incessantly for hours, flooding bivouac areas and preventing tents from being pitched, jungle hammocks kept the troops “high and dry during the sleeping hours.” Some men in rear areas, Lt. Col. D. B. Dill, OQMG observer, noted, consistently preferred them for the better protection they gave against crawling and flying insects and slept in them as often as they could. When constantly employed, jungle hammocks had one conspicuous disadvantage—speedy deterioration, which limited their life, according to Dill, to about forty-five days.”

After WWII, hundreds of thousands of surplus jungle hammocks appeared at army disposal auctions and in surplus stores, particularly in the US and Australia – two of the main wartime users of the jungle hammock. Extremely popular with hikers, bushwalkers and scouts throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s the jungle hammock soldiered on for decades. Although not quite extinct in 2013, the reputation of the original jungle hammock has suffered due to the proliferation of poorly-designed Chinese copies sold as a “GI Jungle Hammock”. Make no mistake, these knock-offs are pure crap – I say this from personal experience. They are too short, they are too narrow and the rain canopy isn’t big enough to provide protection from anything other than morning dew.  They might be OK for kids to use in the backyard, but they are not suitable for adult use in the wilderness. The original jungle hammock was.

Jungle Hammock available as army surplus from Lenn's in Sydney in late 1948 for the princely sum of 37/6

Jungle Hammock available as army surplus from Lenn’s in Sydney in late 1948 for the princely sum of 37/6. According to the Reserve Bank of Australia’s pre-decimal inflation calculator, that 3 pounds, 7 shillings and 6 pence would be worth A$185 today. That’s a fair chunk of change for 1948 and goes to show just how popular these hammocks were.

When I was kid in the late 80s and early 90s I inherited my uncle’s original WWII jungle hammock which he had used in the scouts throughout the 60s and 70s. He swore by it and after using it in scouts myself it forever converted me to sleeping in the air while out bush. Sadly that original hammock has been lost over the years, but in 2013 I became the proud owner of not only one, but TWO original WWII jungle hammocks. One is an absolutely brand new 1944 second pattern hammock which is going into storage until such a time as I can have a pattern made from it, while the other is one of the originals – a 1942 first pattern which is a little rough around the edges, but remains serviceable.

Denis, the nice old bloke from whom I purchased the one seen below, bought it as a kid in 1953 as brand new army surplus. He had to save up for months to pay the 7 quid the disposals store was asking. He and his mates used them for many years for camping and bushwalking and it had been in storage for a couple of decades before I bought it off him. The hammock had a 3-inch tear in the rain canopy and a few small rips in the cotton mosquito netting. These I fixed with waterproof cloth “sniper” tape, which is a completely reversible fix that won’t harm the originality of the hammock in any way, while ensuring the hammock stays serviceable.

Here’s a walkaround of the 1st pattern WW2 jungle hammock in pictures.

Prior to hanging the jungle hammock. Since it was dry weather, it's laid out on the ground prior to slinging it.

Prior to hanging the jungle hammock. Since it was dry weather, it’s laid out on the ground prior to slinging. Note how it’s folded in order to protect the relatively fragile waterproof canopy.

The hammock is slung loosely using two lengths of thick manilla rope. The suspension is original to the hammock and still works perfectly.

The hammock is slung loosely using two lengths of thick manilla rope. The suspension is original to the hammock and still works perfectly.

Hammock slung and unfolded, giving us our first glimpse of the rain canopy and insect netting. At this point, it's important to tie off the canopy to the hammock's main suspension rings. If one were to tie off the canopy to the trees, they'd rip the insect netting out as soon as they lay down in the hammock.

Hammock slung and unfolded, giving us our first glimpse of the rain canopy and insect netting. At this point, it’s important to tie off the canopy to the hammock’s main suspension rings. If one were to tie off the canopy to the trees, they’d rip the insect netting out as soon as they lay down in the hammock.

The instruction tag (missing with this example) states that locally cut sticks should be used to spread out the ends of the canopy. I used some deadfall sticks and tied them off to the corner loops of the canopy.

The instruction tag (missing with this example) states that locally cut sticks should be used to spread out the ends of the canopy. I used some deadfall sticks and tied them off to the corner loops of the canopy. The hammock is now slung correctly and ready for use.

In fine weather you can tie the canopy up to give better visibility. I've done that here in order to show the zippered entrance to the hammock.

In fine weather you can tie the canopy up to give better visibility and a nice breeze. I’ve done that here in order to show the zippered entrance to the hammock.

The original factory spec tag is still intact (along with the original repair kit). According to the tag this hammock was made on the 30th of October 1942, which makes it 71 years old at time of writing.

The original factory spec tag is still intact (along with the original repair kit). According to the tag this hammock was made on the 30th of October 1942, which makes it just over 71 years old at time of writing.

The view from inside the hammock. Once you're inside, the hammock is a fair bit wider than it looks from this image.

The view from inside the hammock. Once you’re inside, the hammock is a fair bit wider than it looks from this image.

Sniper tape repairs to the 71 year old cotton insect netting. I found this to be a relatively unobtrusive fix.

Sniper tape repairs to the 71 year old cotton insect netting. I found this to be a relatively unobtrusive fix.

To pack up the jungle hammock, you remove the spreader sticks from the canopy and untie one end. Fold the canopy up and start rolling while the other end is connected to the tree. This gives a nice tight roll and means you don't have to lay the hammock in the dirt/mud when you're packing it up.

To pack up the jungle hammock, you remove the spreader sticks from the canopy and untie one end. Fold the canopy up and start rolling while the other end is connected to the tree. This gives a nice tight roll and means you don’t have to lay the hammock in the dirt/mud when you’re packing it up. A surprisingly difficult photo to take.

To tie up my jungle hammock, I use an army surplus 60s-era sleeping bag carrier. This is a mess of straps that are perfect not only for the jungle hammock, but also for my canvas swag (bed roll).

To tie up my jungle hammock, I use an army surplus 60s-era cotton webbing sleeping bag carrier. This is a mess of straps that are perfect not only for the jungle hammock, but also for my canvas swag (bed roll).

Jungle hammock packed up. 3.5kg of 71-year old awesomeness.

Jungle hammock packed up. 3.5 kilograms of 71-year old awesomeness.

Item #2 – the Hennessy Hammock Ultralight Backpacker Asym (now sold as the “Ultralite Backpacker Asym Classic”)

Hennessy Hammock Ultralite Backpacker Asym Classic - image courtesy of the internet.

Hennessy Hammock Ultralite Backpacker Asym Classic – image courtesy of the internet.

So what’s a modern ultra-lightweight camping hammock got to do with a blog which is devoted to vintage gear and “old ways”? When Tom Hennessy designed the Hennessy Hammock it was based in part on his experiences with the WWII jungle hammock above. That makes the Hennessy Hammock an important evolutionary step forwards from the old school canvas jungle hammock. Besides, I’ve used mine for years and love it, and that’s enough.

On the Hennessy Hammock website, Tom Hennessy, designer and inventor of the Hennessy Hammock tells his story – and it all started with an army surplus WWII Jungle Hammock. Here’s an excerpt:

At the age of 16, I would make 200 mile, weekend bicycle trips out of Washington D.C. into the Appalachian Mountains. I carried a minimum of food & water, a light sleeping bag and a WWII surplus U.S. Army jungle hammock. I loved this old thing because it rolled up so small and weighed so little and had no poles or stakes, perfect for moving light and fast.

Later at university, I loaned my hammock to a “friend” who never returned it. As the years passed, I continued to miss that little piece of gear and finally decided to duplicate my old army hammock from memory during my winter vacation.

The duplicate of the army hammock took less than a day to finish. As I was cutting and sewing, I began to see ways to overcome some of the army hammock’s shortcomings. The prototype needed to be more spacious inside to eliminate any sense of claustrophobia. It needed to be wider to allow resting or sleeping on the diagonal without curving your back. The netting had to be increased to improve air circulation and the weather fly needed to be adjustable and removable to create an open and airy feeling during good weather and yet close up for protection at night or during inclement weather.

The rectangular army shape evolved into a sleek diamond shape; the cord assemblies at each end disappeared to create more interior space by attaching the hammock fabric directly to the suspending ropes….

The rest is history.

Here’s a photo walkaround of the 860 gram Ultralite Backpacker Asym Hennessy Hammock –

Please note that for the photoshoot I stupidly forgot to bring the “treehugger” traps which protect the tree from the hammock’s main suspension cords. This is particularly important when tying to smooth-barked trees such as these scribbly gums. If I had slept in the hammock overnight, the trees would have been scarred for years. Leave no trace. 

How is that even a hammock? This mess of... I don't even know what it looks like... is a Hennessy Hammock and silnylon tarp.

How is that even a hammock? This mess of… I don’t even know what it looks like… is a Hennessy Hammock and silnylon tarp.

Nope. Still doesn't look like a hammock. One of the options which comes with the Hennessy is a set of "snakeskins" which are a silnylon sleeve which protect the hammock and let it pack up REALLY small.

Nope. Still doesn’t look like a hammock. One of the options which comes with the Hennessy is a set of “snakeskins” which are a pair of silnylon sleeves which protect the hammock and let it pack up REALLY small.

It's only when we slide back the snakeskins that it begins to look like a hammock - sort of.

It’s only when we slide back the snakeskins that it begins to look like a hammock – sort of.

My leave no trace philosophy extends to pegging out the sides of the hammock. I use deadfall timber (as seen here), rocks or adjacent vegetation.

My leave no trace philosophy extends to pegging out the sides of the hammock. I use deadfall timber (as seen here), rocks or adjacent vegetation wherever possible.

The hammock slung - minus tarp. It doesn't seem like it, but this hammock has far more room inside than the old jungle hammock.

The hammock slung – minus tarp. It doesn’t seem like it, but this hammock has far more room inside than the old jungle hammock.

Pitching the stock silnylon tarp doesn't require any extra tie-outs or pegs. The nylon rings at each end clip to the prussik'd hooks on the main suspension ine...

Pitching the stock silnylon tarp doesn’t require any extra tie-outs or pegs. The nylon rings at each end clip to the prussik’d hooks on the main suspension ine…

While the sides clip to the hammock-body's tie out cords - so long as you replace said cords with elasticated shock cord and tie a loop into them. The aforementioned is a useful mod for any camping hammock.

…while the sides clip to the hammock-body’s tie out cords – so long as you replace said cords with elasticated shock cord and tie a loop into them. The aforementioned is a useful mod for any camping hammock.

The view inside the hammock. OMG the bottom's torn out! That's because it's a bottom entry design, silly. This is a velcro slit which allows easy entry and easy exit. It snaps shut with your bodyweight with zero risk of falling out in the middle of the night. Sheer genius I tell ya! As Rick from http://brushnsoapnblade.wordpress.com/ says, " you get to be 'born' every time you get out through the Velcro slot!" What can I say? it's weird but it works.

The view inside the hammock. OMG the bottom’s torn out! That’s because it’s a bottom entry design, silly. This is a velcro slit which allows easy entry and easy exit. It snaps shut with your bodyweight with zero risk of falling out in the middle of the night. Sheer genius I tell ya! As Rick from BrushnSoapnBlade  says, ” you get to be ‘born’ every time you get out through the Velcro slot!” What can I say? it’s weird but it works.

With the canopy rigged for bad weather like this, you stay perfectly dry - even in a tropical downpour.

With the canopy rigged for bad weather like this, you stay perfectly dry – even in a tropical downpour.

Hennessy Hammock complete with canopy.

Hennessy Hammock complete with canopy.

When you're done you can put it into your pocket and away you go. Seriously.

When you’re done you can put it into your pocket and away you go. Seriously- that’s the complete Hennessy Hammock in a cargo pants pocket with room to spare.

The Hootchie – Part 1 – An Adventure Through Time

A current issue Australian hootchie shelter. Image from www.raymears.com. Uncle Ray loves the Aussie hootchie.

A current issue Australian hootchie shelter. Image from http://www.raymears.com. Uncle Ray loves the Aussie hootchie.

“Hootchie” or “hutchie” is the slang term for the Australian Army’s Shelter, Individual – NSN 8465-66-013-5032.

The hootchie is a sheet of 70D nylon or PU-coated cotton with various press snaps and webbing tape loops attached around the outside which allow it to be used in a variety of configurations such as –

  • Tarp tent
  • Hammock tarp
  • Improvised hammock (heavyweight ones only)
  • Swag (bedroll cover)
  • Sleeping bag (best used with a wool blanket or nylon poncho liner)
  • Groundsheet
  • Fighting position cover
  • Waterproofing sheet for bundling up equipment during water crossings
  • Trailer or open-top vehicle cover (when stationary)
  • Solar still sheet (so says the Australian army’s survival pam)

And that’s just the ones I’ve tried or heard about. If you have alternate uses for the hootchie or its NATO/ANZUS cousins, post ’em in the comments.

The hootchie concept is widely used by military forces around the world as well as by outdoor enthusiasts such as bushcrafters and recreational hikers.  Here’s some military users –

United States – Poncho and Field Tarp

The new USMC field tarps are flooding the surplus gear markets. It's a pity I don't use camouflaged equipment or I'd grab one to test it out.

The new USMC field tarps are flooding the surplus gear markets. It’s a pity I don’t use camouflaged equipment or I’d grab one to test it out.

In the US, service personnel, outdoor enthusiasts and bushcraft practitioners have been using the venerable rain poncho in place of the hootchie for decades. These do an admirable job, but are just that little bit too small to be an effective tarp tent or hammock tarp. Recognising this, the US Marine Corps has recently introduced the “Field Tarp” it has a digital woodland camouflage print on one side, and is coated with “coyote” tan polyurethane. By all accounts it works well, but is a little heavy.

Poncho Shelter ideas from a US military manual. These work great if you're a midget (no offence to any of our smaller-statured readers). But if you're tall like me, a hootchie format works much better. For more uses for the military poncho (and therefore the hootchie) see http://www.hardscrabblefarm.com/vn/poncho.html

Poncho Shelter ideas from a US military manual. These work great if you’re a midget (no offence to any of our smaller-statured readers). But if you’re tall like me, a hootchie format works much better. For more uses for the military poncho (and therefore the hootchie) see http://www.hardscrabblefarm.com/vn/poncho.html

New Zealand – Kiwi Hootchie

Like the Aussies, our Kiwi brethren have long been advocates of the simple utility of the hootchie format for their shelter sheets. The Kiwi hootchie is camouflaged and is bigger than a standard Aussie one.

The United Kingdom – Basha

A British military-issue desert DMP basha. Smaller and more shoddily made than an Aussie hootchie, but appear to do the job.

A British military-issue desert DPM basha. A little smaller and more shoddily made than an Aussie hootchie, but they appear to do the job. Image from http://www.zombiehunters.org – user Kommander

The British call a hootchie a “Basha”. In British service, the idea was copied off Australian and Kiwi troops operating in Borneo during the Indonesian Confrontation in the early 1960s. Back in the early to mid 1960s British bashas were identical to Australian hootchies of the same era – solid green in colour. Later they were made in British jungle camouflage, which is a sort of yellow-tinged camouflage pattern. And for desert operations they were made and issued in British desert camouflage.

Cropped image of a current-issue British MTP basha showing the pattern.

Cropped image of a current-issue British MTP basha showing the pattern. As you can see, the pattern doesn’t work too well in hot/wet and cold/wet environments unless you set it up in the middle of the track. This will cause problems for the British, US, Australian and others who use Multicam-based clothing and equipment patterns if called upon to fight outside the arid zones.

They are currently being made and issued in the British Multi-Terrain Pattern (MTP) camouflage, a variant of American Multicam. Although never as widely used by the Brits as it is by the Aussies, the Basha/hootchie remains a well-loved piece of equipment for both tropical and arid climates, particularly since the British Ministry of Defence’s procurement people seem to have specified a much higher standard of materials and construction for the new MTP equipment.

Australia – Hootchie

The original and best, the Australian hootchie evolved from experience gained over decades of previous wars and other military operations.

SOurce - http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=157548

A British specification for the Commonwealth-issue WWI-era MKVII ground sheet/rain cape. Source – http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=157548

During the First and Second World Wars, Australian (and other British Commonwealth) troops were issued with a rubberised canvas ground sheet / rain cape. It was far from suitable as an individual shelter in the trenches, although a couple could be laced together to provide a shelter for two men, or as a cover for a fighting position. As a ground sheet and as a rain cape, it did sterling work despite it’s heavy weight.  It was state of the art for its time.

Along with the rain cape format, WWI and II era Australian and Commonwealth troops were issued with a ground sheet, which was essentially the rain cape without the triangular section and the collar accoutrements. Like the rain cape, an individual ground sheet was too small to be of much practical use unless used as a dry surface to bed down on or if laced together with another ground sheet as a cover for a sleeping or fighting position.

An Australian 1945-vintage groundsheet. Image from a now-defunct eBay listing.

An Australian 1945-vintage groundsheet. Image from a now-defunct eBay listing.

During WWII Australian forces fighting the Japanese in the Islands had an urgent requirement for a decent individual shelter. The rubberised canvas groundsheets and rain capes continued to be used (now issued separately), but these were less than effective in the tropics.

Groundsheet shelter from a WWII Australian jungle warfare manual. Great sun shade, but what if it rains?

Groundsheet shelter from a WWII Australian jungle warfare manual. Great sun shade, but what if it rains?

A better solution had to be found, and quickly.

Shelter Halves. From the AWM collection.

Shelter Halves. From the AWM collection.

To improve the troops’ individual shelter systems, large stocks of American shelter halves began to be issued. Similar in form to an Australian ground sheet, a shelter half was made from lighter water-repellent sateen cotton cloth and was fitted with press studs to connect to another “half” to make a two-man pup-tent. The shelter half was constructed in such a way that it resulted in a tent with a closed-in end. This is great for helping to keep rain and snow out of your bedding while you lay there freezing through a European winter, but  it reduced visibility and blocked ventilation in the jungle to unacceptable levels. As a consequence, US shelter halves were mainly used by Australians as fighting pit covers and as groundsheets. Ultimately the Australian troops were no better off than if they had retained their Australian-issue groundsheets.

Australian soldiers using American Jungle Hammocks in the Pacific during WWII - AWM collection

Australian soldiers using American Jungle Hammocks in the Pacific during WWII. This digger is an old hand, having kept his hammock slung low to reduce its visual signature and to better protect against errant gunfire or grenade fragments – AWM collection

A decent shelter was seen not as a luxury in these tropical malaria-infested areas, but as essential. Both the United States and Australia went to extraordinary lengths to try and prevent tropical diseases such as malaria and scrub typhus among the troops. As a result of this effort, the American Jungle Hammock was born.

An Australian-issued jungle hammock used by NX16053 Warrant Officer I Raymond Turrell in New Guinea during WWII - AWM collection

An Australian-issued US jungle hammock used by NX16053 Warrant Officer I Raymond Turrell in New Guinea during WWII – AWM collection

The jungle hammock was a revolutionary individual shelter system. It consisted of a canvas hammock protected by mosquito netting and topped by a waterproof canopy. It rolled into a bundle just a little bigger than a woolen army blanket but it was still portable and provided a waterproof, insectproof shelter for an individual soldier. In practice it was not a great idea to be using a jungle hammock in the front lines with the ever-present threat of an enemy artillery barrage or infiltration parties, but in larger camps back from the lines the jungle hammock was much appreciated. Keep a look out for a separate post on the WWII jungle hammock.

Towards the end of the war in the Pacific Australia began issuing its troops a lighter weight version of the groundsheet manufactured from polyurethane-coated cotton – the same material which formed the canopy of the US jungle hammock. Although issued too late to be truly revolutionary during WWII, the PU cotton material remained in the Australian Army’s institutional memory and became the basis for the first pattern “Shelter, Individual” – the hootchie.

Along with the jungle hammock, American ponchos began to be issued in quantity to Australian troops in the pacific. Made from a rubberised cotton, these were a turtle-neck format without a hood, but were lighter than the rain cape and larger than the groundsheet.

Australian soldiers' camp during the Malayan Emergency in 1956. Poncho shelters are in abundance. AWM collection.

Australian soldiers’ camp during the Malayan Emergency in 1956. Poncho shelters are in abundance. AWM collection.

During the Malayan Emergency of the 1950s, Australian troops were issued with hooded ponchos. Unlike the WWII US pattern ponchos which always had a hole in the dead centre of the poncho sheet, the Australian-issue hooded ponchos made an effective shelter – especially when two where clipped together. The problem of course is that the rubberised canvas ponchos were far too heavy for jungle use.

Malaya 1960. An Australian Long Range patrol on counter terror ops on the peninsula has been forced to rely upon gaudy commercial plastic shower curtains as shelters for their A-frame jungle beds. An unsatisfactory situation.

Malaya 1960. An Australian Long Range patrol on counter terror ops on the peninsula forced to rely upon ultra-lightweight but flimsy and gaudy floral commercial PVC plastic shower curtains as shelters for their A-frame jungle beds. An unsatisfactory situation. AWM collection.

The weight issue was critical for troops undertaking long range patrols in the jungle which could last for weeks. Some expedients such as the shower curtain idea used above were workable, but a lightweight and hardwearing shelter sheet was urgently required.In the early 1960s Australian units in Borneo hunting Indonesian infiltrators from Kalimantan were issued with the first pattern hootchies.

A lightweight hootchie. AWM collection

A lightweight hootchie. AWM collection

The hootchie was a sheet of PU coated cotton measuring approximately 2.7m x 1.9m (approx 8ft 10inches x 6ft 2inches) with press studs and loops sewn at intervals around the outside edge as well as various eyelets and grommets. A line of loops was sewn down the centre of the sheet to allow more options when pitching as a shelter. Although still a little heavy, the hootchie was a vast improvement over its predecessors, and was almost bombproof. Its one failing was its weight – still over a kilogram.

The hootchie became a standard piece of Australian equipment which was included in a new recruit’s initial clothing and gear issue. With Australia’s entry into the Vietnam war, a second pattern lightweight hootchie was issued. Made from nylon, but retaining the  hardware and loops, the lightweight hootchie weighed a mere 680 grams, still heavy, but suitable for tropical use.

A pair of hootchies used as a gun pit cover in Vietnam. AWM collection.

A pair of hootchies used as a gun pit cover in Vietnam. AWM collection.

In practice in Vietnam, the hootchie was rarely used as a slung tarp shelter. When wet it shone in moonlight and in the pre-dawn glow. Tying it to trees left “sign” and for exhausted troops on patrol it was simply a hassle to pitch the hootchie. It was often used in conjunction with a woolen “horse blanket” or a poncho liner as an open-sided sleeping bag or it was simply laid upon as a ground sheet with the soldier sleeping under a poncho. In more permanent positions such as patrol bases or fire support bases, the hootchie was widely used as a sun and rain shelter and as a cover for fighting pits.

After the Vietnam War the hootchie soldiered on and continues to form part of the equipment of the Australian soldier to this day. Modern hootchies are made of Australian camouflage (Auscam) nylon with khaki loops, but aside from this the size and pattern are identical to the green Vietnam hootchies.

British Outdoorsman and Campfire Cooking legend Ray Mears often uses a current Australian issue hootchie as part of his kit.

British Outdoorsman and Campfire Cooking legend Ray Mears often uses a current Australian issue hootchie as part of his kit.

That’s the evolution of the hootchie in a nutshell.

Next post in this series will look at types of shelters which can be pitched using a hootchie as well as an overview of a very decent commercial equivalent to the military issue hootchie – in environmentally-friendly green rather than “tactical” camouflage.

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.

left-side

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.