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 2 – Shelter

With all of these new-fangled modern canvas swags you see with their hooped poles and pegged-down corners, you could be forgiven for thinking that the swag was always meant as the sole source of shelter for the swaggie or the stockman. Nothing could be further from the truth. A canvas bedroll or swag cover was only ever used for bedding. If wet weather was expected the swagman built or used a shelter, whether it be a hastily thrown-together grass or bark gunyah, a lean-to of leafy branches set against a fallen log, an actual tent, or just a humble shelter sheet or tarp. Laying out in the rain under a canvas swag is folly. It’d get soaked and would weigh a ton when you have to carry it the next day.

Aside from overhead cover, you’d need some sort of ground cloth. If you have the room, an oilcloth jacket or a rain cape aren’t a bad idea either. In the case of a WWI/WWII-era army rain cape, it was designed to double as a groundsheet, thus killing two birds with one stone. In wet weather, you still have to walk, so the groundsheet does triple duty as a waterproof wrap for your swag roll.



Japara tarp pitched lean-to style as a bit of a windbreak during a recent swag walk

Historically, in many cases, the tarp WAS the swag cover. For more info on the swag cover itself, see the next in this series of posts. The most traditional of tarps is a cotton one, treated to shed rain, and preferably made of a closely-woven cotton like japara.

My own tarp of choice is a cotton japara tarp from Terra Rosa Gear in Victoria. It’s 3m long x 2.3m wide and can be pitched in any number of configurations. For most conditions I’ll pitch it in an “abdulled” configuration, with the windward side pitched to the ground and the other held up by deadfall sticks. This gives plenty of living room. In foul weather I’ll pitch it hootchie-style like an “A” tent.



Groundsheet wrapped around the swag roll as a rain cover.

A groundsheet has to be waterproof so that if it starts to rain really heavily, any runoff can run under the groundsheet rather than into your bedding. I use a WWII jungle groundsheet most often. It is a coated japara fabric which is relatively lightweight but is as waterproof as nylon. I lay it on the ground first, then the rest of the bedding goes on top.

If the weather is dodgy I’ll wrap my swag up with the groundsheet as well. You probably won’t find one of these jungle groundsheets, but a strip of light oilskin is the next best thing. You could of course use a nylon poncho or similar, but when I’m swaggin’ it, I pretend that such high-tech fabrics as  nylon haven’t yet been invented.

Rain Protection

A wet weather garment is essential if you’re swaggin’ it through wind and rain. I use a 3/4 length oilskin coat with the cotton lining removed to reduce weight and bulk. Mine is a Burke and Wills brand coat.


What Price Glory’s repro British rain cape groundsheet.

An ex-army combination rain cape and ground sheet is a great idea, since it means less weight to carry but originals can be difficult to find in a useable condition. In this case you can find a reproduction one from What Price Glory in the USA.

You’ll notice that neither of these options has a hood. That’s because the best head protection can be had from a wide-brimmed hat, preferably one made of felt.


Nothing beats a good, old fashioned felt hat for rain and sun protection, particularly if used with a chinstrap to stop the wind from blowing the hat off your head, and to help angle the hat against wind or rain.