This post is about the bedding used when swaggin’ it. You’ll notice there are no self-inflating mattresses or camp cots used. Spending a few nights out bush without them is no great hardship, and they are easy to improvise. We’ll start from the ground up when describing the sleeping gear.
The cold, hard ground
If you’re sleeping on the ground without a pallaisse (described later) then that cold, hard ground is going to put pressure on your hip bones, making for an uncomfortable sleep. The classic solution to this problem is to dig yourself a hip hole. This is not actually a hole, but more of a short and shallow trench kicked out of the soil with the heel of your boot. It allows you to roll over in your sleep without having to precisely place your other hip bone into the same hole. Make this hip hole just a little longer than your waist is wide and make the hole about 5-8cm deep. It’s easy to fill in the next morning.
If you’re sleeping on sand on a beach or by the side of a sandy creek, or even in sand dune country, you’ll find it can be soft and comfortable, with no undue hip pressure, but it will sap the heat right out of you. You’ll need insulation.
Insulation and comfort
Traditionally, the bushman’s bed was a pile of soft, bushy boughs cut from the nearby vegetation. They served to break contact with the heat-sapping effects of the ground, while providing a soft and comfortable surface to lay upon. Today, we don’t go around vandalising the place by destroying ti-tree and tree ferns just so we can sleep soundly upon their remains. Instead we use other means to make a bushman’s bed.
A pallaisse is a calico or canvas bag which is carried empty and in camp is filled with dry leaf litter, sheoak needles, grass or leaves stripped from fallen timber. when compressed by the body weight of the sleeping person, it not only provides comfort levels approaching those of a feather mattress, but it insulates as well. In my experience, a palliasse is the most warm and comfortable bed you’ll ever find out bush.
If you’re willing to use nylon equipment, you’ll find that those useless Australian army issue blow up mattresses have a place here. Ditch the PVC blow up cells and keep the nylon outer cover. Fill each of the three channels inside the cover with sheoak needles, dry grass or leaves and you have the perfect pallaisse bag and it stops the filling from moving around during the night. Since I don’t do nylon, I’ll have to make do with a clone of this mattress cover sewn together from cheap cotton calico. Another ready-made option for a pallaisse bag is a cotton sleeping bag liner. Add some ties so you can close it up completely. Filled completely with leaf litter or dry grass it’s a fantastically comfortable mattress.
If using a pallaise bag, then make sure that you return the filling to the bush and spread it out. Minimal impact is the right mindset.
If you’re travelling lightweight, you can use layers of newspaper between your groundsheet and your bedding. I have used this method many times and I find that it insulates exceptionally well. I have to say I was quite surprised the first time I tried it. Soft sand insulated by one or two layers of newspaper is perhaps the perfect bed. 4 or 6 broadsheet pages are all that’s needed. The newspaper weighs almost nothing. Has almost zero bulk to it when rolled up in your swag, and it has multiple uses besides. Foul weather fire lighting aid for instance, toilet paper as another.
Proper, made-up swag covers like those “traditional” envelope swags we see today have only been in common use in Australia since the 1930s. That’s not to say they are no good – I use one myself for most trips. Before they came along the swag cover was a strip of canvas or oilskin longer than the user was tall, and wide enough that it could be brought over the top of the sleeper’s bedding and even tucked underneath a bit. It provided a windproof layer and a little protection from dew or light precipitation.
There was an art to putting together a canvas sheet swag, and it was the most commonly used form of swag cover there was.
Blanketry and pillows
Inside the swag cover was the bedding. Traditionally the bedding was one of more woolen blankets, being light grey or blue by choice. This is the reason for the swag roll being named the “Bluey”. An army surplus blanket is a good choice here since it’s usually 100% wool, is the right colour (grey wool) and is generally long and wide enough to double over the sleeper. In cooler weather obviously two blankets are better than one, and the use of two allows you to make a warm and roomy sleeping bag by carefully folding the two blankets together.
If using one blanket, you can still make a more snug-fitting sleeping bag by using five or six blanket pins to secure the side and bottom of the folded over blanket. A sleeping bag format is more effective than just an open blanket because there’s less opportunity for that cushion of warm air inside the bedding to escape.
Pillows are something that aren’t completely necessary, but are nice to have. If you don’t have a bag for use as a pillow then you’re forced to improvise. Incidentally I will often tie my hobnailed leather boots together with the foot openings facing up, then I’ll place my slouch hat over the openings and lay my head upon the hat. It makes a wonderful pillow. Since most times I have a spare calico bag floating around in the nosebag, I’ll often fill it with my shirt and pullover, which also makes a fine pillow.
Having humped the drum through cold and sleet, and even camped in the snow with my swag, I can tell you that sometimes a sleeping bag is useful during the extremely cold weather. In the snow in minus 10 degrees (C) weather, a wool blanket just won’t cut it. I use a couple of different sleeping bags.
The warmest is a 1940s vintage US army arctic sleeping bag outer. This is a feather and down-filled cotton rectangular sleeping bag which can be opened out into a quilt. It’s vintage, although not a traditional swagman’s kit, but it works extremely well.
The other is a classic Australian bushwalker’s Paddy Pallin Paddymade “Kiandra” japara-covered, superdown filled sleeping bag. Bags similar to these were available from the 1930s and were used by swag-toting bushwalkers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.