Waltzing Matilda with a swag, Part 3 – Sleeping

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.

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Here you can see a cotton sleeping bag liner stuffed with sheoak needles being used as a pallaisse bag  mattress during a recent bushwalking trip.

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.

Swag cover

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My vintage swag cover. This is made from linen canvas and dates to 1940. It’s an envelope type with leather straps and nickeled brass buckles to secure the sides. It is an Australian Army officer’s bedroll made by Evan Evans Pty Ltd in Melbourne.

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

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A rather untidy swag camp at the Bulldog Gold Diggings in Far Northern NSW. Here you can see a green lightweight wool army “horse” blanket inside the swag and a calico bag packed with spare clothes for use as a pillow.

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.

Sleeping Bags

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My 1960s-vintage Paddymade superdown-filled “Kiandra” sleeping bag. Great for use with a swag.

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.

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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.

Tarp

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Waltzing Matilda with a swag, Part 1 – Packs and Carry

Welcome to the first in a multi part series on the “how-to” of bushwalking in the old style with a swag and nosebag.

Each of the parts of this series of posts will cover a separate aspect of the gear and how to use it, but keep in mind that there were literally dozens or even hundreds of different configurations. In this series you’ll see the gear I tend to use most often while swaggin’ it. For an exhaustive look at this stuff and the rationale behind it, you’ll need to wait for my soon-to-be-released book On the Wallaby Track: A Swagman’s Handbook . This series of posts is designed to give you nuts and bolts info purely to get people started and out there on the track swaggin’ it in the old style.

Packs and Carry has a broad definition. In this case it refers to:

  • The swag straps and shoulder strap used to carry the wrapped bundle which is the swag roll
  • The nosebag
  • Tucker bags
  • Ditty bags
  • Any belt kit
  • Any haversack

The most important parts of the swag are the straps and the nosebag. Everything else is secondary, even the swag roll itself isn’t as important as the straps used to secure it.

The Swag Straps

Traditional swag work in progress.

2 inch wide belts work perfectly as swag straps.

The path of least resistance for this setup is to use a couple of old leather belts for the swag straps. These wrap around the packed swag roll and keep it from coming open while you’re on the track. I have often used a pair of 2 inch wide army surplus Swiss Army officer’s dress belts. Bare with me here because you’ll see army surplus gear pop up over and over as we go through this series of posts.

Being wide and strong, these belts are secure and are almost unbreakable. You’re unlikely to ever destroy them. I usually go with swag straps between a metre and 110cm long. This gives you plenty of wiggle room when it comes to strapping up a fat, cold weather swag, or if you want to strap an oilskin coat or a rain cape to the outside of the swag roll where you can get to them easily enough.

The Shoulder Strap

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Adjustable leather shoulder strap is fastened between the swag straps.

This is little more than a short leather strap which is fixed between the two swag straps and which is long enough to put an arm through so you can carry the swag roll hanging off your shoulder. In my case I use an adjustable leather “cobra” pattern rifle sling. It works fine and being more than two inches at its widest, it doesn’t dig into my shoulder when carrying a heavy swag.

The Nosebag

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This picture shows how the nosebag is secured to the swag strap. In this case it it tied on using a calico triangular bandage, rather useful as multi-purpose item.

Also known variously as a tucker bag or as a dilly bag, the nosebag has a double purpose – it contains your food and cooking/eating gear and its weight helps to offset the weight of the swag roll on your back.

I use a vintage 50lb flour bag as my nosebag. This is twisted at the top and tied closed with a piece of jute twine. This twisted neck of the nosebag can then be tied off directly to a swag strap or you can tie it to the swag strap with a tea towel (seriously) or a calico triangular bandage. Both of the latter are easier on the shoulder when carrying a lot of tucker in the nose bag.

Use

There you have the basic carry system for swaggin’ it – swag straps, shoulder straps and a nose bag to balance it all out. In use, you would put an arm through the shoulder strap, which will lead the swag roll to sit diagonally across your back. If you have the nosebag nosebag tied off to the right hand swag strap, swing the nosebag around behind your neck and over your left shoulder so that it sits on your left chest.

Reading this, it’ll seem counterintuitive, but trust me, it’s the most logical way to wear the nosebag in practice. If you were to sling the nosebag over the same shoulder as the swag’s shoulder strap, you will in short order start getting a seriously sore shoulder and neck.

Miscellanous bags

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In this picture you can see the contents of the nosebag, many of which are laid out on their various ditty bags. The 50lb flour bag itself is the nose bag. The green bag is a rubberised canvas jungle food bag from WWII which was used as the tucker bag in order to keep the flour and other dry food from getting wet during a soggy swag trip. The quartpot gets its own calico bag in order to keep soot off everything else carried in the nosebag.

Inside the nosebag, everything is in miscellaneous calico bags I have found or have made up.

The most important of these bags is the tucker bag. I call this one the tucker bag because it contains the food separately to the rest of the stuff in the nosebag. When you’re camped for the night you can remove the whole tucker bag from the nosebag without having to untie the whole thing. Its size depends on how much food you’re taking. Mine is a calico book bag so flattened out it’s a little bit bigger than A4 size.

Inside the tucker bag you’ll find ditty bags full of foodstuffs. I use one for flour and others to keep small tin canisters and glass vials of spices together, as well as separate ones for coffee beans, sugar and tea.

Salt beef or pork goes into a calico meat bag before being carried in the billy. The calico stops the meat from sweating so it lasts longer without going rancid.

I also use calico ditty bags for carrying camp equipment (rolled up in the swag) such as candle lantern and candles, spare matches and the like.

Belt Kit

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Some basic belt kit items seen here (right to left) – a water bottle in skeleton leather carrier, compass in leather pouch, clasp knife pouch, larger bush knife sheath with attached accessory pouch.

I used to wear my bush belt quite often when swaggin’ it, but I tend to wear it less these days, since I’ve streamlined my kit considerably. The bush belt kit consisted of the following:

I use a belt-mounted canvas water bottle pouch to carry a WWI-era US M1910 canteen and canteen cup where it’s close to hand.

The belt itself is a 2 inch wide leather belt with a brass buckle I picked up from somewhere. It does the job.

I use an army surplus Urugayan/Argentinian 1910s rifle stripper clip pouch to carry my prismatic compass. The compass is secured to the belt with a plaited leather lanyard.

I use a leather pocket knife pouch to carry a Swiss pattern 1908 soldier’s clasp knife.

I use a brown leather knife sheath designed for a Buck 19 to carry my Svord Drop Point Hunter knife.

Haversack

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My What Price Glory repro Pattern 14 Haversack with leather sling.

A shoulder haversack can be useful on longer trips or when carrying extra equipment such as field sketching or photographic equipment.

My haversack of choice is a reproduction WWI-era Mills webbing Pattern 14 side pack from What Price Glory. These have leather straps and brass tongue buckles. I use it with a 1 inch wide leather military rifle sling, which admittedly is a bit less comfortable than a wider shoulder strap when the haversack is packed to the gunwales.