How to make a traditional swag using simple materials

Making your own traditional swag or bedroll in the style of an original Australian swagman is easy using just a sheet of canvas, mattress, blanket, pillow and rope.

Today we do not have to carry a swag long distances on our back so we can add in a few extra creature comforts, but why spend $400 or more on a top-of-the-line mass-produced swag when with a little ingenuity you can be sleeping just as comfortably in the traditional swagman style.

Swag history

Traditional swagmen in the late 1800s or early 1900s used to carry a piece of canvas and a blanket to sleep in. The swagman would fold the canvas in half and lie between the layers with the blanket to keep him (swagmen were always men) warm and dry at night. During the day the swagman would roll it up with his clothes and other worldly possessions, tie it up with a loop for a handle, and carry the bedroll on his shoulder as he walked outback Australia in search of work.

Making your own traditional swag

You will need:

  • generous sized sheet of canvas
  • foam or self-inflating mattress
  • doona or blanket
  • pillow
  • rope.

I developed my swag when my wife was sick in the middle of winter. Who wants to lie in bed next to a coughing, spluttering partner? Not me. And being the generous soul that I am, I vacated the bed rather than telling her to sleep in the living room. We do not have a spare bed, so I pulled out some of our camping gear and made myself comfortable.

First I laid my old 8’ x 10‘ canvas tarp on the floor. I then placed one of our self-inflating mats on half the tarp.  I folded an old Queen-sized doona length-ways in half and laid it on the mattress and threw on a pillow. Finally, I folded the other half of the tarp over the top. I find this swag set up toasty warm and very comfortable. I use a rope to keep it rolled up when I am not sleeping in it.

Traditional swag

Traditional swag

Any appropriately sized piece of waterproof canvas will do, but do not use a poly tarp as they do not breathe like canvas. I purchased my canvas tarp from Deals Direct a few years ago. I recently tested a similar tarp by leaving it in the rain overnight with some towels stuffed in the middle. The towels did not get wet at all — I was amazed at how waterproof it was! Similar tarps are now being sold on eBay. You may also be able to get a cheap high quality canvas off-cut from a local canvas goods manufacturer or repairer.

Make sure that your canvas is a generous size – you want it to go under you, over you, and cover your feet and your head. If camping outdoors, ideally you should also have some overhang along the side to cover your boots and clothes to keep them dry. I have used an 8′ x 10′ tarp that I had lying around, but this really is the minimum if you are sleeping outdoors. If I was to buy one, I would be looking for a 9′ x 12′ canvas tarp.

I first used a DMH 4WD Off Road self-inflating mattress from our camping kit. This 195 cm x 80 cm x 10 cm thick self-inflating mattress is very comfortable but rolls up very bulky. I have also used a BCF 5 cm foam mat. It is less comfortable, but rolls up better. There are numerous other options from cheap thin closed-cell hiking mats to open-cell mattresses that can be rolled up. Again, be a bit creative – a trip to a rubber or mattress outlet may turn up something cheap and comfortable. Apart from comfort, the main thing to look for is the mattress’ insulating properties. Cold ground can soak up a lot of your body heat, so make sure your mattress provides a barrier between you and the ground. The thin closed-cell hiking mats generally provide excellent insulation, and they can be used under an open-cell mattress keeping you both warm and comfortable.

I have used a queen-sized doona in my swag that I had spare lying around the house. Use a removable doona cover so that it can be easily washed. I lie in between the two halves of the doona to help insulate me from the cold ground below as well as the air above. It provides a bit of extra cushioning, and means that I am sleeping on a cotton cover, not directly on the top of the mattress. You could also use a sleeping bag, blanket, or even just a sheet if it is really hot. I also use a full-size pillow in my swag.

Using your swag

I have used my swag indoors in an unheated room down to about three or four degrees Celsius and been toasty warm (the rest of my family were sleeping in their bedrooms with heaters running). This was much more pleasant than crawling into bed with a sick wife! In fact, my swag is so comfortable I find myself looking for a reason to sleep in it! I roll out the swag under a huge window in our house and it is very pleasant looking out at the night sky. I can imagine doing this in the outback with a million stars shining down on me!

If using this traditional style of swag outside, set it up with the opening of the folded canvas/doona away from the prevailing weather. This will keep any cold draughts from coming in through the folded material. Also be conscious of not setting up anywhere rain water will pool on the ground or where water will channel if it rains.

When it is really cold, pull the canvas over your head and shape a little air passage downwind. This will help keep your head warm and recirculate the warmth of your breath, but still allow some ventilation to minimise condensation.

When it is warm, tie off the centre of the top flap at both ends to a couple of trees. This will lift the top flap off you to provide ventilation, but still provide protection from any passing storms.

Consider getting a couple of the cheap blue tarps. Use one as a ground sheet. If the weather is really miserable, the other one can be set up in a lean-to style with the swag underneath for a bit of extra protection. Or just get one large blue poly tarp – use half as a ground sheet with the swag on it and tie the other half up in a lean-to style above the swag.

The biggest drawback of this style of swag is that they do not have any insect screens. Numerous swags on the market do not have insect screens, so don’t let this put you off. Obviously do not camp on ant mounds, but mozzies may still find their way into your swag or if you are really unlucky a snake seeking a little warmth overnight. Of course, if you roll out your swag next to a crocodile infested creek, you deserve to become an overnight snack!

Rolling up and storing your swag

When you are not sleeping in it, roll it up so no bugs get in it. Fold the bottom flap over the top to make an envelope. Start rolling from the top (where your head was) of the swag. If you are using a self-inflating mattress, make sure the valves are at the foot end!

The following photo is of my home made swag with a 50 mm thick BCF foam mattress, thick woollen doona and full sized pillow wrapped up in it!

Home made swag rolled up

Home made swag rolled up

I have used a single length of rope to tie up the swag. I have tied a couple of overhand loops about a foot apart in the middle of the rope — the length of rope in between these knots becomes the handle. I then tied each end of the rope around the swag with a half hitch. This keeps the swag rolled up nice and tight, but also gives me a handle to carry the swag. A close up of the right hand knot in the above photo is shown below.

Knots used to tie up home made swag

Knots used to tie up home made swag


2 thoughts on “How to make a traditional swag using simple materials

  1. Pingback: Burke and Wills Ironbark Swag @ Rant, Rex

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