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History of the Swag

Many people, especially those in the cities, are starting to develop an interest in swag camping. This is a perfect activity for those who are looking to enjoy a night out in the wilderness, or those who are looking to reconnect with nature, or those who simply wants to escape and have some peaceful "me" time.

However, not all people, especially those in other continents, are not really familiar with what a swag is. So here is a short and brief history of the swag, from what is was a century ago to what it is now.

What Is A Swag?

First off, let's start with a question: what is a swag?

Simply put, a swag is a traditional bedroll or small tent. They aren't big enough to accommodate whole families like big dome and tunnel tents, but there are double sized swags, which are perfect if you're camping with a partner. Families though, can still enjoy swag camping by bringing individual swags along.

Since they are pretty small and lightweight, swags can be rolled and strapped onto a backpack and carried around wherever you go - which is pretty much the same way that the swagmen of hundred years ago did.

When It All Began...

Way back in the later parts of the 19th century to the earlier years of the 20th, Australia's economy suffered because of the Depression and the Great Depression, thus leaving hundreds and thousands of men unemployed and unable to find work.

Because of this, many of them have taken to the road and travelled hundreds and hundreds of miles across the continent looking for odd jobs or any other work available. One favourite stop for many of these men are sheep stations, where they get jobs as shearers.

Of course, these men are not picky given their situation, so whether it is reaping grains in the farm or breaking rocks and minerals under mines, work is work and it doesn't really matter that much to them.

Elderly Swagman. Image by New South Wales Printer (

During those times, motor vehicles weren't invented yet, or if they were, they weren't that popular in the Land Down Under at that time. So many of these men (referred to as swagmen) trudged the hard-packed dirt roads and traversed tall grasses and more on foot.

Sometimes, these swagmen meet each other and travel together as a pair or in groups; however, there are of course solitary swagmen who prefer to have no company during the long walk. Interestingly, many of these melancholic swagmen travel with a dog or some other kind of pet to somehow ward off the loneliness (and depression) that sinks in while on the road.

In those days there weren't many hotels or inns in Australia, and even if there were, these laid-off swagmen probably won't have enough money to pay for them anyway, which is why they always carried with them a knapsack and their swag - and everything else that they owned in the world is slipped inside the bag or wrapped in their bedrolls.

These swags or bedrolls were the accommodations of these swagmen for most parts of the year. After a long day's walk, they look for a comfortable spot on the side of the road and made clearings. Here, they make camp - start a fire, cook food in a tin pot, unroll their swags and doze off under the shade of trees or under the wide starry sky.

Even when they do find work, most of them still sleep in their swags (unless their landlords offer them a bed inside the house) either inside or outside the barn or in the fields. These bedrolls or swags have become the swagman's four-poster and, the world, his bedroom.

The Swag Now

Over the years, the swag has developed from a common bedroll into something much more comfortable and convenient.

In the past, a bedroll was merely made from two blankets and a mattress (if any) in between. However, nowadays you can choose swags made from various materials like cotton, polyester, or canvass. These makes the swags tougher and sturdier, and with advances like the RipStop Technology which incorporates special weaves into the canvas to make it stronger, you can expect that swags will only get better in time.

Before, a swagman's tent is pitched using short twigs and dead branches that have fallen from trees. However, the present swag with sturdy alloy poles is being used instead of wood. Aside from alloy, some swags make use of fibreglass poles.

Swags nowadays also have PVC or plastic bases while some are made from canvass bases. This is in contrast to the cotton blankets which served as the base for traditional and antique swags.

Modern raised swags even have legs which allow you to sleep away from the ground so you don't have to worry about jutting rocks or stones - now you can rest peacefully without worrying about an aching back in the morning.

In addition, modern swags also have wire mesh sewn into them. This mesh allows the air to come in freely into your swag and gives you supply of fresh air inside, so you don't have to breathe in the same air that you snored out while asleep. Another use of the mesh is to protect you from insects, snakes, and any other critter that may decide to poke their noses in your face while you sleep.

The present-day swag. From Outdoor Oz

Final Words

A swagman's life may seem idyllic, bordering on romantic even. Well, such is the life back then, but who says you can't go on and experience what it feels like to be a swagman? And besides, it doesn't take much to be one. After all, you only need two things for that to happen: a great swag and an adventurous spirit.

Photo courtesy from Flickr by Doug Beckers