Are you trying to find the best camping shelter for your Australian trip and getting a bit stuck on the question "What is a swag"? Don't worry, you're not alone. The humble swag is a unique Aussie creation that comes from the time of "swaggie". This term was first used in the gold rushes of the early 1830s to describe bushmen who carried their possessions and daily necessities with them.
Traditional swags were small shelters that could be easily carried on foot. The modern version is usually larger and comes with a built-in mattress and a tough canvas exterior.
Personally, my swag is one of my most prized possessions. It's been with me on countless trips throughout Australia. I even remember waking up in the middle of a storm one night to realise that I was sleeping in the middle of a giant puddle! Fortunately, the inside of my swag was still (somewhat) dry.
I've drawn on my experience to put together the following quick guide on swags. Keep reading to find out what they are, where they come from, and how you can use them on your next camping adventure.
What Is A Swag?
A modern swag is usually made of a tough canvas outer cover, a mesh inner layer for insect protection, and a comfortable foam mattress.
They roll up into a tight bundle for storage and transportation, and most models let you leave your bedding inside when you pack them away. I find this particularly useful, as it keeps everything clean and dry, even in dusty or wet conditions.
The Origins Of Swags
The modern Aussie swag had humble beginnings with the swagmen of old. It has developed over the years to become a must-have essential for Aussie campers. In fact, I'd argue that I know more people with a swag than a tent!
During the Australian gold rushes in the 19th century, thousands of men and women made journeys of hundreds or even thousands of kilometres to the gold fields. Most of these people slept rough in the bush, and the term "swaggie" was coined.
At this time, the term swag had come to mean the possessions carried by these swagmen and women. It became popular in the 1830s and has lived on to this day. Following the gold rushes, swaggies were known to travel from place to place in search of work. They continued to carry their swags with them, but the design began to change.
Fast forward a century or so, and more convenient transport in the form of cars led to the development of modern camping swags. They are larger than old-fashioned swags because they don't have to be carried on foot, but they remain relatively lightweight and portable.
Fun fact - the swaggie and his swag are the central characters in the classic Australian poem Waltzing Matilda by AB "Banjo" Patterson.
Types Of Swags For Camping
When it comes to swags, there are a few different general models to choose from. The simple canvas swag comes in single and double-person models, and then you have things like biker and rooftop swags to think about.
These are usually a little smaller than a single bed, but they are still more than big enough for the average person.
Most models have a mesh screen for airflow and insect protection, along with some sort of support or guylines to hold the top canvas cover away from your body. Some single swags also use a dome-style design that effectively gives you a tiny tent-like structure.
Think of a single swag, but for two people. Most two-person swags are pretty cosy, but the chances are that you're not going to care too much about that if you've chosen to share with someone!
Biker swags are designed to be strapped to the back of a motorbike, and they are smaller than other models. I find them a little uncomfortable because they tend to have a thinner mattress. But they're still great if you're looking for a portable bed that you can strap to your bike!
Features Of A Swag
Although most swags look pretty much the same, there are a few key features that I've learnt to pay close attention to when I'm looking for a new model.
Size - Most swags are a pretty standard size, and they can be pretty tight for larger people. If you're on the tall side, look for a longer model to ensure you can get a decent night's sleep.
Weight - Since most people transport their swags in their vehicle, the weight won't be too much of a problem. Just keep in mind that some double models can be quite heavy, and you may find them difficult to move around on your own.
You will also want to look for a lighter model or a specialised biker swag if you want to carry it on your motorbike.
Waterproofing - Most quality swags are fully waterproof, but it's important to treat them correctly to keep them this way.
Some swags need oiling or treating before you use them, so be sure to read the manufacturer's instructions properly. Otherwise, you might find yourself a little damp on your first rainy night!
Material - Most swags use a waterproof canvas material that's tough and designed for Australian conditions. For me, rip-stop canvas is a must so that small holes and frayed corners don't turn into major damage. Yes, my swag does get treated pretty rough!
Mattress style - Your mattress will dictate your night's sleep, so make sure you choose a swag with a comfy mattress. I'd recommend going for a firm memory foam mattress, as these are especially good for sleeping on uneven or rough ground.
Ventilation & insect protection - Adequate ventilation is a must, or you will roast alive inside your swag in summer.
Most swags have windows with mesh screens at the top and bottom ends. Many even have a mesh layer that you can zip up without the canvas outer layer. I've spent plenty of nights staring up at the stars from inside my swag, and this is a must-have feature if you ask me!
Internal structure - The most simple swags are simply a mattress sandwiched between two layers of canvas. I'd recommend going for something a little bit fancier with poles or guylines to hold the top layer of canvas away from your body. Trust me, it makes for a more comfortable night's sleep!
5 Benefits Of Swags
I've found that there are countless benefits associated with using swags. Here are my top 5.
In my opinion, the best thing about swags is how comfortable they are. Most models include a decent built-in mattress which allows for a good night's sleep no matter where you are.
Swags are so, so convenient! Setting your swag up for the night is as simple as rolling it out on a flat piece of ground. To pack it away in the morning, just roll it up again! You can even leave your bedding inside to keep things more organised.
Handy tip: If you're tight on space, a rolled-up swag makes a great chair for sitting around the campfire at night!
Swags are also one of the more affordable camp sleeping options out there. Even a top-end model shouldn't cost you more than a few hundred dollars, and they last for decades when treated properly.
Imagine being able to use the same bed set-up in both southern winter storms and on hot summer nights!
The good old swag is perfect for both, and everything in between. When zipped up, it effectively encloses you in a waterproof canvas cocoon that will keep the weather out even in heavy rain. Unzipped with just the mesh screen closer and you have a cool shelter with great airflow.
5. Immersive with nature
Something I love about my swag is how close to nature it lets me sleep. I especially enjoy laying under the stars with the canvas cover folded open. There's just something special about falling asleep in the moonlight with the sounds of birds or the ocean in the background.
The swag is a modern Australian camping shelter that's suitable for virtually all weather conditions. There are a few different models out there, but most feature a waterproof canvas outer cover, a built-in mattress, and mesh screens for airflow and insect protection.
If you've never used a swag before, I'd recommend getting your hands on one and giving it a go - you won't regret it!
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.