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.