History of the Canvas Bedroll

August 17, 2015 by wynnchester - No Comments

Camping in the Great Outdoors is an experience so many people enjoy. Yet often we’re really “indoors”, inside a nylon tent, separated from our surroundings and nature.

The team at Wynnchester would like to introduce you to a different way of camping. You’ll be protected from the elements but still open to the surroundings, sights and sounds, movements, air flow, rain fall, to the skies and the stars, moon and sun, even comets and shooting stars.

Forget those cheap, plastic, ‘disposable tents’ made for festivals. You need something built to last and easily mended in the field. A canvas bedroll is what you need.

A heritage-inspired but  modern Canvas Bedroll

A heritage-inspired but modern Canvas Bedroll

The canvas bedroll is a traditional form that has been largely forgotten.

The bedroll exists in a number of variations, but generally consists of a strong waterproof and windproof canvas outer shell. Inside this shell you create the right bed for the conditions. You can use clothing or blankets, a sleeping bag, a camping mat, or even use leaf litter to create a natural mattress arranged underneath the bedroll.

You can sleep simply, on the ground, protected enough from wind and weather, and yet still at one with your surroundings. You’ll smell the smoke and feel the warmth of your campfire, still breathing the fresh air and feeling the weather change as night falls. As dawn breaks you’ll hear your friends’ voices and campfire tales, or the sounds of the forest or mountain stream or of the surf.

Traditional bedrolls include the Western ‘cowboy bedroll’, the Australian “swag”, and from the military sphere the British Army’s officer’s bedroll or “valise”. In “Art of Travel”, the explorers’ handbook by Francis Galton first published in 1855, he describes a sheepskin bedroll used by French “douaniers” border guards to sleep out high in the Pyrenees. Sailors have made the same covers from oil cloth sails.


British Army Officers “Valise ” bedroll

Often the bedroll is also used to wrap belongings inside for travel – the officer’s valise bedroll would do just that. Indeed, the word “valise” indicates both the bedroll and a ‘useful bag’, from the latin “valere” to be strong, but also meaning ‘capable’. So the valise is strong and capable – a useful, strong bag. Nowadays we’d call something like that a ‘travel holdall’ and interestingly the Turkish for a travel bag or suitcase is… “valiz”.

Examples of officer’s valise bedrolls often have the classic stencil printing of “WANTED ON VOYAGE”. Unlike items “not wanted on voyage” it was meant not to be stowed in the ship’s hold, but instead sent to the officer’s accommodation. The valise and all the items inside would be needed during the voyage.

As a carry item as well as a sleeping bag, the Australian swag version of the bedroll was similarly used to carry the swagman’s belongings during the day. Swag-men were typically itinerant workers travelling from farm to farm offering their shearing skills. Everything they owned, and the means to camp out in the bush along the route, would be encompassed in the bedroll carried across one shoulder for comfort. Australia’s (unofficial) national anthem Waltzing Mathilda has the iconic words “Once a jolly swag man camped by a billabong, under the shade of the coolabah tree…”.


Early photograph of an Australian “Swagman” (wikipedia)

In the British Army the valise bedroll format was barely changed right up to the early 1970s. A retired British Army Major fondly recalled to us how the canvas “valise” bedrolls were used in cold war Germany – strapped to the outside of a tank or Land Rover, and unrolled on the ground whenever the manoeuvres dictated a few hours sleep. He reported they were very effective in the cold and snow of Northern Germany. In fact he still owns his original valise, and uses a bedroll for camping today.

officer bedroll valise land rover wynnchester

The military bedroll concept is also remembered by older Scout masters who did their first scout camping under the guide of WWII and Vietnam veterans, who knew from experience the benefits of canvas bedrolls.

In military history dating back to the 18th Century, the infantrymen of the Napoleonic war era would carry a wool blanket bedroll, wrapped in a horse-shoe shape around a small knapsack backpack covered in a waterproof canvas. Napoleon himself was said to be greatly in favour of “bivouac” camping for soldiers rather than using a tent:

Napoleon: “Tents are not healthy; it is better for the soldier to bivouac next to the fire.”

galton-soldier bivouac 60

In WWII each soldier would carry a ‘shelter half’ (or Zeltbahn), a shaped piece of canvas that when joined to another soldier’s ‘half’ would create a small tent for two. Alternatively, used on its own in conjunction with a wool blanket it would create a simple canvas bedroll. So a wool blanket, wrapped in a canvas outer, rolled and carried on the back has been a very common means of camping for many centuries.

Today, while goretex bivvy bags have their place in terms of lightweight protection for ultralight marathon runners and mountaineers watching every ounce, the noise of modern plastics and the slippery feel as you slide around inside, your breath condensing on cold plastic bag around you, is a very different experience from that of the admittedly more heavyweight canvas bedroll.

But it wasn’t always thus – of course, mountaineering pre-dated modern plastics by some considerable time. Edward Whymper, a founding father of alpine mountaineering, describes the pleasures of using a simple wool blanket bedroll to camp out high up in the Alps as he surveyed routes for his book “Scrambles Among The Alps”, 1860.

wool blanket bag whymper

For today’s use, a number of canvas bedroll options are available. We make our own modern canvas bedrolls, derived in part from the British Army officers bedroll, Australian swags and cowboy bedrolls. These are a highly functional and optimised piece of bivouac gear with all the properties of a traditional canvas sheet and wool blanket bedroll.


Wynnchester “Adventurer” – a modern canvas bedroll

Today in Australia because of the nature of bush camping and outback travel by vehicle, the ‘swag’ bedroll concept has been retained for camping. Whilst many are now more like nylon mini-tents, it is still possible to find canvas versions which have the proper characteristics of a bedroll.

bedroll swag group camp

Swag camping is offered as a key part of the travellers’ outback experience. Some camps give groups of young people get the chance to sleep out around a large central campfire. Many Europeans returning from an Australia trip come to us looking for a product they can buy which will give them that simple experience ‘back home’.

And out in Africa the canvas “safari” bedroll is still used in a number of “star bed” camps and mobile wildlife safaris like this one on the Makgadikgadi salt pan in Botswana, accessed by quad bikes.

natural high safaris com salt pan camp

The rise of Bushcraft in recent times has seen a renewed interest in simplicity and traditional bush camping experiences. Ray Mears, who has worked hard to articulate the value of a bushcraft approach, has used canvas swags in the Australian desert and bedrolls in the UK woodlands as part of his TV show.

raymears swag

Ray Mears in an Australian swag in the desert

The age of the cowboy may have passed but the Cowboy Bedroll is still used in the USA today in horse packing and ranching. The traditional bedroll is made by taking a canvas “mantee” or pack cover. A mantee is like a canvas tarp, traditionally thrown over the large packs carried by the pack horses to keep them dry and keep out dirt. They are simply re-used at night to create a canvas wrap around blankets to build the bedroll, keeping your cowboy snug.

marlboro ebay ad bedroll

Being canvas, a bedroll can handle sparks from the campfire, unlike plastics which tear, melt to your skin with heat, catch fire with sparks, and can’t be mended effectively. The simplicity of a canvas bedroll made from natural materials, cotton canvas, wool blankets, leather and natural rope means (like all traditional pre-plastic ‘outdoor gear’) it can be mended, in the field.

But there’s more to bedroll camping than the experience of these materials. You also benefit from the simplicity of use and the feeling of being at one with your surroundings and your companions. You can arrive in an amazing location, whether it be a clearing in the middle of an English broadleaf IMG_9828woodland in summer, a sandy coastal beach, a desert camp, or by a mountain stream, simply you grab your bedroll, roll it out around a central fire or cooking stove and you’re immediately ready to immerse yourself in your surroundings, to “tune in” as Ray Mears puts it. Even when you retire inside your bedroll, you are able to look up at the night sky or the clouds racing over head, breathing the fresh air and sensing everything that the location, the views, nature, skies and weather, and the people you’re sharing it with have to offer. Shooting stars overhead, sweet dreams.