Separated from the rest of the world by thousands of miles of ocean, Australia’s isolation fostered the evolution of seriously weird animals, like the platypus and kangaroo. And so too has its camping culture evolved in a totally unique direction. Where America and Europe prefer ultralight tents that weigh little and pack down to virtually nothing, Aussies spend their nights outdoors in heavy duty canvas sacks that weigh a ton and require a truck to transport. Now, those swags are being imported to the U.S. Will they catch on? I spent two weeks living in the outback to find out.
What’s a Swag?
Back in the days of cowboys and criminals, a “swagman” was an itinerant worker who traveled the country working seasonal jobs, like stock roundup and sheep shearing. All they typically carried was a blanket and a piece of canvas to sleep under, rolled up on their back. Those bed rolls became known as “swags,” and slowly developed into minimalist shelters as sleeping outdoors changed from a way of life to a recreational activity.
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Think of the world’s heaviest bivy sack or backpacking tarp—built from the heaviest possible materials—and you won’t be far off. There is some nuance to the swag market, but most are one-man shelters made from heavy canvas, supported by sturdy aluminum hoops at either end. The swag’s entry is huge, making up anything from half the shelter’s length to its entirety, and includes a mesh inner door that allows you to sleep under the stars in fair weather, while keeping poisonous spiders, snakes, and the deadly drop bears from crawling inside with you while you sleep. Swags also typically include a dedicated foam mattress that fills the entire interior: you leave it and your sleeping bag inside when you roll the whole package up. Swags can be either free standing or use stakes to guy out the walls.
With a modern swag, that whole shelter doesn’t so much pack down as it does slightly condense into a roll that’s roughly a meter long and half a meter in diameter. That’s why they’re more typically transported in the bed of a ute or on the roof of a 4x4 than inside a vehicle’s passenger compartment. The swag’s innate weatherproofness keeps the inside dry, no matter if you’re crossing rivers or trapped in a once-in-a-generation rainy season (as I was).
“In Australia, we have all sorts of nasty creepy crawlies,” explains ARB’s Mike Lowry. He oversaw the design of the swag I tested and intends it to be the finest available. The 4x4 accessory maker will begin importing the SkyDome swag you see here to the U.S. later this year, priced around $400. “With centipedes, spiders, and snakes all trying to bite you, you don’t want to just be sleeping on the ground. In a swag, you feel secure,” Lowry continues.
Who Uses Them?
“If you’re the sort of bloke who wants to be flashy, then you go with a rooftop tent, but most of us just swag it, mate,” explains Sam Purcell, a 4x4 journalist based in Sydney. He was looking at me like I was crazy as I described my ultra-luxury rooftop-tent-on-the-ground two-person camping setup. That cabin-size tent, two-person mattress, and all the assorted down quilts and pillows packs down into a waterproof bag that’s roughly the same size as a 1P swag, and is only a little heavier. And in that tent, not only can a 6’5” bloke stand up fully, but you can also have great sex on its four-inch thick air-and-foam mattress. Inside the swag, you only have three inches of egg crate foam to get busy on, and you’ll need to do all the work yourself.
They do make 2P swags, which weigh 31 pounds, and ARB brags about its “massive” 64 cubic feet of internal space. In comparison, the Nemo Wagontop 4p that forms the basis of my rooftop-tent-on-the-ground weighs 18 pounds and has an internal volume of 445 cubic feet.
So why do Australians want to camp in these things? The best answer I could come up with is a sense of nostalgia, national identity, and tradition. Just like every American male right now wishes he could grow up to be a lumberjack, Australians seek to recapture a little of their country’s adventurous heritage when they leave behind the oppressive speed limits and extreme regulation of their day-to-day lives and go camping, in swags.
Looking around at what other campers I encountered on this trip were using, it seems clear that this ARB SkyDome represents the pinnacle of swag design. Not only is it extremely overbuilt, but it’s also full of clever, quality-of-swag-life improving features, like the dedicated holder for large round hats that sits inside the roof, just forward of the entry way.
The swag’s main body is constructed of 14.75-ounce canvas and is mounted on a floor made from totally waterproof 28.61-ounce PVC. That bathtub floor is three inches tall, and will keep out standing and flowing water to that height. Hell, you could probably bathe in the thing if you had a few dozen gallons of water.
Three sturdy aluminum hoops support the Swag’s head, center, and foot. Ridge poles push them apart, making the swag freestanding. That’s important, because Australians often camp on hard surfaces, where staking is impossible. ARB’s swag is designed so you can sleep on bitumen and still be comfortable.
There are included stakes, and the swag is fitted with guy lines for stabilizing its head- and foot-window awnings. Those awnings can be staked out to provide ventilation while keeping rain out, or just rolled up, out of the way. They also come with internal canvas panels that zip closed for additional weatherproofness. That’s two waterproof layers of closure on the windows, for those of you counting along at home.
The enormous main entrance is surrounded by rain gutters, and the canvas body and mesh inner door run on independent, heavy duty YKK zippers.
Inside, the three-inch thick mattress spans the entire one-meter width of the swag, giving you one huge, padded sleeping surface. ARB sells a rectangular sleeping bag to match its exact dimensions.
In addition to the hat holder, there’s a variety of pockets and clips inside, allowing you to stash books, socks, flashlights, a stubbie, or anything else you might want to bring inside with you at night.
The head-end window zips completely open for use as a ground blind. It’s called the “shooter’s window” thusly.
One thing the swag notably lacks is any sort of vestibule. That means unless you want to bring your muddy boots into your bed, you’ll have to leave them outside in the rain. Acknowledging this, ARB jokingly designed a tiny reproduction of the SkyDome called the “Boot Swag.”
I spent the last two weeks driving some old 4x4s across the Simpson Desert and surrounding areas, and slept in this thing most of the trip. It was cold, it was hot, it rained, it was windy, it rained some more, then it rained again. I’d say I’m an experienced swag user at this point.
At first, I was obviously skeptical. The swag makes zero objective sense due to its incredibly poor-packed-size-to-internal-volume ratio. Crawling into one is like crawling into a canvas coffin, and you’re left stripping out of your clothes and boots in the pouring rain, before you can get inside. I was at least able to keep my stuff mostly dry by storing it in ARB’s waterproof canvas swag transport bag.
But man, once inside a swag, you really do get an enormous sense of security. It’s not just that there’s a thick canvas barrier between you and the Fierce Snakes—it’s that the all encompassing mattress, spacious sleeping bag, and womb-like swag interior combine to immerse you in comfort. Well, so long as you’re laying down; there’s no room to sit up inside.
What started as an awkward dance of de-clothing externally, then struggling to get both doors open so I could jump inside before getting soaked gradually turned into a practiced, efficient procedure. Especially after I realized I could set mine up underneath one of ARB’s truck-mounted awnings.
The first night, my Australian friends laughed as I elaborately staked the swag out like a backpacking tent, with each corner carefully hammered into the hard red earth and the tarp cleanly tucked in under the shelter’s footprint. But I quickly learned that the benefit of using such a heavy, strongly-constructed, bizarrely tiny shelter is that it’s almost totally impervious to wind. Once set up, the ARB swag is not going anywhere, not matter what the weather. And, it stays calm in and quiet inside, even when gusts bounce tumbleweeds (or: “upside down trees”) across your roof.
Wake up in the rain? After getting soaked putting your pants on in it, you just zip the swag closed, and roll it up. Integrated straps and connectors allow you to cinch it tight, and its waterproof floor rides on the outside, keeping everything inside dry.
By the end of the two weeks, I actually learned to appreciate the swag. After riding in the rain on the roof of an old Land Rover every day, I could just throw my swag on the ground, unroll it, and crawl into its dry, cozy interior to pass out from exhaustion.
- Feels like sleeping in a coffin. Vampires will feel right at home, and once you’re used to it, you will too.
- Utterly impervious to wind and rain.
- Thick canvas and small dimensions hold in heat with everything zipped close. Easily the warmest shelter I’ve ever slept in. You can keep a less-insulative sleeping bag inside it than conditions would otherwise dictate.
- Generous ventilation makes it great when it’s hot out too.
- Ridiculously overbuilt. You’d never manage to damage this thing under normal use.
- Meter-wide mattress and sleeping bag allow you total freedom of movement, so long as you lay flat.
- Drop bear resistant.
- You sound like Justin Bieber when you talk about one.
- The most ridiculous packed-size-to-internal-volume ratio ever conceived. “Tardis-like?” This is whatever is opposite that.
- Takes muscle to load one onto a lifted truck’s roof.
- ARB’s transport bag isn’t quite large enough to easily fit the swag its supposedly designed to fit, leading to water intrusion in transit.
- No vestibule for keeping boots and gear external, but out of the rain.
- Can’t sit up inside.
- You’d never want to do anything but sleep in one; it’s not a place to pass a rainy afternoon.
- You’ll never, ever, ever, ever carry one anywhere without a car or truck.
Should You Buy One?
There is no objective argument in which the swag can justify itself. It’s too heavy, too small, too expensive, too difficult to carry, and too impractical. Combining the weight of canvas and PVC with the dimensions of a bivy is just never going to make sense.
Despite that, I really enjoyed sleeping in mine. So much so that it really is mine—I’m shipping it home from Australia. The sense of security is no less in your own head than it is with an ultralight backpacking tent made of 7D ripstop, but it still offers an immense feeling of well-being. Well, once you’ve stripped off your clothes in the rain and left your boots outside getting wet that is.
Swags are going to be a rare sight in the U.S. market, and may offer travelers and expats a welcome reminder of their time in the Outback. If you have plenty of storage space on your vehicle, if you don't mind carrying excess weight, and if you like sleeping in small spaces, then maybe, just maybe, a swag might be for you.