Home Sweet Home on the Range--Bedroll Basics, by D.K.

Wednesday, Aug 4, 2010

When assembling your post-apocalyptic, biker zombie, total collapse of civilization kit (or just getting started in camping) one item you should consider as part of your kit is a classic bedroll.

A classic bedroll, not the stuff of Hollywood or television, but the kit of real working men is both comfortable and multipurpose.  They are not lightweight, small, or easy to backpack.

Please allow me to share the road I took to get to my current bedroll.  I will try to describe the attributes of a good bedroll, suggest the minimum bits for a good durable bedroll, and provide some links to historical information on military use of bedrolls.  Finally, there will be some links to sources of commercial bedrolls in case you wish to buy rather than roll your own.

I got my first bedroll when I started with the Scouts - the Troop I joined was led by combat Vets from both WWII and the Korea conflict - it really was a para-military uniformed youth training organization with a focus on 'real' military skills - just as Lt. Gen Robert Baden-Powell had first envisioned in 1907.  That early experience and training from these Vets has stayed with me.

Anyway, the bedroll was an old tarp, as an adult I now see it likely started life as a WWII or Korean vintage Jeep trailer cover.  This cover held a pair of Army-issue wool blankets - all given to me to 'get started'.  The system worked to keep me warm at night, if not all too comfortable.

I used this setup until I started in serious backpacking.  Short of funds, I upgraded to a new system using a surplus Case, Water-repellent, for Bag, Sleeping and a home made wool blanket liner.  The liner was made out of the blankets on hand.  Mom (gotta love 'em) helped me to cut and sew them into a modified mummy style reaching to my armpits.  The blanket leftovers were made into a kind of cape.  I re-waterproofed the poplin case by soaking it in raw linseed oil.  It took the poplin fabric a while to dry completely in the AZ sun/heat, but when completely dry, was proven to be a waterproof and windproof cover.

When I landed a job as a staff member at the local Scout mountain camp, I purchased a 'real' (commercial) sleeping bag.  By the end of the summer, the bag was completely shot - sleeping every night in the bag for just under 90 days destroyed it - lesson learned.  I also had to carry a ground cover and tent when away from the main camp.  Later, I worked for a Geoexploration company while in college.  This job meant sleeping in the field for 4 or 5 days a week - with very limited space in the truck to carry personal gear.

That bedroll was made from my recycled Scout tarp, a pair of new surplus wool blankets and three commercial furniture pads obtained used from the local rental outfit.  When warm, the pads were a comfy mattress, when cold, they helped the wool to keep me toasty.  A second tarp was used in very rainy weather as a wedge tent to keep the water out of our faces.

In the military I used the issue bags, but I had my wife make another semi-mummy liner from a surplus wool blanket - on the really cold nights it made a difference.  I spent one of the most miserable Fall nights in my life sleeping in Death Valley using a pair of issue poncho liners and a poncho.  I think my wool 'liner' would have made a big difference, but the wool liner was left at home to save weight.  Never again.  I also added a shelter half to provide shade/wind protection in my 'go kit'.

This brings me to describing the attributes of a good bedroll:

First, the bedroll must be durable - as in brick outhouse durable.  This means it must stand up to nightly use for weeks on end.  It must suffer and survive abuse like rocky ground, rubbing against other kit, heat, drenching rain, (well below) freezing cold and dirt.  It must be able to survive a soaking and be usable within a short period of time. 

Second, your bedroll should be a stand-alone item for use.  Your bedroll should not require an additional ground cloth or tent to be used.  As I mentioned earlier, a second tarp is nice, but should not be required.  If a second tarp is used, it may be lightweight as it will likely receive little abuse from day to day s use.

Third, the bedroll must be comfortable!  If you are forced from your home/primary shelter, you will spend up to 1/3 of your life in this bedroll.  That means you must be able to adjust to extremes in temperatures, ground conditions, humidity and rain.  After busting hump for 12 hours, a bad night's sleep can make a tough job into one that is unbearable. 
Your bedroll should be easy to enter and exit - especially for that late night nature call or zombie attack.  The size you ultimately choose will depend on your style of sleeping.  I can no longer stand the confines of a mummy style system for long periods, for example, so mine is large and roomy.

Fourth, the bedroll must be easy to maintain.  Cleaning and maintenance of the bedroll components must be done without commercial washer/dryers or sewing machines - if you cannot take care of your bedroll in the field, you face some very bad nights indeed.

The bedroll should have room for some of your kit (small tool/sewing kit, extra socks, a clothing change and perhaps a hygiene kit) without compromising the waterproof nature of the bedroll.  At the very least you should certainly keep a set of loosely fitting polypro long johns, a poly baklava and a set of heavy (wool, of course) socks to sleep in during colder weather.  A pocket for a pillow is a nice touch.

The bedroll will not fit a stuff sack, so you must be able to roll it in such a manner as to allow the cover to keep rain, mud, dust and bugs out of the bedding.  That also means good solid roll straps, at least three, that are large enough to hold the roll and stay put.  You should consider a couple of additional straps to provide a means to attach the bedroll to your transportation - from a truck or a donkey to a hand cart.

The basics parts of a bedroll - you can add as you learn.
A sturdy bedroll is made of:
A cover or shell that is both waterproof and brick-outhouse durable.  This is the make or break item on a bedroll.
Bedding, warm, durable and with the ability to accommodate changing weather.  I have some pretty strong ideas of what works and that will be shared a bit later.
An insulator or mattress - both for comfort and to reduce loss of body heat into the ground.  A means to hold this mattress is a real plus.
A storage system to accommodate those few additional sleep related items you do not want in your ruck or haversack.
Straps to hold the bedroll, well, rolled.

Lets see how these mandates have worked out in the current edition of my latest bedroll.

Made of Number 1 canvas duck, it was cut, washed in very hot water to shrink the weave and reduce shrinkage while in use.  Beginning with a large piece of canvas to reduce the number of seams, the material was cut into 3 pieces.  Using a local tent maker, the cover had webbing (tape) sown into the 1.5 inch edge seams, double stitched with heavy, waxed, UV stable thread.  An additional roll of thread was purchased for any future repairs that might be needed.  Sown with industrial machines, each corner was bar stitched and industrial brass grommets were placed across the 'top' and down the 'open' side to almost waist level.  All seams were sealed to stop water infiltration.

At the top, an additional piece, just under 4 feet in length, slightly more than the width of the 'bag' was attached at the time that seam was taped and edged.  The third piece was sewn to this flap to make a pocket prior to attachment to the cover.  This pocket has a slot (that may be laced shut) to allow access.  The entire piece of fabric was waterproofed.  This hood can serve as a mini-tent in bad weather.

A quick note here - how you waterproof the cover fabric matters.  Check the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for any waterproofing material used.  Some 'classic' methods may carry a health risk - for example, commercial "boiled linseed oil" may contain drying agents that pose a health hazard.  All linseed oil is both flammable and material may heat and burn spontaneously if not dried completely.  Commercial waterproofing products may not be compatible with your cover material.  Read the label completely - ask questions is you are not sure.  Always check the MSDS.

The actual size of your bedroll cover will be determined by how you sleep and the type of bedding / mattress chosen for your system.

If you have not figured it by now, I am quite partial to wool blankets as bedding. On the plus side - Wool is durable!  In researching the web for some additional data for this piece, I found several WWI Army Quartermaster Corps issue blankets for sale - and some still used by re-enactors.  Wool is naturally fire resistant; wool will offer insulation even when damp.  Wool can absorb almost 20% of its weight in water before reaching total saturation-- that is defined as the point at which absorbed water begins leaking back out of the fabric - in other words, onto your skin. 

On the minus side, wool is a natural product that loses some strength or can break down when overheated - hot water is okay, steam is not - so drying via a campfire is best done carefully.  Wet wool also loses some strength - so, again, dry it carefully.  Dry wool can become quite brittle - usually not a problem when used as bedding - just use care in storage to avoid too dry of conditions.  Insects are also a consideration in storage.

I found that our local Army-Navy surplus store had some of the "Italian military" surplus blankets recently seen in various on-line outlets.  Reasonably priced, they weight over 5 pounds each, a good sign of quality in a woven wool blanket.  Initially compressed from long storage and reeking of insect repellant, after several washings they are now fit for duty.  Three of these blankets and a wool liner from a national outdoor supplier and we have almost all that is needed for a comfy set of bedding.  The liner, of Merino wool, allows me to keep the other blankets clean should I have to hit the rack while dirty.  There are liners made of linen, polypro, and fleece that will likely work as well - I just happen to like wool.

The mattress
Right now I am back to an interlaced pair of furniture pads, as I have used before.  This is a stopgap measure while looking for a suitable covered closed cell foam pad.  Several commercial products are offered by different outfitters, some with a cover for the pad to resist moisture accumulation.  My concerns lie with both the durability of any of these products as well as the finished width - all I have seen offered are relatively narrow - about 25 inches or so.  The Pacific Outdoor Equipment Mega Mat looks - at 32 x 78 inches - like it might be a good pick, I am trying to find a local source for some hands-on time - at $150 or so, not an instant choice.

Wrapping it all up
Keeping things tidy are a set of straps I talked the parachute shop into sewing up for me some years back.  Made from salvaged C-60 cargo parachute harnesses they are stout, to say the least.  Any surplus store should have these kind of heavy duty strap sets - ensure you have the buckles that match the webbing.  Too large and the strap will slip, too small and you cannot lace the webbing through the buckle.  If you can find some Capewell release type buckles, you will be pretty close to bombproof strap sets.  At least one pair of large/long straps will allow you to secure your bedroll to transport.  My bedroll rides in the truck or on my home-made cargo cart.

How well does this work?
Well for me, just fine.  I just finished a week-long gig at a remote camp here in Alaska and slept both cozy and warm, despite the cold and rainy nights.  In this case, I did nave an unheated shelter - open to the wind - but was as toasty as can be.  Getting out of bed in the morning was a bit of a challenge though.

Will this setup work in the dead of an Alaska winter?  To be honest, I hope to never find out, but it goes in the rig when traveling out of town in case an avalanche or bad accident closes the road.

If you plan on only 'truck camping' you may wish to consider a reproduction M-1935 Bedroll with blankets - designed for use with an issue cot, these are well thought out military 'system' and should provide good service for temperate climates.  Any good tent maker should be able to fabricate one from canvas goods on hand.  The so-called Auzzie swag bags are another possibility to consider.

Random thoughts:
A maintenance kit should have a sewing awl, thread, good size chunk of beeswax in a tin and a half a toothbrush to apply the wax.  A few large needles, heavy thread and a small set of scissors will help keep your blankets or clothing in good repair.  Learn to use a 'blanket stitch" or "lock stitch"
A good way to keep the loose stuff in your bedroll less loosely is to cut up an old set of BDU or ACU pants.  Cut the leg just below the cargo pocket and sew the cut end shut.  Use this as stuff sack for socks, drawers, etc - using the drawstrings to close the sack.  This sack will allow you to roll loose items with fewer lumps.
A pair or two of very heavy wool socks will keep your toes warm, and may be used to fashion a neck or ear warmer and in a pinch,,or as as hand warmers/mittens.


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