Are you a swag or a tent person? It’s a bit like Holden vs Ford, you are either one or the other. The Swag vs tent debate is a rallying call like some sort of battle cry. A line drawn from some previous infringements of common sense, “It’s not camping if you are using a swag”. “Seriously, you might as well be riding a Scooter, just don’t call yourself a biker” type attitude (Are Scooters really bikes?).
In all the Internet groups I’m a part of I see the same battle of ideas. I’m sure the question comes up to elicit an emotional response, by some sort of chaos causing gremlin. Because no sooner has it appeared, 400 normally sane people start to argue over which is the best bit of canvas to camp under. The thread goes on for days, some times weeks. It eventually fades out due to lack of interest. But never has the argument been won by either side. Then six months later it comes up again, and the same 400 people begin again.
Time to chose.
I want to say at the outset, I have no affiliation with tent or swag manufacturers. I actually own a number of both tents and swags. This post is the final word on which is best. So if you are interested in finally learning about the best sleep set up, then continue reading to the end. Otherwise go back to your arguments on Facebook. I’m sure you’ll win it in the end. Just remember to shake hands and be friends when it’s all over.
Let’s start by defining the two concepts. First, let’s find out exactly what a swag is and how it is defined, then we can do the same for tents. After all, before we get to fisty cuffs let’s at least know what we are talking about.
My usual way of defining things, is to consult the all knowing sage “Google”. In this instance it failed me. So I sought the one and only source of truth, the oracle from the Matrix if you like, better known as Wikipedia. Wikipedia gave me the following definition:
In Australia, a swag is a portable sleeping unit. It is normally a bundle of belongings rolled in a traditional fashion to be carried by a foot traveller in the bush. Before motor transport was common, foot travel over long distances was essential to agriculture in the Australian bush. It is sometimes referred to as a “backpack bed”. Swags have been carried by shearers, miners, the unemployed, and many others. Some of whom would have been happy to have been called swagmen and some not. – Wikipedia
The term swag was first used in its modern context by a convict in a book back in the 1880’s. He used it to describe how he carried his possessions around Australia looking for work. The term caught on and was soon adopted by shearers, miners and out of work men during the various depressions.
So there you have it, while the rest of the world wonder at those “Funny Aussies” and wonder why we are taking pieces of fabric with us on our bikes. It is only our brothers and sisters in NewZealand that really understand us. So what is a swag and why do some people camp in them.
What is a modern swag?
How to describe a swag to those who may not be aware of them, it’s a narrow canvas shell with a vinyl floor, think of fabric coffin (although it can also be canvas. They have a foam mattress and usually one or two poles to hold up the roof.
They are generally made of thick canvas (600D) with a fly screen and a door flap. The flap runs from the bottom to the top of the canvas coffin. In the old days of the swaggie they were just bits of canvas that provided protection from the elements. Now days, they can be giant high-tech bungalows that can take two people or more at a pinch or during a swinger’s party. In essence though a swag must contain a mattress and must be able to be rolled up and tied with its own straps.
It must be self contained and no more than 700mm high, although most modern swags would be less than 500mm high. The bigger the swag the more material in it and the more it weighs, the bigger it is when rolled up and the less useful it becomes.
Pros and Cons of Swags
The swags shown in the above photo are the latest style in biker swags. Their poles are made of high tensile aluminium. They are made of rip stop polycanvas, which is tough and hard wearing and have a have a solid vinyl bucket floor. This floor is tough enough for most camping situations.
You can keep the top of this swag open with a tough mosquito net for breeze or shut it down completely for torrential down pours. Once you zip it down the outer flap is does not let much light through, which can sometimes be a problem for tents in overlit caravan parks.
I’m 6′ 2″ and weight about 120kg, I’m a big person and while I find these small narrow biker swags a tight fit, I can still get to sleep easily once inside them. The bigger swags that I take when doing a road trip in the four wheel drive have all the room I need and I feel very comfortable and secure camping in them.
- Easy setup (Just roll it out, two pegs and its done
- Low profile
- Self contained
- Small pack profile
- Easy to stealth camp
- Warm and water proof
- Bug and wild animal proof (Including snakes and spiders)
- Small foot print
- Dark when zipped up
- Swags are warmer in the winter than tents (less room to heat up)
- Heavy (heavier than a tent)
- Less room inside than a tent
- Can be claustrophobic
- Not easy to get changed
- Can be hot is summer
- Limited gear storage
- Only suitable for one (Unless you get the wider versions which become more a like tent in the end)
- Problematic when it rains as there is no fly to cook under or get out of the swag without getting wet
- Limited space to store gear and equipment
Best use for swags
When I use my biker swag, I take out the 50 mm foam mattress and replace it with my insulated air mattress. I also camp with a down quilt and sleeping bag liner. The deflated mattress and quilt are packed into the sleeping back liner to provide some small level of protection from scratches or being pinch during pack. The are laid out flat along with my inflatable pillow and rolled the together in the swag.
I find this reduces the additional gear storage that I would have to pack in my panniers. It also removes some of the bulkiness of the swag, which gives it a lower profile on my bike. Because the swag is water proof, I don’t need to carry a dry bag. I simply tie it to my seat and use it as a back rest when riding long highway sections or as a seat extension when I’m riding off road and don’t want to be standing up and sitting down all the time.
When I arrive at my camp site, I look for a flat area and roll out my swag. My whole camp is set up in minutes. Likewise when I pack up in the morning it takes minutes to get back on the road.
Not all swags are the same
I have a couple of bigger swags with thicker mattresses (70mm) which I take with me in the back of my ute. If I’m wild camping in a rest area or I get tired and want to pull up somewhere out of the way, I can roll the swag out in the back of the ute, this allows me to have more security and to be off the ground. Again, once I wake up it’s only a couple of minutes and the swag is packed and I’m ready to hit the road (after coffee of course).
Dauche Ranger II Biker Swag set up on a recent group ride, in reality I don’t need the tarp as the vinyl floor is sufficient protection. Leaving my boots on the bike there was plenty of protection for my helmet, jacket and camera gear in the head of the swag.
Once again I go back to Wikipedia to find the definition of a tent, according to this wise and celebrated bastion of all knowledge a tent can be defined as:
A shelter consisting of sheets of fabric or other material draped over and attached to a frame of poles or a supporting rope. While small tents might be free standing, larger tents are usually anchored using guy ropes, tied to stakes or tent pegs.Wikipedia
Still not much there to work with in my attempt to differentiate tents from swags. Let’s face it there are all sorts of temporary sleeping shelters. But from my perspective a modern tent has a number of features not found in a swag.
Tents usually have some kind of frame that enables a material to be dropped over to create a cavern. The frame structure can vary from a single pole to a complex high tensile aluminium multi pole structures. You very rarely find a tent under 1000mm high, which means it has more room than a swag. I have a light weight hiking tent that has a single pole, is about the same width as my biker swag but weighs 1/14th of the weight. It consists of a tent inner and a rip stop water proof nylon fly over the top. It has more room than my swag and I can easily move around in it. I’ve written a blog post all about tents and the five things you must know before buying one, you can read it at the following link: https://digitalswaggie.com.au/five-things-you-need-to-know-buying-a-tent/
Living space is important
The other feature of tents that swags can’t easily replicate is the ability to create a larger living area by use of a complex pole structure. For example, the picture below is my Black Wolf Wasp UL2, it’s a two person tent with side vestibules. The whole tent weighs just three kilograms and packs into one of my panniers. There is plenty of room left in my panniers for food and clothing as needed. This is not the case with my swag, which weigh about seven kilograms and takes up my back seat.
Pros and Cons of Tents
- Easy to pack
- Create more living space
- Taller allowing people to get changed
- Lighter than swags
- Generally better water proofing
- Easier to get in and out of
- Room for gear storage
- Can share it with other people or love interests
- More mattress or sleep bunk opportunities (I some times take a small collapsible bunk bed)
- Provides a living space during wet weather (you can sit in a tent and work on a laptop, or make a coffee in the vestibules, make sure there is plenty of ventilation so you don’t get carbon dioxide poisoning)
- Tents are cooler in the summer than swags
- Fly can be removed to allow airflow during hotter months
- Set up and pack up times are significantly longer than a swag
- Profile makes the tent more noticeable (especially if trying to steal camp)
- Material is less robust (Poles break, fabric tears and waterproofing wears out)
- Requires more maintenance than a swag
- Foot print in a camping ground is generally greater than a swag
- More prone to be impacted by weather (Unless you have a decent three to four season tent)
- Colder than swags (in winter time)
With the drums rolling, I come to my conclusion and the result you have been waiting for after reading through my ramblings. Which is better a swag or a tent. The answer is:
Neither, yep you heard me. If you are after comfort then consider staying in a motel. Let’s face it they are warm and/or cold, have comfortable beds, air conditioning, coffee and tea making facilities, fridges to keep milk and beer cold and are usually attached to a restaurant with a bar. But if you have to camp for some reason, then I guess your selection of a swag or tent is determined by you specific needs.
When does a swag come into its own?
If I am taking a road trip and I don’t want to pay camping feeds. I will take the swag, its low profile, dark black or green colour and the speed at which I can set it up and pack it down enables me to stealth camp and move fast. Another advantage of a swag over a tent when traveling is that I can camp on or under a park bench or rest area table without worrying about being seen or being kept awake all night with the security lights. I have comfortably camped on veranda’s during storms, that’s not as easy to do with a tent.
When is a tent a good idea?
If I’m traveling long distance or with a group I will take my tent. It provides personal space and lots of room to stretch out in. I can get changed easily and work on my laptop or review my photos. If it’s raining I can comfortably hide away and wait for the rain to stop and I don’t need to go anywhere to cook my food or make my coffee.
If I am doing both fast and long distant travel I sometimes take my swag, two tarps and a set of poles. This enables me to have a cover over my swag if it rains or if I want more space to sit under or shade from the sun. This adds slightly to my travel kits but provides the benefits of both a swag and a tent.
I hope this helps in your next social media argument, but from my perspective there is no single camp set up that is perfect. It comes down to the type of camping you enjoy, the situations you intend to camp in and your personal preference. As I said at the beginning I have a number of swags and an equal number of tents. Then there are hammocks.