Mattresses I have Known:

 I doubt anything else about camping has changed so much as sleeping. When I was a lad I always just slept on the bare ground. As a bit of a sissy, my only concession to comfort was to dig the traditional hip hole (which was derided by tougher-minded types) then maybe lean my head on something, a bag perhaps – or just my arm.

When I was very young my parents were itinerant beekeepers, so we ‘followed the flow’ of honey all over the Western slopes and plains of NSW in an old ten-ton Chev truck, and sometimes a Willey’s Overland. Sometimes we towed a caravan but that was filled with beekeeping equipment (extractors and such). At night we camped in a duck tent usually on folding canvas army cots my mother set up for us. They could be very cold if you didn’t have enough blankets under you.

My mother had a trick of folding blankets to make a bed, but I have forgotten it now; nor can I find any reference article explaining how it worked – but it did work very well, and the blankets never came untucked. There were never any sheets, I remember that. We slept in our clothes and those blankets could be quite scratchy.

This was all before I started school. I can remember three very vivid events from that era. Once we were camped out on the Dimbey Downs near Quirindi. During the night a large willy willy (a sort of mini-cyclone) came and lifted all the empty sixty pound honey tins off the back of the truck and scattered them for miles all over the blacksoil plains. We were days chasing them up, and never accounted for all of them. We all had to get out of bed and hang onto bits and pieces of the tent for dear life so it would not blow away too.

I remember the old black and tan hound Felix used to ride on the running board of the truck. The journey took a long while to climb over the steep twisting road up from Murrurundi to the pass at the top at the top of the Hunter Valley which was our home, and just about as long to creep down into Willow Tree. Old Felix used to take this opportunity to slope off, have a hunt then join us on the other side.

I can also remember once my grandfather was in the car with us. The roads used to go through a lot of properties then and there were usually gates which had to be opened and closed before stock grids were put in. Grandfather alighted to open a gate. Dad drove on to the next gate, then said to him, ‘George, are you going to get out and open the gate’. He usually rode in the back with us kids. Of course there was no reply as dad had forgetfully left him at the last gate! He was none too impressed with dad when we went back to fetch him!

Of course I grew up North of Sydney, so much of the year (along the coast) nights are quite balmy. You can often get by quite comfortably just sleeping on the ground in your clothes, perhaps zipping up your jacket. If you were sleeping on the beach as I often used to do perhaps after a night spent prawning or spearing flathead, warm dry sand made an excellent insulator.

Further inland, west of the Divide out on the black soil plains for example nights often get a bit more chilly. I spent many months out there at a time as a teenager droving sheep over a thousand miles at a time along NSW’s ‘Great Stock Routes’.

You would spend some time making up a ‘bough bed’ under a canvas tarp or the dray if it rained (the smell of fresh eucalyptus is most refreshing), or gather dry grass and ferns till you had a pile 6” to a foot deep as the nights can come in pretty close out there rolled in your blanket with the other end of the tarp thrown over you against the morning dew.

It was quite delicious to slumber under cloudless skies lit by a billion brilliant stars with only the curlew and mopoke for company – and a few thousand ‘jumbuks’. Usually there was a sheep dog to warm your back, one of the many unimaginatively named ‘Ring’ or ‘Ginger,’ ‘Nugget’ or ‘Blackie’. All are but memories now – along with the mates I went droving with.

Still the introduction of the cheap blue foam mat was a godsend. For one thing it wasn’t itchy! Laid on a 2” bed of grass or fern it created a level of comfort and luxury undreamed of hitherto, and it wasn’t itchy. It took me a long while before I was ready to carry one though, as they were so cumbersome when previously all you had to lug around was a pocket knife, blanket, tarp, billy, spoon and tucker bag – and obviously some tucker. Flour was a staple, for making damper.

I often used to head off into the bush by myself for a night or two when I was at school. I can remember being rolled in my blanket camped under a rock ledge high on the Watagan mnountains near Newcastle on my bough bed when I first saw this:

About then I was  just about to buy a ‘blue foamie’ when I noticed the disposal stores were now selling inflatables which rolled up much smaller, though they were a tad heavier – well over 500 grams for an uninsulated pad – so I chose one of them.

Compared to today’s mats the ones I had weren’t exactly the acme of comfort. None of them was insulated. The first ones were just tube construction and were much like sleeping on a rail fence, but even so better than the hard ground. The later ‘box’ construction ones were much better, but I never owned one of them until after I was married.

You can hardly take your new bride on a honeymoon sleeping on the bare ground. Being a city girl though Della had never seen the Milky Way (and was frankly astonished by it) or woken in the morning covered in dew! Nearly half a century later she is a country girl through and through, and still enjoys a night or a dozen under the stars – we have just spent a fortnight camping out around the Scottish Highlands.

The first insulated inflatable was made by the Stephensons: I never had one. Thermarest commecialised the idea (in open cell foam) and as they say, ‘the rest is history’. I had a range of Thermarests over the years.

Before I had a ‘bad back’ I could manage with a ¾ length mat, so for years my go-to mat was a 350 gram model of theirs which I even used in a hammock where it left a few bits and pieces a little chilly on a cold night. Now I find that having my legs drop down that inch or two just gives me a nasty lumbar pain so I choose a longer mat.

For car camping we had their longer models and even their ‘luxury’ 2” thick self inflating model (which took up a fair amount of the car)! You do get so used to these luxuries. Nowadays I am apt to think I will die if I just had to lie down for a night wrapped in only a coat or blanket straight on the cold ground as I did a thousand times when I was a youth, mostly too with no shelter overhead, just looking round for a bit of shelter if rain threatened: a rock overhang, a hollow log or tree, or a bolt of canvas flicked over me.

It takes a bit more than that to kill a man though, so I would not. I have slept sitting up in front a of a fire on a snowy night well below freezing wrapped only in one of those ubiquitous 50 gram aluminium backed plastic space blankets, which I recommend you carry in your day pack if you wish to survive. It may not have been the most comfortable night I have spent but all in all no worse than a long aeroplane flight such as that from Melbourne to Edinburgh, which we just survived (both ways).

I really can’t imagine how people become ‘travel junkies’. I would not go (or have gone) if Della had not wanted to visit the land of her ancestors. And I would not go again. How people can tolerate so many other people everywhere they go is beyond me. I was not even tempted to travel down into England (where most of my ancestors originated). Just too many people everywhere. It was quite difficult to get away from them on even the smallest back-roads in Scotland.

My first insulated inflatable mat was a Big Agnes, the predecessor of their Air Core model with its ‘I-Beam’ construction. It was way ahead of the old tube type mattresses in comfort, plus you did not get a cold back on even the most freezing nights. My first one weighed over 600 grams but I was utterly rapt in its level of comfort.

We found that we could fit on their ‘Petite’ (5’ long) models so this reduced our carry to nearer 500 grams which I thought would never be bettered. You did have to have them ‘right side up’ though, or they did not work – this may still be the case. To Americans, ‘right side up’ means ‘face up’ ie the product’s name should be on top.

Then Thermarest came along and revolutionized the field for years with their ‘NeoAir’ line of which the best representative (for me) was their Women’s model at 340 grams! I must have slept on mine nigh on a thousand times over the last ten years. It has a few pieces of sticky tape here and there where a thistle or a dog poked/chewed a hole in it, but it is still quite serviceable and has done double service most trips as a chair, and as a raft as well.

I also have their ¾ length model at 270 grams but as I said my back won’t let me really enjoy it otherwise it would always be in my hunting day pack along with my Montbell sleeping bag (500 grams), a Cuben tarp (150 grams), a puffer jacket, an ultralight billy and some tucker just in case I decided I was going to spend the night somewhere remote and promising.

Now I have Big Agnes’ new AXL pad which beats everything I have ever owned for comfort hands down. Their regular 6’ model weighs in at 300 grams yet is just under 4” thick, so you can really sink down into it. I somehow doubt anyone will better that, but I’m sure Thermarest (for one) are working hard on it. I will probably cut 6″ off it to bring it down to 270 grams myself – because I can. In the meantime, if you are in the market for a pad, try one of these.

The AXL is definitely not a winter pad: My new Big Agnes AXL has a lower R rating then my Thermarest Womens (perhaps 3). Anyway at approx 4C a couple of nights ago I was still freezing with three layers of wool plus my down coat (upper) and a pair of long johns (as well as my Columbia trousers, a thicker pair of Wigwam wool socks together with down socks  plus a neck warmer and an insulated hat. Though the mat is definitely more comfy than the Thermarest it just does not ‘cut it’ when it is cold.

PS: The illustration of a swagman’s bag bed is just one of many similar types of bed which could be made simply with a few boughs and a couple of hessian bags. I particularly like the ingenuity of this one which makes use of another bushman’s favourite: some fencing wire. You always used to find such beds in shearers’ quarters and stockmen’s huts. They should be on the National Trust as priceless relics of a bygone era. Jute or hessian bags were much more comfortable and serviceable (and recyclable) than today’s ubiquitous poly bags. They were reused like this endlessly until they were no use save as tinder. A wet one was also excellent for helping put out a fire. Without them many more lives would have been lost during the 1939 bushfire, for example.

First Published on: Jun 2, 2018

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2 thoughts on “Mattresses I have Known:”

  1. I just loved your story.????????????❤️????
    Although a Canadian we as a family had our share of interesting times.

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