Just the mention of the phrase “camping bed roll” stirs up young boy-ish images of a favorite cowboy hero settling down for the night to sleep out under the western stars. In fact, many of us old-timers probably remember how our mothers helped us make our own homemade bed roll to enjoy sleeping like the cowboys on a warm summer night when we were young. We grew up and soon forgot the fun of roughing-it like real westerners did. However, there are some real advantages of a camping bed roll once we look past the Hollywood western glitz of those old movies.
The true origin of the camping bed roll is unknown. No doubt some enterprising traveler developed one to ward off the cold of nights traveling from place to place hundreds of years ago.
In fact, up until the beginning of the nineteenth century, most men wore cloaks or capes as outerwear during the cooler months of the year. When they found themselves away from their homes at sunset, they would find a safe place to stop for the night, make a fire for protection and warming up any victuals they might have, and roll up in their cloak to sleep.
What we understand as the modern camping bed roll has passed to us from the middle to late nineteenth century from those men who helped explore and settle the western portion of our country. Many of those men traveled by horseback and developed a means to carry sleeping protection rolled up in a neat manner to fit on the back of their saddles.
Generally the exterior of the bed roll was made of a heavy grade canvas. It was better if it wasn’t a treated canvas, for the untreated material was easier to roll up and stow in a neatly tied bundle than the heavier treated material. Inside the bed roll would be at least a cotton flannel blanket and sometimes an extra woolen blanket if winter months were in the offing. The dimensions of the bed roll were generally 32-inches wide by 84-inches long for the inner blankets. The outer canvas might be either 40-inches wide by 96-inches long. Some bed roll outer canvas pieces might be doubled in width to provide over and under protection and sometimes would pull duty as a makeshift lean-to cover on wetter nights.
The advantages of a camping bed roll are simplicity. Cutting down the amount of weight to carry while horseback riding great distances or for hiking trails for many days was the first great advantage. Secondly, the camping bed roll would take the place of a backpack or panniers, for the traveler could layout his personal belongings inside the blanket and roll it all up in a nice, tidy package that was easy to throw on the saddle. If he was on foot, it was simple enough to tie a long, thin strip of leather to act as a strap to suspend the bed roll from the hiker’s shoulder.
Another advantage is the sturdiness of good canvas when put to use as a ground cloth under the sleeping traveler. Many good beds were made from fresh cut pine boughs laid in a good, thick pile with the outer canvas cover holding them together to form the framework of a simple but rustic mattress upon which the blankets would cover the traveler.
Yes, the advantages of a camping bed roll number quite a few when compared to the modern sleeping bag. There are not many sleeping bags that would make a good shelter to keep the rain out, and who would want to put their expensive nylon tricot covered sleeping bag on a pile of resin laden boughs of freshly cut pine? There are some good modern sleeping bags, but none of them reward the camper with the nostalgia of sleeping like the cowboys did with their old, dependable camping bed roll.