A Bedroll Sling/Tumpline for…

Tumpline DrawingTramping In The Old Style

 by Steven M. Watts


“Tramping” in the literature of the Classic Camping era refers to “pedestrian camping” or “camping afoot”… what would one day come to be known as “backpacking.”

The references to shoulder slings or tumplines for packing bedrolls are almost non-existent in the writings of the Classic Camping masters—usually just passing comments which relegated them to an “out-of-date” status. It was all about pack harnesses, knap sacks, pack sacks and pack frames. It’s not that the old frontier “bedroll-on-your-back” had disappeared from the outdoor scene all together (it remained in use among American hobos, cowboys, Australian sundowners and other travelling-working men of the day)—it’s just that the two-strap options were clearly the preference for the recreational camper and sportsman.

Note: The tumpline tradition did survive in the canoeing culture of the Golden Age. Its use in the portaging of heavy loads between water routes is well documented, and has become part of the standard image and lore of traditional travel in the lake country of the Great North Woods. But, this is the long-tailed head-carry tump—not the chest or shoulder tump associated with the bedroll. Indian guides and sports alike used the head carry with tumplines to manage huge loads of duffle and even the canoes themselves. Shorter tumplines also helped with oversized loads in Duluth packs and pack baskets and pack frames—relieving tired shoulders on the tough carries.

Trumpline attached to a replicated Trapper Nelson rig.

Trumpline attached to a replicated Trapper Nelson rig.

Yet, the shoulder/chest sling remains an option for the Classic Camper looking to “go light” in the old style—with a blanket or two, a kettle, a fry pan, a canteen and a bag of grub. The additional possibles are carried in the pockets and/or a shoulder bag (mimicking the haversacks of frontier days). It can be as simple as a padded rope sling or as fancy as a hand-crafted leather outfit–complete with a set of buckled blanket straps. We can simply copy the frontier models of our pioneer forbears, or create our own based on the technology and design options available to campers during the Golden Age.

Tumpline with a basic blanket roll rig

Tumpline with a basic blanket roll rig

soft/wide leather band makes a very comfortable blanket sling—slung over one shoulder and crossing the chest–shaping to the trekker’s body and spreading the load. Two to three inches in width is good. The tails (the long strap that runs through the center of the blanket roll) can be rope or leather. They can be attached on one end of the band with rivets, sewn or simply tied off through a large hole. They are attached to the other end by passing through a hole (or pair of holes) and tied off at the appropriate length.

But, Elsworth Jaeger offers up a way of crafting stick-reinforced pack straps that can easily be applied to the manufacture of a leather blanket sling/tumpline. Jaeger’s Wildwood Wisdom (perhaps more than any other Classic Camping text) rekindles the old fires of the buckskin men. It is fitting that we look to him for inspiration as we make our own piece of traditional outdoor travel gear in the frontier style.

“With their meager equipment and perhaps some jerked meat and parched corn in their pouches and a tightly rolled blanket, our buckskin men traversed the American wilderness from end to end…” – Elsworth Jaeger, 1945

Tumpline with Jaeger-inspired stick-reinforced strap attachment.

Tumpline with Jaeger-inspired stick-reinforced strap attachment.


Steve Watts directs the Aboriginal Studies Program and the Traditional Outdoor Skills Program at the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia, North Carolina. Watts is the author of Practicing Primitive: A Handbook of Aboriginal Skills, Gibbs Smith Publishers, 2004.

6 Responses to A Bedroll Sling/Tumpline for…

  1. genenotyalc@aol.com'
    Gene Clayton April 4, 2015 at 7:20 am #

    Steve, I enjoyed reading this but would like a little more meat to the article. Find someone who still use a tumpline and explain how to tie their gear to it. Both their bed roll and food sack/baby to it. How to carry gear the different 3 ways with a tumpline. There is a youtube by Northwest woodsman on tying pannery box/wanigan to a tumpline, but nothing on bed roll and food sack. Keep up the good work Guys. The old ways are the best ways!

    • stevewatts@cityofgastonia.com'
      steve watts July 10, 2015 at 7:27 pm #

      Three different ways to carry a bedroll with a tump: over one shoulder, diagonally across the chest, horizontally across the chest. I often switch between the methods to spread around the load. Does this make sense.

  2. genenotyalc@aol.com'
    Gene Clayton April 4, 2015 at 12:25 pm #

    Looked some more on the web, only article I can find with photo’s is from a Oct 1950 Boy’s life. There is mention of instructions on tying from David “nita” Wells at some site, but it was removed. Also a few reenactors have done Youtube with small bedrolls. I am look for instructions for a little larger bed roll and a food sack or 2 bags.

  3. bnorment56@gmail.com'
    Bob Norment January 1, 2016 at 9:02 pm #

    Tumplines! Please let me know if I can post photos here and I will be happy to demonstrate several methods for attaching a tump to a larger bed roll! I have made many fingerwoven and twined tumplines over the years. Some of Jute but preferably hemp. Hemp as you are aware, wears like iron. Very durable.

    I used to pack all my gear in my bed roll and run a tumpline thru it. Made for a very practical way to pack your kit. Generally carried it with the twined band across my chest.

    If I may post pics, I will need to know if I can cut and past or if I need to attach something like a photobicket link.. Let me know if I can help!


    • Christian Noble January 2, 2016 at 2:29 pm #

      Hi Bob, we welcome you posting an article here and we can include pictures, video, downloads; whatever you like. Just send me an email — christian@masterwoodsman.com. Thanks, Chris

      • bnorment56@gmail.com'
        Bob Norment January 2, 2016 at 3:00 pm #

        Thanks!!!!l. Lemme see what I can get worked up!!!

        Thank you!!!!


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