Pack Your Jacket

In many parts of the country (like the part I’m in) the easy-living days of summer are creeping to their inevitable conclusion.

Cold weather is on the way.

I started thinking about jackets, parkas, shells and all the layers the modern outdoors-person has to choose from.

Almost everything we have today is manufactured using materials developed during the 20th century.

Until about 100 years ago, wool was the singular option for staying warm. It took Mt. Everest to change things.

George Ingle Finch tries to shake things up

In 1922, no human (or any land-based animal for that matter) had ever visited the summit of Mount Everest. Many nations were trying, in particular the nation of Great Britain which was looking for a propaganda win in light of its declining colonial power.

George Ingle Finch was one of the best mountaineers in the world when he joined the 1922 British Everest Expedition. Nevertheless, he was mostly shunned by the rest of the team for his many perceived eccentricities.

First, he was an Australian. This immediately relegated him to a lower class in the eyes of the mostly upper-crust English gentlemen explorers. 

Secondly, he carried with him a new invention that he developed himself: bottled oxygen. This was seen as “unsporting” by the traditional crowd.

Finally, he wore on that expedition a parka he had, once again, crafted himself. Unlike the fine gaberdine jackets the other team members wore, it was sewn from a rugged fabric used to make hot air balloons. And it was filled with, of all ridiculous things, goose down.

Finch is second from the bottom left, wearing his distinctive puffer parka with fur trim.

George Ingle Finch trudged dutifully up and down Everest without ever reaching the summit. And his adventures on Everest ended that year, since he was never invited back.

World War II developments

Britain would make many more attempts at Everest, but it wasn’t until 1953 that Edmund Hillary and his sherpa Tenzing Norgay not only finally reached the summit, but also made it back down alive.

To tie this back to George Finch: it should be noted Edmund Hillary was a New Zealander, he carried bottled oxygen, and finally while his undergarments were wool his outer layers were a high-tech layered military system.

Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, wearing wool under-layers

Born from his experience as an RAF navigator in World War II, Hillary used the most advanced military technology developed for sustained operations in cold weather.

Hillary would go on to explore the South Pole as well, where the technology to ensure human survival in cold temperatures was taken to the limits.

By the 1980’s, military cold weather technology reached an important breakthrough with the United States Army Natick Research Center’s original Extended Cold Weather System.

This system established a complex system of layers with 22 distinct components, all intended to allow the user to perfectly customize their clothing for the current level of activity, temperature and moisture/weather.

The original ECWCS, happily displayed on a U.S. soldier.

The ECWCS could do everything, but the price was the mind-boggling number of components not to mention the weight: 18 lbs. Later versions would cut down the weight to about 13 pounds, and reduce the number of components down to 12.

Luckily in most conditions not every layer was needed.

The Packable Insulating Layer

One of the biggest innovations of modern military cold weather systems versus civilian jackets and coats is the strict separation of the warm “insulating” layer and the outer “shell” layer. 

This allows the outer shell to be worn for protection against dust, wind, snow and rain.

German cold weather outer shell jacket
German Military Outer Shell

While the insulating layer can be worn separately, or stowed away during high activity.

When movement stops and body temperatures start to cool down, the wearer can take off the shell, throw on the insulating layer, then add the shell again without adjusting any of the other articles of cold weather clothing.

US Military Fleece Jacket, showing soft polyester fleece lining
U.S. Military Generation 3 Fleece Layer

In nicer conditions the outer shell can be left at home, and the insulating layer becomes the shell. This new fluffy “shell” can then be stowed during high activity (leaving the user in a field shirt or under layer), then pulled back out during rest periods for a little more warmth.

The Packable Fleece Jacket

In 1979, American textile manufacturer Malden Mills developed the first “polyester fleece” to mimic original sheep’s fleece. It was called Synchilla which was short, believe it or not, for synthetic chinchilla.

This material was very cheap and easy to manufacture, while also getting pretty close to the thermal properties of “real” fleece. Today’s polyester fleece is even more lightweight, durable, and incredibly packable.

Packable Fleece Jacket, the closest you can get to genuine synthetic chinchilla.
The Fleece Jacket fits nicely in this outer pocket (300-cu. in.) for quick retrieval.

The Packable Loft Jacket

The first “synthetic down” was developed in 1983 as PrimaLoft. Described as having similar “compressional” properties as down, this new material had superior loft retention when wet.

While PrimaLoft is a specific brand, many imitators now make similar products, usually using the word “Loft” to denote the characteristic puffy down-like nature of the synthetic insulation.

This Dutch Loft Jacket is an example of a “Loft” style mid layer that fulfills the same function as the fleece layer. In this case the Loft Jacket is substantially warmer, and includes a stuff sack for maximum packability.

Dutch Loft Jacket using synthetic down-style insulation
Loft Jacket in Packed configuration

Researching your Layering

Before beginning any expedition, its important to think about the kinds of probable conditions and prepare accordingly.

Luckily, today’s military layering systems are an embarrassment of riches from which today’s military surplus enthusiast can pick and choose the most useful items from a vast cold weather clothing buffet.

If any gear looks particularly out of place, just consider famed Australian explorer George Ingle Finch and his immutable contrarian nature.

After all the snow, wind and ice doesn’t care about style choices.

Enjoy your fall, and be ready for what’s coming.

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