Outdoor gear: then and now

A glimpse at typical outdoor clothing worn on the mountains and moors of Britain during the 1940s, when the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act came about – and how it compares to today’s cutting-edge kit.

Side by side comparison of man in walking gear. Left image is in 1960s style and right image in today's style.  

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the National Parks & Access to the Countryside Act, paving the way for the National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, nature reserves and National Trails that we know and enjoy today. Plenty has changed since 1949, from the way we access and experience the great outdoors to the landscapes themselves. But what we demand from our walking kit – warmth and weather protection, grip on rough terrain, navigation and a means to carry it all – remains much the same. 


As keen walkers and gear testers we’re fascinated by the continually evolving materials and technology as outdoor brands strive for the ultimate combination of performance, protection, durability, light weight and packability. Navigation has changed beyond recognition, from the first liquid-filled and mirror-sighting compasses of the 1930s to today’s GPS systems, enabling us to pinpoint our location on a watch or smartphone. 

For all this innovation, however, there are still some classic designs that remain very much the same as they would have been 70 years ago. We’ve been taking a look at what’s changed in outdoor kit and what’s stood the test of time.

Getting outside

In the first half of the 20th century, as the spread of industrialisation and urban living meant more people spent more time inside, enjoying the great outdoors was an important part of life, just as it is today. But, particularly in the lean, post-war years, there was far less choice or availability when it came to outdoor clothing. Many people simply used re-purposed work clothes – shorts and trousers made from tough cotton denim, woollen shirts and jumpers – and army surplus. Women’s walking outfits, freed from the long skirts of half a decade earlier and inspired by the hiking and camping boom in the US, teamed jumpers and jackets with matching, high-waisted rolled-up trousers.

Waterproof fabrics

While Nylon was invented in 1938 it would still be some years before its use became mainstream and most outer layers at the time were still made from cotton. Gabardine – a tightly-woven cotton fabric – was commonly used for jackets and also for tents, waxed with lanolin or linseed oil for waterproofing. Developed by textile companies Burberry and Grenfell in Britain, and Helly Hansen in Norway, parkas and climbing suits were favoured by those exploring the mountains from Snowdonia to the Himalayas. This hard-wearing fabric was both waterproof and breathable, and Grenfell cloth continued to be used for mountaineering through to the 1960s. Helly Hansen also launched its revolutionary Helox fabric, incorporating a thin sheet of PVC into garments and creating the first synthetic waterproof membrane. Helox jackets rapidly became the must-have item of kit and were showcased by the Norwegian team at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. At its peak, Helly Hansen was producing 30,000 of the jackets every month.

The Second World War also saw the development of Ventile by the British Cotton Industry Research Association. Woven from a long-stapled cotton (cotton with naturally longer fibres) that kept water out when the fibres swelled, Ventile was used to make suits for airmen ditching into the Atlantic, dramatically increasing their survival rates. Ventile has remained popular ever since, and is used for a wide range of activities from polar exploration to wildlife photography.

While these fabrics were breathable, waterproof, tough and protective, one of the biggest differences between jackets then and now is their weight and packability. Modern jackets, made from tough but lightweight synthetic face fabrics with a waterproof membrane and synthetic water-repellent treatment, can be easily carried in a pack, ready to be used when required as part of a versatile layering system. Most three-layer Gore-Tex jackets weigh well under 500 grams, while a Ventile jacket, similar to those worn in the 40s, tips the scales at 1.5kg. We tested out a Rover jacket from Country Innovation, based in Somerset, made from a double layer 100% cotton Ventile. It’s heavy and bulky compared with a modern waterproof, but it’s also more pleasant to wear in many ways, offering a good balance of warmth and breathability – and a wealth of pockets, too. While not a great choice if you’re after packability, if you’re going to be standing out in the Great British weather all day it’s ideal.

Packs: frames, zips and straps

The early 20th century saw a revolution in rucksack design, moving away from soft canvas packs to more ergonomic frame designs; first by Norwegian Ole Bergan and then the American ‘Trapper’ pack, which went on sale in 1939 complete with easy-access zips to replace buckles and straps.

While the new frame packs reduced the load on the wearer’s shoulders, the weight was still carried low down on the back. That changed in 1950 when Åke Nordin, founder of Swedish brand Fjällräven, fashioned a wooden frame that carried the weight of the pack higher and closer to his body enabling loads to be carried much more comfortably. Within a few years, using Nordin’s design, US-based Kelty began making mass-produced lightweight aluminium frame packs. Today, carrying a heavy pack is even more comfortable with the invention of wide – and even mouldable – hip belts, padded straps and lightweight frames. A combination of zips and compression straps combines easy access with a neat, stable load.

We tested out Lake District-based Millican’s Fraser rucksack, as it’s similar to the day packs of the 1940s. Made from tough, recycled polycotton canvas, impregnated with paraffin wax for weatherproofing, it’s a great balance between rugged durability; comfort from the padded straps and back system; and practicality, with a great range of easy-access pockets and even a hidden laptop sleeve.

Boots

Buying a pair of walking boots today is often a process of narrowing the choice down from hundreds to perhaps three or four that you’ll try on. From lightweight, flexible synthetic models to stiff-soled, insulated, crampon-compatible winter boots, there really is something to suit every foot and every trip.

But it hasn’t always been that way. Many of today’s best-known bootmakers, including Scarpa, Zamberlan and La Sportiva started out supplying local lumberjacks and farmers and then the military before moving towards recreational footwear. Using the revolutionary ideas of Vitale Bramani, founder of Vibram, rubber soles began to replace the traditional iron-studded leather ones. After the World Wars, when interest in mountain adventures increased, these bootmakers helped shape the future of mountaineering and long-distance walking. Unlike most modern boots that are comfortable straight from the box, it’s well documented that comfort was not always a priority, with traditional full leather boots being hard and unforgiving on the feet, requiring much ‘breaking in’.

We took a walk in Zamberlan’s1035 Pejo Lite hiking boots, a classic design made in Italy using full grain waxed leather and a traditional welted sole. Tough, protective, grippy and, with the addition of modern-day fabric lining and padding, superbly comfortable, they’re a perfect balance between tradition and innovation.

Photo: Classic kit

Country Innovation Rover Ventile Jacket £375 www.countryinnovation.com 
Haglofs Tarn Flannell shirt £75 www.haglofs.com
Howies Classic organic cotton tee £25 www.howies.co.uk
Howies Chada organic cotton shorts £59 www.howies.co.uk
Finisterre Kelson wool socks £18 www.finisterre.com 
Zamberlan 1035 Pejo Lite NW GTX leather hiking boots £230 en.zamberlan.com
Millican Fraser The Rucksack 25L £140 www.homeofmillican.com

Photo: Modern kit

Salewa Pedroc 2 GTX Active Hardshell Jacket £295 www.salewa.com
Outdoor Research Echo Tee £37 www.outdoorresearch.com
Montane Terra Pants £85 www.montane.co.uk
Smartwool Hike LT socks £18.99 www.smartwool.com
Zamberlan 1000 Baltoro GTX Trekking Boots £230 en.zamberlan.com 
Vaude Brenta 30 Pack £110 www.vaude.com
 

Magazine of the Ramblers