Research — Antarctic Equipment

This article originally appeared on dreaded path:

The outerwear taking the fight to Earth’s toughest conditions.

In many ways, the Antarctic feels like the final level of the outdoors. It is the most extreme environment on Earth; it is the driest, coldest and windiest continent. The average temperature on the continent is -57°C but can reach almost -90°C at times. Things become a little less extreme in the summer; with highs of -2 to 8°C: but it’s not exactly tropical.

These conditions mean it’s too isolated and inhospitable for anyone to live there year-round. Those that find themselves on the continent must rely on their equipment and clothing to protect them from the elements. This is quite literally the difference between life or death. The Antarctic is one of the few places on Earth where clothing is not a form of self-expression but a necessary component of survival. Despite this, throughout time, Antarctic explorers have always looked incredibly cool. Dressing to stop yourself freezing to death adds something to an outfit that is impossible to achieve in normal conditions.

The foundation underlying this truly functional means of dressing is layering; something any outdoors person is likely all too familiar with. While the clothing used to layer might be less extreme for your average hiker, the layers themselves remain the same; base, mid and shell.

Base layers insulate and wick away moisture to ensure that you remain warm and dry. Polyester is most popular for this layer. Mid-layers provide warmth but are easily added and removed depending on the conditions. Fleece, down or synthetic insulation (such as PrimaLoft®️ — a synthetic microfiber material, initially developed in the 1980s for the US Military but now as popular in the outdoors fashion market) are commonly worn as mid-layers. Accessories such as hats, gloves, balaclavas and goggles are purely utilitarian: they cover any areas left uncovered. With temperatures as low as they are in the Antarctic you can’t afford to leave any piece of skin exposed.

Shells are the most critical layer of protection from the wind and rain, which means that usually, they are the most exciting pieces on the eye.

Today in the Antarctic, researchers often wear ‘Big Red’ down parkas, which have been supplied to the United States Antarctic Program by Canada Goose for the past 20 years. Multi-layered down provides insulation, several large interior and exterior pockets provide utility, and the vibrant red colour provides visibility (if you get lost on the ice you want people to find you as soon as possible). These three qualities are essential in any piece of Antarctic outerwear.

The outerwear used in Antarctic expeditions in the mid-20th century is a clear point of reference for the ‘Big Red’ parka. Most notably, the parka worn by Sir Edmund Hilary (fresh from the first summit of Mount Everest) as he led the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (CTAE) in 1955. The 2,158-mile expedition, completed in 99 days, was the first overland crossing of the continent and was the first expedition to the South Pole since the original ventures there in the 1911 and 1912. The expedition crew are a strong contender for the coolest looking Antarctic explorers of all time, but the equipment choices are a result of the necessary functionality for an expedition like the CTAE. The orange parka worn by Hilary has influenced the design of what is worn in the Antarctic today, but this influence has spread beyond the Antarctic. Most notably, Nigel Cabourn’s Antarctic Parka is a retail-available, although very expensive, iteration of the original ‘Big Red’ parka.

Antarctic equipment’s impact on retail-available pieces goes further than the parka, however. The 1990 International Trans-Antarctica Expedition (ITAE) was the first non-mechanised crossing of Antarctica. The six-man team travelled 3,741-miles in 220 days, a feat only possible because of the equipment they were reliant upon. The expedition was sponsored by W.L. Gore and Associates — the same company responsible for Gore-Tex — who, in collaboration with Erickson Outdoors, The North Face and DuPoint, supplied the expeditioners with custom jackets to see them through their journey. The success of the team couldn’t have been achieved without equipment that maintained the emphasis on warmth, utility and visibility. Today, Gore-Tex is widely available and is seen one of the best materials available for outdoor wear. In part this is because it’s been wear-tested in the conditions like those faced on the ITAE.Things weren’t always as technically advanced when it comes to Antarctic clothing. Those on early Antarctic expeditions (around the late 1800s and early 1900s) relied on a very different setup to the one just described. Before materials were developed specifically to provide protection from the wind, wet and cold, Antarctic clothing was much more reliant on plant and animal fibres. In many cases, especially for base and mid-layers, this meant wool. Vests, pants, cardigans, stockings, blankets and even slippers were all made from this naturally-sourced wonder. Wool is excellent for providing warmth: merino wool is still common today because of its heat-keeping qualities. However, it fails to provide the water and wind protection required to face the elements, rendering it useless as a shell layer.

Fur was often used as an outer, fulfilling the same role a shell would today. Fur retains heat and has a certain degree of wind and waterproofness (although I’d much rather be in one of those parkas). Reindeer or wolf skin was often used to make hats, jackets, gloves, boot-lining or trousers. These materials are rarely used today, partly for ethical reasons and partly because developments in material technology have created synthetic fibres that perform much better in these kinds of conditions. Nowadays natural fibres are primarily used for insulation and warmth whilst synthetic materials provide direct protection from the elements. This combination means you’re a lot less likely to freeze to death on an Antarctic expedition today than 100 years ago.

The transition from being wholly reliant on natural fibres to having the option of using them in conjunction with purpose-designed technological fibres has occurred because of the technological development in material manufacturing. By looking ahead to some of the brands at the forefront of material innovation, we can get a glimpse at how, in the future, garments may be able to provide protection in new ways; both in extreme environments like the Antarctic, and closer to home.

Vollebak is a brand using highly technical fabrics to construct pieces of clothing that look like they’ve travelled back from the future. Their Solar Charged Puffer is a piece that exemplifies the potential that comes with material innovation. As I look at this jacket, I can imagine a polar explorer from 1901 eyeing up GORE-TEX with similar amazement. In the daylight, this is an incredibly durable, waterproof and windproof puffer with a number of fleece-lined pockets. It can also keep you warm in temperatures as low as -40°C due to insulation provided by recycled plastic bottles. Already an impressive piece of clothing, at night is where the jacket really shows its futuristic qualities. An ultra-thin membrane containing phosphorescent compound stores any light it comes into contact with, allowing the jacket to glow for up to 12 hours in the dark. Insulation, utility and visibility are what made the American Antarctic Program’s parkas so well suited to their role; and the Solar Charged Puffer delivers on all three of these qualities to an incredibly high level. Perhaps this incredible feat of design is the future of outerwear for the Antarctic?

The Antarctic shifts the purpose of clothing from one of self-expression to one of pure utility and survival. Over time, developments in material and clothing technology have allowed a shift away from total reliance on natural fibres and a move toward a more effective bespoke mix of natural and artificial fibres that can protect the wearer in even the most extreme environment on the planet. I wait in anticipation to see what future technologies can bring in the fight against Earth’s most challenging conditions.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store