Survival Clothing In The Early 1900s

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of reliable equipment on an expedition. When it comes to extreme environments, having the correct, best quality gear can mean the difference between triumph and tragedy.


As Captain Lou Rudd heaves the great weight of the Spirit of Endurance behind him - an attempt to successfully traverse Antarctica alone, unsupported and without assistance - Shackleton takes a retrospective look at our namesake’s original Endurance expedition. 

We delve into that iconic survival story and dissect the equipment they used to see if it stands the test of time. And when we say 'we' we mean ourselves and... 


S E B   C O U L T H A R D

Sailor, engineer and adventurer - Seb was inspired at an early age to escape the beaten track and venture into remote places, from the Amazon rainforest to The Arabian Desert. He owes his itchy feet to his father, who first told him stories of the great explorers: Sir Ernest Shackleton, Lawrence of Arabia and George Mallory.

Seb Coulthard

In 2013, Seb joined a faithful re-enactment of Sir Ernest Shackleton's 830-mile lifeboat journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia. In total Seb spent 12 days at sea, relying on the same period equipment Shackleton had used 100 years prior. The same woollen underwear - same wooden lifeboat, sextants and compasses... This is the only expedition in history to complete Shackleton's voyage with nothing but period resources. 

We asked Seb how the 1900s gear compares to modern-day kit:

"Ernest Shackleton’s outfits in the early 1900s," Seb says, "They were the most advanced outdoor clothing system in the world. What’s interesting about drawing comparisons between then and now is we look at modern kit and think 'it’s wonderful, it’s advanced, it’s warm, its lightweight.' Then we look at the old kit and we think 'it’s old, it’s no longer in use and it doesn’t work. How on Earth could people survive wearing that old kit?'"

"How on Earth could people survive wearing that old kit?"

"But the fact that it’s vintage doesn’t mean it’s not good. Shackleton demanded the best and he got it. The contrast between modern and old is simply a result of the differences in materials being used."


B A S E   L A Y E R   ( S T R I N G   V E S T   A N D   U N D E R W E A R ) 

"The base layer is made up of a very similar material to merino. Back then it was called mercerised wool and it was worn next to the skin as underwear, also known at the time as sanitary wear. It’s water retentive though, so once they’re wet they stay wet. Shackleton also wore a string vest which allowed air to be trapped next to the skin, which resulted in a very clever series of clothing layers for the thinking of the time."


M I D   L A Y E R   ( W O O L Y   J U M P E R   A N D   C O T T O N / W O O L E N   S H I R T )                  

"Shackleton and his men would have worn either very fine woollen shirts or cotton shirts. Some chose to wear two or maybe even three mid layers. On top of all that you’ve got the traditional woolly jumpers, which were usually made oversized and then washed and boiled down so they shrank and became a very thick woollen windproof layer. It was an insulating layer but it was windproof because it trapped warm air next to your under layers."

Shackleton Crew

"Woollen jumpers will stay warm even when wet so if you’re walking in the mountains and get wet, you can wring your jumper out, put it back on and it will retain warmth. If you go to the mountains with a down jacket and get soaking wet, you can wring it out but you won’t get the same level of insulation until it’s dry."


O U T E R   L A Y E R   ( J A C K E T )

"The outer layer that we see polar explorers of that period wearing is a kind of tan or sometimes dark grey coloured outer layer made from gabardine cotton, which was invented by Burberry. Cotton was impregnated with oil and then woven together to form very lightweight, weather repellent material and that was made into this outer layer."

Polar Explorer And Sled Dog

"Look at polar explorers from that period and they were all wearing it – Captain Scott, Shackleton, Nansen – and it was used all the way through the 1940s and 50s. It was never designed to be used at sea: it was designed to be used in the dry and cold polar environment."

Endurance Expedition

"This was the piece of clothing that let us down the most during our recreation of the James Caird lifeboat escape. It was designed to keep the snow and the wind out, but when it got wet it stayed wet, so we all ended up being semi-hypothermic for 12 days."



"Shackleton’s crew wore trousers made from a material known as cavalry twill or cavalry canvas, a very hard wearing canvas. It was designed to resist damage from abrasions or walking, and these guys were skiing very long distances so the material on their legs had to be highly windproof and extremely durable."


W O O L Y   H A T

"On top of all this kit you have the traditional woolly hats. Wool is very underrated, but a lot of people are going the other way with modern synthetics, which are great if you prefer something more lightweight."

Shackleton Wooly Hats


F U R   G L O V E S

"Fur gloves or mittens were very large and made from reindeer fur. The traditional name for it is a Finnesko reindeer mitt, and the fur had to come from a creature which had been culled in winter when the pelt was at its thickest to ensure maximum insulation."

Fur Gloves


B O O T S 

"The same Finnesko reindeer fur used for gloves was used for making boots. They also wore leather lace-up boots which had a very thick sole so they could put hobnails in there and attach skis to their feet."

Finnesko Reindeer Fur

"When leather gets wet, it remains wet for a long time, and in minus temperatures it can freeze and lead to frostbite. So when the leather boots got wet, they’d wear the reindeer fur boots instead in order to stay warm. But if you get those wet, you can’t wring them out so you end up with a pair of buckets on your feet - and you’re talking two degree water so you can get trench foot very quickly."


P O R T A B L E   P A R A F F I N   S T O V E 

"A ‘portable’ paraffin stove back then was around the size of a football. You’d have to pump it up, preheat it using a flame and finally it ignites with a blue flame and you put a pan on top."

"We were using ours on a boat, so you’ve got this huge pan with this red hot liquid in it, the boat’s getting thrown around all the time and you’re trying not to get burnt. Imagine cooking with that in a room the size of the space under your dining room table, and there are four other people crammed in there, all trying not to scald themselves."


F O O D   ( P E M M I C A N )  

"Imagine taking a mouthful of semi-cooked or raw mince beef, then filling the rest of your mouth with lard and a bit of salt sugar. That’s pemmican. It’s a really fatty, really potent and really disgusting."

Pemmican Food

"You have to eat it hot, you can’t eat it cold - unless you want to puke it up. It comes packaged like a bar of soap, and you have to boil it up with water. You’d eat one of these a day, throwing it into a pot along with some biscuits and turning it into a gloopy, fatty porridge. You have to down it while it’s red hot or you simply can’t swallow it - it congeals in your mouth."

"After two or three days at sea in a boat that’s rocking around, your appetite for pemmican dries up pretty quickly and you start to starve because you don’t want to eat it. But if you don’t eat… well you won’t die, but you might come pretty close."