Ever been told you need to be wearing tri-axial, polymer-derived microfibre before you can even consider a bushwalk? It hasn’t always been this way, Saphira investigates where hiking clothing has been, and where it’s going.
How has hiking clothing changed over the last century? And what’s next? Icebreaker is leading the charge with breathable, lightweight, and odour resistant natural fibres in the outdoors, but it’s not until you look at the history of hiking clothing that you really realise how far we’ve come.
After researching the history of hiking gear by spending hours poring over photo archives and sourcing a couple of vintage hiking guides, I discovered just how much hiking gear has evolved over the last 100-and-something years.
A century ago, Australians were heading out bush in their day clothes and hoping it held up. Today, our hiking duds are pretty specialised to the bushwalking pastime – our gear is durable, waterproof, quick-dry, odour resistant, systematic, and hydromatic (why it’s Greased Lightnin’!).
Come and join me as we take a stroll down memory lane to see what gear was like a century ago, and how Icebreaker are forging the way forward with nature-dyed apparel, a transparent supply chain, and wool you can wear in summer. You’ll see pretty quickly that wool-based hiking gear is very much a return to origin – as it turns out, nature has always had the answer.
Turn of the Century (late 1800s-1920s)
Before we had gear specialised to hiking, we just had normal clothes. At the turn of the century, Australians were getting into nature in their sturdiest day clothes. I’m talking trousers, blazers, ties, and hats for the gents, and hiking in white dresses with Oxfords or sandals (all with short heels) for the ladies.
In fact, browsing the photo archives, women continued wearing their day shoes for hiking over several decades into the 20th century. Nothing a pair of thick wool socks couldn’t fix! Hikers recognised the potential of wool-based clothing early on and ran with it, although soon enough they also became familiar with its drawbacks. As we’ll see later on, it took a whole generation of synthetic hiking gear before wool was re-invented as a win-win hiking material, with Icebreaker leading the charge.
As Australians bushwalked their way into the roaring 20s, recommendations for hiking duds for women got more practical. In 1924, The Australian Woman’s Mirror wrote:
‘As regards clothing, a jumper of khaki or other serviceable material, breeches, and either putties with low boots or high knee-boots are most suitable… Shorts, with socks and shoes as affected by some walkers, are useless in timber-strewn or rough country.’
(Don’t know vintage fashion? Putties are a kind of leg wrap with a function similar to gaiters, and breeches are a type of trouser.)
Less sensibly, the same article also recommended bushwalkers avoid drinking water, especially in hot weather, as ‘frequent drinking of water considerably lessens one’s walking powers’… In any case, men and women were wearing pretty much the same gear by the 1910s and 1920s.
Getting Out and About (1930s to 1940s)
Bushwalking entered its heyday in 1930s Australia and beyond. Paddy Pallin opened shop in Sydney during this time, and many bushwalking clubs around Australia had just established themselves. During the 1930s, ‘Mystery Hikes’ were all the rage, with several hundreds boarding trains to mystery outdoor locations.
As bushwalking increased in popularity, the hiking ‘uniform’ evolved into shorts and sleeved, collared shirts (even Aussies in the 1930s knew sun safety was important) with thick wool socks to make standard leather shoes more comfortable.
Photo thanks to Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
Wool socks in the 1930s were nothing like modern-day merino wool from brands like Icebreaker; in fact, wool had a pretty lousy reputation. It was itchy, bulky, and took days to dry (yes, days: hello, trench foot).
For warmth, hikers were taking wool sweaters, an effective but heavy solution, especially when wet! That’s probably why women were writing in with ‘tips’ for rainy weather like taking off your clothes and hiking in your bathers…
Once this look was established (shorts and collared shirts, not bathers!), it became a mainstay for the decades to come. Give the photos on the Blue Mountains Library a geez to become acquainted with this super popular shorts and canvas pack combo.
Mid Century Walking (1950s to 1970s)
Through to mid-century, advice for Australian hiking clothing remained pretty basic. In the first edition of the Walker’s Guide to SE QLD’s Scenic Rim by Margaret Hammond and Tom Young (1964), the advice for gear was limited to avoiding nailed boots, and recommending rubber soles, a water bucket, and a machete.
The increasing popularity of rubber boots can be credited to Vitale Bramani’s invention of rubber lug soles in the 1930s after the deaths of six friends in a mountaineering accident partially attributed to improper footwear. Vitale founded the brand Vibram, and rubber soles started gaining popularity from the 1950s, slowly replacing the standard nailed boots hikers and mountaineers had favoured until then.
The 1950s also saw canvas bags challenged by more sophisticated external frame backpacks, invented by Dick Kelty.
In the 1970s, photo archives show that Australian hikers were heading out in shorts or jeans (who wasn’t in jeans in the 70s?) and a shirt, with brighter colours all the rage. The Bushwalker’s guide to South East Queensland (1978) advised their readers on gear that:
‘Shorts are usually adequate for most walking in South-East Queensland, except when scrub-bashing, when a pair of jeans or slacks may be useful. A flannelette or cotton shirt should be worn when walking, but a light-weight pullover should be carried for warmth when not walking.’
You heard it folks! You’ll be right in jeans and a cotton shirt. The 1970s also saw the invention of the first frameless packs, though it would be a little longer before they were in common use.
The Synthetic Revolution (1980s and 1990s)
Gore-Tex was invented in 1969 and started entering the market in the 1970s and 1980s. This was truly the heyday of synthetic materials like polyester and nylon, which were much lighter and quick to dry than traditional options.
Hikers were out and about in synthetic tees, wearing plastic to protect themselves from the outdoors, and inadvertently contributing to microplastic accumulation in our oceans.
Ross and Heather Buchanan in the Bushpeople’s Guide to Bushwalking in South-east Queensland:
‘Material which stays warm when wet is essential for bushwalking. Traditionally, this has been wool, but in the last decade modern synthetic fabrics specially developed for this purpose have begun to dominate. Such garments are sold in bushwalking shops.’
Finally, Australians were ditching jeans! They were also discovering the possibilities offered by plastic-based clothing, but with little understanding about its long-term impact on the environment. It took until 1997 for someone to realise just how good wool can be.
Looking Forward with Icebreaker: What’s Next (2020 and Beyond)
The modern bushwalker is spoiled for choice when it comes to hiking clothes. In the past two decades, specialised hiking gear has become widespread. We’ve got zip-off pants and quick-dry shirts, breathable footwear and sub 1kg backpacks. But in some ways, we’re returning to our hiking origins and taking the old and making it new again.
In 1995, 24-year-old Jeremy Moon wanted to replace the petrochemical fibres which had become so trendy in outdoor circles with effective natural solutions. He founded Icebreaker and in 1997, Icebreaker was the first in the world to establish long-term contracts with key merino wool growers, signalling a new way forward into a more sustainable future.
Regular readers of WAE will know I’m pretty serious about ethically made gear. Well, after reading Icebreaker’s latest Transparency Report (how many companies that you buy from have one of those?), I was sincerely impressed by the third-party auditing of all stages of production, exact addresses of factory locations and worker numbers (including breakdown of sex and migrant status), and clear outline of Icebreaker’s ethos and goals. I can genuinely say I’ve never seen this level of detail from a hiking brand before.
Icebreaker believes that nature has the answer, and in that vein, has re-invented wool – which has been used right from the beginning – as a modern and even summer suitable material. Wool fell out of favour because it was itchy, bulky, and didn’t dry fast. Not a great combination for a bushwalk.
Original Icebreaker prototypes
Icebreaker staff visit a grower in NZ
Merino wool is different. Merino is a type of sheep that naturally handles temperatures from as low as -10°C up to +30°C. This natural solution has been harnessed by Icebreaker to keep hikers comfortable in all temperatures.
Icebreaker’s merino wool is odour resistant (just ask Tim), not itchy and protects against UV. Most importantly for hikers, it wicks moisture – absorbing up to 35% of its weight before feeling wet – and it either cools or heats the wearer depending on the environment. Oh, and it’s flame-resistant, so you can hang out in your merino duds around the campfire. Since it’s a natural fibre, you’re also not going to be shedding plastic microfibres when you wash your tees which, as Kath Day-Knight would say, is a boon.
If you’re keen to get yourself one of these magic tees, their Cool-Lite™ fabric is blended with Tencel (a wood fibre made from sustainable Eucalyptus) to wick moisture three times faster than Merino alone, perfect for this scorcher of a summer. For a basic tee to wear out on a bushwalk after the summer, check out their men and women’s T-shirts or if you’re headed somewhere chilly, give their sweaters (men and women’s) and jackets (men and women’s) a geez too.
Looking forward, Icebreaker has a couple of aces up their sleeve when it comes to innovations in hiking gear. The next step towards sustainable next-gen gear is their nature dyed apparel. Their nature dye range sources pigments from gallnut peel, myrobalan peel, madder root, and indigowoad, helping preserve natural dye-framing traditions in under-developed regions in China. This is a huge step forward, considering the environmental impact traditional dyes are infamous for.
With Icebreaker at the forefront, we have so many high-tech and sustainable options at our fingertips. It really is a great time in history to be a hiker!
To get access to heaps of benefits with Icebreaker, check out their nature.rewards.
Feature photo by David Moore thanks to Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales