Celebrating a Century of the Puffy Coat • Snowshoe Magazine

Puffer jackets are an almost ubiquitous part of a snowshoer’s gear, worn not only on the trails, but also frequently spotted around town. But while puffies may seem ubiquitous in winter sports like snowshoeing, this year they’re celebrating just 100 years since their first use in outdoor recreation. Discover the history of our favorite down jackets and the different types available for snowshoeing today.

Puffies, now 100 years old, are a staple of mountain adventures. Photo: Tim Peck and Doug Martland

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George Finch’s down jacket: the modern puffy precursor

George Finch, Australian mountaineer, scientist and inventor, popularized the use of down. He showed off his bespoke ‘down jacket’ on the slopes of Chomolungma as a member of the 1922 British expedition to Mount Everest. It was described by a contemporary as “the most wonderful device that will make you die of laughter”. Additionally, Finch’s knee-length down jacket was a radical departure from the mountaineering kits of the time. Instead of a Norfolk Tweed suit – worn over multiple layers of silk, cotton or wool and topped with windproof gabardine jackets – Finch wore a bright green cloth-lined jacket intended for use on a hot-air balloon.

A maverick at heart, more than Finch’s choice of outerwear set him apart from his teammates on the 1922 expedition. During the predominantly British exploration, the Aussie had long hair , was divorced, spoke German and climbed peaks with modern equipment without professional guides. All of these qualities were a break from the tradition of the time. Moreover, the outsider had a strong personality and was self-confident. So much so that despite his immense talent for mountaineering, the other members of the team were suspicious of him and his methods. So much so, in fact, that the deputy expedition leader remarked, “I always knew that guy was a piece of shit.”

However, on the slopes of Mount Everest, the warmth of Finch’s down jacket finally proved its worth. It helped him and his companion Geoffrey Bruce achieve a record of over 27,000 feet in altitude. As the expedition photographer would later write, Finch had “invented a marvelous green suit quilted in airplane fabric. Not a particle of wind could pass through. Even Finch noted the change in opinion in his diary, writing, “Everyone now envy…my down coat, and no longer laughed at.”

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history of down jackets: George Finch

Pioneer of the puffy coat, George Ingle Finch. Alpine Journal – 1922, copyright free use, via Wikimedia Commons

The Skyliner jacket and the invention of the modern bouffant

Finch demonstrated the value of down jackets at the highest altitudes in the world. But its success did not immediately popularize its appeal in outdoor recreation in the United States. It took until 1936, when Eddie Bauer, the originator of the Eddie Bauer brand, designed the Skyliner jacket. Using quilted down (so all the down doesn’t bunch up at the bottom of the coat), this jacket also had a story behind it. Bauer was motivated to create it after nearly dying of hypothermia while hiking back from a mid-winter fishing trip on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Patented in 1940, the lightweight yet warm Skyliner started a trend in outerwear. This trend exploded when soldiers returning home after World War II began mail ordering Eddie Bauer products for their adventures. They did it because they were equipped with these clothes during the war. And between the patents and the war-worn appeal, Eddie Bauer remained synonymous with quality down for the next 20 years. This popularity only increased when the company created specialized down jackets and suits for American expeditions to the Himalayas in the 1950s.

Today, you can learn the history and see the original Skyliner jacket (precursor to the modern down jacket) on display at the Seattle Museum of History and Industry.

Puffer jackets for snowshoeing

Since the Skyliner, puffer jackets have been everywhere, from high fashion tops to statements of hip-hop culture and street cred. Now a staple of modern hobby kits, inflator designs, functionality and fill are a far cry from the original offerings of George Finch and Eddie Bauer.

Today’s snowshoers are blessed with many stylish and functional jacket options that use various materials as insulation. The amount of insulation used is a good indicator of how warm a down jacket is – the more insulation used, the warmer the jacket. Additionally, the type of insulation is a handy clue to the conditions in which it is best suited. You typically divide puffy coat insulation into three categories: down, synthetic, and active.

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person standing on rock in puffy coat surrounded by snow and open sky

Several puffy coats are available for exploring the snow, including the puffy down jacket. Photo: Tim Peck and Doug Martland

Down filled puffies

Down puffs use the plumage—the down raised beneath the feathers—of geese, ducks, and other waterfowl as insulation. They don’t use real feathers, as many people believe. Down works by trapping air and body heat in tiny pockets. You measure it by its efficiency and give it a fill power – usually between 500 and 900 – which is a measure of how well it swells and how well it traps heat. The higher the fill power, the lighter and more compressible the inflated.

Ounce for ounce, down is the warmest insulation and offers superior compressibility compared to its competitors. However, down loses its insulating properties when wet and dries slowly. Water-resistant down, also called hydrophobic down, solves some of these problems. It repels moisture better and dries faster than untreated down, but it still lacks the wet weather performance of other insulations.

Down jackets are ideal for use in cold, dry weather and when packing space is limited. A classic example of this puffy jacket is the Helium Down Hoodie for men and women from Outdoor Research.

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remote person looking at snow view in puffy coat and backpack

Stay warm in a synthetic puff while taking in the views from Crawford Notch. Photo: Tim Peck and Doug Martland

Synthetic puffies

Synthetic down jackets use artificial insulation designed to mimic the loft of down and its ability to trap heat. Unlike down, this insulation insulates when wet and dries faster than down. The synthetic insulation is also durable and stands up to heavy use, such as repeated stuffing and removal from a winter pack.

The downside of synthetic insulation is that it doesn’t match the warmth-to-weight ratio of down. Thus, it is not as warm and compressible as down. There is also no fill power or equivalent method to measure the quality of synthetic insulation.

Synthetic down jackets are ideal for use in cold and wet weather. They are also best in situations where the jacket will come into contact with moisture. A few synthetic examples are the men’s Icarus jacket and the women’s Montane Phoenix jacket.

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person in red puffy coach walking remotely on top of mountain with snow

Traverse the iconic Franconian ridge in a bouffant with active insulation. Photo: Tim Peck and Doug Martland

Active isolation puffies

The down jacket with active insulation is a more recent brand in the history of the puffy. It is becoming increasingly popular among outdoor enthusiasts on the go, such as snowshoers. Active insulation is designed to keep you warm when you stop but really shine when you’re active. Unlike other insulation, active insulation breathes and releases excess heat.

The downside of active insulation is that the same properties that allow air to escape from the jacket also allow outside air to enter the jacket. This feature makes them great while you’re working, but less effective when standing somewhere like a windy, exposed peak.

Down jackets with active insulation are perfect for activities like snowshoeing, especially when it’s freezing. However, due to their lack of wind protection, it is best to pair them with another bouffant on days exposed to the elements, such as above the treeline, or when you anticipate frequent stops. Try the Arcteryx Proton LT Hoodie for men and women if you’re looking for a puffy coat with active insulation.

A Puffy for every snowshoer

Finch’s groundbreaking swell hasn’t gone unnoticed. Thirty years after his own attempt at Mount Everest, he was an advisor and mentor to Sir Edmund Hilary. Hilary, along with Tenzing Norgay, used the down parkas that Finch launched when they became the first people to stand atop Mount Everest. Today, most people don’t know George Finch. But you see the legacy of his vision everywhere, from bustling city streets to isolated mountain peaks.

For more information on Finch and the first Everest attempts, In the silence by Wade Davis provides an excellent story.

What’s your favorite puffy coat? Did you know the story of the down jacket? Please share your ideas with us in the comments below.

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