Last year I interviewed a man named Obi Kaufmann for a profile in our print publication. He’s a wildlife artist and amateur ecologist who spends lots of time in the backcountry but absolutely refuses to wear modern technical gear. He just can’t abide by synthetics. It’s all denim and wool for Kaufman. He figures if it was good enough for John Muir it’s good enough for him.
I can’t say I entirely agree, or even partially agree—I’m pretty sure John Muir would be rocking the Gore-Texiest Gore-Tex and advanced synthetic gear he could pull over his beard—but I can say that Kaufman and I are on the same page with at least one piece of old-school outdoor gear. The waxed cotton jacket.
Partially, this is fashion, I’ll admit. I don’t always want to be wearing synthetics and other exotic materials while hiking or fishing in inclement weather. Sometimes I just want something that’s a bit heavier, that feels natural, and that looks like a jacket my grandfather would wear. But also because waxed cotton is burly, as durable as leather, and works incredibly well. It’s 100 percent waterproof (when waxed properly) and breathes very, very well.
Waxed canvas works in a remarkably similar way to the waterproof membrane in the most advanced technical material of today. Wax, usually paraffin-based, impregnates the cotton fibers of the garment, swelling the fibers a bit, and, presuming the fibers are sewn tightly enough, creating an impenetrable fabric that water drops can’t pass through. But water vapor can, so rain stays out while your perspiration can still escape through the microscopic gaps in the fibers. More or less, that’s exactly how Gore-Tex works too.
Of course, modern hardshell synthetic jackets can weigh virtually nothing and pack away into a walnut shell. There’s no comparison with the stretch they can offer, the comfort, the range of motion, and the athleticism they provide. When backpacking, mountain biking, long-distance hiking, trail running—anything where I’m really moving and sweating and want lightness and flexibility, I’ll grab one of my whisper-thin modern rain jackets.
Those jackets though probably won’t still be in my closet a decade or even five years from now. They’ll rip on a branch or maybe get caught in a car door. Sometimes three-layer jackets fail when the layers begin to separate, or the waterproofing materials begin to degrade. Seams tear. The material gets oily and dirty and begins to wet out. Or just looks old and tired.
Waxed canvas, on the other hand, can last for decades. Favored pieces will line and crease like an old baseball glove, each jacket unique to the owner. I’ll pass mine to my future child, she’ll pass it to her kids, they’ll wear it, much softened with age, and like me wonder where the name Fjällraven comes from, too.
Oh, right. Fjällraven. Though many companies still make waxed canvas, my favorite piece is Fjällraven’s Greenland Special Edition hooded jacket. It’s unlined so it’s light and breathable, and has a nice snug hood to keep rain and wind out. They make it with their G-1000 fabric, which is less heavy than you might be expecting if your only previous experience with waxed canvas is big and heavy jackets. When well-waxed it not only keeps out heavy rains but also acts as an incredible windbreaker. They add a tougher, heavier cotton patch on the shoulders and the top of the hood too, to protect areas that get dumped on the most.
I wear this puppy when fishing in poor weather almost exclusively. No fears when pushing through brambles on a riverbank, don’t even have to think once about piercing the tough material with a fish hook either. Quick muddy and rainy hikes, too, call for the Greenland jacket if it’s just a casual stroll through a rainy forest. I wear it as an outer layer while snowshoeing too. At backcountry winter huts, it’s the jacket I pull on when it’s time to chop firewood. It’s even the dedicated Christmas tree harvest outerwear.
Basically, if it’s wet and I’m in need of a jacket that can put up with abuse, it’s time for the waxed canvas.
Sure, there’s a little maintenance, but it’s kind of a fun seasonal ritual. Each fall, about now in fact, I pull out my coat, sometimes wash it, break out a bar of wax and a hot iron then re-apply a new coat of wax. That’s a small price to pay for a jacket that can quite literally last a lifetime.
More Waxy Cotton Goodness
Filson’s Cruiser is a classic, rugged jacket for serious work when it’s wet and nasty out. Not cheap at $350, but buy it once, but it for life.
Kuhl’s women’s fleece-lined Luna jacket adds more warmth than the Greenland and features a longer cut too. Pretty good deal at $199.
Fjällraven’s Keb jacket offers the same waxed protection as the Greenland, but with more pockets and polyester sections for a little better movement.