VISUALISE John Muir. I’m not entirely sure how accurate my mental image is, but in essence it boils down to hobnail boots, tweed jacket and a big
beard. I’m also seeing a pipe.
Maybe a hat. Whenever I think of hill-walking, mountain-climbing types from a century ago, I get the same image. Always male, bearded, and sometimes there’s a fisherman’s sweater and kilt combo thrown in for good measure. How different our hillsides look today, awash with a multi-coloured sea of Gore-tex.
As regular readers will know, I have been spending my weeks working in the city centre after many years of rural bliss. As a result, I now consider myself one with the slum-dwellers of yesteryear who’d wash the soot off their faces on a Friday and head doon the watter or aff to the coast to take the air. Come Saturday, you’ll find me in the countryside, gazing slack-jawed at the trees, the birds and the sky. Even if there are clouds in it and raindrops falling from it. Which brings us back to the bearded explorers. Finding the perfect breathable, waterproof garment wasn’t a huge stretch for these chaps. Wool socks, trousers, sweater and tweed coat were standard because there weren’t any hi-tech options.
If only modern life was so simple. My ancient waterproof jacket leaks at the shoulder seams, the zip is burst and the once vibrant purple colour has faded like a bruise. The smear of motorcycle chain oil on the front, a reminder of my brief dalliance with two-wheeled transport, is the icing on the cake. So should I buy a new waterproof jacket and is an eco-friendly one available?
Most hi-tech waterproof jackets contain their fair share of solvents, laminates and other unpleasant chemicals. The miraculous waterproof, breathable fabric tends to be made from polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) – the same stuff they use to make non-stick pans. It’s not this material itself which is cause for alarm, but the fluorocarbons (PFOS and PFOA) used in its production. Fluorocarbons are the sort of substances scientists are always finding accumulations of because they stubbornly refuse to break down. They accumulate in people, animals, just about everywhere. The EU has now banned PFOS and is considering doing so with PFOA.
While waxes, oils and silicones all keep water out, fluorocarbons are really good at repelling both oil and water, hence their popularity in waterproofing products. Patagonia (www.patagonia.com) is one ethical company that is up-front about having used some of these materials, publishing full details on its website and explaining that it is using alternative products on more products each season. The market leader in the field is Paramo (www.paramo.co.uk) whose waterproofs use Nikwax (www.nikwax.com) a breathable, waterproof fabric that contains none of the nasty ingredients. Nikwax also makes reproofing products that’ll sort out jackets that have lost their waterproofing while Barbour (www.barbour.com) is one company that will take back your coat for reproofing when it needs it.
I feel this make-do-and-mend approach is the way to go. I am going to get my zip fixed and zap the old jacket with reproofing spray. And when the time comes that it really must be replaced, I am tempted to go retro. My brother has a heavy cotton canvas coat he got from the Army & Navy surplus store and he swears it keeps the rain out. I love the idea of wandering up a hill in a smart wool jacket (naturally water repellent), but fear that as the rain kept falling, the jacket would get heavier and heavier until I keeled over. We might have high ideals but we can’t all be as tough as John Muir.