This gear review has its start back in the Vietnam War. My father, Chuck Schrader, was stationed at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, Alaska. He served as a medic caring for casualties who were being evacuated from Vietnam on their way back to the states.
“I wish I’d had this during my three winters in Alaska,” he told me. “It would have been warmer than my Air Force-issue parka, especially when the chill factor was -75˚F and I was working on an ambulance, or just walking from the barracks to the hospital.”
He’s referring to a legend in the outdoor community — a garment design that’s been endlessly imitated but never quite duplicated. He’s talking about the Mackinaw Cruiser Jacket from Filson. “Having grown up in northern Pennsylvania, and hunting deer since I was 14, I was accustomed to the Filson Buffalo plaid (red and black checks),” he said. “All of my uncles wore it. In fact, everyone I knew wore it hunting and even in general. I guess that’s why they called it the ‘Pennsylvania Tuxedo.’”
The Mackinaw Cruiser was originally patented on March 3, 1914, as a pullover shirt that buttoned down to the sternum. Patented elements included a double-layer back with access from both sides that created a large, full-width pocket. Outdoorsmen would use it to store maps and charts, or anything else that was necessary to access quickly and carry on their person. The other signature element was the four snap-flap closure pockets on the front of the shirt. One was sized for a compass, and another included slots to hold small utility tools.
Made of 24 ounces-per-yard virgin wool, the jacket itself is not light. When you pick it up it definitely feels more like a piece of gear that’s going to be there to support your endeavors instead of just a random garment that you found in your hamper. In other words, there’s nothing accidental about the jacket’s details. When you look at it you can see that it was designed from the ground up to perform a certain function — to keep you warm and comfortable even when it’s cold and very wet. This even applies if, for example, you accidentally tipped your canoe over into a half-frozen river.
At first we weren’t sure how a garment designed more than 100 years ago would stack up in this age of microfiber fabric technology. These days, garments are designed on computers, produced on mechanized assembly lines, and incorporate synthetic materials with names that sound more like pharmaceuticals than fabrics.
Is there still a place for the old-fashioned wool jacket that our great-great grandfathers might have worn? After all, there’s a reason we bring satellite phones and GPS tracking on our outdoor adventures now — because the new technology gives us an advantage against nature. Anyone who’s ever worn one of these jackets is probably chuckling right now, because they already know that new doesn't always mean improved. The old ways often stand the test of time, especially in the wilderness.
As many of us have found out the hard way, some modern waterproof jackets can trap moisture inside and feel stifling, despite claims of selectively-permeable materials. The Filson wool, however, feels extremely breathable. The natural characteristics of wool provide air flow and keep the material feeling warm even when wet. This is critical because exerting yourself in cold weather can too often lead to sweaty clothes, which then freeze over and can put you on a dangerous path towards hypothermia.
This is likely one of the big reasons that the Filson Mackinaw Cruiser became a common sight in logging camps in the 1920’s, and by the 1950’s became standard issue for the United States Forestry Service (USFS). Simply put, guys who spent their days in the wooded backcountry realized that there was no better alternative. And after 121 years of service, the jacket is still Filson’s best-selling coat.
Regarding the fit, be sure to take good measurements and try to find one in a store to try on, if possible. Wool does not have a lot of stretch or give, and you want your shoulders to be able to move and swing freely as you hike. If in doubt, err on the larger side since you’ll probably be wearing more layers underneath the jacket. With that being said, Filson offers free shipping on exchanges — if you got the size wrong, all you have to do is ship the jacket back to them and they’ll ship out a different size to you at their own expense.
With a retail cost of $395, this jacket is not inexpensive. In the same way that every detail of the jacket seems designed with a purpose, buying the jacket won’t be a random accident for most of us. It’ll be something we save up for and think about for a long time prior. But if you do choose the Mackinaw, you'll have a made-in-the-USA piece of history that will most likely last for decades of adventuring through the backcountry. When that happens, the jacket will be ready and waiting to be passed on to a grandson or granddaughter, to be there for them as they step out and venture into the unkown.
Andrew Schrader is a licensed professional engineer and is certified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Structures Specialist. His company, Recon Response Engineering LLC, advises state and federal government organizations on the subject of urban search and rescue and building collapse. He recently assisted the U.S. Department of State’s Italian Consulate in the development of their post-earthquake response and rescue protocol. Website: www.reconresponse.com Instagram: @reconresponse