How Does Hugh Glass' Gear Compare to the Backcountry Explorers of Today?
As actor Leonardo DiCaprio and the movie "The Revenant" garner big Oscar buzz, there's increasing curiosity about the remarkable true story behind The Revenant movie and DiCaprio's legendary character, Hugh Glass. While the legend of Hugh Glass intrigues me, I can't stop wondering how the fur trappers (aka "mountain men") of the 1820s Old West managed to survive the extreme conditions of the western wilderness in what appears to be old, soaked-through fabric, worn-in leather and bulky furs.
The Fur Trappers featured in "The Revenant" are dressed primarily in worn-in hides, furs and layers of an unknown fabric. You see them running through mud and water in boots that appear to have little traction and no waterproofing. But, we certainly can't depend on a movie to give us the facts about the outerwear and tools of the mountain men in the 1820s, so I did a little research to figure out exactly how their seemingly primitive gear compares to the high-performance technology we have today.
In order to effectively cope with the harsh conditions and dangerous way of life, seasoned mountain men often aimed to mirror the Native American population of the west as closely as possible. Many preferred to wear a coat made of water-repellent greasy buckskin or other tanned hides to protect them from the weather. In cold weather, a wool blanket or wool capote was worn for warmth. A "capote" is a long, hooded coat made out of a wool blanket. Trappers wore heavy furs, like the ones seen in The Revenant scene below, only in the coldest weather.
Fur trappers were also known to wear boots and moccasins that were easy to make, comfortable and lightweight. The hides would provide some protection from moisture and cold, but nothing compared to the waterproof, insulated hiking boots of today.
Like their coats and footwear, trapper's hats were also made from tanned hides — usually smaller animals like a raccoon or fox. The "trapper hat" style remains popular today, and is inspired by the warm fur hats that the trappers made and used in the 19th century.
Outdoor adventurers of the 21st century can relate to the mountain men of the 19th century in their reverence for the natural performance of wool. Icebreaker and SmartWool merino wool base layers provide temperature-regulating comfort in the wilderness, just like the wool blankets of 200 years ago.
Wool might be a timeless outdoor adventure essential, but greasy buckskin and tanned hides? I don't think so. Today, we take on extreme conditions with the waterproof breathable and insulated technology of performance jackets and pants. The North Face and Marmot jackets, for instance, use waterproof breathable membranes and ultralight, low-bulk insulation to provide the ultimate weather protection with very little weight or bulk.
Survival and Hunting Gear
Mountain men had to be completely self-sufficient in the wilderness of the West. They could only carry the bare essentials with them, and relied on nature to provide the rest.
Trappers relied primarily on wild game as a source of food and pelts as a source of income, so hunting was their livelihood. That's why they almost always carried a flintlock rifle, powder horn, tomahawk and a good hunting knife. The tomahawk and hunting knife were usually made of iron, and were used for defense as well as hunting. Their weapons were often kept close at hand with leather waist and shoulder belts.
They also carried what was called a "possibles bag". This bag was made of leather and carried necessary supplies, trade goods, and a flint and striker for starting fires.
Now-a-days, even the most hardcore survivalists, hunters and backcountry enthusiasts have outerwear, tools and camping gear that seem downright luxurious compared to what the fur trappers of Hugh Glass's time were equipped with. The stainless steel hunting knives of today are an improvement on the iron hunting knives of the 1820s, and a spacious, lightweight modern-day backpack would have been a luxury for a mountain man.
Getting a better glimpse into the dangerous and rugged lives of fur trappers like Hugh Glass makes me even more grateful for the constantly improving outdoor gear and outerwear of today. From waterproof jackets to ultralight backpacks —modern-day explorers have it made!
*Featured image courtesy Everett/REX/Shutterstock
Russell, Carl P. Firearms, Traps and Tools of the Mountain Men: A Guide to the Equipment of the Trappers and Fur Traders Who Opened the Old West. New York City: Skyhorse, 2010. Print.
Utley, Robert M. After Lewis and Clark: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 2004. Print.
"Trappers, Traders and Trailblazers: Mountain Men in the Rocky Mountain West." Buffalo Bill Center of the West. 2013. Web. 03 Feb. 2016.