N-3B “Snorkel” Parka
I know Valet beat me to it but, this was written a week ago, I have just been tracking pictures so, I don’t care. Plus this time of year, its the right thing to do. In many parts of the US “parka” has become the all encompassing term for winter coat. If it keeps you warm and dry a “parka” it is. But, as has been the way of this blog, that is not the beginning.
group of Nenets women in their seal pelt parkas. via
The word parka traces back to the Nennets language spoken by the nomadic people of the same name native to the tundras of northern Russia. It was brought into the English lexicon in 1625 by Samuel Purchas in his Hakluytus Posthumus (at least partially a continuation of Richard Hakluyt’s Principle Navigation) a four-volume collection of poorly curated travel stories and discoveries from various explorers of the time. Back then these “ethnic costumes” would have been seen as little more then an oddity to most of the English speaking world but, polar explorers used the knowledge of the local tribes to stay alive on their journeys into the unknown. One of these secrets was how to fend off the cold and wind while still retaining enough movement to work. The early explorers did as the natives, full pelt suits with hoods cut to fit the wearer.
Admiral Robert Peary (L) first credited with reaching the north pole and Roald Amundsen (R) discoverer of the south pole — two of the great moments of the “Heroic Age” of Antarctic exploration around the turn of the century
In 1945, the U.S. Army Air Force issued the Type N-3 heavy jacket for aircrew, the first of a long line of very successful N-3 style parkas. By 1950 the US Air Force was split from the Army and the N-3 became the N-3A with a USAF blue shell. The N-3 evolved into the N-3B by 1958, described as “for aircrew members in extremely cold environments,” designed as it was for temperatures down to −60 °F (~-50 °C). The N-3B was a single breasted, four pocket, 3/4 length parka with an outer layer of nylon twill (typically sage green), insulated with a layer of wool pile fabric and lined with nylon cloth and a fur-trimmed, mouton lined hood. The N-3B gained the nickname, “snorkle” because of how the hood could be zipped all the way up to eye level leaving only a small opening (the snorkel) to look out from. It made for extremely complete coverage in cold weather, especially when worn with goggles but, made for problems with peripheral vision.
Arctic Survival Training Course, Eielson AFB, Alaska. Airmen sporting the N-3B, 2007
(L) Thule AFB, Greenland, 1953. (R) Barksdale AFB, LA, 1960
Like most useful things the military issues, the N-3B parka soon made its way to the civilian market. Surplus stores as well as knock-off brands were abundant. Snorkle coats even became a sort of fad in the UK during recession and boom in unemployment at the beginning of the Thatcher era. These days, although the shape hasn’t changed very much, the technology has. With synthetics, chemical treatments and new technics the classic parka can be and has been made lighter, stronger, and warmer, not to mention available in any combination of colors you can imagine. There are some things that don’t change though, goose down is super light and extremely warm, there are few substitutes for fur, and coverage is key. So, instead of being cold this winter, think military and find yourself the version that best fits you whether its dead stock vintage surplus or brand new, high tech, North Face extreme.