I recommend clothing that can be comfortably worn day after day for a wide variety of activities. My clothing is typically made from technical fibers or merino wool which provides good mobility, decent durability, is light weight, fast drying, and odor/stain resistant. I use mostly the same clothing for daily city life, backpacking, fitness, and travel. Given my mixed use, I generally constrain clothing styles and colors to be something that would be acceptable in a business meeting or at a nice restaurant. For example, no cargo pockets on the thigh.
Below are some general recommendations. I have a number of posts with more specific recommends which have a clothing tag including:
Conventional wisdom is that you should dress in three layers: a base to manage moisture, a middle to provide insulation, and a shell to protect you from the elements such as wind and rain. In colder conditions it is common to have multiple insulation layers which can be added or removed to to maintain comfort over a range of conditions.
A slight variant of this system is to use a wind-shirt over the base layer. When people are engaged in high output aerobic activities the combination of high breathable base layer like the Patagonia’s Thermal Weight Capilene Hoody and a light weight unlined wind-shirt such as the Montbell Tacyon can keep the wearer comfortable for a surprising range of temperatures. When activity level drops or if the conditions turn harsh (below freezing temperatures with wind), insulation and/or a heavier shell layer are placed over the wind-shirt.
Softshells are the cold weather variant of a base + wind shirt, providing more insulation while maintaining good breathability. Softshells work well when the wearer is highly active facing variable conditions.
Minimize Moisture Absorption
Managing moisture is critical to comfort and safety. Heat lose in water is 24 times more effective than if you are standing in still air. This means that a soaked garment can chill you more than standing naked. Ideally, you want clothing to stay dry. It’s not always possible to keep clothing dry, so the best mitigation is to select clothing which minimizes water retention and dries quickly. The article why cotton kills explores this topic in more detail as does my Water Retention In Clothing page. I generally recommend fabrics made from polyester and nylon. Merino wool is also decent, retaining a bit more water than these synthetics but has the advantage of resisting odor and slightly better thermal-regulational properties. There are several treatments that can be applied to these materials which make them even better such as Schoeller’s nanospheres. Cotton is an inappropriate material for highly variable conditions. Cotton can absorb more than four times of it’s weight in water and can take five times as long to dry as some synthetics! Silk, Rayon, and a host of other fabrics are better than cotton, but still not nearly a good as nylon, polyester, or wool.
A nice side effect of quick drying clothing is that on extended trips in the back country or when you are adventure traveling you can wash your clothing in the sink or river and be able to wear them almost immediately. This reduces the amount of clothing you need to carry without being grubby or smelly.
Select the Right Amount of Insulation
There are four things which effect how warm you feel: your base metabolism (do you run “hot” or “cold”), the environmental conditions you are experiencing (temperature and wind), the amount of insulation you are wearing, and your activity level! Richard Nisley posted a wonderful graph illustrates how these factors are inter-related as does his revised paradigm for estimating garment comfort limits. I found Richard’s graph very helpful in selecting the right set of garments for a trip or event. My caveat is that I seem to require around 1/2 the insulation Richard recommends except when I sleep. What important to remember is that you only insulate for your lowest level of activity. For example, I will often eat “dinner” early and then hike at a moderate (no sweating) pace until dark and then immediately get under my quilt. In the morning I immediately start hiking and eat breakfast once it warms up a bit. This means I need clothing that is much less insulating than something that would keep me comfortable when sitting around at the coldest time in the day. I have also found Richard’s graph is a great reminder that besides adding or removing clothing layers, a highly effective way to maintain a comfortable temperature range during the day is by altering activity level.
Know How Much Durability is Needed
People are often concerned about the durability of clothing that will be worn in the back country or for an extended period of time while traveling. Many manufacturers encourage people’s fear and sell seriously overbuilt clothing, often labeled “Expedition Proven” or some such thing. The truth is, very few people, even those on expeditions need clothing that is so overbuilt. Unless you are facing continuous hard-wearing conditions, lighter weight clothing will have close to the same lifetime as the over-built clothing. There are many advantages to selecting items which aren’t overbuilt: you save weight, save space, often get better performance and spend less money. It is possible to go so light that durability is effected. Several manufacturers make clothing which is aimed at extreme athletics looking for the lightest weight performance. Often times weights savings comes at the expense of durability.
Andrew Skurka’s Core Backpacking Clothing provides a proven approach to layering clothing. Richard Nisley’s article A Revised Paradigm For Estimating Garment Comfort Limits provides an in-depth model for evaluating clothing. I would also recommend checking Andy Kirkpatrick’s (aka pyschovertical) The Art of Not Suffering and BPL Clothing (and Sleep) System for Mountain Hiking. My Stay warm notes might provide some insight into clothing choices. Finally, I would recommend the tips in winter running for people who engage is very high energy activities in cold weather. See my others posts with clothing tag for specific recommendations.