A Simple Outdoor Clothing System Wrapup: Putting it Together Season by Season


Building a clothing system that works year round in all conditions can seem like an impossible task. The Simple Clothing System framework outlined in this series of posts makes it a snap.

This is the final in a series of posts outlining a simple framework for a universal set of outdoor clothing. An introduction and overview of the series can be found here. Topics of posts include: baselayers, lightweight fleece, midweight insulating jackets, wind shells, breathable rainwear, winter soft shells and high-loft winter insulation. Additional posts provide podcast resources and a supplement on clothes for warm weather comfort.

If you’ve been along for the whole ride through this series on outdoor clothing you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed at this point. After all, this discussion of a universal outdoor clothing system involves 7 different suggested layers and a minimum of 13 garments. You could easily spend a few thousand dollars putting this whole thing together, especially if you go with high end garments from the specialty outdoor industry. That’s a lot of commitment to a plan that some blogger cooked up in his spare time.

Fortunately, there’s no need to bite off the whole system in one chunk. Most of us do the majority of our outdoor recreation in the warm months of the year. If you’re interested in putting a system like this together, I recommend that you start with the items you’ll need for backpacking, hiking or canoeing in the extended summer months.

Summer Clothing
Summer Clothes from top left: Royal Robbins nylon summer shirt, Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man Fleece jacket, Patagonia Houdini Jacket, Patagonia Lightweight Capilene Top and Bottom, Mountain Hardwear Gore-Tex Paclite jacket, Go Lite trekking umbrella, Patagonia Rain Shadow Gore-Tex Paclite pants, Nike wind pants, Patagonia Baggies. Total weight including umbrella: 5 pounds, 2 oz. Without umbrella: 4 pounds 8 ounces.

Simple Clothing for Summer Months
Summer clothing forms the core of this clothing system. For summer trips in temperate climates you’ll need a baselayer, midweight insulating jacket, wind shells and breathable raingear. Add to these a pair of quick-dry athletic shorts, an ultralight summer shirt and some wicking underwear and you’ll be set for adventure from May through September in most regions of the United States.

In the field it works like this. You wear your shorts and summer shirt most of the time. If you need protection from bugs, layer your wind shells over the top. If it cools down, put on your midweight insulating jacket under your windbreaker. If the temps push into the unseasonably cool range you can layer wind gear over your baselayer and midweight jacket. Raingear comes out if it rains. Depending on the temperature rain jacket and pants might be worn over only your summer shirt and shorts, or over the complete system. An umbrella is your friend if it’s hot and rainy. This combination of clothing will take most people down below 50 degrees Fahrenheit and serve from late spring through early fall.

You don’t need to break the bank to put your summer closet together. Most folks already have some fitness clothing that can be pressed into service. Midweight fleece jackets are widely available at a modest price and Army surplus silkweight baselayers are dirt cheap. The place you’ll likely find yourself spending some real cash is on rainwear. It makes sense to buy the best you can afford, but even if you are on a budget, good gear is available. If you watch for sales and follow the tips outlined in the other posts you should be able to put together the system outlined above for well under $300 with rainwear accounting for most of the cost.

Pushing Three Seasons
Your summer clothing system should keep you comfortable well into fall, but at some point you’ll want a little more insulation. The simple way to push your clothing below 50 degrees and toward freezing is to add a lightweight wicking fleece top and bottom. For spring and fall you’ll leave your summer shirt and shorts behind and layer in baselayer, lightweight fleece and wind shells. Breaks during the day or colder evenings can be handled by addling your midweight insulating jacket over the top of your lightweight fleece and under your wind shell.

Top quality wicking fleece layers can be pricey, but the performance of Polartec Power Stretch or Power Grid is so much better than the traditional fleece alternatives they really are worth the money. If you need an economy option, the military version of these pieces are available on the web for about $30 each. Of course, if you can afford to buy wicking fleece from a quality specialty outdoor manufacturer you’ll find the cut, quality and features superior to the surplus stuff.

Fall Clothing
Fall Clothes from top left: Patagonia R1 Pullover, Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man Fleece jacket, Patagonia Houdini Jacket, Patagonia Lightweight Capilene Top and Bottom, Mountain Hardwear Gore-Tex Paclite jacket,  Patagonia Rain Shadow Gore-Tex Paclite pants, Nike wind pants, ECWCS Level 2 Power Grid fleece bottoms. Total weight: 4 pounds 12 oz.

Winter Minimums
If you’re a three season camper who wants to do an occasional winter outing you can push your clothing system into true cold weather territory without much more expense by adding a high-loft down or synthetic parka. As discussed in the post on high-loft insulation, you’re looking for something truly puffy to fill this niche. Down is expensive, but high-loft synthetic parkas can be found for around $100 if you shop carefully.

Layering your system for winter you’ll add your midweight insulating jacket over your lightweight fleece top and under your wind shell. If I’m active, this layering system keeps me comfortable to below zero. Add your winter insulated parka over the top of these clothes whenever you stop for a rest on the trail.

You don’t need a pair of puffy pants for winter camping, but you sure will be happy to have them. The ECWCS pants are so inexpensive that there’s little reason to skip  them–you can usually find a pair for about $30. These can be used at rest breaks, but will be really handy to have standing around in camp. Without puffy pants you’ll likely find yourself retreating to your sleeping bag when the sun dips below the horizon.

Winter Clothes
Winter Clothes from top left: Patagonia Houdini Jacket, Patagonia Guide Lite soft shell jacket, Patagonia Lightweight Capilene Top and Bottom, Black Diamond Stance Belay Parka, ECWCS Level 7 Primaloft pants, Kuhl Klash soft shell pants, Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man Fleece jacket, ECWCS Level 2 Power Grid fleece bottoms, Patagonia R1 Pullover. Total weight: 9 pounds 9 oz. Total weight with rainwear: 11 pounds 1 oz.

Full Winter Gear
If you’re just getting into winter adventures you can hold off on soft shells for a while. Ultralight wind shells will serve to get you started. The place where soft shells really start to shine is when your winter pursuits get a little more abusive.

Backcountry skiing, wilderness hunting, ice climbing, mountaineering, bushwhacking through spruce swamps–all these activities are tough on ultralight wind shells. You can expect your wind shells to get badly shredded if you use them long enough for these sort of activities. Add to this the fact that soft shells are stretchy and comfortable to wear and there is a good case to add them to your winter closet.

Winter layering with soft shells is similar to winter layering with windbreakers. The system from skin out goes baselayer, lightweight wicking fleece, midweight jacket and softshell. I like to pack my windbreaker top as well. I’ve found that it gives me a little more flexibility in temperature regulation throughout the day. If the wind is really howling the added wind resistant layer under my soft shell helps to preserve body heat. I leave the wind pants at home–my legs typically stay warm if my core is warm, and I prefer the mobility I get from softshell pants worn alone over other layers.

On deep winter trips you can leave your waterproof/breathable layers at home to lighten your pack, but on shoulder season when you might have a miserable day of freezing rain it makes sense to pack them along.

Eliminating the Paradox of Choice
I started this series with a brief discussion of The Paradox of Choice, outlined by Barry Schwartz in his book of the same name. Schwartz’ premise is that more options lead to less satisfaction with our choices. The more we have to choose from, the less likely we are to be happy with what we get. One of the things Schwartz recommends is to deliberately limit your choices. In doing so, he believes you will be more likely to be satisfied with whatever decisions you make.

The world of outdoor gear is filled with a bewildering array of choices. This series of posts takes up Schwartz’ suggestion and deliberately limits clothing options. The result is a single set of outdoor clothes that can be used in all conditions, from high summer to deep winter.

At the beginning of this series I set out to research and propose such a system. I based my exploration largely on a categories of clothing found in a military outerwear system called the Protective Combat Uniform (PCU), and rounded things out with advice from ultralight backpacking guru Ray Jardine. I’ve been wearing and experimenting with layers from the PCU for the past ten months, and I’ve followed Jardine’s suggestions for backpacking clothing for many years. As a result of my field experience I’m convinced that the Simple Clothing System works on all counts. The framework performs in all environments and conditions that I’ve tested, from Boundary Waters canoe trips to backpacking in the Smokies. From winter camping, to winter construction work and Wisconsin deer hunting. The system slices through the confusion of outdoor clothing technology and styles when shopping, and dramatically simplifies clothing choices in the field.

The Simple Clothing System eliminates the Paradox of Choice both in purchasing and in using outdoor clothing. 

When it comes to buying, the Simple Clothing System helps to to focus in on exactly what you need. This means that you can study the options available within narrow categories of clothing, learn more about the pros and cons of different options and be able to make a more informed choice when you buy. For example, if you know you are looking for lightweight wicking fleece bottoms you can eliminate a huge range of options and zero in on what fits and what is the best value.

The more you know about exactly what you need, the better your chances are of finding a great deal. This winter, my wife went looking for a hooded soft shell jacket to round out her winter clothing system. By the time she had gone through all the requirements (must have a hood, must be made from stretch woven fabric, cannot have a windproof membrane, needs to fit over insulating layers, etc.) there were only two or three commonly available choices left. Confident that she was going to get the right jacket, Cristi could focus in on finding a color that she liked at an affordable price. In the end she found a great deal on an Outdoor Research Ferrosi Jacket that she has worn almost every day this winter.

Which brings me to the second big advantage of the Simple Clothing System approach. It helps you to choose what to wear. When your outdoor closet is focused down to 13 garments it is dramatically easier to choose what to wear in any weather conditions. You know if it’s cold outside you’ll be wearing your baselayers, lightweight fleece and soft shells. All you have to decide is whether its cold enough to warrant adding your midweight jacket to the system, or windy enough that you want to layer your windshell under your softshell jacket. If you’re packing for a backcountry trip you only have 13 garments to choose from. You know what’s going in the bag on a summer canoe trip, it’ll be summer shirt and shorts plus baselayers, windshells, rainwear and a midweight jacket. Over and over, in scenario after scenario the Simple Clothing System delivers. The system is simple to understand, easy to use and the clothes perform.

One of the great things about writing is how much you learn through the process. Researching, testing and writing this series of posts has dramatically changed my ideas about the outdoor clothing that I need. The Simple Clothing System framework has helped me to eliminate dozens of garments from my closet that I realized were redundant or overly specialized. Half of the garments featured in the opening image of my first blog post have now found their way to new homes via our friends at eBay, which brings me to a final thought. Knowing what I know now, I’m confident that I’ve wasted a lot of money through the years on outdoor clothing that I didn’t need.

The point of this series is sharing the information that I’ve learned so that other people can confidently build a their outdoor closet with a minimum of confusion and expense. This doesn’t mean you should buy the cheapest clothes you can find. Quite the contrary. Even if you buy the highest quality, most expensive gear from top outdoor manufacturers you’ll still come out ahead. The old adage goes, “buy the best, cry once.” To this I would add: “buy what you need, buy less.” If you have a framework that helps you to know what you really need, you’ll waste less money on junk and have more to spend on items that really perform.

If you’re on a budget, start with the clothes you need for summer adventures and build your clothing system over time, rather than cutting corners and buying gear that you’ll need to replace down the road. Avoid the temptation to spend money on items that are fashionable or trendy or specialized if they fall outside this framework. If you do you’ll be able to put together a high performance, universal system of clothing without maxing out your credit cards.

In the spirit of really cutting through the clutter I’ll offer up a final list of clothing here based on the top recommendations from this series. I’ll skip the brands (you’ve seen what I’m wearing these days in the captions to the images above). Instead, I’ll focus in on the features and materials that will give you the best performance in the broadest range of conditions. Links to each post are contained within each layer if you want to dive deeper.

If you’ve been through this series from front to back I would like to thank you for taking the time. I hope you find the Simple Clothing System framework helpful when it comes time to choose the right clothes for all your outdoor adventures.

Thanks for reading. Best of luck with all your outdoor adventures!

Simple Clothing System Recommendations
Layer 1: Baselayer: Silkweight polyester top and bottom.

Layer 2: Lightweight Wicking Fleece: Polartec Powergrid top and bottom. High zip neck on top.

Layer 3: Midweight Insulating Jacket: Polartec Hi-Loft full zip jacket. No hood. Sized to fit over layers 1-2.

Layer 4: Wind Shells: Ultralight, fully breathable nylon or polyester. Jacket with hood and full front zip. Pants with ankle zips. Sized to fit over layers 1-3.

Layer 5: Winter Soft Shells: Lightweight stretch woven fabric. Jacket hip length with hood, chest pockets and full front zip. Pants with ankle zips and scuff guards. Sized to fit over layers 1-4.

Layer 6: Waterproof/Breathable Shells: Gore-tex Paclite top and bottom. Jacket hip length with hood, full front zip, chest pockets and pit zips. Pants with ankle zips. Sized to fit over layers 1-4.

Layer 7: High Loft Synthetic Insulation: Parka hip length with hood, chest pockets, front zip, inside pockets for gloves. Pants with full side zips. Sized to fit over layers 1-6.

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6 thoughts on “A Simple Outdoor Clothing System Wrapup: Putting it Together Season by Season

  1. Yaron

    Hey Brian,
    Finished reading all the layering system posts and already made some changes in my closet(my wife was very happy to get my unfortunately too small and not as useful down jacket). also read the gloves layering post, Amazing! It was exactly my problem, it is not rational to carry mitten and “working gloves” separately. Again thank you for the great research and detailed posts! I’ve learned a lot.

    As someone that looks at how to own fewer and fewer things, those series of posts are very useful!

    I do remember you mention somewhere how to combine all the layers to carry a lighter sleeping bag in winter. can you give more details on it? Maybe a future post?
    Kind regards and all the best

    1. Thanks Yaron. Haven’t done the sleeping bag post yet but the simple version is that if you aren’t sleeping in all your clothes you’ve packed too much bag. Of course you have to use a full synthetic system (clothes and bag) for this to work. Down bags will absorb too much moisture and will lose loft if you go to sleep in damp clothes. In a synthetic bag your body heat will drive moisture out through the system just like it does in an air permeable layering system. Go to sleep damp. Wake up dry. Trick is the bag needs to be big enough to accommodate your extra layers without compressing them or the bag’s insulation. Synthetic quilts are probably the best lightweight option. Oversized synthetic mummy bags would probably be better for winter.

  2. Krishna

    Hey Brian,

    Thanks again for this series of articles. I’ve been re-reading all of them to fully grasp everything. I fully appreciate the simplicity with which you approached this. Simple is good. I personally like to keep everything in my life as simple as possible and I count myself lucky for having stumbled across your blog. I agree that the clothing options available these days from outdoor retailers are bewildering and for someone like me who is just getting started it is very jarring.

    Also that was an excellent article on handwear. At first I didn’t know that you wrote an article on that, so I tried to come up with a system and after some research I ended up with something close to what you had already described in your article.

    Might I suggest an article on footwear and socks, to round things off.

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