You get what you pay for, right? Well, not always. Over the years, we've seen expensive rain jackets leak while budget pants bashed through briers and storms. So for this year's Apparel Guide, we've divided the best clothes we tested in the last 9 months into complete three-season layering systems that you can nab for $200, $400, and $800 (or just pick and choose the pieces you need). Each system includes a rain shell, midlayer, base layer, and pants, plus one additional item that can be had with the remaining money. To narrow our picks to this batch of 15 products, we tested the clothes in all sorts of weather on hikes from the Colorado Rockies to New Zealand's Southern Alps.
Spend big, and you'll get supreme versatility, sharp-looking designs, and long-lasting materials. By Michael Lanza
Montbell Peak Shell
There are few places like New Zealand, with its notoriously hard, cold, frequent rain, for making an ultralight raincoat look like a dumb way to cut 3 ounces. But I wore this jacket happily in Kiwi downpours and even stateside snowstorms. It always delivered no-compromise performance, thanks to a fully adjustable hood with a brim that keeps rain off your face, enough hem length to cover your butt, and adjustable hook-and-loop cuffs. The breathability of the Breeze Dry-Tec fabric is excellent, and deep pit zips provide additional venting. Fit is trim, with enough room for a warm midlayer. And with the sweet price, I had enough money left for a soft shell too (below). $198; unisex XS-XL; 12 oz. (877) 666-8235; www.montbell.com.
The North Face Moxie ¼ Zip
I lost count of how many days I wore this versatile midweight zip-T--in temps from below freezing to 60°F, in wind, rain, snow, hail, and sunshine. When I sweated hard, TNF's VaporWick fabric rarely stayed damp for more than a few minutes. The tall collar adds warmth, the deep zipper permits good venting, and the sleeve thumbholes keep hands toasty in cool weather. After all those days and washings, it still looks almost new. $55; men's S-XXL, women's XS-XL; 10 oz. (800) 447-2333; www.thenorthface.com.
GoLite Cumulus Down Sweater
Normally I loathe carrying a warm jacket, since it's guaranteed to be dead weight until camp. But I had no complaints schlepping this top, thanks to a wispy shell and 800-fill-power down that together make the Cumulus light, packable, and warm in temps as low as 20°F. A DWR coating repels light precip. The high, fat collar, zipper draft guard and elasticized hem and cuffs keep icy drafts out. A close fit eliminates marshmallow-man syndrome. Nitpick: For two bills, it should come with a stuff sack. $200; unisex XS-XXL; 13 oz. (888) 546-5483; www.golite.com.
Arc'Teryx Gamma LT
Even if you're a high-end shopper, you might raise an eyebrow at $200 pants. Don't. You'll wear these more than any other piece in the system. These trousers have the same excellent water and wind resistance and tough durability that's made them a past favorite of ours, but the new Tweave Durastretch Lightweight fabric makes them lighter and more breathable. From windblown ridgetops in near-freezing temps to sun-warmed valleys, I was always at the right temperature. And the pants never retained moisture. The stretchy fabric allows a trim fit without restricting mobility. Two zippered, mesh-lined hand pockets, a zippered right thigh pocket, and integral belt complete the perfect package. $199; men's S-XL, women's XS-L; 2 lengths; 10 oz. (800) 985-6681; www.arcteryx.com.
Cloudveil Prospector Hooded Jacket
In all but the worst weather, the piece of outerwear you'll wear most often will be the one that's most breathable. So I used my leftover money (OK, I overspent by $22, but this budget isn't for bean counters) to get this very light, versatile soft shell. Water and wind resistance are what they should be-good, but not so good that you sacrifice breathability. You also get four pockets and a brimless hood (that only adjusts for depth, so wind and snow can sneak in). $170 (men's, XS-XL, 13 oz.); $155 (women's, XS-L, no hood). (877) 255-8345; www.cloudveil.com.
Buy smart: Get high performance without shelling out a lot of money for luxe fabrics and features. By Kris Wagner
Patagonia Rain Shadow
If this jacket were a car, it would be a Toyota Camry-that perfect balance of price, performance, and clean style. Like any good shell, it did more than shed spring showers; it kept me dry even during an unexpected 60 mph blow in the Colorado Rockies. And like an LX model, the Rain Shadow comes fully loaded, with a roll-down, brimmed hood, two roomy pockets in front and one inside, snug-fitting hook-and-loop cuffs, and two-way pit zips. Patagonia's H2No fabric breathes well, and showed zero wear even after I wore it for a week straight on a soggy spring trek. Sizes run big. $149; men's XS-XXL, women's XS-XL; 13 oz. (L) (800) 638-6464;www.patagonia.
Lowe Alpine Lightfire
The synthetic-fill Lightfire is heavier and bulkier than a high-end down jacket, but it's just as warm and costs half as much. In the Rockies, with temps hovering around freezing, I could lounge in comfort wearing this jacket. The brushed nylon liner is soft against the neck, and the zippered hand and internal pockets offer plenty of stash capacity. A hem drawcord and elastic cuffs seal in heat, but I'd like a higher collar to prevent chilly drafts from sneaking in. And the thin shell cuts only light wind. $80 (men's S-XXL); $70 (women's S-XL); 1 lb. 2 oz. (800) 891-7908;www.lowealpine.com.
Prana Stretch Zion
These pants are just light enough to make the three-season cut, and so tough you can wear them in any terrain. The heavy-duty nylon fabric withstood off-trail scrambles, and a touch of Lycra allowed for good flex on long downhill strides. The feature set is astounding for the price: reinforced knees, five pockets, discreet holes in the crotch for extra ventilation, and a no-rub integrated belt. Snaps convert the pant legs into calf-high capris, which is useful for stream crossings. Air-dry them to avoid lint buildup on the hook-and-loop fly, a welcome no-pinch feature under a climbing harness. $60; men's S-XL; 1 lb. 2 oz. (Women's model is due next spring; for fall, check the Bliss Nylon Capri: $50; XS-L). (800) 557-7262;www.prana.com.
EMS Windshear NG Shirt
This versatile jacket shakes off wind like a hard shell and breathes like the lightest of soft shells-and it's warmer than either. It replaces the Lightfire as my primary insulation in summer, and serves as midlayer in the coldest temps. And it works brilliantly as a wind- and water-resistant outer layer anytime. The ripstop shell can't handle a downpour, but temp control is no problem, thanks to pit vents and a wicking liner. More perks: a high collar, long tail, and chest pocket. Fit runs loose. $79; men's S-XXL, women's XS-XL; 14 oz. (XL). (888) 463-6367; www.ems.com
Being thrify won't leave you cold--if you choose wisely. By Dennis Lewon
Sierra Designs Hurricane LT Parka
For roughly the cost of a box seat at a baseball game, you can own a 13-ounce technical jacket that packs small and keeps out everything from torrential rain to blowing sleet. Give credit to the adjustable hood, hem drawcord, and cinchable cuffs, all of which sealed tight. I also like the zippered extremity vents, which run the length of the arm. But for 55 bucks, expect compromises. The coated fabric is steamy and quick to wet out, the short waist doesn't cover your butt, and it won't last as long as a higher-quality jacket (after a season of use, a few seams were frayed). Choose this if you need a just-in-case shell, rather than an everyday, rainforest workhorse. $55; unisex S-XXL; 13 oz. (800) 635-0461;www.sierradesigns.com.
Cabela's MTP Tech Silk-Weight Crew
Base layers are a decent place to save cash, so choose yours like you pick a cell-phone plan: Decide which benefits you want, then find the lowest price. I wanted a wicking synthetic shirt with a few basic features: low weight, stretch, and an anti-microbial (no-stink) treatment. On a 3-day trip to Mt. Shasta, this silkweight polyester crew dried quickly after sweaty climbs, and ripened only halfway to serious funk by trip's end. One nitpick: The fabric pilled a bit after washing. $25, men's S-5XL, women's S-XXL (only available in midweight); 5 oz. (800) 237-4444; www.cabelas.com.
L.L. Bean Wind Challenger
If you're looking for one screaming deal here-no matter what your budget-this is it. The Polartec Windbloc fleece is warm enough for camp wear down to the high 30s, and cuts gusty weather when worn as an outer layer on cool days. On Shasta the jacket took the sting out of a chill breeze but never caused overheating. It has four zippered pockets (two outside, two in), and a collar that protects to the chin. Tradeoffs are minor: No hem drawcord, and fit runs large; consider going down a size to take advantage of the fabric's stretch and to to minimize layering bulk. $59; men's S-XXL, women's S-XL; 1 lb. 1 oz. (800) 809-7057; www.llbean.com.
Columbia Omni-Dry Venture Cargo Convertible
There's nothing thriftier than convertible pants. But you get more for your dollar with these quick-drying, feature-rich nylon models. Six smart pockets provide plenty of secure storage without excess bulk; ankle zips help get the pants on and off over boots; and low-profile zipper covers keep the dork factor low. The fabric isn't as tough as the pricier pants in the other systems, but it held up well through normal wear and tear, and the seams and zippers show no signs of weakness. The fit runs loose, which lets you layer them over microfleece for extended-season use. $44; men's S-XXL, women's XS-XL (3 lengths each); 15 oz. (800) 622-6953; www.columbia.com.
Outdoor Research Novo Watch Cap
If you're worried that cost-conscious might look, well, cheap, put on this beanie and hold your head high. I picked it because it boosts the warmth of my system in freezing temps, but this hat is so light and versatile it belongs in any pack-and it squashes so small it'll fit in your pocket. The thin, synthetic fabric retains precious little moisture and dries lightning fast. It fits nicely under a helmet or hood, and offers just enough insulation for on-the-go activities in cold weather. Fit is snug. $16; 2 sizes; 1 oz. (888) 467-4327; www.orgear.com.