Extreme Layering: All-Purpose Clothing

For all-purpose performance year-round, this layering system works overtime through any weather.

Extreme Cold | Extreme Heat | Extreme Rain | Extreme Versatility

Soft Shell | Insulation | Baselayer | Pants | Underwear

SOFT SHELL

Marmot Kingpin
It was easy to identify the most versatile jacket in the test: It's the one that never saw the inside of a closet. One tester wore the Kingpin nearly every day for several volatile winter and spring months while dayhiking, backpacking, snowboarding, climbing, and biking in the Rockies. He also packed it as his only insulation in summer weather. It's made entirely from stretchy polyester Polartec Windbloc, a fleece-lined soft-shell fabric that proved fortresslike against bone-chilling breezes, wet snow, and temps down to the low teens. An adjustable hood adds warmth and weather protection (albeit weight) and pit zips allow venting, which increases versatility in moderate temps and during aerobic activities. The Kingpin isn't waterproof (it's not seam-sealed), but Winbloc has a weather-shedding membrane that prevented wet-out during several daylong shellackings of wet snow and a 30-minute spring shower. Fit is trim and athletic, but roomy enough for a baselayer and a light midlayer underneath. For trips when you need total waterproofing, add Marmot's Essence ($150), a minimalist eight-ounce hard shell that testers loved for its reliable, ultralight protection. (The Reyna, pictured, is the women's version of the Kingpin.) $230; men's S-XXL, women's XS-XL; 1 lb. 8 oz. (men's M); marmot.com. Reader service #117

Extreme Cold | Extreme Heat | Extreme Rain | Extreme Versatility

Soft Shell | Insulation | Baselayer | Pants | Underwear

INSULATION

Outdoor Research Transcendent Sweater
For lightweight, all-purpose warmth, this down-filled jacket was our testers' go-to insulation. It's generously stuffed with 650-fill feathers and covered with a supple, DWR-treated polyester shell that's mildly wind and water resistant. It packs down to Nalgene-size, yet kept us warm in camp on nights in the 20s. A fleece-lined collar adds luxe comfort, and there are plenty of pockets despite the low weight. The women's model (Ergo Down Jacket) has adjustable cuffs, a hem drawcord, and a stuff sack. All testers raved about the fit–the torso is tapered, the hem rides just below the hips, and longish sleeves reach the tops of the hands. $150; men's S-XL, women's XS-XL; 14 oz.; orgear.com. Reader service #118

Extreme Cold | Extreme Heat | Extreme Rain | Extreme Versatility

Soft Shell | Insulation | Baselayer | Pants | Underwear

BASELAYER

MontBell Super Merino Shirts

No debate here: For versatility, these shirts, in both short- and long-sleeve versions, were the hands-down favorite among the 30 technical tops we tested. In temperatures ranging from 20°F to 80°F–from Colorado's Arapaho Peaks to sweaty Grand Canyon hikes–they offered moisture management on par with the best synthetic tops but, because of the thermo-regulating properties of wool, they were also more breathable in hot weather and insulated better in cold. And even after eight days of continuous wear, the natural odor-fighting ability of merino kept the fabric remarkably stink-free. Soft 18.5-micron fibers are tightly woven to boost durability; shirts never frayed or pilled, and they didn't lose their shape after washing. $60 (T-shirt), $80 (Long Sleeve Zip Pullover); men's S-XL, women's S-L; 8 oz. (men's M long-sleeve); montbell.com. Reader service #119

Extreme Cold | Extreme Heat | Extreme Rain | Extreme Versatility

Soft Shell | Insulation | Baselayer | Pants | Underwear

PANTS

EMS Compass Hiking Pants

"After wading in a creek up to my knees, I just shook like a wet puppy and these were dry," said one tester who wore the Compass pants on a spring trip in Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park. Made from a stretchy soft-shell fabric (86% nylon and 14% Spandex), they were breathable on hot slogs up giant sand dunes but warm down into the 50s. The Compass is a women's-only model: Roll-up cuffs convert them to capris for wading and/or hot hiking. Testers raved about the fit: comfortably loose but not slouchy, with a just-below-the-belly-button waist. For men, a similarly hard-working fabric is available in the Tracker ($49), which has ankle zips and an integrated belt. $49; women's 2-16; 13 oz. (w's 8); ems.com.Reader service #120

Extreme Cold | Extreme Heat | Extreme Rain | Extreme Versatility

Soft Shell | Insulation | Baselayer | Pants | Underwear

UNDERWEAR

ExOfficio Briefs

You won't wear anything more often than these quick-dry, odor-fighting undies. The men's Give-N-Go Boxer Briefs ($25, S-XXL; pictured) are made from a stretchy synthetic fabric with a fitted, no-chafe boxer cut. Our female testers loved the Soytopia Bikini Briefs ($18, XS-XL); the soy/nylon/Lycra fabric feels soft as silk and breathes like cotton. exofficio.com. Reader service #121