Some of us can get a little over excited talking about, and collecting, "gear". At the end of the day though, all it is, is stuff to make our adventures happen. It needn't be the latest high tech equipment for you to have a proper adventure, it just needs to do the job. Equally though, once you know enough to judge your needs and priorities, spending a little extra on the best or the lightest can indeed enhance a trip, or at the very least make it a little more comfortable.
So, you want to get outside? Well, the good news is that you don't need very much to get started. Let's assume you're starting with simply wanting to do some local walking. What do you need?
To me, one thought should be behind your thinking; comfort. Comfort doesn't just mean a nice warm feeling, it also gives you a safety aspect too; if you're comfortable, warm and dry, you're safer. The first part of comfort comes from your clothing and footwear.
There is lots written about clothing for the outdoors, and I can't possibly go into it all in one short piece, so this really is just about the basic thinking behind it.
We wear clothing to regulate our temperature, as well as to stop people laughing and pointing, I guess. Most of the time this means keeping warm, though there in hot conditions the reverse can be true. To keep warm, it helps hugely if you are also dry. This means protection from the rainy weather our islands are prone to, but also the reduction of that sweaty feeling that soon makes you get chilled when you stop moving.
A layering system is the best way to regulate your temperature. Working outwards from the skin, here are brief descriptions of the garments and what each layer does.
This is the part against the skin. Thicker in winter, thinner in winter, insulation is only a small part of what this layer does. The bigger part is that it helps control moisture from sweating or condensation. Good base layers won't hold this moisture, they will wick it away from the body, and dry quickly. Personally I prefer synthetic base layers, though modern takes on things like Merino wool are also well thought of by others. Any good outdoor store will carry a selection of base layers now, but also look in the big "box" sport stores.
In hot weather, where the sun is an issue rather than the cold, I use either wicking t-shirts which are quick drying, or a long-sleeved shirt which could best be described as a "safari shirt" I guess, and is certainly not a fashionable item. Especially not my twenty year old one from Helly Hansen that I still love wearing, despite the stains, and have never found a replacement for.
These are the layers that keep you warm. As you get hot or cold, add or remove layers. The simplest mid-layers are probably a thin or thick fleece. Like the base layer, this will be quick drying. For me, this layer prioritises "breathability" more than windproofing, so I look for things like the "grid fleeces" which are very warm for their weight. Thicker fleeces can be warmer, but of course they will be heavier and less breathable.
You can also include thicker insulation here for the coldest conditions, or when moving more slowly. I use a filled synthetic jacket for cold weather canoeing, which uses Primaloft Gold insulation and is light and very toasty. Down jackets may also come into it, though for me they will generally be too hot for activities where you are moving. They are the best things ever for sitting around afterwards though!
This is the layer that protects you from the worst that the weather can throw at you. Most often, this is a breathable waterproof jacket. The breathable bit means they will allow the escape of moisture vapour, or condensation, that builds up within a garment due to the warmth of the body heating moist air which then condenses on the inside of cooler jacket fabric. Modern breathable jackets can be had for a pretty good price, though I would recommend avoiding the very cheapest as a false economy. The best known fabric is Gore-Tex, but there are many others and no longer is that considered the only viable performance option. These jackets are fully waterproof, and generally use a "membrane" to prevent ingress, laminated to an outer fabric.
You also need to consider what pockets you like (one big enough for a map is still useful, even in these days of hi-tech gadgets for navigation). The hood is vital, and should be close enough fitting to move with your head when cinched down, and include a good reinforced peak.
For those times when the wind is up but the rain only light showers or better, softshells offer another useful option for the outer layer. These are softer and more comfortable to wear, and should be more breathable than a waterproof. I say "should" advisably, because there are some "softshells" around that also use membranes to make them windproof. I avoid these, as they don't breathe well enough for me and you might as well just stick on the waterproof instead. My choice is tightly woven soft-feel fabric softshells instead - not quite as windproof but almost, and so much more breathable.
Same principles apply, but generally less insulation is required when moving about. I use light walking trousers or shorts in the summer, and softshell pants in the winter, backed up with synthetic base layers if needed. Overtrousers then go over the top in the worst conditions, but not often!
So, my basic clothing choices, whether walking, canoeing or just pottering about taking photos will basically be:
Synthetic baselayer top & bottom (I currently use Alpkit, Decathlon and Patagonia garments)
Grid fleece thin insulating layers (Alpkit and Patagonia)
Primaloft Insulated jacket (Alpkit)
Softshell (Jack Wolfskin or Patagonia)
Waterproof Jacket (an old Gore-Tex mountain jacket from the old Karrimor, or a lighter Rab for more active sports)
Softshell trousers (Decathlon's Quechua brand)
Don't forget your head and hands. I have numerous hats, partly because I have less than the average amount of hair these days, and wear a hat much of the time I'm outside.
In winter, a knitted beanie is the first choice, but when its cold or wet, a "Mountain Cap" comes out, with peak and ear flaps. This is supposedly waterproof, but always seems wet, but never cold.
In summer, I burn easily, and wear a wide-brimmed Tilley hat. This also allows me to conform with the open canoeist stereo-typical image of being a beardie bloke with a Tilley hat, but in my defence I've had my Tilley since 1996, many years before I started canoeing!
I also use a "Buff" head/neck/scarf/thingy. These are absolutely superb, versatile bits of kit. In winter, its most commonly used as a neck warmer, or under a bike helmet to keep me warm. In summer, I sometimes stick it on bandana style, if nobody's looking.
The single most important bit of equipment. There is actually only one really important thing; fit. Whether you choose heavy or light footwear, low cut approach shoes or high boots, the vital thing is that they fit you. The foot should be supported well throughout, you should have room for your toes to wriggle and not touch the ends going downhill, and your heel should be cupped neatly and should not move in the boot. The latter is the most common problem with walkers, causing blisters, simply because their heels are rubbing. Your footwear should be able to be laced such that your heel does not move, pay special attention to those top lace eyelets, make sure they are tight enough. If you can't stop this happening, those boots are not for you.
I still like a good leather boot for winter and mountain walking, but otherwise use lighter synthetic upper boots or "approach shoes". When looking for a synthetic boot, I choose one with a good membrane but if I'm honest I've found that inevitably the membranes eventually get punctured by the grit and tiny dirt particles that are inevitably going to get into them, so waterproofing seems never to last for many years. For approach shoes, I'll generally be wearing them in warmer weather, so I avoid membrane waterproof versions and instead choose quick drying highly breathable ones, and put up with the odd bit of wetness. Membranes just seem to get hot and sweaty, and take ages to dry out.
On a boot, I like a good sole with a fairly prominent heel section, with big lugs just behind the instep, as these grip far better going downhill. On approach shoes, I'm less worried about this.
My current favourites are:
Scarpa Manta leather 4-season boots
Salomon Gore-Tex boots
Merrell Ventilator none-membrane approach shoes
For canoeing, I use either specialist whitewater boots from Palm Equipment, soft neoprene kayak shoes, mesh light Teva trainers, or sandals.
One other aspect to your footwear, which is just as important, is your choice of socks. When wearing boots, I like a two-layer approach; thin, breathable liner socks which wick well and dry quickly, underneath a thicker outer pair for warm and cushioning. My usual choice for both are Bridgedale socks.
For hillwalking, especially in Scotland, I'll normally wear breathable gaiters.