Notably, I want ease of material access, encumbrance, storage, etc. included into consideration as well. Not just flat out damage resistances. I’d also like to consider both city and survival only scenarios, as that’ll change what you can feasibly make.
I’ve found a lot of cases where I just really don’t know what to choose to make.
Survivor gear generally gives the best combination of storage combined with fully body protection, while Nomad gear is good for winter and maxed out storage - though honestly if you’re that hard up for carry capacity, most people now just go with a huge duffel back and drop it before starting a fight, now that containers are working decently.
If you optimize your tailoring and fabrication training you can generally get to the skill levels for survivor gear within a week or possibly even faster - the harder part is scavenging enough duct tape and kevlar panels that early when your combat skills suck and you have little protection, usually you can scrounge up some decent semi-protective gear in the meantime from various stores or houses if you’re careful and know where to look.
Of course you can get much better armor in the form of un-craftable things like ESAPI vests and power armor, but you generally only need that kind of gear if you intend to go out and prove your mettle by going toe to toe with kevlar hulks and shoggoth’s, or trade direct fire with armed robots.
For level 1-3, you’re really just looking for anything that can raise your temperature to survivable levels plus a backpack/travelpack. At that point in the game, combat shouldn’t be in your best interest anyways, so taking any early “armored” clothing that wasn’t scavenged is pretty useless. Things to look at here include the cotton hat, the bandana, foot and hand wraps, arm and leg warmers, and light gloves.
For level 5, the previously mentioned nomad gear is the way to go. At this point, having a spear plus nomad gear is enough to deal with small groups of zed and possibly even a mi-go (although I personally wouldn’t risk it). Most of the craftable helmets here are still pretty bad, so just go find an army helmet.
Past level 5, everything comes down to the survivor gear. The light/heavy/survivor gear covers the full range of high armor, high encumbrance to low armor, low encumbrance. If the regular armor isn’t enough, you can also use fabrication, not tailoring to craft bio/chitin armor for comparable armor to survivor gear, although it has a bit lower than 100% coverage. You can also use fab to make metal armor too, which can be pretty impressive.
85% coverage is terrible though. If 1 in 6 shots go through, it just take five more shots to end your game than without the vest, and most of the things that fire bullets have way more than that anyway.
Power armor is generally the high-water mark for serious armor of course - but considering that ESAPI can often be found on landscape within a day or two of start, it’s a strong early option for the first few weeks of game.
I’m having trouble thinking of anything else that offers even a fraction of its torso defense value until you’re looking at pretty late game armors - you just need a decent under-layer like survivor gear to deal with the usual day-to-day crap.
The real problem with ESAPI isn’t the 85% coverage - its that it offers NO protection for limbs/head.
It’s been my experience that you don’t need that much torso defense value in the first place, and ESAPI is more like a noobie trap where the big, sexy defense numbers persuade you to wear something that’s going to get you shot/stabbed/clawed and killed.
I’ve yet to equip either my character or any companion with ESAPI armor because it’s so heavy (made the apparent mistake of generating a balanced character with only 9 STR). I’ve skipped the power armor I’ve found so far (immersion something) as it didn’t provide any electricity protection (although I didn’t turn it on), so my current standard is ANBC over heavy survivor armor, unless I know that the enemies won’t use acid/electricity (I’ve yet to find something that protects against both of those plus fire). Of course, the best armor is usually a vehicle, but they’re essentially limited to open spaces.
Early on: Whatever I could find or craft out of what I find with better protection than what’s used at that time, generally leather for found stuff (tailoring takes some time to improve, and leather to craft from is scarce early on, with little salvaged and poor access to washing), as well as good carrying capacity (early protection doesn’t weigh much, so even a relative wimp can often fill the largest backpack available plus clothing space with more or less useful stuff found and still run out of volume capacity).
If naked it will take two .308 and three .223 shots to the chest to kill you. If wearing a heavy survivor suit it becomes three .308 and five .223 shots to kill you. If you throw an ESAPI vest on over your survivor suit it will take an average of eighteen .308 and thirty .223 shots to the chest to kill you.
Its for this same reason that the simple army helmet over your heavy survivor helmet also massively increases your survivability against gunfire.