(Source: Freddie Phillips via Flickr)
Most hikers have experienced getting rocks, sand, or even water in their shoes in the backcountry at one point or another. Gaiters are the solution to keeping these irritating things from making their way inside your hiking footwear and keeping your feet comfortable and dry. Not only do they prevent those pesky pebbles from sneaking into your shoes, gaiters also keep your legs insulated during cold weather, divert rain away from seeping into your shoes, and protect your ankles and shins from brush, rocks, and more. They take up little room in your pack when you're not using them, are very lightweight, and are relatively inexpensive.
Gaiters are as varied as their intended uses. This can make it feel overwhelming when first researching your own pair. This article will cover the different styles of gaiters, materials, sizing, how to wear them, and some extra tips on choosing the right pair for your needs.
Types of Gaiters
Hiking gaiters are typically broken down into three general categories: Trail running/day hiking, hiking/backpacking, and mountaineering.
- Trail Running: These are the most lightweight gaiters available, making them an especially great choice if you are into UL backpacking. That being said, they are generally used by trail runners and day-hikers to keep debris, such as pebbles, sand, and dirt, from entering their shoes. These gaiters are usually not waterproof (though they can at least protect you from small splashes) and wrap around the top of the shoe to just above the ankle.
- Backpacking: These types of gaiters come in a variety of sizes, from ankle to mid-calf to knee-high, providing hikers and backpackers lots of options when it comes to choosing the right one for them. Most provide a degree of waterproofing and some are completely waterproof. These are great for extended trips, especially if rain and small stream crossings are expected. They are also a good option if you plan on hiking in very brushy areas.
- Mountaineering: If you plan on hiking in snow-covered alpine regions, very wet areas, or expect numerous stream crossings, consider investing in a pair of mountaineering gaiters. These usually come up to the knee and consist of a breathable and waterproof layer to help protect your lower legs and feet against the cold while still wicking away moisture from them. Suffice it to say, mountaineering gaiters are also wise to include with your snow gear for other outdoor winter activities, such as snowboarding and skiing. It's worth noting that while they still provide great protection, mountaineering gaiters will not come down as far over the laces on bulky boots used with skis and snowboards.
Obviously, you will want to choose one for whichever outdoor activity you are planning to participate in the most. You'll also want to consider what type of terrain and weather you will be encountering frequently. Even if you will mostly be doing day-hiking, you might want to consider some heavier duty, mid-length, waterproof gaiters if, say, you live in the Pacific Northwest where it is rainy and damp regularly.
Hiking gaiters typically run between $30 and $100. Pricing corresponds to the type of gaiter, with the smaller, lighter weight trail running ones being the least expensive. Here are a few of our suggestions for each category.
Hiking gaiters are made from a variety of synthetic materials, including nylon, polyester, and spandex. The flexibility of these materials helps them fit perfectly, provide comfort, and wick moisture away from the body. The popular Gore-tex and similar materials are also typically used in waterproof gaiters.
Like any other article of clothing, hiking gaiters come in different sizes to ensure they fit well. In general, these will correspond to your shoe size, but it's always a good idea to take measurements to align them with whichever brand you are considering. This is especially important if you're looking into mid-calf or knee-high ones. Gaiters should be snug-fitting without being too tight. In other words, just tight enough to do their job without causing discomfort of any kind. On the other hand, you don't want any major gaps either, providing moisture an opportunity to build up.
How to Wear Gaiters
Gaiters are fairly straightforward when it comes to use. Simply slip them over your hiking shoes or boots, with the instep strap wrapping under the bottom middle of your shoe, fasten them according to style, and ensure they are covering the tops of your footwear and are pulled up to and secured at whichever length they are (ankle, mid-calf, or knee).
How they are fastened will vary slightly depending on which of the two styles the gaiters are. Some ankle-high ones will simply need to be pulled over your shoe. Others will have a hook and loop (Velcro) spot that attaches to the back of your footwear. (In most cases, you will need to glue a piece of hook and loop tape to the back of your shoes to attach these. Many gaiters include the materials to do this.) Some brands will also have an extra hook that you can attach to your shoelaces for extra security. These styles of gaiters will also have a stretchy instep strap that will need to be tightened down.
Taller styles of gaiters will include the above features as well as Velcro and/or zippers for the material covering your legs. They may also have an adjustable toggle at the top.
Tips and Tricks
- Secure the instep buckle on the outside of your shoes to avoid accidentally kicking or tripping over them.
- Some trail running and hiking shoes, such as Altras, come with gaiter hook and loop attachments already built into their footwear to use with their brand of gaiters.
- Try before you buy. If able, head to a local outdoor gear store, such as REI, where you can try on different styles of gaiters before purchasing.
- If you're wearing pants with gaiters, it's best to wear them, especially rain pants, over your gaiters to prevent rain and moisture from dripping or wicking directly into your shoes or boots.
We hope this article has given you a solid foundation to begin your research of finding the perfect hiking gaiters for your needs. And please, remember to recreate responsibly amid the Covid-19 pandemic!