Gaiters are a very versatile and useful piece of gear. There are many different types of gaiters, each optimized for different activities, excursions, and conditions. However, all types of gaiters have the same simple goal; to provide extra protection to your legs and feet. More specifically, gaiters mainly protect against debris from entering your shoes, anything from rocks to snow. They also provide other protection when you’re out on an adventure, from abrasions, from water, even from snake bites.
In this article, we will cover the different types of gaiters, and which ones are appropriate for you. There are also different technical features to gaiters, each with its own purpose in adding protection, and we will help you to understand these in order to make the best choice for your excursion.
With zippers and Velcro to consider, different lengths and levels of protection, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the choices and options. But, we hope our guide will make everything easy and eliminate any confusion you may harbor about gaiters. Finally, we will explain how to wear gaiters, so that you get the best protection from your kit, and have the most fun possible on the trails!
What are gaiters?
Gaiters are protective garments that are worn over your shoe and lower leg. Originally gaiters were made of leather, but now they are most commonly made of synthetic materials, like polyester. Basically, a gaiter is a protective sleeve which covers the upper boot and ankle, and lower leg, to prevent any debris from getting inside your shoes and clothing. They close the gap between your boots and trousers and provide an extra layer of protection during your adventures.
Why wear gaiters?
Gaiters are considered by many as a necessary piece of equipment. Throughout most seasons, you’ll struggle to find a serious hiker without a pair. They’re a very useful piece of kit, the extra layer of protection will stop your hiking adventure from turning into a very uncomfortable excursion. During the winter, gaiters will keep out snow, which can collect at the top of your boots very easily. Once the snow melts, it can drip down into your boot, and contribute to blisters, coldness, and a lot of general discomfort.
Gaiters are also often worn in addition to crampons, to protect the leg and ankle from the spikes on the opposite boot. They also protect against brambles and thorns, mud, dirt, and sand. If you’re hiking in areas with snakes, they can help put your mind at ease a little. Walking through long grass can threaten the presence of ticks and Lyme disease, and gaiters can protect against this also.
Wearing the right pair of gaiters can allow you more freedom when choosing shoes for your next adventure. For desert hikes or dusty and rocky trails, they allow you to wear lighter weight low top shoes. These are much more comfortable, especially for hotter climates, and the gaiters will help provide the extra protection that a heavier duty, but much hotter boot would usually cover. In deep snow, gaiters are invaluable, as otherwise your boots would be filled with slush.
Different types of gaiters
There are several different types of gaiters, each designed for different circumstances. You’ll need the best type of protection for your hiking trips, so it’s important you get the right style.
Trail gaiters give basic protection against debris on the trail and light rain. They’re for fair weather only, anything more serious requires a heavier duty pair. Trail gaiters are lightweight, breathable, and usually range from six to ten inches high. This type of gaiter protects against the wet terrain and underbrush you might encounter on the trail and can be worn with anything from cross country ski boots to lightweight trail running shoes.
The next step up from trail gaiters are alpine gaiters- these are a piece of good all-round equipment and can be used for all-around hiking, mountaineering, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. They offer heavier-duty protection than trail gaiters, built to withstand rock abrasion and water. They’re a more general-purpose piece of kit, and are breathable and water-resistant, and can protect you against sticks, rocks, and larger trail debris.
Expedition gaiters are the most heavy-duty option, sturdily built to withstand the harshest conditions you might encounter on a hike. They also feature added insulation for chilly mountaintop temperatures and protect against deep snow. These are usually larger, covering more of your leg and built to fit over bulky insulated pants and mountaineering boots.
Gaiters also come in two general styles, ankle, and full length. Ankle gaiters just cover the top of footwear and the bottom of trousers and are generally useful for walking in dry conditions. They prevent twigs, small stones, and dirt from the trail from working its way inside your shoes. As well as hikers, this style of gaiter is also useful for off-road and fell runners.
Full-length gaiters provide better protection, covering more of the leg. They feature improved durability and are generally heavier-duty, and are ideal protection against snake bites as an added bonus.
Key features of gaiters
There are plenty of specific features of gaiters, and here they are explained to help you understand the purpose of each one.
- One of the primary purposes of gaiters is water protection. For mountaineering and snow sports, they are made from waterproof but breathable materials, to keep moisture out. If you’re trekking through wet or snowy conditions, waterproof gaiters are a must-have piece of gear.
- To protect your lower legs from ice, rocks, and crampons, some gaiters are made with rugged and abrasion-resistant nylon, especially on the lower portion.
- Gaiters using softshell fabric offer improved flexibility and stretch, and better weather protection.
- Most gaiters are made from synthetic materials and feature a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) finish, and sometimes a waterproof and breathable membrane within as well.
- Cheaper and more basic models of gaiters use a simple Velcro fastening, but higher-spec options sometimes feature zippers covered with storm flaps for extra protection.
- Most gaiters feature a lace hook to secure them at the front of the boot to attach onto your boot laces.
- Elasticated ankles are also a common feature, to give a closer fit.
- One feature every pair of gaiters should have is an instep strap, or stirrup, which goes beneath your hiking boot or shoe. This secures the gaiter and prevents it from riding up your leg as you walk. Basic gaiters have a simple lace strap, but more advanced models feature leather or synthetic straps for increased durability.
- Most gaiters are cinched with toggles and elasticated drawcords to make sure they fit your legs snuggly, and there are no gaps through which debris could enter.
- The best (and most expensive) gaiters use click-lock buckle fastenings with adjustable straps. This helps prevent over-tightening, which is a common problem with elasticated styles.
What to look for when choosing gaiters?
There are a few things to look out for when choosing a pair of gaiters, to ensure the fit and sizing is right, so your gear is as efficient as possible in protecting you. With the right pair of gaiters, you’ll be ready to take on anything the trail will throw at you.
Gaiters come in different sizes, so make sure you get a snug fit to ensure the best possible seal from the outside world. Try them on in the store, with the boots you intend to wear them over- one size fits all isn’t always the best choice. You can adjust the fit of gaiters using the hook-and-loop entry system. For example, if you have larger calves, it’s not necessary to overlap the fastener all the way. In general, a half-inch overlap should be sufficient.
The buckles of your gaiters should be on the outside of your legs, and the buckles of the instep step should be on the outside of your feet. This will prevent the straps from catching on each other as you walk, you may accidentally kick them if they’re placed on the inside.
Having an instep strap or stirrup that buckles presents a major advantage over a simple tie. If you’re walking in the snow, it’s a pain to try and adjust them with cold fingers, and through sleet and slush they can freeze- this causes a bit of a struggle once you try to take them off.
The top closure of your gaiters should be snug and sealed, but there’s no need to over-tighten them. This can be uncomfortable or even painful, and fastening your gaiters too tight could even inhibit the circulation of blood to your feet. You can also help regulate heat but loosening the top of your gaiters to allow a little airflow, but of course, this risks debris or snow getting in.
Look for gaiters that zip from the top down. This may seem backward from what we’re used to, but it’s much easier to fasten gaiters starting at the knee rather than the toe. It also means when adjusting your boot laces you won’t need to take the whole gaiter off, which can be really important during times such as a snowstorm.
Think about the conditions in which you’ll be using your gaiters. Is it more important that your kit is waterproof or breathable? For example, lightweight waterproof gaiters can be uncomfortable when the weather is hot and humid. With Gore-tex, you get both waterproof and breathable gear, but this can contribute toward a heftier price tag.
In a downpour, try wearing gaiters underneath your rain pants. This can be more effective in shedding rain, as water could potentially run down your pants and into your gaiters otherwise.
Gaiters for different activities
The kind of gaiters that are right for you depends on the type of excursion you have planned, as well as the expected weather conditions and trail terrain.
- Hiking: Hiking gaiters are usually lightweight, breathable, and offer basic protection. They are effective against rocks, grit, and light rain, usually used for mild-weather hikes. For an example of lightweight hiking gaiters, have a look at the Salomon Trail Gaiters.
- Backpacking: Gaiters designed for backpacking are slightly more heavy-duty than hiking gaiters, with improved abrasion resistance against rocks, and better waterproofing. They can be used for all-round hiking and backpacking, and are appropriate for snowshoeing, mountaineering and cross-country skiing as well.
- Mountaineering: Mountaineering gaiters provide some real heavy-duty protection, and feature added insulation for longer trips in harsh conditions. They are usually effectively resistant against abrasion from rocks and ice, and feature waterproof and breathable fabrics for better comfort and protection, as they’re usually put into use for much bigger expeditions than a simple hike.
- Snowsports: Some gaiters are specially designed for snow sports. These have the same waterproofing and breathability as mountaineering gaiters but aren’t generally as durable or heavy-duty. They’re ideal for skiing and snowboarding.
- Ice climbing: Some gaiters are highly specialized for ice climbing, and they often feature some serious durable reinforcements to protect against the inevitable abrasions, as well as being well-waterproofed.
- Running: Off-road and trail runners use gaiters to keep debris out of their shoes, and this style of gaiter is much more lightweight and compact.
How to wear gaiters
- Putting on gaiters can be confusing, especially for people who aren’t familiar with this type of gear. They need to be correctly adjusted to optimize the protection they provide, and also to make sure they’re comfortable for your feet. It’s worth putting on your gaiters and doing all the necessary adjustments before you hit the trails, so you don’t waste precious hiking time.
- You should start with your walking boots on and fastened as normal, as with your trousers as well. Gaiters should be the last item you put on before setting off to hike. Open the gaiter completely and ensure the stirrup strap is fastened on both sides at the bottom, and make sure the mechanism for the adjustment of this strap is located on the outside of your foot.
- Most gaiters have a hook to attach onto your boot laces, locate this, and this is the bottom of the gaiter. Lift your heel and place the stirrup strap underneath, it should be just under the heel section of the sole of your boot or shoe. The lace hook should be towards the front of your shoe, but don’t hook it on just yet. This could create too much tension and cause you problems zipping up.
- Fasten the zipper to around 2-3 inches, and start to fasten the Velcro just a little to prevent the zip from undoing itself. Now you can attach the lace hook- stretch it forward down towards the toes of your boot as far as possible, and hook it on to the laces. Some boots have a specialized loop to attach gaiters onto, so if you can reach, attach it to this.
- Continue to zip up the rest of the gaiter and secure the fastening with the Velcro.
- At this point, the gaiter should be comfortably snug around your leg. Now you should adjust the stirrup strap, using the buckle on the outside of your foot. Tighten it as much as possible, and either secure the excess strap so it doesn’t flap around or trim it as necessary. If you decide to trim down your stirrup straps, make sure to leave a little excess strap for future adjustments.
- Finally, adjust the cord at the top of your gaiter so that the fit is close. This is what prevents rain, rocks, snow, and dirt from getting inside your clothing, so it should be snug. However, avoid over tightening this strap- it shouldn’t be uncomfortable, and it certainly shouldn’t impede your circulation.
- Repeat for the other leg! Check for any gaps or loose fastenings, and have a quick walk around to make sure that your gaiters feel comfortable and secure.
When choosing your gaiters, ask yourself the following questions:
- What’s my price range?
- What activities am I planning?
- What are the weather conditions I’ll be in?
- How much protection do I need?
Gaiters are such a useful piece of kit, and to most serious hikers, an essential one. Whether you’re hiking up a mountain or camping in the rain, gaiters can provide the protection you need and keep you happy during excursions. In snowy weather, we consider gaiters to be essential. It’s so easy to get snow caught in the crevices of your boot, which can melt into your feet, or freeze your laces solid. Either way, gaiters prevent these problems and many others, making them a truly wonderful addition to your collection of hiking gear.
There are other ways to protect from harsh conditions too of course, for example, all trekkers should know how to waterproof hiking boots. With waterproof boots, some decent hiking trousers, and the right pair of gaiters, you’ll be ready to tackle anything the trail throws at you. Follow our guide to get the best gaiters for you, so you’ll be as well prepared as possible. Anyone can wear gaiters and benefit, whether you’re backpacking, skiing or trail running, there’s a pair out there which will improve your experience.
Bonus tip: For a little more information on how to purchase the right gaiters, you can check out this video below!