What Are Hiking Gaiters and Do You Need Them?
Hiking & Camping Expert Andy C. breaks down everything you need to know when looking for a pair of gaiters for your hiking or trail running adventures!
Hiking gaiters guard your shins and keep your pants, legs, and feet dry. This article explains what gaiters are and when to use them. Hiking, without a doubt, can be some messy business. Between the dirt, mud, deep snow, ticks, mosquitoes, and ever-changing weather, you're bound to end up needing as much help as possible to keep debris, bugs, and the elements away from your skin. Most crucially, keeping your footwear and socks clean will help reduce the chances of blisters, drastically increasing the chances of a successful trip. This is where gaiters come in.
These weather and abrasion-resistant protective garments wrap around hiking boots, extend to the ankle, calf, or knee, and can be used in a multitude of outdoor areas. However, different types of gaiters are made for different types of adventures, and getting the wrong one could spell trouble in the end.
To help understand what gaiters are right for what occasion, I’ve put together all the information you'd need to know to make the right choice. If you're still hesitant, reach out to a Camping & Hiking Expert today for customized options for exactly the right gaiter.
What Are Hiking Gaiters?
Simply put, gaiters keep things out of your shoes and off your lower leg. But there's more to it than just that! Gaiters come in all shapes, sizes, and materials, and choosing the right one for the job is incredibly important. Mainly, there are three types of gaiters: trail running, hiking, and mountaineering/alpine. Within these categories, there are different heights, materials, and attachment styles that impact the durability, waterproofing, and longevity of each product. We’ll break down each below.
How Are Gaiters Made?
All gaiters are not created equal, but they are created similarly. All will include an instep strap, lace hooks, a protective fabric, and some type of closure style. Varieties exist for all these components and provide different pros and cons.
Mainly, the different configurations of these components will result in something between a lightweight, virtually unnoticeable, exterior nylon sock to a heavy-duty gaiter made to be comfortable post-holing through knee-deep snow.
Let's start at the bottom: All gaiters need to attach to a shoe, in one way or another. This is typically accomplished with a hook on the laces (aka lace hooks) and a strap that wraps around the arch and instep of a foot (aka instep straps). Both the lace hooks and instep straps vary in size and material strength. Lightweight and small straps and hooks can be found on trail running gaiters whereas sturdy leather straps and large hooks can be expected on hiking, mountaineering, or alpine gaiters.
Next, the protective fabric, which makes up most of the gaiter, is where most of the protection occurs. These mainly change in material type and length. Materials can vary depending on the product or brand but are really any breathable fabric that offers some level of moisture protection like nylon, Gore-Tex, or Cordura. Nylon is usually used in lightweight gear but doesn't offer as much durability or weather-proofing as the latter options. Gore-Tex and Cordura are used for burlier products thanks to their increased tear-resistant capabilities. All of these materials will make some level of a waterproof gaiter, however, heavier Gore-Tex and Cordura options provide the best waterproofing.
Now that you know the materials, let’s talk about lengths. The combination of length and material is a key factor in determining which category each gaiter falls into.
For trail runners, you'll commonly find nylon fabric protecting above the ankle, and that's about it. To keep things light and comfortable, you don't need more than a little coverage from low gaiters to keep things out of your socks or shoes.
For hikers, you'll see the widest variety of materials and lengths. Some will be similar to the trail runner options with lightweight nylon for quick day trips. Others will be calf- or knee-high and made from Gore-Tex or Cordura to be used in thicker brush, deeper snow, or as better protection against bugs and insects.
Finally, mountaineering and alpine gaiters are going to be calf- to knee-high and mostly made with Cordura or Gore-Tex. The demands of the terrain, elements, and seasonal conditions dictate the need for more protection and more durability. These may also be insulated to provide additional warmth specifically for cold, winter objectives.
Finally, there's the part where you need to secure the gaiter to the top of your leg. Every pair of gaiters has an opening at the top to wrap around the ankle, calf, or knee. Small gaiters can have something as simple as an elastic loop closure at the top. To make this work, you put the gaiter on first, pull it up your leg, put your shoes on, then lower the gaiter down the leg and attach it to the shoe.
For large gaiters, a front-entry Velcro opening is run along the front panel of the gaiter, allowing the user to wrap it around the leg without having to remove any shoes, certainly handy in wet and cold climates. To add extra protection, a buckle and cinch strap system along the top of the gaiter helps create a tight seal to ward off intruding bugs, debris, and weather.
When Are Hiking Gaiters Needed?
So now we know a little bit about gaiters, their construction, the materials, and what they do. But when do we really need to use them? We talked about the three categories, so let’s dive in a little further.
Hiking gaiters have to keep up with everything hikers want to do. This means that the hiking category has to cover the widest range of climates, terrain, weather, and objectives. Most gaiters in this category will do a decent job running the gambit of durability and weather resistance, and you can choose depending on preferences in material and height.
Some will even be more regionally specific. There are lightweight options made for the sandy and dry conditions of the Southwest as well as thick and long gaiters for protection against snake bites and larger cacti. For areas like the Pacific Northwest, you’ll find gaiters that are more suited to stand up to rainy and wet weather with Durable-Water-Repellent (DWR) finishes to provide protection against the consistent moisture that hikers in that region deal with. Heights will mainly stay in the calf-to-knee range and materials will be tougher in order to keep pant legs safe from wet brush. Regardless of your region, focus on the conditions and wildlife when picking your gaiters out.
This category is specific to lightweight and ultralight gaiters. Essentially, the only purpose of these gaiters is to keep dirt and some light rain out of your shoe. They’re meant to be light and fit loosely around your ankle so they won’t add weight or interfere with your range of motion. The instep strap can be quite small and made from rubber or plastic that hooks to an elastic cord running to the lace hooks. Top closures are usually a single opening that you put on first before putting on your shoe. Some will be made with more durable or water-resistant fabric, but they won’t have a huge range in materials and the heights will stay right around your ankle.
Mountaineering and Alpine Gaiters
Mountaineering and alpine gaiters are going to be the biggest and toughest of the bunch. These are meant to go around snow pants and mountaineering boots and provide protection against extreme cold conditions, tough rocky and icy terrain, and sharp crampons and ice axes. These gaiters will typically be knee-high, although some models may only come up to the calf. Instep straps and lace hooks are going to be made of very durable materials and likely have secure options for size adjustments. Front entry velcro panels are typical, as are buckle and strap top closures. Some of the options will be made for the worst conditions possible and provide waterproof, insulated, and re-enforced options. Some will be lighter and more nimble offering minimalist protection up to your calf for quick day ice-climbs or mountaineering objectives.
Are Gaiters Worth It?
This question is one that’s commonly debated in the hiking world. The debate has two sides. The first goes something like this: “If you can keep your foot cleaner and drier inside your shoe, you’ll be able to go further, last longer, and move faster.” It’s more of a principle of prevention than anything else. The other side argues the oldest mountain-lovers argument in history: weight savings. The old saying goes “A pound on your foot is like five on your back,” so why would you add anything to your feet? The answer lies in three parts.
Personal Preference, as Always…
For every category, personal preference is going to be the first determination. If you like having gaiters, then get a pair. The more ways you have to protect your feet, the more adventures you can go on. On the other hand, if you think gaiters just add weight and take money, then it’s better to invest your money in other equipment.
The Activity in Question
Now, when it comes to activities, the conditions may influence your personal preference. For example, winter hiking. If you’ve ever hiked more than 15 feet through calf-deep snow and had it fall into your shoe, you probably learned the consequences of not having a gaiter. This goes for most winter activities too, including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice-climbing, or snowmobiling. You don’t have to worry about this for downhill or backcountry skiing, as most ski pants will include some sort of boot gaiter in their pant legs. Alternatively, gaiters protect against the dreaded soggy pant leg that comes from hiking around in dense forests or otherwise boggy and swampy areas.
Gaiters can be great seasonal supplements to standard outdoor kits. In the spring, when you’re dealing with rain, melting snow, puddles, and high streams, you may choose to add a gaiter to your kit until the rain subsides. Only using your gaiters in the necessary conditions is a great way to keep them lasting for a long time. In the summer, moving to an ultralight gaiter would help keep the small debris away from gritting up in your shoes. Anything more than that may be overkill depending on where you live and what you're hiking. Once the weather starts to turn in the fall or winter, bring out the bigger pair again for those rainy days, or you can hold off until snow starts to fall to bring them back out.
Ultimately, gaiters are an accessory that helps keep the elements outside your shoes. Using them is never mandatory, they pack up easy, and, like many accessories, having a variety of gaiters to choose from will help keep your feet dry and clean, which could mean a much happier experience. If you’re ready to commit to your own pair, reach out to a Camping & Hiking Expert here on Curated for guidance and advice!