One major annoyance while hiking is dealing with water, snow, dirt, twigs, or pebbles making their way into your hiking boots or trail runners. Gaiters offer a great solution. They provide an extra layer of protection to keep moisture and debris out of your footwear and away from your feet. This guide explains what gaiters are and lists the pros and cons of using them to help you decide whether or not you need them for your hike. It also outlines the different types available to help you choose gaiters for the conditions you hike in.
What Are Gaiters?
Gaiters are waterproof fabric garments that cover the top of your footwear as well as your lower legs. They usually run from the sides of your shoes up to mid-calf height. They are made of sturdy, waterproof, and abrasion-resistant materials like polyester or nylon.
The purpose of gaiters is to provide extra protection for your feet, ankles, and lower legs. They seal off the top of your shoes to keep dirt, sand, twigs, pebbles, thorns, mud, etc. out. They also help to keep your feet dry by preventing snow or water from entering your shoes as you hike. Even the most waterproof boots get wet eventually. Gaiters help to keep your feet clean and dry.
Additionally, gaiters provide protection from abrasions. The thick material prevents brush, branches, or thorns from scraping your legs up. They protect your legs from poison ivy. Gaiters also provide some protection from critters. For example, they are thick enough to prevent bites from mosquitoes, ticks, noseeums, flies, etc. Some models are puncture-resistant enough to protect your legs from snake bites. Tall models also protect your calves from sunburn.
To stay in place, gaiters attach to your legs and footwear in several places. They tighten around your calf or ankle with straps or a drawcord so they don’t sag or fall down. A durable rubber strap fits under the sole of your shoes to prevent the gaiters from riding up. A lace hook holds the gaiters over the top of your shoes. An entry system (usually velcro) allows you to open the gaiters up to put them on and take them off.
When Do I Need Gaiters?
Gaiters are not necessary for every hike. They are an optional piece of gear. Having said that, they they do come in handy quite frequently. A few common situations where you may want to wear gaiters include:
- Deep snow- Gaiters seal off the top of your boots to prevent snow from getting caked around the top and melting on your socks as you walk. This helps your feet stay warm and dry while hiking in the winter.
- Heavy brush- Tall gaiters protect your legs from scrapes from brush and branches. This is particularly helpful if you’re hiking off-trail. Gaiters can also extend the life of your pants, shoes, and socks by protecting the less durable fabric from abrasions or tears. Gaiters are designed to handle abrasion.
- Muddy or dirty trails- Gaiters keep you and your gear cleaner by protecting your boots, socks, and legs from getting caked with mud and dirt. When you remove your gaiters, the mud and dirt comes off with them. It’s easier to clean gaiters than pants while you’re on the trail.
- Trails with loose gravel, sand, or other debris- Gaiters seal off the top of your boots to prevent rocks and twigs from finding their way in. This saves the time and annoyance of having to remove your boots to extract those annoying stones from between your toes. For this reason, gaiters are excellent for desert and mountain hikes.
- Wet weather- Most gaiters are waterproof. When you splash through puddles or walk through wet or due covered brush, the gaiters keep your boots, socks, and pant legs dry.
- Buggy areas- Gaiters prevent ticks, mosquitoes, ants, and other insects from biting your legs or climbing onto your body. The critters can’t get on your skin and bite you or crawl up your legs.
- Cold days- below the knee height gaiters provide a bit of extra warmth for your lower legs. Some gaiters made for winter hiking include insulation for even more warmth. All gaiters trap some heat in your shoes, which helps keep your feet warm.
- Areas where snakes live- Walking through tall brush can put you at risk of snake bites. Gaiters provide some protection. Of course, they can’t provide complete protection. Some snakes have fangs that are thicker than gaiters.
Types of Gaiters
There are a number of gaiter designs available. Some provide more protection than others. When choosing a pair, you’ll want to consider the terrain and climate as well as the distance you plan to hike. Gaiters come in three main styles.
Listed in order of least protective to most protective, the three types of gaiters include:
- Trail running gaiters- These ultralight and minimalist gaiters mostly function to keep debris out of your shoes. They just cover your ankles and top of your shoes. Most trail running gaiters are not waterproof. These are popular among trail runners as well as ultralight hikers and thru-hikers who hike in trail running shoes. They weigh just 2-5 ounces (around 60-140 grams) per pair and pack down to almost nothing.
- Hiking gaiters- These general-purpose gaiters are available in a range of heights from lower calf to just below the knee. Hiking gaiters are usually waterproof and breathable to provide basic protection from rain and snow. Many models feature abrasion-resistant lowers. They also provide protection from debris entering your shoes. Hiking gaiters are lightweight at around 4.5-9 ounces (around 125-255 grams) per pair. These versatile gaiters work great for day hiking and multi-day hikes in mild to moderate conditions.
- Mountaineering gaiters- These heavy-duty gaiters are designed for use in extreme conditions. They are waterproof and insulated to provide protection while hiking in deep snow and cold weather. Most are made of a waterproof breathable fabric that allows some sweat and moisture to vent. Mountaineering gaiters are heavy at around 8-12 ounces (around 225-340 grams) per pair. These rugged gaiters work well for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice climbing, mountaineering, and backcountry skiing.
There is also a fourth, much less common type of gaiters called snake gaiters. These are specially designed to protect your legs from snake bites. They are made from thick, puncture-resistant materials that snake fangs can’t pass through. These are popular among hunters and those who often hike off-trail.
Gaiters come in three heights. The ideal gaiter height depends on the terrain and climate you plan to hike in. Basically, taller gaiters provide more protection. If you’re hiking off-trail through tall brush or in deep snow, you’ll want taller gaiters that cover more of your legs. Shorter gaiters work well when you’re staying on the trail and the conditions are mild. Shorter gaiters also keep your feet and legs cooler because they allow more airflow.
Three gaiter height options listed from lowest to highest include:
- Ankle height gaiters- These short gaiters usually measure about 4-8 inches (10-20 cm) tall. They are designed for use in fair weather while trail running or hiking. They primarily provide protection from debris like sand, rocks, and twigs from entering your shoes. Most ankle height gaiters are not waterproof. The benefit of this design is that they are lightweight and not too hot because they breathe well and don’t cover much.
- Mid-calf height gaiters- These mid-height gaiters usually measure about 8-12 inches (20-30 cm) tall. They work well in mild to moderate conditions where you may experience some rain or shallow snow, but nothing extreme. The taller height keeps debris out of your boots and provides protection from abrasion while walking through brush.
- Knee height gaiters- These high top gaiters measure 12-18 inches (30-45 cm) tall. The tops sit just below your knees. They provide protection in extreme and rugged conditions where you may encounter deep snow or tall wet brush while walking off trail. They can help keep your pants dry while hiking in the rain.
Not all gaiters are designed the same. A few different features to consider that make your gaiters more comfortable or suitable for different conditions include:
- Waterproof- Hiking and mountaineering gaiters are generally made from waterproof materials to keep moisture out while hiking in the rain or snow or while walking through wet brush.
- Abrasion resistance- Many hiking and mountaineering gaiters feature an extra thick and durable lower half that resists abrasions from rocks, sharp sticks, ice, your crampons, etc. The abrasion-resistant section is often made of thick polyester or nylon fabric. Cordura is popular for this. This feature makes the gaiter as well as your pants and socks last longer. It does add weight and bulk.
- Lace hooks- This is a small metal hook or Velcro strap that attaches to your shoelaces toward the tow of your shoes. The hook holds the gaiters over the top of your shoelaces so debris can’t enter. This is important because the laces are one part of the shoe with nooks and crannies where water, sand, etc can enter.
- Instep straps- This part of the gaiter holds the lower edges of your gaiters around your shoes to prevent them from riding up. The instep straps attach under the sole of your boots under your arch.
- Insect repellent- Some gaiters are treated with an insect repellent like permethrin. This can help keep ticks, mosquitoes, flies, etc. from crawling biting your legs or crawling up your gaiters onto your body. This is a great feature if you’re hiking in a buggy area. You can also treat your gaiters with an insect repellent spray if they weren’t treated from the factory. This Sawyer Products Premium Permethrin Insect Repellent spray would work well.
The materials that the gaiters are made of determine their weight, durability, and efficacy. A few common materials include:
- Waterproof breathable material- Higher-end waterproof gaiters are often made from waterproof breathable materials like Gore-Tex. These materials keep liquid water out but allow water vapor to vent from your shoes. This is achieved with tiny pores in the material. The pores are smaller than water droplets but larger than water vapor molecules. This way, liquid water can’t enter but sweat can vent out and evaporate away. This helps keep your feet dryer and cooler.
- Coated polyester or nylon fabric- Lower-end hiking gaiters are often made from polyurethane-coated nylon or polyester fabrics. These materials are durable, waterproof, and inexpensive. The drawback is that they don’t breathe very well so your feet can get hot. These materials work great for day hikes or hiking in mild conditions where you won’t need to wear gaiters all the time.
- Soft-shell polyester fabric- Non-waterproof ankle height trail running gaiters are usually made from this material. It is lightweight, stretchy, and comfortable. It provides great protection from debris and some basic protection from the weather.
Gaiter Attachment Materials
- Entry system- Calf height and taller hiking and mountaineering gaiters usually attach with a long strip of hook and loop fastener (Velcro) down the front of the gaiters. The Velcro generally measures about 2 inches wide and runs the entire length of the gaiter so they open up completely. Some models use a zipper entry system instead. Ankle height trail runners sometimes don’t have an entry system. You just stretch the gaiters around your ankle and shoe.
- Top closure system- Gaiter tops secure around the calf or ankle with elastic shock cord and cord locks. Some models use plastic or metal slide buckles with nylon webbing straps. Ankle height trail running gaiters usually don’t have a top closure system. They just secure around the ankle with Velcro. Some models just stay on with elastic.
- Instep straps- Most gaiters use a durable material like leather or some type of thick plastic or rubber for the instep strap. These straps often secure like a belt buckle. Many also have a slide buckle for additional adjustment. The buckles are usually made of metal. As you can imagine, the instep strap takes a beating because it’s rubbing against the ground as you walk. Make sure the parts are durable as this is one of the most common failure points. Some ultralight trail running gaiters don’t have instep straps. They just secure around the boot and shoe with elastic or Velcro. Low-end gaiters often have an instep strap that is made of a shoelace material.
Do I Need Gaiters? Pros and Cons
Gaiters are optional. Below, I’ll outline a few pros and cons to help you decide whether or not you want to bring a pair on your next hiking trip.
- Gaiters keep your legs and feet dry- Gaiters prevent water from splashing into your shoes when walking through puddles. They also keep your shoes and pants dry while walking through wet brush after a rainstorm or morning dew. When walking through deep snow, gaiters prevent snow from getting caught on the tops of your boots. Having dry pants and shoes greatly improves comfort.
- Gaiters keep you warmer- They provide insulation to keep your feet and legs warm. Even lightweight trail running gaiters trap some heat. This is great for cold weather hiking.
- Safety- Gaiters protect your legs from scratches and cuts from branches, brush, and thorns. They also prevent bites from insects like mosquitoes and ticks as well as snakes.
- They help you stay clean- While hiking in the rain, mud gets everywhere. Wearing gaiters helps keep that mud off the tops of your shoes, your socks, and your pant legs. You can take the gaiters off when you reach camp and your clothes are relatively clean. You end up dragging less dirt into your tent at night.
- Gaiters extend the life of your pants and socks- Abrasion from brush rubbing on your pants and socks can wear holes over time. Particularly if a sharp stick gets caught on your pant leg. Gaiters are made of durable materials that are meant to withstand these abrasions.
- They can reduce water weight in your footwear- When hiking boots and socks get waterlogged, they become incredibly heavy. You can avoid carrying extra water weight in your footwear by keeping them dry. Gaiters help achieve this.
- They are a hassle and time consuming to put on and take off- This is my biggest complaint. Standard hiking gaiters attach to your legs and feet with two straps, a Velcro seam, and a shoelace hook. It’s a bit tedious to put them on. Particularly when your hands are cold and wet. If you want to take your boot off to let your foot air out, you pretty much need to remove the gaiter. It’s a hassle. Every time you want to take your boots off, you’ll spend a couple of extra minutes fiddling with your gaiters.
- Hot and sweaty- Gaiters trap heat in your shoes which makes your feet sweat more. This gets uncomfortable. Particularly if you’re hiking in hot regions like the tropics or deserts.
- They trap moisture in your shoes- Gaiters keep moisture out but they also keep moisture in. Water that enters your shoes can’t vent out through waterproof gaiters. The same is true of sweat. Gaiters that are made of waterproof breathable materials improve ventilation somewhat but not enough.
- They increase the likelihood of developing blisters- Three factors that cause blisters while hiking include heat, moisture, and friction. Gaiters cause heat and moisture to build up in your shoes. Pretty much every shoe causes some friction. You’ll likely experience more blisters while using gaiters. To solve this problem, you’ll want to take your shoes off to let your feet air out occasionally. You should also tape up any hot spots or blisters that start to form.
- They add weight- Many hikers are going ultralight these days. Gaiters are just an extra piece of gear to carry around. Depending on the style you choose, gaiters weigh from 2-12 ounces (around 60-340 grams).
- Extra expense- Gaiters are another piece of gear to buy. Cheepie models go for just $10-15. An average pair from a major outdoors gear manufacturer like OR or Mountain Hardware costs $40-$80 depending on the style.
- They look goofy- Most people don’t care what they look like while they’re out on the trail but gaiters can look kind of funny. Particularly when you pair tall gaiters with shorts.
How to Choose Gaiters
A few questions you’ll want to consider to help you choose the best gaiters for your hike include:
- What climate do you plan to hike in?- In hot humid climates like the tropics, you’ll want to make sure your gaiters are breathable so you don’t get too hot. In cold or snowy climates, you may prefer insulated moels for extra warmth. For hiking in wet climates, you’ll want waterproof gaiters.
- What kind of terrain do you plan to hike?– For dry dirt or gravel trails, simple trail running gaiters may be your best choice. For mountainous or off-trail hikes, you’ll want a taller and more rugged model.
- How far are you hiking?- If you’re thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, you’ll want ultralight gaiters to maximize efficiency. If you’re day hiking, the weight doesn’t matter as much.
- How often will you use them?- If you just occasionally day hike, you can get away low-end budget gaiters. If you’re thru hiking, you’ll need durable and long lasting gaiters that can take a beating.
- What is your budget?- After a certain price point, you’re really just paying for lighter materials. You can buy a quality pair of budget gaiters for $20 or so. Higher end gaiters start around $40.
Gaiters are not one size fits all. If your gaiters are too small, they won’t provide enough coverage to keep water and debris out. They can also fit too tight which makes them uncomfortable to wear. If your gaiters are too large, they can sag or ride up your leg. They can also flop around and cause you to trip.
Luckily, it’s pretty easy to choose the correct size. Most gaiters come in small, medium, large, and extra-large sizes. Manufacturers provide a sizing chart to help you choose. The sizes are either based on shoe size or your calf circumference.
If the gaiters are sized based on calf circumference, you’ll need to measure the widest part of your calf. Usually in cm. You can easily measure this with a tape measure. You can then look on the manufacturer’s chart to find the correct size.
What to Look For When Trying on Gaiters
When choosing a pair of gaiters, you want to ensure that they make a good seal around both your footwear and calf or ankle. After all, their primary function is to keep out moisture and debris. If there are holes or sagging spots, water and dirt will find their way in. Gaiters should fit pretty snug. You shouldn’t be able to fit a finger between the bottom of the gaiters and your shoes.
When you’re trying gaiters on, you’ll want to wear the pants, socks, and shoes you plan to wear while hiking so you know they fit properly. If you plan to wear thick insulated pants, bulky hiking boots, or snow boots you might need to size up. If you plan to wear your gaiters with shorts or trail running shoes, you might be able to get away with a smaller size.
Ideally, you want to have some room for adjustment in your gaiter’s attachment system. For example, if you’re just wearing shorts and trail running shoes but your gaiters are adjusted to their maximum size, you’ll probably want to size up so you have room to wear pants or thick socks underneath if you choose. It’s good to have options.
If you must choose, it’s better for your gaiters to be slightly too large than too small. You can tighten larger gaiters up but you can’t loosen gaiters that are too small. The velcro needs to have at least a half an inch of overlap so the gaiters don’t come undone. Having slightly larger gaiters allows you to wear a wider range of clothing and footwear. Of course, you don’t want your gaiters to be too bulky or they will be uncomfortable.
You should also pay attention to the gaiters feel at the attachment points. You don’t want to feel any rubbing or discomfort on your ankles or legs. The gaiters shouldn’t restrict your movement in any way. It’s important to always try on a new pair of gaiters before setting out on a hike to make sure they are comfortable and fit properly.
A Few Gaiter Recommendations
These durable hiking gaiters are made from water-resistant and breathable nylon fabric. This material keeps water out but lets sweat vent. The tops sit just below the knee to provide lower leg protection from sand, mud, snow, and other debris. They close with hook and loop. The instep strap is made from durable Hypalon. They are compatible with both trail runners and hiking boots.
These affordable water-resistant and breathable hiking gaiters are made from polyester fabric. They are lined with a waterproof membrane that keeps water out but allows sweat to vent. The bottom section of the gaiters is made of durable abrasion-resistant 600D polyester.
I used these gaiters while thru-hiking the Wonderland Trail. During my trip, I experienced 6 days of rain and encountered lots of mud. These gaiters helped to keep my pants, socks, and shoes clean and relatively dry. I was particularly happy with the build quality for the price. For more info, read my full review here. You can also buy these gaiters on Unigear’s website here.
These ankle height trail running gaiters seal tightly around your shoe and ankle to keep rocks, mud, and sand out. They easily slip on and off. The only attachment is a simple hook and loop closure. The gaiters are made from a comfortable elastic jersey material. The underfoot strap is made from durable Hypalon. One thing to note is that these gaiters are designed to be paired with trail running shoes, not hiking boots.
These rugged mountaineering gaiters are made of waterproof, windproof, and breathable Gore-Tex. The lower section is made of incredibly durable and abrasion-resistant Cordura. The Crocodile Gaiters are ideal for hiking in snow, off-trail, or in any difficult conditions you can imagine. The drawback is that they are fairly pricey.
How to Put Gaiters on Properly
Gaiters are a simple piece of gear. Having said that, it’s pretty easy to put them on wrong. Particularly if you’ve never used them before. This general guide explains, step-by-step, how to put on an average pair of hiking or mountaineering gaiters.
- Open the gaiters completely- Undo the Velcro, instep strap, and any other straps or drawcords that are tightened. You want the gaiters to lay completely flat.
- Place the gaiters so the Velcro (or zipper) is at the front- The fabric should wrap around the back of your leg and close in the front.
- Position the gaiter so the instep strap buckle faces outside- You want the buckle facing outside so it doesn’t break or come loose if you accidentally kick it with your other foot. You should also position the straps under the instep (arch) of your shoes.
- Close the Velcro around your calf or ankle- Secure the strips of Velcro that run the length of the front of the gaiters. It should be tight enough to make a seal but not constrictive to your movement. If the gaiters are slightly too small, the Velcro doesn’t need to overlap completely. ½ inch of overlap is sufficient to keep the gaiters on.
- Tighten the instep strap- Make sure the strap still aligns with your arch. Place the strap under the sole of your shoe and tighten it with the buckle. Some gaiters have a slide buckle to help you tighten the strap. The gaiters should make a nice seal around your boot or shoe. If you always use the same shoes with your gaiters, you can leave the instep strap tightened. This makes it faster and easier to put on and remove your gaiters in the future.
- Place the lace hook on your shoelaces- If the gaiters have lace hooks, try to attach them as close to the toe of your shoes as comfortably possible. Move your ankle around to make sure that the gaiters aren’t restricting movement. If they are, move the lace hook back toward your ankle to make a looser fit.
- Tighten the top closures- Secure the straps so they are tight enough to prevent the gaiters from sagging or falling down your leg. They should be loose enough that they don’t cut off blood flow or restrict your motion.
- Make adjustments- Take a few steps to see how the gaiters feel. Look at the top and bottom seals to see if they’re tight enough to keep water and debris out. If something is too tight or loose, adjust it until it’s comfortable.
Trail running gaiters are usually much simpler to put on. They often just wrap around the shoe and attach with velcro. Some simply stretch over your shoe. Some go on just like hiking gaiters and include an instep strap.
A Few Gaiters Tips
- If you’re wearing rain pants, try wearing your gaiters under them- When you wear gaiters over rain pants, water can run down your legs and leak into them. Wearing them underneath helps to keep your boots dry while your rain pants protect your legs.
- Take your shoes and socks off once in a while to let your feet air out- Gaiters tend to trap moisture in your shoes. It doesn’t matter if they are breathable. Letting your feet air out once in a while reduces your likelihood of developing blisters and other foot problems.
- Set the instep strap before you leave home- This is the most annoying part of the attachment system to deal with. Once you have it set for the footwear you plan to wear, you don’t have to adjust it again. You can put the gaiters on and take them off without having to adjust the instep strap. This saves you from having to mess around with adjusting the strap with freezing or wet hands.
- Test out your gaiters fit before you leave for a hike- Make sure they are compatible with the boots, pants, and socks that you’re wearing.
Final Thoughts about Hiking with Gaiters
Gaiters are one of those things that you just have to try to decide whether or not you like them. Some hikers find that they provide much needed protection and others just find that they make their feet hot. The utility that gaiters provide really depends on the terrain and climate you’re hiking in. In some conditions, gaiters are almost a necessity.
I used to think that gaiters were pretty pointless until I decided to bring a pair with me while hiking the Wonderland Trail. Over the course of the hike, my gaiters kept my socks and boots clean from mud and protected my legs from scratches from brush. They also helped me stay a bit drier. I won’t use gaiters on every hike but they are an excellent tool to have for some conditions.
Do you wear gaiters while hiking? Share your experience in the comments below!
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