Why are hiking gaiters important? What should I look for in a pair?
What are the best gaiter models for running shoes... and for backpacking boots?
© Ken Koh
The vast majority of hiking and backpacking is done on well beaten trails and avoid rock scrambles and heavy brush almost entirely. On the occasion you encounter some thorns or need to bushwhack for a bit, your shoes and socks or pants often provide adequate protection. Too many people get psyched out on gear and go clunking around the woods with these unnecessary shin guards.
HOWEVER, there are plenty of conditions that demand more protection than your pants and shoes can offer. Gaiters will help keep your legs safe and help you enjoy your time outdoors in these more extreme conditions. Specifically, gaiters can help:
1) Block Debris. For long distance backpacking, this is the #1 reason to use gaiters. I hiked a few hundred miles on the Appalachian Trail before realizing how frequently I was stopping to remove pebbles from my shoes. Pine needles were worse and caused splinters. Ultralight gaiters were the solution to my pesky shoe debris for the remaining 2,000 miles.
2) Shield Your Shins. Particularly on rock scrambles and thick bush. If you are traversing rugged rocks or plowing through a wilderness fortress, your legs are going to take a beating. Your pants could be shredded and your legs could be exposed. You’ll want some protection.
3) Channel Rain Runoff. Those long legs of yours are a perfect funnel for rain to channel down into your boots or shoes. Wet shoes and feet can be dangerous in winter. Gaiters can divert rain from pooling in your shoes. Note, in warm weather, I argue that wet feet are just part of it - use breathable trail runners and keep hiking.
4) Insulate. Beyond getting wet, your feet and ankles could use an extra layer of insulation in the winter time. Waterproof gaiters help repel ice and snow from collecting. The thicker the gaiter, the better the insulation.
High Gaiters (left): Best for extreme and rough conditions - bushwhacking off trail, snow post-holing, etc.
● Shin height, sometimes up to the knee. Usually designed to be worn over boots rather than shoes.
● Heavy and often waterproof.
● Hardshell and rugged to protect against snow, ice, rock or heavy bush.
Low Gaiters (right): Best for most backpacking and trail running - sandy, muddy or debris-heavy trail.
● Ankle height, typically under a foot tall.
● Lightweight and breathable.
● Keep out trail debris without inhibiting movement.
CC BY-SA 3.0 | Wikimedia (Carivaldi)
Entry Method: You want them to slip on and off easily. You might want to take your shoes off and wade across the creek, have a blister in between your toes or just want to let your feet breath at lunch. Whatever the case, you need to have easy access to your feet. This is why the ease of entry is so important.
Most high gaiters are “stepped into” like a leg cast. Make sure the heel strap is in place on your boot… and then zip (or velcro) it up. I vote front entry (instead of rear) because you can actually see what you are looking at.
Most low gaiters utilize a stretchy material (kind of like the old school book covers) that you slip your foot into before you put on your shoes. Think of it like a skirt… for your ankle.
Attachment: Strap and Hook: Beyond getting them on, you want to make sure they are secure.
Again, keep it fast and easy. Most gaiters secure themselves to your shoe via some sort of hook attachment on your laces and under the bottom of the shoe via some sort of strap. Some low gaiters do not have the under-the-heel strap at all and require you to tape a piece of velcro on the back of your heel.
Just like placing your boot into the stirrup of a horse saddle, the instep strap of gaiters wraps around the bottom of your shoe or boot to keep the lower end in place. Some models use simple laces or bungees. Some use more durable synthetics or leather for instep straps. I vote light, thin and strong laces. You don’t want anything thick that will make consistent and direct contact with the ground.
Material: The materials of your gaiters affect the overall weight, as well as the amount of insulation, breathability and waterproofing they provide. Materials play a big role in the level of comfort and performance you’ll get out of them.
● Nylon- Rugged, abrasion resistant and used for high gaiters (we'll explain in a sec). Thickness and weight can vary drastically. Typically, the top portion of mountaineering-style high gaiters is a waterproof or water resistant material. The bottom is tougher - designed to shield more frequent ice, rock, and brush abrasion.
● Spandex - Yes, the same glam material from 80’s workout videos. Spandex is super stretchy and flexible... and lightweight. Not going to provide a lot of protection, but enough to keep out trail debris.
From lightweight to industrial strength, here are the best gaiters on the market:
Weight: 1.1 oz
A thru-hiking favorite and, despite the name, Dirty Girl Gaiters are not just for women. At 1 per pair, these ultralight gaiters won’t add much weight or space to your load. Combine that with the soft, stretchy lycra spandex fabric, and it’s easy to forget you’re wearing them at all.
One thing that sets Dirty Girl apart from other ultralight and running brands is their array of colorful and often flamboyant designs. Zebra print, neon camo, and tie-dye printed gaiters - you name it. They also carry a few more muted designs (like plain black) if you’re not wanting to turn heads.
Note that the fabric isn’t water repellent. These are best for keeping out sand, dirt, rocks and other debris during fair weather hikes and runs—but not rain or cold.
In the front there’s a hook that attaches to your shoelace. The stretchy fabric slips over your feet and secures to your shoelace with a hook. One of the best things is that there is not a traditional under-the-heel strap. Instead, Dirty Girls secure to the back of your shoe heels with a self-adhesive velcro patch. This alternative securing method can kind of stink considering the velcro is permanent. Make sure you place it well… and don’t need to use those shoes for a fashion show.
All Dirty Girl models are low gaiters, reaching up to about mid-ankle. They’re sized according to men and women’s shoe sizes, with a length between 6.5” and 7.5” from the bottom to top seam.
Related: Outdoor Research's Spark Plug Gaiters are fantastic ultralight backpacking gaiters as well... and use a little different color schemes.
Weight: 2.1 oz
Salomon’s Trail Running Gaiters have a super easy-to-use, single velcro strap on the front and a thicker than-average instep strap for additional security.
The rip and stick entry means that you can put them on without taking off your shoes - a uniquely awesome feature for low gaiters. Ahhh, yes… easy on and off! That speed and ease is super useful on the trail.
The upper part is a comfortable, breathable nylon and the lower strap is a well-gripped rubber. Though these Salmon's are thicker than most, they don’t have an irritating or chafing quality on the ankle. The fabric is also more water-resistant than other competitors and keeps very cool.
Another unique feature to note about the Salomon Trail Running gaiters: the full strap-and-wrap design provides a bit of support and can almost act like an ankle brace on its own. For this level of support, I love how light and easy these are.
Related: See the Salomon High Trail for a slightly higher-rising model.
Weight: 2.2 oz
Scree (noun); an accumulation of loose stones or rocky debris lying on a slope or at the base of a hill or cliff.
Hence the name, that is exactly what these gaiters are made for - trudging over rocky mountains. The Rab Scree gaiters are a low-rise model for fast and light backpacking. If you’re planning on travelling through rocky or sandy terrain, these are a great set to keep small debris out of your shoes.
At 7.5 inches, Rab Screes reach about ankle high. The top is secured with an elastic ankle cuff, and the instep strap is a thin and adjustable bungee cord. These are slip on gaiters, with a shoe lace hook in the front.
The Rab Scree’s feature Rab’s Double Weave Stretch (DWS) - a softshell fabric material, which breathes great and weighs next to nothing. It is better for tough terrain rather than tough weather though. While the DWS repels light rain and snow, moisture will eventually seep through the fabric.
As with any strap, you run the risk of wear and tear. If you do manage to snap it though, Rab includes a replacement instep strap. Note - if you have thicker ankles, you might find the elastic band at the top uncomfortably tight.
Weight: 4.8 oz
The best of both worlds. The Outdoor Research Wrapid Gaiters are an ideal choice if you’re looking for the best of low and high gaiters - lightweight and a lot of protection. They are notable for their novel wrap-around velcro design, which provides an equally tight fit over an extended length of your ankle. Similar to the Salomon's on the list, the Wrapid’s velcro “slap and strap” make it effortless to take off.
Not only do they fit over many different types of shoes, but an adjustable instep strap allows you to change the height of these gaiters. You can even remove the strap entirely, in order to wear them over flat-soled shoes without worrying about tearing the instep fabric.
There is a pair of double front hooks to attach to your laces, and anti-slipping silicon pads located at the base. Combined with the wrap around velcro entry, the tight fit of these gaiters does an excellent job at keeping debris, water and light snow out of your shoes.
These gaiters breathe well enough to wear in warm weather and the fabric is light and soft enough that you’ll hardly notice these as hiking gaiters. The soft-shell nylon-blend fabric is water-resistant, but not waterproof. They’ll keep your feet dry during downpours and through puddles and wet brush, but aren’t suited for extended travel through particularly deep snow as bulkier knee-high versions (like Crocodiles or Latok Alpines below).
The Wrapid's are also the lightest gaiters you’ll find among the velcro-entry models.The slip-on styles mentioned above clock in at lower weights, but require you to stop and take off your shoes to put them on. If you want the convenience of rip-and-stick entry while still keeping your pack weight down, these are for you.
Weight: 8.0 oz
The Rab Latok Extreme gaiters are a shining example of how far outdoor wear tech has progressed. These babies are a beauty. Not only do they rock a sleek design, they are extremely high functioning and completely waterproof.
The eVent outer layer and Watergate back panel of the Latok Extremes offer a rare combination of excellent breathability and exceptional waterproofing. Despite the breathability and light weight, they manage to protect your legs against cold, snow and wet just as well as much bulkier models.
Big protection without the bulk? Yes, please.
The Latok Extremes slip on easy once you’ve adjusted the instep strap to your liking, which is attached to the inside of the gaiter via a velcro patch. The instep strap itself is rubberized, thick and built to last.
The main front entry is also velcro sealed, with an adjustable cinch at the top. There’s a bootlace hook on the front to secure the bottom end to your boots. A flexible strip of polymer keeps the fit tight against your footwear in the back.
These high gaiters are meant to fit over lower volume hiking boots, with a more snug fit than traditional bulky and loose mountaineering gaiters. It’s hard to imagine a pair this strong be more versatile and more comfy than the Rab Latok Extremes.
Related: Mountain Hardwear Nutshell.
Weight: 10.2 oz
Outdoor Research’s Crocodile Gaiters are a rather iconic model. They have been a best-seller for over a decade. Don’t think these are outdated though. Constant tweaks and updates keep the Crocodile’s relevant and top notch.
Made to fit over hiking boots, these high gaiters are designed for some of the toughest backcountry terrain. Really… feel free to walk comfortably in the Crocodile’s through the thickest thorns and sharpest rocks you can find.
A heavy-duty triple-layer Gore-tex fabric makes these gaiters highly insulated, with enough water proofing to trek through deep snow without soaking through. The outer layer sheds any water it comes in contact with.
These are front entry with a rip-and-stick velcro holding them shut and a cam buckle top closure. There’s also bootlace hook. The instep strap is sturdy and built to last with 1000D nylon fabric (that is thick!), able to withstand heavy crampon abuse.
The Crocodiles keep out debris well, provided that you wear them with the right footwear. They’re intended to be worn with heavy duty mountain boots, so wearing them with low ankle shoes can leave a gap for debris to slip into. The Crocodile's are also the heaviest on this list and not designed for any sort of fast packing or ultralight backpacking.
Related: Outdoor Research Crocodile Expedition are even stronger.
By Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine to Fast Company. He wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe. Instagram: @chrisrcage.
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