With advances in boot and pant designs, gaiters are less popular these days, or at a minimum, going out of style. In this article, we'll delve into the pros and cons of using them and help you decide if they're for you or not. We'll also cover some of the advances in design and materials used, and give you some tips on how to fit them properly so that they work as intended. If your mind is made up and you know you need a pair, whether it's for mountaineering, scrambling, or wet bushwacking, this article will also help you understand your options and what to look for when shopping around.
For a concept as fundamentally basic as a tube of fabric that you wrap around your leg to keep stuff from getting into your boots, gaiters can be divided into a surprising number of categories and sub-categories. For our purposes, we'll stick to the most common varieties. We'll also avoid using obfuscating words, like "puttees," which could make people think you climb in a tweed suit.
We can generalize a few things about this type (full-length, heavy-duty materials, etc.), but not all alpine and expeditions models are equal in quality or purpose. More importantly, they may not even work in a given application, so it's important to know what you're looking for. The Rab Latok Alpine is a sleek, slim-fitting alpine model that fits comfortably over the La Sportiva Trango series snugly, but doesn't have a chance of closing over the La Sportiva Spantik. For your big mountain adventures where you'll be rocking double plastics or double synthetic boots, you'll need something large and durable enough to stand up to an expedition that may span weeks. Expedition models will typically be made of heavier materials and will come up to below the knee. Alpine models tend to be made of lighter materials and may come up to just above your boot top. If possible, bring your boots with you when purchasing a pair to ensure an appropriate fit. Though you want a trim, low profile fit, if it's a battle to get them on in the store, it will be a nightmare to get them on in the mountains.
In terms of sheer cost to usefulness ratio, the lowly hiking model is probably the most valuable piece of kit you'll have on the trail. Though they are made with lighter materials and are generally less expensive than an alpine or expedition model, they tend to do a lot more work. They are often used in environments where there are a lot more things trying to get into your boots. Whether you are trying to keep out dirt or protect your boots and pants from wet underbrush or rain, hiking models have a wide range of useful applications. They typically work over hiking boots, hiking shoes, lightweight runners, or approach shoes and come up to just below your calf.
In our meteoric trajectory towards accessory overload, running and scree models may actually serve a practical function amidst the watches, HR monitors, bottles, bladders, packs, goos, gels, bands, straps, and glasses that constitute the new "necessities" of the urban running uniform. Nothing is a bigger drag than cruising along, feeling great, when suddenly it feels as though you have a tree branch protruding from the top of your shoe, or a cup of sand causing hot spots on your foot. This type makes off-road and trail runs a lot more pleasant, along with long approaches in the alpine or anywhere you are traveling on unconsolidated earth. Running models tend to consist of stretchy material that pulls snugly over your shoes, with a tube-like design that only has openings at top and bottom. They tend to reach just above the ankle and work best with running or approach shoes.
The debate over whether or not you need this accessory on your next outdoor mission is a contentious one. Some people swear by them. Others refuse even to consider wearing them. Some have converted over to boots with built-in ones. Others hate those even more. There are now a variety of guide pants on the market that function much like one, with stirrups (or grommet holes to attach them) and re-enforced scuff patches at the ankle. All this to say that with so many options available, there is no one right way to dress in the mountains. But here are some points to consider both in favor for and against the traditional gaiter, particularly in big mountain and winter situations.
- They offer an extra layer of protection from moisture and debris. If you're breaking trail through deep snow, post-holing, slogging up a wet glacier, or on some dripping ice climb, your boots and legs will be drier because of them.
- They offer a first layer of defense against sharp tools and crampon spikes. Even the most careful kicker will nick their legs every now and then. They are typically inexpensive, and will protect your more expensive investments (boots and pants), extending their longevity and limiting time-consuming field repairs.
- They are also easier to dry out on a multi-day trip than your wet pants or an integrated one on your boots.
- They can impede the breathability of your boots. Anything that keeps moisture out will keep some moisture in (though the latest Gore-Tex and eVent fabrics are doing an exceptional job at venting).
- They can be annoying to put on and take off, particularly when compared to a boot with an integrated one.
- They are heavier than a built-in one, and are one more piece of gear to keep track of or lose.
In fact, during our Mountaineering Boot Review, we tested a variety of boots with integrated ones, including, the Scarpa Phantom Tech and the La Sportiva Batura, and it was the Batura that took the Editors' Choice award. The extra warmth and water resistance provided by the gaiter helped it stand above the competition, without us getting too sweaty on the inside.
There are also some pros and cons specific to trail running, though they tend to cancel each other out. Wear them, and you'll keep the sand and debris out, which would otherwise cause hot spots and blisters, but your feet will be sweatier, which will cause hots spots and blisters. TrailRunner magazine reported that a full quarter of all participants in the 2014 Western States 100 mile run were wearing them, but that leaves three-quarters that weren't.
There are many types for you to consider, from knee-length alpine and expedition models to ankle length scree ones, with a variety of mid-length models in between. We break the different types down in more detail in our full review, but a good rule of thumb to follow is, the more extreme your terrain and the weather, the bigger the gaiter. That means you're not going to take an ankle-length model up Denali, and there is no point wearing a knee-length one on a trail run. Once you've identified which type is best for you, the real dilemma that remains is finding one that fits well over your chosen footwear.
Getting a good fit is straightforward and should involve you schlepping your boots or shoes into the store and actually trying them on with the footwear you'll be using it with (or if ordering online, buying from an e-retailer with a good return policy). It should close easily over pants, boots and whatever thickness of sock you've chosen. The fit over your boots should be snug, but it should not be a challenge to get it closed. It may be possible to get a very tight fit in the store, but achieving the same result in the field with cold hands and other factors could be very difficult and frustrating. Most mountaineering and hiking models have an adjustable in-step strap or stirrup that you can tighten to ensure a clean fit with minimal tripping hazards. It should also have a slim or even tight profile, particularly on the inside of your legs, to reduce the possibility of tripping.
Running or scree models use a combination of ways to attach to your shoe. Examine them closely and make sure that the attachment is easy and fits closely over your runners or approach shoes. Some models come with Velcro patches to stick onto your shoes at the heel. This helps keep it in place and reduces the need for an instep strap (somewhat), which is preferred if your shoes have little to no arch. You'll also want to try them on with a longer sock. They'll feel more comfortable in the long run if they are not chafing against your bare ankle, and do a better job of keeping the debris out.
Gaiters are typically sized according to shoe size and will come in a variety of S-M-L-XL options. Most manufacturers will have a sizing chart on their website, along with the bottom and top circumferences. To find the right fit, measure at the widest part of your boot and the top of your calf while wearing whatever pants you'll be hiking or climbing in. Then compare the numbers to the ones provided by the manufacturer, and you should have a decent idea of what you need to buy. Use caution when purchasing based on the sizes as they will not always align with your clothing size.
Knowing how to wear them correctly is less intuitive than you might imagine. Correct use is critical not only to functionality and safety but also to not look like a total dweeb. As mountain guides and outdoor industry professionals, we have seen innumerable interpretations of how they can be worn and might have even put one on backward ourselves once or twice. In spite of endless attempts to prove that they can indeed be worn backward and on the wrong legs, there is only one correct way. Take the time to research how yours are meant to be worn (shoelace hooks always go in the front, not in the back) so as to avoid looking like a dangerous gaper in your shiny new gear.
Lucky for you, the development of more breathable, lighter and tougher fabrics has trickled down to the lowly accessory market. Some models are now being made with fabrics similar to a high-end rain jacket, which is apropos considering they are like rain jackets for your feet. If it seems like overkill, trust us, it's not. Just like you'd no longer head out in the mountains with a yellow rain slicker of old, nor should your gaiters be stuck in the '70s either. If you don't see high-end fabrics like Gore-Tex, eVent or NeoShell on the model you are considering, particularly if you're heading into the mountains with high consequences, then you might want to think twice about that purchase.