Gaiters are a great addition to your hiking gear if you do any sort of snow or glacier travel or find yourself around a lot of river crossings, muddy trails, or do any scratchy brushy bushwhacking. These protective sheaths for your lower leg will help keep snow from getting all up your pants leg in most situations, can give you a little bit of back-up on water crossings, and if you’re wearing crampons, they protect your pants from accidental nicks and rips. Ultimately their job is to keep stuff out of your shoes.
Back in the day, mountaineering gaiters were made of heavy canvas or leather, but nowadays are generally made of a poylurethane-coated nylon which is incredibly waterproof and practically indestructible against rock, ice, crampons, and axes, as well as the ambient cold from being on a glacier for long periods of time. A slightly less gnarly hiking gaiter evolved from that whose main job is just to protect you from brush and keep dirt, mud, and water out of your boots. And then there are sand gaiters, which are incredibly lightweight, usually just a thin stretchy synthetic and not much more than ankle-high, and used by trail runners to keep debris out of their shoes. These are great for summer volcano hikes where the fine dusty clouds of ash tend to settle in your shoes as you scree-skate down hills made of kitty-litter sized grains of lava-sand.
Here are details on the three kinds of gaiters and when and why you’d want to use them:
- Mountaineering gaiters: These heavy-duty gaiters are typically close to knee-high and provide thick, hardy, waterproof, insulated protection for hiking, climbing, snowshoeing, or ski touring in harsh conditions. They cover the lower leg, over the pants, with a strap that loops under the heel notch of your boot and buckles closed for an adjustable and nearly air-tight fit. If you’re in crampons, on a glacier, or traveling in snow or rain, or if it’s very cold and you want to keep the frigid air from going up your pants, these are a must.
- Hiking gaiters: For milder conditions where you might encounter some light snow, rain, scratchy brush, or general grit and pebbles, these are generally a little shorter (just below the calf) and are waterproof but thinner and more breathable than mountaineering gaiters; ideal if you’re going to be hiking in warmer weather or brushy, damp, or buggy areas (some are even treated with insect repellent to protect summer legs from mosquitoes and ticks).
- Sand gaiters: Used for travel in scree, ash, sand, or dusty dirt, these are simply a small elastic cuff that covers the top of your trail running shoe, barely higher than your ankle bone, that keeps you from having to stop and empty your shoes out as they fill with debris. They fasten under the instep with a small strap, and at the top with elastic and a little cinch-cord to pull them taut.
Rainy day advice: Normally gaiters go over the pants leg but if you are hiking in a downpour, wear them under your rain pants for a shingle effect. You will still have the protection from the bottom up from puddles and splashes, but eliminate the chance of water dripping down into them from above.
Fit: Most manufacturers size them small, medium, and large and go by calf size. There is some forgiveness in sizing since the top and bottom are both adjustable, but before you shop, measure your calf at its thickest and go from there.
Alternatives: Some pants companies make pants with built-in gaiters; if you are lucky enough to have the right leg length for these, they’d be great for simplifying and streamlining your cold-weather layering/gear system.
Favorite mountaineering gaiters for women:
- Black Diamond GTX FrontPoint
- Rab Trek
- Hillsound Armadillo
- Outdoor Research Verglas
- Outdoor research Rocky Mountain High
Favorite hiking gaiters for women:
- REI Backpacker Low
- First Lite Brambler
- Outdoor Research BugOut
- Outdoor Research FlexTex 2
- Kahtoola LevaGaiter Tall
Favorite sand gaiters for women:
- Kahtoola InstaGaiter Low
- Raidlight Desert Gaiters
- Salomon Trail Gaiter Low
- Outdoor Research Wrapid
- REI On The Trail low gaiter
Wendy Harrington is a California native who has lived in a small town at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state since 2001. Her love of trail running and peakbagging has led her to summit all five Washington volcanoes, climb to the high points of three states, and put nearly a thousand miles a year on her boots. Her loves include ridgelines, saddles, granite, one-day pushes on big mountains, anything volcanic, long solo days, and objectives that push limits and test endurance.