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Hiking Gaiters: Their Purpose on Trail for a Thru-Hiker

Read Time: Approximately 17 minutes

Gaiters are an important piece of gear for hikers and trekkers. Many people aren’t sure what they are or what their purpose is on the trail, so we’re here to clear that up!

Gaiters are fabric sleeves that go over your shoe and lower leg, usually made out of waterproof materials. They protect your feet and lower legs from moisture or debris while you’re on the trail.

While fairly inexpensive they can be a very smart decision, especially if you’re expecting to hike in poor weather conditions. They can keep your feet and lower legs drier, preventing blisters and other issues.

If you’re looking for a new piece of gear to add to your kit, gaiters are definitely a good option!

What is the Purpose of Trail Gaiters

When looking to add some hiking gaiters to your trail life you may wonder how they really help you and why you would want to add this weight since backpacking and thru-hiking can be a game of ounces?

The purpose of trail gaiters is to help keep things from getting into your shoes and socks protecting your feet. Things like twigs, rocks and gravel, bugs, and then weather elements like rain, a good pair of gaiters will help keep your feet as protected as possible from the environment itself.

While none of these things is a deal-breaker some people need the maximum protection that they can get, if you get tight sleeves on your legs this cuts down cold water getting into your feet as easily, and later ticks and mosquitoes from abusing your body.

Who Needs Gaiters?

For some, gaiters are an essential part of their thru-hiking and backpacking kit while others don’t see the point in carrying what they perceive to be extra weight.

In all honesty, it really depends on what kind of hiker you are and what conditions you expect to hike in most often. If you know that you’re going to be hiking in a lot of rain, snow, or ice then gaiters are probably a good idea for you.

Similarly, if you know that you’ll be doing a lot of off-trail hiking where there is a higher chance of coming into contact with debris and moisture, gaiters will also help to keep you more comfortable.

However, if you’re an on-trail hiker who generally sticks to well-maintained trails and doesn’t expect to encounter too much bad weather, then you can probably get away with not using gaiters.

When Can Gaiters Help a Hiker?

As stated above most will be when facing inclement weather and other debris-filled terrains. Gaiters will keep out most if not all sand, small rocks, and what have you however water is a different story because they are porous to some degree.

If it’s raining hard enough or the snow is coming down sideways then even gaiters may eventually let in moisture but what they will do for 99% of the time is keep your feet much drier than without.

This is especially important when hiking in cold weather as wet feet mean colder feet and this can lead to all sorts of problems like trench foot, blisters, and general discomfort.

There are some more specialized gaiters that could be used in more specific cases like there are hard-sided gaiters to help prevent snake bites to the lower leg which we will look are more in detail next.

Different Types of Gaiters

Variety is the spice of life and this is also true when looking at the type of gaiter that will work for you and that are available on the market is a good way to start making an informed choice. Below we’ve listed a few different types so you can get an idea of what might work best for you.

Full-Length Gaiters

A full-length gaiter is just what it sounds like, a gaiter that goes all the way up your leg to just below your knee. These are probably the most common type of gaiters and can be used for a variety of activities like hiking, backpacking, snowboarding, skiing, and mountaineering.

They’re typically made from waterproof materials like Gore-Tex or a nylon/synthetic material blend and have a variety of closure systems, like Velcro, to ensure that they stay in place.

One downside to full-length gaiters is that they can be a bit bulky and can be difficult to put on and take off, especially if you’re wearing them over boots.

Snow Gaiters

Built to withstand deep snow and cold temperatures, snow gaiters typically feature warmer inner linings and more robust and waterproof material. They often extend higher up the leg than standard gaiters, providing extra protection against deep snow and ice.

When shopping for snow gaiters, look for a model with an adjustable bottom opening that can be cinched down tightly to keep out snow. Some models also feature an additional strap that goes over the top of the shoe to keep snow from entering.

Snow gaiters are a must-have for true winter hiking and backpacking, especially in those incredibly cold environments where deep snow is likely.

Expedition Gaiters

These are more rough, built for dense woods and jungle-type environments. They protect against bugs and thorns and also offer a higher level of water resistance than most other types of gaiters.

They’re often made from heavier-duty materials like Cordura or Kevlar and extend all the way up to the thigh, providing maximum coverage.

Insect Repellant Gaiters

These come with repellants built into them, typically in the form of a Permethrin treatment. They’re designed to protect against mosquitoes, ticks, and other biting insects and can be a lifesaver in areas where these pests are prevalent.

These can come in any length but the most common are shorter height as they offer protection between the shoe and sock and your pant legs.

Ankle Gaiters

The most common hiking gaiter is the ankle gaiter. These shorter gaiters are the lightest and most compact type of minimalist gaiters available, making them ideal for activities like hiking, backpacking, trail running, and similar long duration and or distance travel.

Ankle gaiters are typically made from very lightweight materials like nylon or other synthetic fabrics and have a Velcro closure system that keeps them in place.

They typically extend up to the lower calf and provide protection against dirt, small rocks, and other debris that can get into your shoes and socks.

Features of Gaiters

Now we can dive into more of the individual features that you should be looking for when choosing a pair of gaiters. No matter what type of gaiter you choose, the following features are what will really set one pair apart from another and make them more or less functional for you.

Gaiter Height

There are multiple heights available in gaiters, so you’ll want to consider what activities you plan on using them for when making your decision. Most gaiters will be in one of the three heights listed below and your ideal choice will depend on weather and terrain.

  • Ankle Height – About 4-8″ tall
  • Mid-Calf Height – About 8-12″ tall
  • Knee Height – About 12-18″ tall

If you’re looking for trail gaiters overall for use while hiking, then the most common height is going to be ankle-high versatile gaiters since there tend to be less extreme conditions on Spring to Fall trips.

But, if you were planning to go out on a more high peak snowed in areas like the Pacific Crest Trail Sierras or much of the Northern Continental Divide Trail then the higher they go the better for deeper snow use.

Gaiter Features

As with any gear there are features that are either part of them, can be added, or are specific to a type of gaiter themselves, these are the most common features with trail gaiters:

Waterproof

For many in very bad weather waterproofing is a preference, though typically most thru-hikers will avoid these materials as you will get wet regardless eventually and the extra weight for just a little less wet time is generally not valued.

If you like waterproof gear then you can find gaiters made with Gore-Tex or other waterproof/breathable materials that will help to keep your feet and lower legs dry in wet conditions.

Abrasion Resistance

These are tougher and more durable fabrics that help to resist wear and tear from long-term use, scraping against rocks or other abrasive surfaces.

This is often a good feature to have in expedition gaiters since they see more extreme use but can also be important in ankle gaiters that might see a lot of miles.

Insect Repellent

This is exactly what it sounds like, the repellent is added to the gaiter itself to help keep bugs away from your legs and feet.

This can be a really important feature in areas with high mosquito or tick populations where you might be spending extended periods of time outdoors.

Instep Straps

Running under the foot, these straps are important to the hold on bigger gaiters but are a point of weakness on some models.

Make sure that the straps are either well-reinforced or if you’re buying a used pair of gaiters, test how strong they feel when pulling on them.

Lace Hooks

How the gaiter attaches to your shoe or boot, these are what keep the gaiter in place and provide a seal against outside elements.

There are several different systems used but they all essentially do the same thing, just be sure that whatever system is used it’s one you’re familiar with.

Gaiter Materials

The basic durability and lifetime of the gaiters are decided with the materials used to create them as this will be the basis for overall performance and weight.

Polyester or Nylon Fabrics

The typical fabrics for many gear items, are not waterproof but are the most commonly used material for hiking gaiters. This is due to the fact that it is lightweight, stretchy, and very comfortable for hours against the skin.

Polyester is much faster drying than nylon and doesn’t absorb moisture so if you do get wet while wearing them they won’t take long to air out and be ready for use again.

This fabric offers decent debris protection and is a good option for most hikers.

Coated Nylon or Poly Fabric

Similar to the non-coated fabrics above, this coating once added does offer some level of water repellency but it isn’t a fully waterproof fabric.

This can be a good option if you want something that will help to repel light rain or snow and can usually be found in most heights of gaiters but is more typical in shorter ankle gaiters.

Like a tent, this would be a fabric that gets a coating to help keep them more waterproof and durable but at far less expense than Gore-Tex.

A side effect to adding a coating is that it cuts back on the fabric being breathable which can frequently lead to more sweat building and generally hotter feet.

Gore-Tex

This is the top tier fabric for making waterproof gear and is what you will find in most high-end expedition gaiters.

It is completely waterproof, very breathable, and can even be made to be abrasion-resistant as well making them the best all-around gaiter but also the most expensive.

This could be a good option if you frequently hike in wet conditions or want the best all-around gaiter possible but generally, the extra expense isn’t worth it for most hikers.

Gaiter Straps and Attachment Materials

The way gaiters attach is varied just like the materials, with some being more secure or durable than others.

This is one area where personal preference will play a big role in what you end up choosing but here are some of the most common systems to give you an idea of what’s available.

Top Closure Setup

Exactly what it sounds like with the closure being at the very top of your leg whether knee, calf, or maybe ankle. This will be tightened frequently by a shock cord and locks to keep it secure and in place which can be both good and bad.

The good is that it’s very adjustable to get a perfect fit each time you put them on, the bad is that if not done correctly they can easily come undone while hiking.

Some though may go with a longer-term hold with buckles and straps, this gives them a longer and more durable life but can be a pain to adjust each time you put them on.

Ankle gaiters though will frequently have none instead may rely on entry velcro or just the basic elastic normally used.

Entry System

This is basically how you put the gaiter on your foot and leg, with the calf-length or longer gaiters using a wide velcro system to open up the entire area to insert your leg and foot and then lock the hold using 2″ thick velcro.

In ankle-length, though this is frequently not done and instead you would insert your foot in through the top of the gaiter and it just stretches over you and your foot into place removing excess velcro from being needed.

Instep Straps

These are the straps that run under the shoe to help anchor the gaiter to the bottom of your foot and keep it in place and snug against your feet and legs.

While this is typically made of strong and durable materials it can be a weakness on some gaiters as it’s what makes the brunt of the strain when walking and is in contact with the ground on each step.

Some companies will reinforce this area with an additional layer or stronger materials but if not, this is an area to look at when evaluating different gaiters.

This makes this strap a common failure point with use and abuse and something you will want to check on older gaiters or be aware of when looking at new ones.

Benefits and Drawbacks to Gaiters

Gaiters are small and simple gear overall but they can provide you some big benefits on the trail, or some big drawbacks if you choose the wrong ones.

To help you make a decision here are some of the pros and cons to consider before making your purchase.

Gaiters Pros

Keep Legs and Feet Dry

Gaiters can help stop rain and the elements from seeping into your trail runners or boots and soaking your socks and feet, thus keeping you dryer overall.

This is the most common reason people will use gaiters and with good reason as it works very well in stopping moisture from entering the boot.

Keep You Warm

They can help increase the warmth of your legs by stopping the wind from entering through the bottom of your pants and chilling you.

In colder weather, this can make a big difference in comfort level and even help prevent hypothermia if used correctly.

Leg Safety

Keeping out animals and insects along with debris helps protect your legs from potential bites or stings which can not only be painful but also transmit diseases.

Maintain Cleanliness

The trail is dirty, gaiters though can be what gets the majority of the dirt instead of it ending up on your legs or pants and then being transferred into your tent and onto a sleeping quilt or bag at the end of the day.

Gaiters Cons

Hassle to Remove and Put On

Trail life is simple and fast-moving and having to take time to put on and adjust gaiters can feel like a waste when you’re trying to get moving.

This is especially true if you have to stop and take them off each time you cross a stream, which is very common when thru-hiking.

Add to Heat

If your legs and feet run hot normally then adding these will just amplify the effect and make you even hotter.

You will want to be sure your legs don’t overheat in them before making a purchase.

Can Trap Moisture in Shoes and Socks

Many gaiters will trap in the sweat and moisture making your feet and shoes even more wet and uncomfortable than if you didn’t have them on.

Sometimes the benefit becomes a drawback.

Increase Chances of Blisters

Many people find they end up getting more blisters when using gaiters as the fabric can rub and chafe against your skin.

This is especially true in hot weather so if you’re susceptible to blisters, this is something to be aware of.

Extra Weight

Gaiters do weigh something, normally around ounces per pair so it’s not a lot but it is something to consider.

The weight though is really the least of your worries as the benefits they provide can outweigh the small weight penalty.

Extra Gear Cost

They are a cost that isn’t required by any stretch and the money spent here could help you buy a better tent, sleep system, or backpack to drop real pounds on a long trek.

Choosing Your Gaiters

You need to understand a few key items of your planned trip before looking to purchase gaiters as you may need to get more specialized versions depending on where and when you are backpacking.

  • Climate – You need to know the climate you’ll be hiking in and what type of weather you will encounter.
  • Terrain – You want to make sure you have the right type of gaiters for what kind of terrain you will encounter.
  • Distance – How far are you going? You may not need gaiters for a short weekend hike but for a long thru-hike, they may become essential.
  • Frequency Of Use – How often you will use them also dictates what you purchase. If they are only for backpacking, then a less expensive pair will do.
  • What is your Budget – The key for many people, what can you afford to spend?

Gaiter Sizing

When looking to go make a purchase you need to know that they are not one size fits all. So looking to buy requires some proper sizing and if you go too small and tight will be uncomfortable to wear for long periods and may rub and chafe your skin.

If you go too big, they will be baggy, look sloppy, and ride up your leg when you walk which also can cause chafing and blisters.

Always take time to use the sizing charts the manufacturers provide to choose for their sizes as these are typically aligned by your shoe size or based on a calf circumference measurement.

Caring For Gaiters

There are some good general care steps you should always take with gear like gaiters to ensure they have a longer life and perform when you need them.

Inspection After Use

After you get back from use on a trip you want to go over your gaiters checking carefully for issues. The easiest is to start with the general overall fabric and make sure there is no punctures or tears, then you can move onto the straps, buckles, velcro, and zippers.

If they are damaged you can see what the options are to repair the damage or whether you will need to look at purchasing a new pair, most should last a long time without too many issues if you exercise care on the trail.

Cleaning

Next would be to thoroughly clean your gaiters. This should be done by hand in most cases as this is the most gentle method, if they say they are washing machine friendly you could use a washing machine on the delicate cycle with cold water and then hang to dry.

Waterproofing Agent (As Needed)

Waterproofing doesn’t last forever so from time to time you will need to reapply a waterproofing agent to the outside of your gaiters.

There are many different types on the market, some people prefer to use something like a spray-on waterproofing agent while others prefer to use a silicone-based waterproofing agent.

Frequently Asked Questions on Trail Gaiters

When should I not be wearing gaiters?

You shouldn’t wear gaiters when the trail is dry and you don’t need the extra protection they provide. Additionally, if it’s too hot out, you may want to forgo wearing gaiters as well to avoid overheating.

Are Gaiters really necessary?

No, gaiters are not necessary but are often used by backpackers and hikers to protect their legs and shoes from debris, water, and mud. This makes them a high value to have but not a necessity.

Do Gaiters prevent ticks?

If treated with Permethrin or some other insect repellent then gaiters will help prevent ticks from attaching to your legs and shoes. Otherwise, they are a barrier to access to your skin but they can give them the environment they prefer, warm and wet, underneath.

Do Gaiters keep your feet dry?

Not necessarily, if you wear boots they will protect the top of your boots from water and mud but they will not keep your feet dry if you walk through a stream or puddle.

With a zero-drop trail runner, you are already going to have water coming in through the sides of the shoe so stopping water from the top means very little.

How Tight should Gaiters be?

They need to be tight enough to hold but not tight enough to constrict, so finding the right fit is key. If they are too tight, you will have discomfort and chafing, if they are too loose, they will move around and not do their job.

Final Thoughts about Hiking Using Gaiters

Hiking gaiters are a necessary piece of gear when hiking, especially during the winter or in wetter climates. They protect your legs and shoes from debris, water, and mud on the trail, and come in a variety of styles to fit every hiker’s needs.

Although they are not essential, gaiters provide hikers with an extra layer of protection and can make your hike much more comfortable.

So, next time you are gearing up for a hike, don’t forget to add a good pair of hiking gaiters to your list! I am always building and updating good gear on my gear page, check it out for more high-quality gear choices!

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