Get Your Gaiters on: Must-Have Trail Protection

GaitersI felt like I was on a date with the Marquis de Sade. Every step I took felt like my legs were being stricken with a whip—thanks to the cat claw-like branches on the ubiquitous ephedra genus (Mormon Tea) that crowded the margins of the trail for miles and miles on end. The sweat rolling down my legs into the abraded skin in the 95-degree heat didn’t help the situation. But there was no way of avoiding any of it. I was, after all, on the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon in May.

Wait. Yes, actually there was a way to avoid this…if I had just remembered to pack my gaiters. I have several versions and on this day, I would have worn my lightest alpine (high) gaiters to foil the bite of this craggy shrub. It was a good lesson—I’ve never again traveled trails without a pair of gaiters.

If you don’t own any, I’d recommend growing your 10 Essentials list to 11. Which type of gaiter you need depends on the trails you’re headed out on, and the climate conditions you anticipate. In general, a good trail gaiter is light, breathable and durable, and easy to get on and off. Height is dictated as much by how light you like to travel to how much protection you need or want.

Think Multi-Use
High gaiters (also known as alpine or expedition gaiters) cover the top of your feet, ankles and calves up to just below the knees, usually a max of 18 inches from foot to knee. They’re ideal for diverse itineraries. For example, go with this style if your backcountry excursion traverses rocky or muddy trails, and then across snowfields, and then back again through the rain. They can also be used specifically for snow sports—snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or telemarking. They’re designed to keep your legs and feet dry.

Hiking or Trail Running Specific Gaiters
Low gaiters fit over top of the foot to the top of the ankle, no higher than 12 inches in height. They keep dust, rock and other crap (like ticks) out of your boots or shoes. Worn under rain or snow pants, they provide the best footwear seal you can find. Trail gaiters come in a variety of materials, but the lightestt ones are made with stretchy fabric. High gaiters, built with heavier weight but breathable fabric, which again cover between 15″ to 18” from foot to knee, are a better choice for trips through calf-snagging brush or cacti, deep snow or cold downpours.

Expedition-Style Gaiters
Look for gaiters with a band/strap with a cam buckle closure or cinch/cord lock at the top. The uppers should be durable, waterproof and breathable fabric. The lighter the upper fabric the better—GoreTex® or similar. But if it’s cat-claw brush or cacti protection, not snow, you need, sacrifice some weight and look for gaiter uppers made of higher denier/density Cordura® (400 or 500 D) or coated nylon that can withstand snagging brush. The easiest on and off full gaiters have front entry access secured with rip-and-stick fasteners (aka Velcro®) rather than a zipper, and durable but lighter ripstop nylon lowers with a shoelace hook and an instep strap to secure the gaiters to shoes or boots, typically secured with a standard prong and bar buckle. Some gaiters also have a rip-and-stick( Velcro-type) fastener patch at the heel that requires you to place a sticky backed piece to your boot or shoe to match/connect with the one sewn into the fabric.

Women’s Specific Gaiters
These tend to be scaled down versions of regular gaiters—shorter in height and wider at the calves to accommodate women’s leg anatomy.

Finding the Right Fit
Try them on and go for the gaiter that gives you the best possible seal around your footwear. Lycra fabric-only gaiters offer fit/size flexibility but have a number of performance trade-offs.

Outdoor Research is the number one gaiter specialist and expert. The company offers a gaiter for just about every need. The pullover-style Stamina Gaiter is the top pick for hikers and trail runners, offering a good balance of flexibility and coverage. They weigh a mere 1.9 ounces and stay put. They’re made with a soft-shell polyester offering generous stretch and flat-seam construction that eliminates binding while keeping the gaiter secure. An integrated anti-slip applique print in the heel area combines with high-quality rip-and-stick insets to help keep the gaiters secure (after you attach the connecting sticky piece to your boot or shoe heels). They also come with a coated cord that is run through the gaiter’s grommets and around your instep for added security.

In addition to slick silicon panels on the back and front that also help keep these gaiters in place, the Stamina comes up a bit higher than many low gaiters to protect your ankles, adding to its ability to thwart rocks, brush, ticks, and dust. They also keep out snow and water. The reflective print increases visibility in low light conditions but this may be a superfluous point for all but the completely lost-and-trying-to-be-found trail user.

A similar pair by OR, Endurance Gaiters, combine a somewhat more molded upper and an angled rip-and-stick front closure over a hidden zipper to easy exit and entry while locking out debris and water. The uppers are made of 50% nylon, 43% polyester, 7% spandex double weave and have abrasion-resistant kick panels on the inner sides (good for thwarting crampon spikes). Heavy-duty dual bootlace hooks, and durable but super light Biothane instep strap keep the gaiters secured to your feet (no heel attachment needed). At 5.1 oz., they’re much lighter than Cordura, coated nylon or Gore Tex gaiters.

Just OK
Dirty Girl Gaiters are a good option if you want stretchy, ultralightweight protection that mostly just keeps dust and pebbles out of your shoes or boots. They’re available in a wide range of fun colors and patterns, but they’re flimsy as well as ineffective in a downpour. The heel securing rip-and-stick system also is ineffective. You’ll be lucky to get a couple of weekenders out of them. The OR Stamina is just a bit heavier (1.9 oz. per pair compared to DG’s 1.2) but will last a lot longer.

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Jo Ostgarden

Jo Ostgarden is a freelance journalist who has traveled around the world by plane, train, thumb, bicycle and automobile. She bicycled across Canada, the Pacific Coast Highway from Oregon to British Columbia and throughout 14 countries abroad. Additionally, she's an enthusiastic longtime backpacker who calls the Grand Canyon her own personal energy spot. She's also expert on travel in the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii and Ireland. She edited and re-wrote the final edition of Best Places Northwest Travel Guide, and has written about travel, health, nutrition and endurance sports gear for dozens of magazines and newspapers, including Bicycling Magazine.

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