The debate over whether or not you actually need this accessory on your next outdoor mission is a contentious one. Some people swear by them, others refuse to even 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 really is no one right way to dress in the mountains. But here are some points to consider both in favor of, and against, the traditional gaiter, particularly in big mountain and winter situations.
- They offer and 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 an 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.
If after reading the pros and cons you're still set on buying a pair, 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 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. We selected a variety of types for our review to tried and find the best option for all the different applications out there. But 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 straight forward 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. Though it may be possible to get a very tight fit in the store, achieving the same result in the field with cold hands and other non-ideal factors against you could be very hard or even impossible. 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, so examine them closely and make sure that the attachment is easy and fits closely over your runners or approach shoes. Some models, like the Outdoor Research Ultra Trail, 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 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 at 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 what you need to buy. Use caution when purchasing based on the sizes S-M-L as they will not always align with your clothing size.
Knowing how to wear them correctly is apparently less intuitive than you might imagine, and is critical not only to functionality and safety, but also to not looking like a total dweeb. As mountain guides and outdoor industry professionals, we reviewers here at OutdoorGearLab have seen innumerable interpretations of how they can be worn, and might have even put one on backwards ourselves occasionally. In spite of endless attempts to prove that they can indeed be worn backwards and on the wrong legs, there is unfortunately 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, but not all, are now being made with fabrics similar to a high-end rainjacket, which is apropos considering they are like rainjackets 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 rainslicker of old, nor should your gaiters be stuck in '70s either. In fact, 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. There are some companies out there, like Rab, that seems to be leading the way with new and innovative designs, and others, like Outdoor Research, that keep coming up with cool new products, like their Outdoor Research Wrapid model, while still producing the antiquated Outdoor Research Rocky Mt. Low. Sometimes there's a reason to keeping the older models around, like the Outdoor Research Crocodile, and other times it's ok to discontinue … just because people keep buying them doesn't mean you should keep making them.