Don’t forget your gaiters

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Oh the power of gaiters. Whenever we start a hike, we start to gear up look at our gaiters and decide it’s too nice to wear them, or they are not required, or some other reason, and then pay the price later on in the hike.

WHAT ARE GAITERS?

For those of you that don’t know, gaiters are the funny sock like things you see the hikers wearing over their boots.

Gaiters are a shell that wraps around your boot and extends up your leg.

They strap under your boots and hook onto you laces to keep them snug on your boot.

They attach with a zipper or velcro at the side to allow you to easily take them on and off, and cinch at the top to keep debris out (and leave a nice indented ring around your calf).

Elk Lakes Provincial Park

Look at the power of those gaiters!

PURPOSE

  1. They help keep rain and crud from falling into the top of your boot, helping to keep the mud / water / debris out of your laces, boots and calves when hiking on less than dry trails
  2. They extend the height of your boot allowing you to walk in deeper water and mud (assuming you have gaiters and boots that are waterproof) making river crossings or puddles easier and drier.
  3. They can act as protection against scrape-y and poke-y stuff that would usually cause you to donate skin and blood on a hike.

WHAT TO KNOW

The most notable difference is that they come in different heights, low and regular. Low is cut above the ankle and is used by day hikers to keep crud out of their boots.  I’m not a fan of these, they have all the hassle of the bigger version with little of the benefit. Although, those in orienteering use a variant of these made out a stretchier material to protect their legs while running in the brush.  Regular gaiters are cut below the knee and protect most of the lower leg. They provide the maximum benefit and protection, although they can be a little warm on hot active days.

Another notable difference , although of lesser importance, is the material they are made of. The less expensive being nylon, and the more expensive being GORE-TEX® or some variant. Both do essentially the same job of protection and waterproofing, but with the GORE-TEX® being more breathable. As mentioned above some are also made out of a strechy fabric for athletic pursuits.

Other minor differences include how they strap under your boot, and how they open up. Gaiters usually strap under your boot with straps and buckles or laces and knots. Straps are a little more difficult to set up the first time and are more difficult to replace, but are easier in the long-run. Laces are a bit of pain to tie up and get snug especially when they are muddy, but are infinitely adjustable and easily replaced. Gaiters tend to have either zippers or velcro to close up the side for easy entry. Velcro is a little more adjustable but can stick to various things in your pack, socks, etc. Zippers are usually a little simpler to do up, but neither is great when they are muddy.

Gaiters can be worn with pants or shorts. With shorts you still get the benefits of ventilation while still having leg and water protection. It may seem redundant with pants, but it still provide additional physical protection and extended waterproofing for wet conditions. Gaiter are also useful in the winter with heavier clothing for keeping snow out of your boots while hiking or snowshoeing.

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

I first bought a pair of gaiters back in 2007 when preparing for the West Coast Trail. I opted for the less expensive full length nylon ones and they served me fine.

The trail was quite muddy and wet, and these gaiters kept my boots clean and dry.

They would get covered in mud which made them a little messy when removing them or adjusting them, and ever so often the under boot knot would come undone and I’d have to retie them.

Beautiful creek near Elk Lakes

They would get so muddy that every morning I’d have to beat them against a rock to knock of the mud so that I could zip them up again. They were a little sweaty on the warm days, but they did exactly what they needed to do, and kept my feet dry in muddy and wet conditions. For $20 you can’t beat the value, and I have hiked with them for several years with really no apparent sign of wear and tear.

On the last couple days when we were finishing off the West Coast Trail, we would cross hiker just starting. We always got a little chuckle when a hiker went by with their clean and shiny low cut gaiters, knowing that the mud was much deeper than the top of their gaiters (we had mud ALL the way up our inseams), and they had no clue what was in store for them.

Last year in preparation for doing the West Coast Trail again, I upgraded to a full length gore-tex pair. I had no real good reason to other than I wanted to upgrade my kit (my nylon pair still work perfectly fine). Once I set up the under boot strap and got the hang of them, they are definitely easier to get on and off (although I still prefer the zippers), and the GORE-TEX® breaths better. The new pair are better, but they also cost more than twice us much, so which you get depends on you and how much you want to spend.

There were a few hike (like our Aster Lake death march) where we decided not to wear our gaiters right away, and we always paid the price, usually in blood, sometimes with really wet feet, and occasionally both. I was the only one that decided to wear them the second day at Aster lake when we got caught in wicked storm, and was the only one with dry boots when we got back (they were the only things that were dry). They also seem to be the only place where I don’t get bit by insects. I really can’t emphasize enough the value that gaiters provide when hiking in the wilderness. We now have a rule where we ignore our excuses and always put them on when going out.

If you want more details REI has a good advice page.

If we missed anything, or you have any thoughts, feedback or differing opinions, drop us a line in the comments below.

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Kelly McDonald

After spending 12 years in Ottawa Kelly returned to Calgary in 2012 and decided to pick off where he left off by roping his closest friends into some new back-country adventures (some more fun than others).

Kelly McDonald is a father of two hobbits ages 12 and 13 and tries to get them out into the wilderness as often as he can.

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