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Choose the Right Gaiters

April 1, 2009

Once your socks get soaking wet, your boots start churning up an unpleasant cocktail of squishy feet, cold toes, and mushy blisters. A good pair of gaiters helps protect you from this soggy fate by keeping snow, muck, and wet from getting into your boots in the first place. They can also save your feet and ankles from scree, rocks, and brush. So let’s prepare for gaiter country.

GAITER COUNTRY In gaiter country, there’s lots of mud and boggy terrain. In gaiter country, the snow is deeper than your boot tops. In gaiter country, the brush is thick, the scree is loose, and you need something to protect your footwear and your ankles. Basically, you’re in gaiter country anytime you want to keep stuff out of your boots. In the Northeast, you’ll usually want gaiters in ankle-topping snow and anytime you’re headed into boot-sucking mud or other sodden terrain. Consider them also for any prolonged bushwhack through the thick Northeast woods.

TOUGHEN UP If you’re headed to snow country in crampons, go tough. Crampons can unleash a shredding bite to your gaiters–by far the most common form of gaiter destruction. Guard against this by selecting styles with heavy-duty fabric around the ankles ($40 and up). More expensive (and heavier) models will feature a larger area of tough material that extends farther up the leg. For less puncture-prone activities, consider a lighter weight and less expensive pair ($20-$40).

GET FIT Gaiters should ideally fit flush against your boots and lower pant layers without being constrictive. They should be tight enough to prevent your boot from filling with muck and snow, but not so tight as to affect circulation or movement. And they shouldn’t bunch up or slip down your calves. Your boots will be warmer and drier (but less breathable) if the gaiters cover more of your footwear. The buckle for the strap goes on the outside of your foot; it’s usually the side with the logo on it.

CHECK THE UNDERCARRIAGE
Gaiters are kept taut over your boots by a strap that runs underneath the sole of your boot, a serious abuse zone. If you expect to spend much time in your gaiters, especially on rocky terrain, opt for a heavyweight strap that won’t easily shred. Pay attention to the holes punched in the strap; many are tiny and difficult to thread in the buckle. On the other hand, lighter gaiters use a tied-on (and much less durable) cord or strap, a hassle to adjust. Regardless of the gaiters, it’s worth carrying a short length of cord for repairs. 

SAVE THE CALVES How much do your calves sweat? Don’t worry, most gaiter uppers feature some sort of breathable material to take care of your damp lower legs. Keep in mind, however, that you’re often wearing gaiters over your pant layers and that the gaiters’ breathability makes little difference. Nevertheless, most middle- to high-end gaiters feature Gore-Tex or some other waterproof-breathable layer in the upper portion. The reinforced area around the boot and ankle is usually waterproof but not breathable.

SEAL THE DEAL Avoid gaiters that close with a zipper, especially for winter use. It’s difficult to zip anything with gloves and/or cold hands, plus snow and ice will clog the zipper. Look for quality Velcro strips—the wider, the better. Closely examine the stitching and seams around the Velcro strips. These take a lot of stress and are often the first thing to blow out, especially lower down near the boot top. Higher-end models will have an extra Velcro closure flap at the base to increase strength, a nice feature.

LATER, GAITER? Snow and ski pants often feature integrated gaiters built into the leg cuffs. These are often sufficient to keep snow out, especially if they feature a hook for attaching directly to your boot laces. Most attach primarily by elastic and friction and can come loose; test them before going too deep in the snowy backcountry. Finally, accept the fact that it’s rough out there in gaiter country. Sooner or later you’re going to puncture or tear your gaiters; patch them with duct tape on both sides of the tear for maximum strength.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.