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Gaiters: How to Choose

Gaiters: a buyer’s guide

When I moved to the Northeast after a lifetime spent in the South, I was introduced to a new piece of outdoor clothing. I quickly discovered that gaiters were more than an accessory for winter outdoor recreation , at least not unless I wanted to end my day wearing wet socks and dragging sodden pants cuffs! Since then I have come to regard myself as true connoisseur of this particular piece of kit.

Time was that there weren’t so much choices in gaiters as there was a choice: cotton duck or felted wool. But things have changed, so much so that the options can be a little bewildering. What to do if you are looking to invest in your very first pair of gaiters, or to move up a class?

Thunderbolt Ski Museum

The gaiters worn by the members of the 10th Mountain Division during World War II.

There’s no reason to purchase the lowest priced selection and cross your fingers that they won’t fall apart within the season, nor to buy with the most expensive model on the market in the hope that price equals quality. Instead, consult this guide to four important gaiter design features, and pick up in a few minutes’ reading what I picked up over a few years of firsthand experience and study. Enjoy, and please feel free to ask any questions you might have in the Comments section!

Height

Gaiters come in three heights: ankle, mid-calf, and full length (which extend to knee).

  • Ankle gaiters are a good choice if running and racing is your snowshoe activity of choice.
  • Mid-calf gaiters may suffice if you plan on sticking to broken trails. Keep in mind, though, that mid-calf gaiters can be prone to sagging unless some real care has been taken in their design and construction.
  • I highly recommend going with full length gaiters if there is the slightest chance you will be spending time breaking trail or in wet snow. It’s a simple fact that in wet snow, anything less than full to-the-knee coverage is going to result in a good soaking for the lower portion of your trousers. And snow will find its way over the tops of mid-calf gaiters if you make first tracks for any amount of time, and it is going to happen quickly indeed if your route involves wind-blown terrain marked by drifts or any amount of climbing.

snowshoe racing

Ankle gaiters pair well with trail runners.

Waterproof-breathable construction

Higher priced models of gaiters incorporate a waterproof-breathable layer such as GORE-TEX or eVent. This layer is not meant to create an impenetrable top-to-bottom seal to lock out water during, say, a stream fording—the bottom edge of the gaiter does not close tightly enough. Rather, it is meant to keep moisture from soaking the wearer’s trouser bottoms.

Is waterproof-breathable construction a must-have? If you snowshoe where wet snow conditions are the rule rather than the exception (e.g., the Pacific Northwest), you have every reason to invest in the feature. Since GORE-TEX and eVent serve to deflect wind as well as water, snowshoers who often find themselves on the prairie or above treeline will also get good return on investment. Otherwise, water repellency is usually up to the task. In those cases, a pair of DWR-treated nylons gaiters will typically get the job done. For almost four seasons now I have been using a pair of surplus Swiss Army waxed wool gaiters that I wouldn’t trade for the fanciest set of space age leggings.

Kick panel/Rugged lower

The instep of some gaiters includes a patch of durable material known as a kick panel. Alternately, an entire lower section of rugged fabric such as 1,000 denier Cordura nylon may be incorporated as part of the design. One of the two is a must-have for those who might be putting their gaiters to use with independent crampons. And all other things being equal, a set featuring one or the other will enjoy a longer lifespan by virtue of the abrasion resistance provided at a high wear area.

The right kick panel on my surplus Swiss Army gaiters is visible in this photo.

Front closure system

Some closure systems fix via hook-and-loop and a bottom and top snap, others via a zipper. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Velcro can become fouled by snow. Opening a hook-and-loop closure in the field invites trouble, particularly when the snow is powdery and being kicked around by the wind. Zippers come with their own set of problems. They are more difficult to open and close with gloved or cold hands than is Velcro, and can split or become stuck. One possible solution is to go with a model featuring both types of closures. Gram weenies may take a dim view of that, but it is always worth considering what weight you can afford to carry and what weight you can’t afford not to carry. Five miles into a ten-mile trudge through heavy, wet snow is not a good time for the distinction to cross one’s mind for the first time.

If you do go with a zippered closure, top-to-bottom closing/bottom-to-top opening is a nice touch. It may sound trivial, but it takes some fuss out of getting into your gaiters and getting you and your raquettes on your way.

Matthew Timothy Bradley

2 thoughts on “Gaiters: How to Choose

  1. When it comes to choosing gaiters, durability is key, especially if you want your gear to stand up to season after season of abuse.
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