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Published Sep 15, 2023 11:05 AM
Hiking gaiters are light, low-investment adventure accessories worn over footwear that provide extra lower leg and shoe protection. Designed to be close fitting to both the upper foot and calf, ankle gaiters keep trail debris such as small stones, pine needles, critters (ticks), snow, light rain, and dust from entering your hiking shoes.
With features like waterproofing, adjustable straps, zippers, Velcro, and variable heights, anyone spending time outdoors can benefit from having a gaiter set in their gear closet. If you are an outdoor enthusiast who enjoys a bit of luxury and clean(er) socks, we’ve reviewed six pairs of popular hiking gaiters to rank the best in ankle protection.
How I Tested the Best Hiking Gaiters
There’s no better way to test leg gaiters than trudging through the Adirondack Mountains of New York. My hiking partner Tom and I are both gear nerds with thousands of miles of backpacking experience. We tested the six pairs featured below during a nine-day northbound thru-hike of the 138-mile Northville-Placid Trail (NPT) in mid-August.
Whether or not I pack gaiters is always dependent on expected trail conditions. The NPT is a pathway following the valleys and plateaus of the Adirondack Wilderness. This trail was particularly challenging due to the rain, flooding, endless mud, slippery wood planking, biting flies, dense undergrowth, and water crossings. I was absolutely thrilled to be testing gaiters in these conditions. At less than a pound for all six pairs, the weight was well worth debris-free trail runners.
These lightweight dust busters consist of three primary components. The main body of the gaiter wraps around the lower leg and upper shoe. Located to the front of the gaiter is typically a metal or plastic hook used to attach the gaiter to a stretch of shoelace on the upper foot or D-ring “gaiter loop”. Lastly, the fit is secured to the lower foot through an instep strap or heel attachment point.
I’ve primarily used low and high gaiters in the past few years for hiking, backpacking, and snowshoeing. The Dirty Girl Gaiters discussed below are a pair gifted to me in 2021 and have hundreds of miles of use on moderate trails and light snow. The remaining pairs were provided for this review.
The listed weights for the products are based on manufacturer provided information, where available. All of the gaiter heights were measured from heel to top. Note that the ultralight gaiters listed here are intended for hiking, not mountaineering or hard use. Most of the models tested are intended for use with trail runners or low hiking shoes, but in some cases can also be used with low-profile boots.
Best Hiking Gaiters: Reviews & Recommendations
Best Overall: REI Co-op Flash Gaiters
- Price: $39.95
- Weight: 3.1 ounces per pair
- Height: 7 inches (size large)
- Can be removed with shoes on
- Thin, adjustable instep strap
The REI Co-op Flash Gaiters were hands-down our favorite mid-height option for hiking. These feature a hook and loop front closure with a snap for easy on/off without removing your shoes. I enjoyed that the full-length Velcro strip was short enough for fast closure with no annoying gapping, and provided enough structure to keep the gaiter upright through long hours of hiking. The main body is constructed out of a durable, lightweight, quick-dry nylon/spandex blend fabric that provides excellent protection from mud and water. A thin, elastic cinch top provides an adjustable fit around the lower calf using a soft-touch toggle.
A thin double strand of elastic cord wraps underfoot with a hidden side slide for adjustability. The instep strap never felt intrusive or dangerous in overgrown conditions. Additionally, an extra set of cords is provided. They are small enough to carry in any backpacking kit for an easy replacement on trail.
The lace clip is difficult to take off quickly. The gaiters use a hard plastic hook with a small notch to keep the gaiter in place; however, it does the job slightly too well. The thickness of the lace clip also doesn’t work well with footwear D-ring gaiter loops. With that in mind, the few seconds longer it took to take on or off was worth the comfortable, trusted fit.
Fastest On/Off: Black Diamond Distance Gaiter
- Price: $49.95
- Weight: 2.6 ounces per pair
- Height: 7 inches (size L-XL)
- Quick on and off
- Large lace hook
- Fixed instep strap
The Black Diamond Distance Gaiters have a surprisingly quick to put on and off design. The large metal lace hook can be locked into place first, with two large Velcro segments providing front closure for easy application with shoes on. I appreciated mid-height main body’s thin, water-resistant durable stretch material with reinforced edging for a comfortable, close fit against the lower leg and upper shoe. Although these gaiters are only available in two sizes (S-M and L-XL) the separated Velcro closure points allow for adjustable sizing.
These gaiters come with a fixed-length woven cord instep strap. This instep strap showed the highest evidence of wear out of all the pairs tested. And the fixed length means the strap is not adjustable for a close fit with different shoes. Lastly, the front Velcro closure points seemed to be less tacky than some other pairs. While these are potential failure locations, in rain and mud the gaiters never budged. I’d happily recommend these to someone who wants a convenient gaiter without the hassle of tightening the instep strap every time.
Best for Trail Running: Altra Trail Gaiter
- Price: $25
- Weight: 1.3 ounces per pair
- Height: 6.5 inches (size large)
- Reflective design
- Requires heel attachment
- Large fit (size down)
- Pre-shoe placement
Everything about the Altra Trail Gaiter is designed for faster paces. The first thing I noticed was how incredibly smooth the breathable stretch material is for the tubular main body of the gaiter. However, it’s still abrasion-resistant; my pair showed minimal signs of wear after use and washing. There are no elastic cinches or instep straps on these hiking gaiters. These are placed on the leg before shoes, then attached to footwear via a metal lace clip and a small Velcro tab on the back.
These are best paired with Altra gaiter-compatible shoes. However, two extra tabs of Velcro are provided to adhere to suitable footwear. The length is designed to flexibly protect the ankle and tongue of the shoe to keep debris out. And while they weren’t the tightest fitting pair around the shoe collar (you might want to size down), the hook did work well with D-rings and nicely clipped into place with a reinforced fabric tab. These are offered in two sizes and four color options and feature a highly reflective printed design, a nice safety addition for runners.
Best Warranty: Kahtoola INSTAgaiter Low Gaiters
- Price: $39.95
- Weight: 2.2 ounces per pair (size L/XL)
- Height: 4.5 inches (size L/XL)
- Secure fit
- Can leave attached to shoes
- DWR treated for water resistance
- Warranty on gaiter and instep strap
- Low profile
- Limited sizing
A company best known for its traction products, Kahtoola has some compelling gaiter options. I tested the INSTAgaiter Low, an ultralight ankle gaiter intended for hiking and trail running. These feature a DWR-coated stretch nylon/polyurethane blend fabric (with four color options) that provide spectacular low-fit coverage. A side-closure YKK zipper, toggled elastic top cinch, plastic lace hook that works with D-rings, and hard plastic adjustable DuraLink instep strap are integrated to fit them securely.
This is a great option for users seeking dependability. The zippered side closure is reliable without the fuss of Velcro. The plastic underfoot strap never caught on any trail debris. In addition, the structured design allows the gaiters to be kept on footwear as an entire unit. This also means that your gaiters and shoes can be stored as one system between adventures. Simply lower the zipper to access your shoelaces without taking off the gaiter. This design is convenient if you need to tighten or re-tie your laces mid-hike. Kahtoola backs these with a 1-year limited warranty and an additional 1,000-mile warranty on the DuraLink instep strap. This was a surprising fan favorite gaiter for both of us. For a mid-height option, I’d recommend checking out the Kahtoola INSTAgaiter Mid Gaiters.
Best for Thru-Hiking: Dirty Girl Gaiters
- Price: $23.00
- Weight: 1.5 ounces per pair (size large)
- Height: 7 inches (size large)
- Size and color options
- Made in USA
- Requires heel attachment
- Pre-shoe placement
Dirty Girl Gaiters are all about function and personality. With over 100 patterns available online, this tubular style low gaiter is designed to be used with a wide range of trail runners or low hiking shoes. The front metal hook easily clips onto laces or a D-ring gaiter loop. A soft Velcro tab is sewn onto the back for heel attachment. However, for shoes that aren’t gaiter-compatible, a generous 16-inch adhesive strip of hard-hook Velcro is provided with every order.
What I enjoy most about Dirty Girl Gaiters is that they are simply easy to wear. The four-way stretch spandex material is breathable, quick-drying, and provides above-ankle coverage for most trail conditions with no cinches or instep straps. Adjustability comes from the sizing and stretch material. There are six incredible size options to match the user’s intended shoe. Dirty Girls do need to be put on before shoes. This female-founded company based in Tucson, Arizona, has some of the most recognizable gaiters roaming trails worldwide with patterns like “Lime Gaiteraide Hurl” and “Better with Bacon.”
Best for Overgrowth: Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight Gaiters
- Price: $49
- Weight: 2 ounces per pair (size large)
- Height: 11.5 inches (size large)
- Good with boots
- Made in USA
- Pre-shoe placement
- User installation of instep strap
- Tight fit around calf
Mountain Laurel Designs’ Superlight Gaiters are waterproof, tubular style gaiters intended for many seasons of use. This calf-height option is lightweight and packable due to the lack of zippers, Velcro, or buckles. A bottom hidden elastic sleeve and toggled top bungee drawcord secure the fit. An uncut length of ⅛-inch elastic cord is supplied with the gaiters that require installation as an instep strap before use. This is a great concept for user-specific adjustability and replacement. However, this isn’t an out-of-the-box-ready option. Deciding on the proper length of cord and knots proved to be an interesting camp activity for two tired hikers.
The main body of the gaiter is constructed out of 15D eVENT fabric that provides waterproof and breathable protection. This gaiter is claimed to last most users one full thru-hike, and although durability is evident, this wouldn’t be my first choice for maintained trails or for trail running. The taller height did provide respite on days traveling through dense overgrowth, rain, and deep mud. However, in our experience, the top elastic circled the widest part of the calf in a way that became uncomfortable with long periods of use. As such, this is a great lightweight option for hikers traveling shorter distances, possibly with pants, and are looking for a gaiter that can be easily used with boots or low shoes.
Things to Consider Before Buying the Best Hiking Gaiters
First consider your hiking footwear when comparing gaiter options. Are you an adventurer who prefers trail runners, hiking shoes, or boots? Shoe profile, shoe size, shoe height, and outsole pattern will impact the fit and usability of gaiters. If possible, try your gaiters with the shoes you’ll wear hiking before committing.
What environmental stressors will the gaiters (and you) need to work against? I’d recommend a breathable material for dryer climates and quick-drying water-resistant fabrics for rain or snow. Those hiking in the northeast might also want to consider taller models for protection from ticks, snow, and overgrown vegetation.
A range of gaiter attachment styles were included as part of this test and each has certain benefits. What’s great is that many trail shoes are already gaiter compatible. Popular options such as the Altra Lone Peak 7 and Brooks Cascadia 17 have Velcro tabs added above the heel. Many trail runners also have pre-installed D-ring on the laces for easy connection. The gaiters I enjoyed most for this test didn’t require either of those features for proper use. Find a shoe that’s most comfortable and then a gaiter that adapts well.
A gaiter’s purpose is to fit snugly to the leg and upper shoe for peak performance. Most companies suggest picking a size of gaiter based first on shoe size and then on calf circumference. I’d recommend sizing up if you’re between sizes.
Q: Do I need hiking gaiters?
Hiking gaiters enhance the outdoor experience (aka a luxury item). They are not a part of the Ten Essentials unless recommended for a specific trip or region. Nonetheless, you’ll see folks on trails rocking knee-high or ankle-high gaiters on trails all over the country. Gaiters offer security from ticks, warmth from snow, and protection from irritating plants. If you expect to encounter annoyances from any of these factors, I’d absolutely invest in a pair.
Q: Do gaiters protect against ticks?
A common use of leg gaiters is to provide extra protection against ticks. The durable lightweight material of the gaiter creates a boundary zone between the upper foot and leg that’s impassible to most biting insects. The gaiter is a protective garment that can be easily taken off, shaken and then inspected to remove any unwanted hitchhikers. For best tick protection or if planning to walk through tall vegetation for long periods of time, it’s highly recommended you pair knee-high gaiters with long pants. In tick country, it’s wise to treat your gaiters with tick repellent.
Q: Do gaiters go over or under pants?
Gaiters should be layered over pants for best protection. Placing pant legs under gaiters reduces the likelihood of trail debris, vegetation (pine needles and sticky plants), snow, or insects from irritating the lower leg and ankle. The intent of a gaiter is to cover the gap between the shoe and pant leg. Gaiters can also be paired with leggings, shorts, and high socks depending on user preference.
The exception to this is pouring down rain. You can wear your gaiters underneath waterproof pants to create dual-protection with less chance of water seeping through your gaiter and sliding down your pants, into your shoe.
Q: Will gaiters keep mud out of my boots?
When used properly, a tight-fitting gaiter will keep mud from entering the ankle collar of boots and hiking shoes. Additionally, gaiters should provide coverage to the foot instep (the top of your foot) reducing the chances for mud and debris to enter shoes in gaps created by lacing and the tongue. Waterproof fabrics or fabrics treated to be water resistant will be the best defense against mud. These fabrics can also be the easiest to quickly clean and dry.
For this specific thru-hike in the Adirondacks, coverage from mud was the primary use case for the gaiters on this list. My hiking partner and I wore shorts and non-waterproof shoes for a majority of the hiking. We knew water and mud was going to be an issue, and the ultralight gaiters layered on top of our standard footwear kept our legs and socks cleaner, and therefore dryer, than they would have been otherwise.
My hiking partner and I tested six gaiters of various styles in the rugged wilderness of Northern New York. I’m surprised to say we preferred gaiters that can be taken on and off while leaving your shoes or boots on. This way there’s no extra step to remember before putting shoes on, the gaiters are easier to handle while muddy or wet, and there’s no need for a heel attachment point. Keep in mind that gaiters with instep straps, zippers, or Velcro do present a durability issue for extended periods of use. Any proper gear closet should include at least one pair of hiking gaiters.