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Winter Hiking Gaiters: Benefits and Pitfalls

Winter Hiking Gaiters Benefits and Pitfalls

Winter hiking gaiters, namely high gaiters, are an important part of a winter hiking clothing layering system but they definitely have some pluses and minuses. While the benefits still outweigh the negatives, this is a piece of gear that could really stand to be reimagined by some small company looking to make a name for itself.

What are High Gaiters?

High gaiters are a winter clothing layer, usually waterproof, that covers the top of your footwear and pants, extending up your leg to just below the knee. They prevent snow from sticking to your pants or socks, melting, and making them wet. They also block the wind and trap body heat, so your feet and calves stay warmer.

High gaiters run from the toe box of your boots where they hook onto the laces, up to just below your knee, and have a durable strap that runs under the sole of your boots to keep them from riding up. Most models can be put on when you already have your boots on and wrap around your shins and calves, securing in front with a long strip of velcro or a water-resistant zipper. There’s also usually an adjustable strap or elastic cord at the top to tighten around the top of your calf to prevent the gaiter from sliding down your leg.

Outdoor Research Crocodile Gaiters
Outdoor Research Crocodile Gaiters are high gaiters used to keep your pants and socks dry and protect your feet from self-inflicted crampon strikes.

The bottom of a high gaiter is usually made with heavy-duty nylon for protection against self-inflicted crampon strikes. This can occur when you are wearing full mountaineering crampons, you get tired, and your foot placements become less accurate. But fewer and fewer winter hikers use full crampons anymore, opting for winter traction aids like Hillsound Trail Crampons or Kahtoola Microspikes where there is little risk of injury from their smaller traction points.

The upper portion of a high gaiter is often made with a waterproof/breathable material to help vent water vapor since your calves will sweat. When present, this waterproof/breathable section is easily torn because it’s much thinner than the bottom of the gaiter. Less expensive gaiters, like those sold on Amazon from no-name brands, often don’t have waterproof/breathable uppers and are solid nylon from top to bottom.

The bottom half of the gaiter is made with thick nylon while the upper blue part of a thin waterproof:breathable fabric
The bottom half of the gaiter is made with thick nylon while the upper blue part is a thin waterproof/breathable fabric.

High Gaiter Pitfalls

There are a number of usability issues with high gaiters that are worth knowing about, even though there’s not much you can do to avoid their pitfalls. There are a very limited number of high gaiters available, so you often have to make do with what you can find.

Perspiration – While high gaiters will prevent snow from making your pant legs and socks wet, they can trap a lot of body heat causing your lower legs to perspire, soaking your socks and lower pant legs in the process. This is often exacerbated by wearing 400g insulated winter hiking boots that run over the ankle and up the leg. As long as you keep moving it’s not a huge issue, because you will stay warm, but it’s not ideal. This happens even if your gaiters have waterproof/breathable uppers. In other words, the breathability is awful.

Sizing – Gaiters are sized by shoe sizes without consideration for the size of your calves. If you have big feet but average-sized calves, your gaiters will be too large and will have a tendency to fall down around your ankles when worn. This is not ideal because it can become a trip hazard, especially when wearing full crampons.

Bottom Strap – If you damage or lose the bottom strap that runs under the soles of your boots, it can be very difficult to repair. It depends on the gaiter, but many manufacturers use bottom straps that cannot be replaced at home and require an industrial sewing machine to be replaced.

Top Strap – The best type of top strap to hold the gaiter above the calf is an elastic cord with a cordlock. It’s pretty rare, however. Most gaiters have a webbing strap/buckle to hold the gaiter up, but it’s difficult to get it tight enough to keep the gaiters from falling down around your ankles.

Despite all these potential pitfalls, you’ll soon discover that you need gaiters for winter hiking and you can’t do without them. But the problem is that there is a very limited selection available and much of it targets ice climbers and mountaineers wearing full crampons and not winter hikers. If you do find a pair of gaiters that fit, that don’t make your calves sweat, and that don’t fall down your legs, hold onto them for dear life and find yourself a good gear repair shop that will keep them going year after year. If not, try new gaiters until you find a pair that you can live with. That can take a while, so buckle up.

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  1. I sure wish I could find some that wouldn’t end up caked in ice on the inside. It would also be nice not to end up with painful itchy leg rash :(

  2. Love my OR Helium gaiters. So lightweight you can’t even tell you’re wearing them, shock cord top hem, as you mention, and durable enough at the ankles for microspike use. I feel like the crocodiles are too burly and my calves would be sweating like crazy in them.

  3. I love my hillsound armadillos. never had a strap break, they zip top down so you can access boots or open for ventilation . no icing up. they size by calf size. buckle at top, never had them even slip down. only issue is my newer pair don’t seem as waterproof on the top portion.

  4. I have an older pair of mountain hardware talls that allow you to open the outside top to open and vent. Super durable well designed. One aspect of gaiters that the author missed is that if your going to use them for cross country or snowshoeing you want the burly gaiter, not the lightweight ones as they will get wet with snow constantly pressed against them.

  5. Check out Ventile gaiters at hill Made of cotton ventile, they breathe so no damp socks, pants.
    From their website:Ventile® was invented just before World War 2 at the Shirley Institute in Manchester and was used in the Battle of Britain in pilots suits where it saved many lives. It was the first performance fabric used by mountain rescue teams in the UK and was used in exploring the world’s highest mountain ranges and the polar regions before the advent of synthetic fabrics.
    I’ve used them for several seasons in the Whites. Great design and very hard-wearing.
    They also manufacture a full range of durable, weatherproof clothing.

  6. I’ve been through several pairs of winter gaiters with the problems noted above. However my recent pair of high gaiters have worked quite well with my 400g winter boots. They are made by Sea to Summit and feature a cord at the top that can be tightened around your calves. Best of all the gaiters are designed for easy replacement of the straps around the insole. I purchased those just to have on hand when needed. To prevent heat building up on my legs my winter snow pants have full side zips which I can open downward from the waist.

    • I had a pair of those s2s gaiters. When the Hypalon straps broke, s2s said they couldn’t repair them because they’re no longer available in north america. So I took mine to Ragged Mountain Equipment when they charged me 10 bucks to put in grommets to replace the straps so I could just use elastic cord instead.

  7. In a related category are “overboots,” which add insulation for truly cold sub-zero weather. Since I’m headed for ski mountaineering this winter I just shopped a sale to get the OR X-Gaiters for insurance against cold feet with my ultralight Dynafit ski boots. These were apparently OR’s first-ever product, and have since been redesigned with Aerogel as well as neoprene. Anyone have experience to share, including effectiveness at various temperatures, breathability, and use with VBL socks to control perspiration?

    • I have a pair of those OR X-Gaiters. Wore them over my La Sportiva Evo mountaineering boots at -15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit). I soon found that my feet were too hot and had to take them off. If you are only standing around at that temperature they might be okay. But, for me it will need to be colder than that to try them again.
      I have RAB Vapor Barrier socks and have used them on longer winter climbs. They do work and would save you if you got stuck overnight due to an injury. Their real benefit is multi-day winter trips; so your liners don’t get soaked. Once when I forgot to bring my boots into my bag overnight they were frozen and I could not put them on in the morning – quite a predicament!

  8. I have added heel straps to my light rain pants and no longer use gaiters. The zipper on the side of the pants provides good ventilation. I have reinforced the lower insides of the rain pants to endure crampon snags. I have added belt loops to my home made light suspenders to hold up both my pants and my rain pants. Don’t use a belt for comfort with backpack. This system works good in the winter and especially when alternating between spikes, boots, crampons and snowshoes in mixed elevation mountain conditions.

  9. +1
    Great idea (but not perfect for extreme circumstances)!
    Gaiters are too warm for me, although I am more cold than most, and IMHO that becomes very uncomfortable at the calves.

  10. Great info here, as I love gaiters and use them alot, my problem is the leg sizing issue. I have taken a number of gaiters to a local cobbler with a roll of mil spec velcro to make them adjustable to a thinner shin size.
    I then use gear aid water proofing sealer along all the thread holes on the inside. They don’t slide down my legs any more.

    I don’t have significant sweat problems even in summer, where I use the OR Rocky Mtn Highs as a tick and poison oak barrier.

    I have OR’s, Black diamond, Berghaus Yeti’s, Kenetrek and others. Glad to hear of the warmth from the OR X gaiters, my cold feet will be testing them soon in the Sierras.

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