"It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wears you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe."
Muhammad Ali's words are more applicable to hikers and climbers than he may know, and when you find yourself trudging through snow and mud out on the trails, you'll quickly learn how detrimental cold, sore, or soggy feet can be to an excursion.
However, with the right pair of ankle gaiters, you can trek through whatever the trail conditions may be with confidence that no debris will make its way into your hiking boots. Gaiters serve as an extra layer of protection where your pant legs meet your boots—a vulnerable place where snow and mud can easily fall.
By creating a seal, you can comfortably walk in areas that would otherwise be too sloppy to enter, giving you more options of where and when to hike.
When you start shopping for gaiters, you'll see several different types of material, so the outdoor activities you'll be engaging in should dictate which material is best for you. If you expect to be doing hard-core mountaineering, backcountry skiing, or other adventures that will take you off the beaten trail, you'll need rugged fabric such as Cordura nylon, which can take a licking from crampons, ski edges, and other abrasions from ice and rock.
If you won't be needing crampons, or don't anticipate conditions to be too harsh, lighter nylon options are better suited for easier hikes. These are also preferred for spring hikes, when melting snow creates heaps of mud that must be kept at bay.
The lightest gaiters are designed to keep out snow and water splashes, but aren’t completely waterproof. If you need waterproof, breathable protection, you should opt for gaiters that feature a Gore-Tex membrane, which keeps moisture out but also lets sweat escape.
Gaiters come in different sizes. Your choice will depend on when you plan to use the garments most. If you expect to walk through only fairly wet or snowy conditions—very common in the spring—short gaiters, which are ankle high, will be the best choice for you. If you know you'll be plowing through winter conditions such as knee-high snow or flying mud, go with full-length gaiters for the most protection.
When you try on your gaiters, make sure they fit snugly against your boots (the whole point is to keep debris out), but also make sure they fit nicely around your calves. Some gaiters have upper and lower segments that are curved and shaped more than others, so it’s important to find ones that are a good match for you.
Also remember that these are outer cold-weather-clothing garments. You'll be wearing them over other winter clothing such as heavy winter pants. Be sure to take this into account; or better yet, wear the pants (and boots and socks) you'll be hiking in when trying on gaiters.
Gaiters are fastened to your leather or plastic boots in different ways, and again, what you'll be doing will affect which gaiters you’ll need. For lighter treks, you'll need only gaiters with a thin-cord boot strap that loops under your instep. While these are sufficient, if you'll be in rugged territory, you may need a tough neoprene-coated bootstrap that fastens with a durable buckle.
Comfort is key when you head out on any adventure. With the proper cold-weather gear, you can be sure to enjoy every part of your trek, whether you’re tromping through snow, mud, or anything in between.
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