Trail running is a different beast from road running. You’ve got wayward branches, uneven ground, ankle-twisting roots, toe-smashing rocks, winding paths, and maybe even the chance of a small creature popping out in the middle of your run.
And you’ve got mud. And slush. Puddles. Dirt. Trail running is dirty business!
But if you haven’t tried it before, that shouldn’t stop you. If you have tried it, you know that there are these handy little things called gaiters that protect your legs from said dirty stuff.
Today we’re discussing how and when to use trail running gaiters for the best effect. Believe me, these nifty bits of equipment are super helpful, so if you haven’t got them yet, give them a try!
What Are Trail Gaiters?
Although they sound kind of like you’re wearing a small alligator on your feet, trail running gaiters are actually a compact waterproof type of gear that covers the tops of your running shoes and ankles. Some of them cover your lower legs too, to provide a bit extra protection.
They’re constructed of highly durable, waterproof, abrasion-resistant fabric. Nylon and polyester are common materials, and the most popular height is mid-calf, although they do come in a variety of lengths.
The right trail running gaiter for you really depends on where you run, and the conditions in which you run. For example, if you tend to spend time running through slushy snow, you’d most likely need a higher one than if you tramp through just splattery mud.
Types of Gaiters
Although we’re talking about trail running gaiters here, they do come in other varieties. Technically, you can wear them interchangeably on the trail, but choose carefully depending on your needs!
Trail Running Gaiters
Your regular trail running gaiters are made to be light, hardly felt while you’re running, and minimalist in design. Generally, trail running gaiters are advertised as those which cover your ankles and the tops of your running shoes.
These little gaiters are more than enough for those who run on less-unfriendly ground, and they’re common amongst trail runners who frequent lighter, sandy trails, and ultralight hikers.
Hiking gaiters are a bit longer and more protective than regular trail gaiters. They come in various heights, from mid-calf to just under the knee, which provides quite a bit more protection than the smaller ones.
They’re great for running in snow and rain, as they protect your entire lower leg from getting wet, cold, and slushy. Like the smaller trail gaiters, they also stop debris from getting into your shoes.
If you’re planning on scaling mountains, you can get a pair of mountaineering-specific gaiters. These are specifically designed for heavy weather, like piles of snow, high winds, and rough terrain.
Usually, they’re much more heavy-duty than others, with serious waterproofing and insulation to keep you dry and warm in tough conditions like those you can expect to find on a mountaineering trip.
You don’t have to use them only for mountaineering. They’re great for things like skiing, manual labor in harsh conditions, or even camping in winter weather. Or running in winter, of course!
Snake gaiters are specifically designed to protect you from snake bites. Obviously, they won’t necessarily prevent a snake from striking, but they’re definitely thick enough to prevent the snake’s fangs from piercing your skin and injecting venom.
They’re quite a bit thicker than your average gaiter, so it might take some getting used to if you’ve worn gaiters before. They also generally cover a good portion of the lower leg, so you’re well protected.
When Do I Need Gaiters?
If you run in snow often, chances are you’ve invested in Gore-Tex shoes to keep your feet as protected as possible.
However, the addition of a gaiter helps to seal off the entrance to your shoes, where your feet go in. This prevents snow from getting into your shoes, wetting your socks, and keeping your feet cold and wet.
It’s all fine and well for your shoes to not allow snow in through the Gore-Tex fabric, but if it’s getting in via the ankle collar, then it defeats the point a little!
Pushing your way through heavy foliage can give your legs a bit of a beating. Using a decent-sized trail running gaiter can help prevent scratches, allergies, and bites.
In these cases, it would be more beneficial to use a longer, sturdier trail gaiter that protects the legs properly.
Trails With Loose Gravel, Sand, or Other Debris
Have you ever ended up with a pebble in your shoe halfway through a run? It’s an annoying feeling, and even more irritating to have to stop, take your shoe off, shake it out, and then re-tie it before you can carry on.
The same goes for getting dust or sand in your shoes. It’s an annoyance, but it can also cause chafing and lead to blisters.
Trail running gaiters can help prevent that by protecting the opening in which your feet fit into the shoes. Because trail gaiters fit pretty tightly around your ankle, the chances are much lower of dust or debris getting in there.
So if you’re planning an excursion that’s going to be on dusty, sandy, or rocky ground, a trail running gaiter could be an excellent accessory to have.
Muddy or Dirty Trails
While mud isn’t as painful as a stone stuck in your shoe, it can be downright annoying and squelchy. Not to mention a nightmare to clean up later!
Trail running gaiters also keep mud out of your shoes, off of your socks, and off of your skin if you use a lengthy one. Mud baths can be healthy, but not when you’re working on hitting a PB or finishing a race!
Although your Gore-Tex shoes may be waterproof, your socks most likely aren’t. Neither are your pants, so in order to prevent wet socks and lower legs, a trail running gaiter is a must.
Walking through wet brush or landing in a puddle (even on the road) can keep you wet, cold, and miserable throughout your run. Using an appropriately-sized gaiter can help to prevent that.
While short gaiters won’t really help much in the cold, some of the longer ones come with insulation that can keep your legs warm if you’re out in cold weather.
This is especially true of mountaineering gaiters, which are specifically designed for use in snow and ice. But even if you go with a less heavy-duty gaiter, it also helps to keep wind away from your skin, which can help more than you realize in winter conditions.
Areas Where Snakes Live
Nobody wants to be bitten by a snake while on their run. While you can do the necessary first aid on a snake bite, there can be much worse consequences if it’s a venomous snake and you don’t happen to be in close proximity to a hospital.
A thick, pierce-proof gaiter can prevent these things from occurring. It’s well worth looking into if you often run in an area that’s known for housing venomous snakes, especially trail running where you may end up running through brush and built-up areas.
Pros of Wearing Gaiters
Like everything, gaiters have pros and cons. Here are some reasons you should consider investing in a set.
Stop Debris From Getting In
As mentioned, debris can wreak havoc on your comfort during a run, not to mention lead to painful blisters. This is the biggest purpose of a gaiter – to stop debris from getting into your shoe as you kick up dust, pebbles, and twigs.
Prevent Water and Snow From Wetting Your Feet
Debris is one thing, but running with wet and cold feet is just as bad. Trail running gaiters are created to be waterproof, keeping water, ice, and snow away from your feet and socks.
As we mentioned earlier, wearing a pair of Gore-Tex shoes can only get you so far! A trail running gaiter on top of waterproof shoes will offer the best protection against wet and cold feet.
Can Prevent Insect Bites
Ticks, ants, mosquitoes, and other biting insects can easily get into your shoes or socks when you’re running in wild areas.
While some runners won’t be too worried about these, it’s worth keeping in mind that their bites can lead to more than just discomfort, especially if you’re in an area that’s known for diseases like malaria or tick bite fever.
Wearing a gaiter can help prevent you from being bitten, so you don’t need to worry about either the discomfort or potential long-term effects.
Keep Your Gear Cleaner & Longer-Lasting
Gaiters are made of more hardcore material than your socks, shoes, and trousers. Layering one over this gear can help keep dirt and mud off of them, as well as prevent abrasion and exposure to the elements that could shorten their lifespan.
Easy to Clean
Not only is a gaiter easier to clean on-the-go, it’s much less of a huge job to clean it off after a run than it is to get mud out of socks or shoes later. Saves time and from having to do a nasty cleaning job!
Add Extra Warmth
Note that the small ankle-height gaiters won’t do much for warmth. But longer ones can help to keep heat in, helping you stay warmer for longer in cool weather.
Some hardcore gaiters have special insulation built-in, but these ones will be more expensive and heavier than regular ones.
Cons of Wearing Gaiters
If it all sounds too good to be true, here are a couple of downsides to gaiters too.
Take Time to Get On and Off
Gaiters can be fiddly things. Some have simple Velcro attachment points, but others close on themselves using a zipper or even a range of hook-and-loop attachments.
Once you’ve got that done, you need to attach the gaiter to your shoe, otherwise it’s pointless! Generally, there’s a hook that attaches to your laces and one that runs under the foot and connects to itself again on the other side.
As you might imagine, this can take a bit of time to hook up. You may find that you need an extra few minutes before heading out on your runs.
May Trap Heat & Moisture
While gaiters can be great for keeping heat in when it’s freezing, there’s also a dark side to this feature.
If your feet sweat or overheat easily, your gaiter can trap that heat and moisture inside, not allowing it to escape and cool your feet down.
Can Be Pricey
Lastly, gaiters can be fairly pricey. If you run trails that are fairly easy and tame, you may take a look at them and decide that the expense is unnecessary. However, if you run in snowy, icy, or wet conditions often, it’s probably worth your while to invest a bit of cash into a high-quality pair.
They’re also usually made to be extremely durable, so although you’ll be spending a bit extra, it should last you a long time.