Desert running: Review of AR Desert Gaiters and The Rough Country Trail Running Gaiters

LIMG_0965 Desert gaiters are different in both design and function from regular trail-running gaiters. When running in the desert, fine sand can enter your shoe right through the fabric, and cause abrasions, blistering, or hot spots. This means that desert gaiters must cover the whole running shoe, not just the lace column.

In this article, we’ll go through some of the things you need to know about desert running and selecting your sand gaiters, and we’ll also review two brands that we tested on the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon, a 6-day ultramarathon in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert: the AR Desert Gaiters made by ar.co.za, and The Rough Country’s Trail Running Gaiter.

The runner on the left is wearing regular gaiters, whereas Dave and I have full-shoe coverage from our desert gaiters. Photo: KAEM

The runner on the left is wearing regular gaiters, whereas Dave and I have full-shoe coverage from our desert gaiters. Photo: KAEM

About desert gaiters

Regular trail-running gaiters are designed to keep gravel, sticks, and other debris from falling into your shoes or socks. As such, they only cover the upper part of your shoe, and generally attach via a hook through the front of your laces. Some are made of soft stretchy fabric, and others of stiffer or waterproof materials such as nylon or Goretex.

Desert running gaiters are designed to do all of that – but also to keep all of that fine sand that magically works its way through the mesh of your shoe from getting in. They are usually worn in hot climates, so they need to be breathable, and are usually made of a very fine-knit stretchy synthetic fabric. Since they cover the whole shoe, they need to be attached directly to the shoe – usually with velcro.

LIMG_2333Attaching the velcro to your shoes may sound daunting, but it is not as hard as it sounds. Gluing the velcro on may seem like the easier option, but we have it on good authority from Lisa de Speville, who is both an experienced desert ultramarathoner as well as the designer of the AR Desert Gaiters, that sand will usually lift the glue within days. Not what you want in the middle of a multi-day race! Stitching the velcro on is by far the safer option.

First, you must pick the pair of shoes that are going to be the dedicated desert running shoes. (Remember to size them on the larger size to account for feet swelling). You can of LIMG_2332course have velcro stitched to several pairs, and use the same pair of gaiters for all of your shoes.

Find a cobbler, and explain to him or her how you want the velcro stitched on: a cobbler will have all of the right equipment to pass the sewing needles through the stiff material of the shoe. (It would be near-impossible to do this by hand).

LIMG_2334The instructions we received from The Rough Country were to stitch the velcro all the way around the shoe, but the AR Desert Gaiters instructions indicated that it’s not necessary to stitch around the heel – the gaiters will not slip. And sure enough, that worked. I used the same shoes for both brands of gaiters, with no velcro on the heels – and they all stayed on perfectly.

 

AR Desert Gaiters by ar.co.za

LIMG_2326These gaiters are sewn from Lycra (and available in a wide range of colours and patterns!) The bottom part of the gaiter is lined with non-stretchy velcro. Only the heel section of the gaiter is stretchy, and there is no velcro along this rear section of the gaiter.

The design is very simple, with only a single seam down the front of the gaiter. The top of the gaiter is lightly elasticized, with a velcro tab for tightening the gaiter if necessary. There is no specific reinforcing of the toe or heel part of the gaiter, other than the velcro which overlaps on itself slightly around the toe, naturally reinforcing this area.

AR Desert Gaiters are available in two sizes (UK 5-8.5 and UK 9-13), and in a wide range of colours and patterns. The manufacturer also makes a smaller trail running model called AR Mini Gaiters, which cover only the lace column but not the whole shoe – a good choice for general trail running, but not the best choice for sand. AR Desert Gaiters are made in South Africa, cost R300 (approximately $US20) and can be shipped overseas.

Performance:

These gaiters sit really well on the foot, without any seams or creases that threaten to collect sand. My husband, Dave, has chicken-legs, so the velcro tab worked really well for him to be able to adjust the gaiters around his skinny calves. I was a bit worried about the darker colours of these gaiters in the hot sun (mine were a dark blue pattern, his were bright orange), but they breathed perfectly and never felt hot to wear. And they definitely kept all of the sand out!

The Rough Country’s Trail Running Gaiter

LIMG_2329These gaiters are sewn from a very fine stretchy synthetic fabric (polyamide-spandex blend). The entire bottom of the gaiter is lined with stretchy velcro, all the way around. (As I mentioned, I did not sew velcro around the heel section of my shoes, and these gaiters stayed on just fine).

The design of these gaiters is somewhat different, with a total of three vertical seams, making them almost conical rather than shoe-shaped (it’s like they are designed for your foot to be in a flexed position). This leads to creases down the front of the gaiter in most foot positions. I was worried that those creases might collect sand when the gaiter was in use, but there was actually no problem with that at all.

The top of the gaiter is not elasticized beyond the natural elasticity of the fabric. I was also worried, from that design, that they might slip down as I ran, but again, no problems here at all. The toe section of the gaiter is reinforced with a double layer of fabric.

The Rough Country’s Trail Running Gaiter comes in two sizes (small and large) and in a choice of white or black. The Rough Country also makes a much more serious desert-running gaiter, the Silkworm gaiter, a kneehigh gaiter designed for deep sand that must be glued permanently to your shoe. The standard Trail Running Gaiter pictured here costs $US30, and ships worldwide.

Performance:

These gaiters, in spite of the creases, also sat perfectly on my foot. Dave didn’t try these ones, so I’m not sure whether the would have stayed up so well on his chicken-legs, but they stayed up perfectly for me. They were comfortable, they breathed perfectly, and they kept all of the sand out.

Conclusions

Dave and me (in record-setting heat). Photo: KAEM

Dave and me (in record-setting heat). Photo: KAEM

KAEM was my first time running multi-day in the desert, and also my first time wearing desert gaiters. At the end of the race, one of the other runners asked me how often Dave and I had to stop to clean the sand out of our shoes.

“Never,” I responded.

She looked at me in shock. “We were stopping every 45 minutes!”

As much as these two brands of desert gaiters are different in numerous ways (overall design and shape, location and type of velcro, how they secure to your calves), their performance was – astonishingly to us – nearly identical. Most importantly, they both were 99+% efficient at keeping the sand out of our shoes (yes, toes looked a bit dirty at the end of the day, but that’s all!).

LDSC_0002Dave, in particularly, had been reluctant to wear gaiters at all, because he was afraid that his feet would get too hot. However, our feet seemed to be actually cooler in the gaiters – I think this is because of the air space between the gaiter and the shoe, so the sun’s rays never landed on our shoes.

Desert gaiters are definitely now on my must-have list for desert running (or any ultramarathon or trail race in any sandy environment, such as with long sections on beaches). They saved me lots of time (no foot cleaning stops) and prevented injuries such as blisters or abrasions sue to sand inside the shoes. Find out more on the manufacturers’ sites: AR Desert Gaiters by ar.co.za and The Rough Country’s Trail Running Gaiter.