Ultimate Direction FK Gaiter Review
Thru-hiking has gone through a footwear revolution over the last decade and a half. Feet once clad in heavy leather boots are now light and free in trail runners. This transition solved a lot of problems, but also introduced a few new ones. A common issue for modern hikers pounding out mile after mile is the annoying intrusion of debris through the low-top ankles of sneaker-style shoes. In come trail gaiters, a stripped-down version of the winter boot accessory.
Trail gaiters have risen in popularity over the last few years as thru-hiker have pushed for more miles, less stop time, and extended into more challenging terrain. Ultimate Direction (UD), a brand best known for its ultra-running accessories, has taken a stab at the category with the FK Gaiter. Have they created a cross-category hit for hikers and runners alike?
Ultimate Direction FK Gaiter At-a-Glance
Weights: 2.7 ounces (size large)
Materials: “Kill Twill Stretch Cordura” (89% Nylon, 11% Spandex)
Sizes: Small/Medium/Large, covering US Men’s shoe sizes 5-13, Women’s sizes 7-14.
These midrise gaiters are meant for low-top trail runners in dirty and/or wet conditions. They may find their limit in exceptionally deep snow or muddy conditions which might call for different footwear entirely.
Circumstance of Review
These landed on my doorstep in the middle of desert hiking season and got tested all the way until spring snow melt-out in the Rockies. They saw approximately 150 miles of hiking across sand, talus, packed dirt, mud, and snow.
Ultimate Direction FK Gaiter Features
Secure fit: Ultimate Direction gave users lots of ways to secure these gaiters. There is an adjustable underfoot strap (5 possible length configurations), a plastic hook at the front, and a wide strip of velcro up the entire gaiter. There is also a plastic snap button at the base of the velcro for backup if the velcro pulls.
Wrap-around velcro closure: These gaiters fully unwrap from the ankle, and are secured by a large vertical strip of velcro. This makes the size slightly adjustable and allows them to be taken on/off independently of the shoes.
Burly Cordura fabric: The Cordura branded nylon chosen for these gaiters is fairly robust compared to the soft, stretchy options available in other brands. Hopefully, this leads to a long life.
How’d They Do?
So long as the gaiter stayed tight, I found the FK very effective for reducing the amount of snow and mud that my shoes collected. However, it’s important to note that these will not keep your feet dry during a river crossing, nor will they stop anything from seeping into the mesh around your toes. This is a prime avenue for grime entering your shoes, but also beyond the purview of these gaiters.
And although the fabric wasn’t stifling, when I found myself on dryer stretches of trail, I occasionally removed them to let the shoe mesh air out unencumbered. Even breathable gaiters are less breathable than no gaiters.
Ultimate Direction FK Gaiter Pros
Independent from shoe
Because of the full-length velcro there is no need to nail your order of operations when lacing up your kicks. Many other gaiters slip over the foot like a sock, which can be surprisingly confusing to the trail-muddled brain. Ultimate Direction’s approach is also nice if you want to take them off mid-hike to get some breathability back to your shoe uppers.
Several other trail gaiters on the market are kept in place with a strip of velcro on the heel. While functional, it requires either buying velcro-equipped, compatible shoes (i.e. most Altra trail shoes) or adding your own. Modifying your shoe is annoying and produces lackluster results. Ultimate Direction instead uses an underfoot strap to keep the gaiter from floating up, creating near-universal compatibility.
Snow and mud protection
I have hiked thousands of miles without gaiters, and I am fine picking off the occasional sticker plant embedded in my sock or shaking some rocks out of my shoes. In other words, I don’t use gaiters unless I have to.
I find that these gaiters’ real value is in keeping mud and snow out of my ankle openings while post-holing. Typically when you step deep into something squishy, getting back out scrapes a lot of the sidewall into your shoe. After one step, your foot is sloshing around with this crud, which can be really uncomfortable and lead to blisters. If it’s snow, then your feet are constantly steeped in an ice bath. The FK Gaiters did a great job in these circumstances, keeping my ankles free of aforementioned crud.
Ultimate Direction FK Gaiter Cons
Minimal ankle adjustability
The diameter at the ankle is set primarily by a thin vertical strip of Velcro, which is part of the overall closure system. While the material is 11% spandex, it isn’t stretchy enough to meaningfully contribute to fitment, so the narrow width of the Velcro represents the whole range of adjustability.
Messing with the velcro to make the ankle opening either larger or smaller means a less secure contact area. As someone with skinny legs, more similar to giraffe’s than those of other humans, I found it challenging to close the top snuggly around my ankle without running out of velcro. On the flip side, securing them properly resulted in a loose fit.
This could also be an issue at the other end of the spectrum for a person with wider calves, or with a swollen injury. I would love to see an extended strip of velcro around the ankle to allow a wider range of adjustability.
Underfoot strap is vulnerable
As mentioned above, most trail gaiters are secured by a hook front and velcro strip attached to the heel. While the underfoot strap is nice for its adjustability and wider compatibility, it also resides in one of the highest impact zones of the shoe. While mine did not sustain any fatal damage, I do rock hop with my midsole quite a bit on rockier terrain and could see it getting cut.
Heavier than the Competition
At 2.7oz for a large, these weigh about 80% more than a comparably sized Dirty Girl Gaiter (1.5oz). Accepting the old saying “a pound on your feet is five on your back”, the disparity between the two is much more significant than the raw .8oz difference indicates.
It’s clear looking at the FK gaiters that UD made sacrifices, adding weight for the sake of adjustability and durability. The strap is functional, and the fabric is tough. Ultra runners tend to embrace a little extra weight for better operational continuity, while ultralight hikers fall more into the ‘light is right, always’ category. Also for the weight, I think a metal lace hook would be more durable and repairable than a plastic one, which tend to snap instead of bend.
Going ultralight is as much about simplicity as it is about finding light gear. While I will keep these gaiters around for future snow and sand-bound adventures, I plan to shelve them for the core of the summer season. In my opinion. the extra weight and added step to the morning routine simply aren’t worth the benefit in standard Colorado conditions.
That said, the FK Gaiters are designed with a clear purpose in mind and execute well on that vision, even if it is not one that I share. There’s value to the adjustability, durable fabric, and ability to leave one’s shoes on when switching from gaiters to none. If you’re a gaiter-lover who covets these tenets, then the FK’s are a solid choice.
Similar Trail Gaiters
Dirty Girl Gaiters
Altra Trail Gaiter
REI Co-op Swiftland Running Gaiters
REI Co-op Flash Gaiters
The Ultimate Direction FK Gaiter was donated for the purpose of review.
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