The question is a good one. The Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS has taught thousands of people how to handle emergencies since 1990, but we've yet to find a study that definitively answers how well gaiters protect from rattlesnake fangs.
There are many factors that come into play. What size rattlesnakes? What types of gaiters? (Some of you are wondering, what are gaiters? Don't be shy. Gaiters are fabric tubes that seal boot-tops to keep out snow and other stuff while you play in the mountains.) Could we design an experiment pitting snakes vs. gaiters, and see who wins?
Fortunately, one similar study has been done. In 2009, snake researchers looked at the protective effects of denim fabric on "simulated" human hands made from rubber gloves filled with warm water. This is the best they could do since it is nearly impossible to find volunteers who will allow themselves to be struck by rattlesnakes in the name of science.
The researchers noted a 60-66% decrease in the amount of venom that snakes injected into the "hands" that were clothed in denim. So, there was a very significant effect. Since sturdy, high-quality hiking gaiters are comparable to denim pants, and since you can wear gaiters over pants, I'd say that they offer good, but not total, protection.
Note in the study that 40% of venom still got through the jeans. Though we would expect to be far better off with a lower venom dose, we could still experience the full range of envenomation symptoms and, if struck, we should seek hospital care immediately (see Humans vs. Rattlesnakes, Part 1). A little venom is much better than a lot of venom, but it's not as good as no venom.
Snake-protection Footwear (from Bad to Good)
• Barefoot or wearing sandals
• Shoes, in shorts
• Shoes, in long pants
• Leather hiking boots, in long pants
• Leather hiking boots with long pants and gaiters
• Calf-length leather boots, with long pants
• Steel leg armor
Even Better Than Gaiters…
More important than what's on your feet, though, is how you behave. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, more than half of reported rattlesnake bites occur to the hands, and the majority of bites involve both alcohol consumption (the person, not the snake) and "intentional exposure," i.e. playing with the snake. Snakes don't like to be messed with, it turns out.
My best advice: Wear long pants and avoid rattlesnake bites in the first place. Usually it's easy to do, because we are very lucky in our country to have rattle-snakes, not sneaky-snakes or silent-snakes. Ours are reclusive creatures that come pre-packaged with an audible warning beacon.
1. Never handle a rattlesnake.
2. Don't reach into areas you can't see.
3. Be vigilant around snake habitats: deserts, leafy, brushy areas, woodpiles, etc.
3. Wear boots, not sandals, and long pants, not shorts.
4. Gaiters? Sure. Why not.
If this answer has only made you want to know more, imagine what else you will learn on a 2-, 3-, 5-, 10- or 30-day course from WMI of NOLS. Wilderness medicine covers everything from airway management to zoonosis. Learn and practice what to do in any wilderness emergency. Sign up today.
Rattlesnake photo by Casey Kanode. (Our apologies also go to Casey for not crediting his photo in our previous rattlesnake blog post.)