If you, like me, enjoy a little bit of spice in your hiking, you need to try scrambling! When the terrain gets steep enough that hands are involved, it’s impossible to zone out or get bored. You’ll feel closer to nature and more in tune with your body as you move carefully and precisely across the rugged landscape.
I find scrambling more mentally stimulating than hiking, almost like a puzzle to be solved as I read my surroundings and plan my movements. It’s a more physically strenuous full-body workout, perfect for hikers looking to take things up a notch. Scrambling opens up less crowded and more remote cross-country routes and peak climbs that are inaccessible by hiking alone, and it’ll broaden your backcountry skills in a hurry.
If that sounds a bit too intense, don’t worry, scrambling can be quite safe and fun with the right approach. From easy routes the whole family can enjoy, to intense semi-technical adventures, there’s a scrambling option for everyone. If you want to mix some scrambling into your hiking, this post will help you get started safely.
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What is Scrambling?
Scrambling in Hiking
In the context of hiking, scrambling means using your hands instead of just your feet to make progress over steep and rugged terrain. Think of scrambling as “4 wheel drive” hiking. It might be just a few brief moves in an otherwise straightforward hike, or you could be on a peak-bagging mission or ridgeline traverse with hours of non-stop scrambling. Either way, when your hands touch the ground / rock for balance or leverage, you’re scrambling!
Scrambling vs. Climbing
According to the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), hiking and rock climbing are at two different ends of the same spectrum and scrambling is smack in the middle. Class 1 is what we call hiking, i.e. simply walking along a trail. Class 5 is full-on rock climbing, usually with a rope for protection in case of a fall.
Scrambling is class 3, right in the middle of the YDS. You need to use your hands and there may be some exposure. (“Exposure” is climber-speak for “you could fall and get hurt.”) Class 2 is easy scrambling or hard hiking, maybe using a hand here or there for balance but mostly just walking over rougher terrain. Class 4 is harder and more exposed scrambling, basically easy rock climbing where a fall would be bad.
So what’s the difference between scrambling and climbing? There’s no hard line dividing the two, and sometimes you’ll hear scrambling loosely referred to as climbing. But “real” rock climbing is generally more difficult and more exposed, i.e. a fall is both more likely and more consequential. Climbers almost always use ropes to protect themselves in case of a fall, whereas scramblers typically don’t unless they’re on a route with lots of exposure. Difficulty and exposure don’t always line up; it’s possible to make very difficult climbing moves close to the ground (called bouldering, done with a crash pad) and it’s possible to do easy scrambling atop a knife-edge ridge in “fall and you die” territory.
That latter scenario is a serious one and demands significant skill, experience, and possibly gear. But don’t worry! Most scrambling is not so dire, though it does require a few extra considerations to stay safe. More on that later!
Before getting into the practicalities of scrambling, let’s get excited about the possibilities! Here are a few of my personal favorite scrambling routes (and two that are still on my bucket list) of varying type and difficulty.
Cathedral Wash, Arizona: This short and sweet day hike to the Colorado River follows a classic slot canyon in northern Arizona. You’ll need to choose your own path down short dry falls and along ledges, but there’s always a safe way down if you take the time to find it.
Bighorn Gorge, California: I love how this long day hike or short overnighter in Death Valley National Park blurs the line between hiking and scrambling. The trail follows a gorge gradually uphill punctuated by increasingly tricky dry “waterfalls” where brief scrambling is required. Backpack into the mouth of the gorge and set up camp, spend a day tackling the falls as an out-and-back (turn around whenever you become uncomfortable with the moves) and then hike out.
Mt. Tyndall and Mt. Williamson, California: These advanced-level summit scrambles are often tackled together as part of peak-bagging California’s 14ers. I found them very challenging for a number a reasons: very physically strenuous terrain, high altitude, unstable rocky terrain, and non-trivial amounts of exposure. If you have the skills and stamina to summit them, the incredible views will take your breath away (or maybe that’s just the thin air at 14,000+ feet).
Carrauntoohil, Ireland: For a taste of scrambling outside the US, try climbing Ireland’s highest mountain via the Devil’s Ladder route. The loose gully is physically straightforward but requires care due to wet ground, unstable rocks, and changeable weather that can obscure sight lines and lead to navigation errors. On a good day though, the views from the top are outstanding!
The Long Trail, Vermont: This 272-mile trail, considered the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the USA, offers plenty of rugged class 2 hiking and a bit of class 3 scrambling to keep thru hikers mentally engaged. The northern section, where the Long Trail splits from the famous Appalachian Trail, is especially rugged and requires the use of hands in many places.
Wind River High Route, Wyoming: This stunning backpacking route is arguably the classic example of a high route, a style of hiking and scrambling that blends trails with cross-country travel in order to follow an aesthetic line as close to ridgelines as possible. This and other high routes, like the Sierra High Route, include long sections of talus-hopping and scrambling up and down steep gullies. The need for fitness, judgment, logistical planning, navigation, and risk assessment are all sky-high here, making high routes an advanced but very rewarding undertaking.
If you decide to spice up your hiking with some scrambling, these general skills will help you stay safe and have fun. You don’t need to be an expert right from the get-go if you choose easy scrambling routes, but more challenging and involved scrambling will require all these skills to some degree.
Basic climbing skills: Scrambling incorporates elements of both hiking and rock climbing, so learning a few basic climbing techniques can help you move more smoothly. I’ve done a lot of indoor rock climbing and often find myself channeling my bouldering skills while scrambling. This could include learning how to maintain three points of contact on the rock, developing a better sense of where your body is in space, and practicing specific techniques such as mantling, stemming, and smearing.
Balance and coordination: Scrambling requires core strength and a sense of proprioception – understanding where your body is in space. Balance can be improved with exercises such as yoga and balance-specific drills (or just more scrambling). Moving smoothly over rugged ground can feel awkward at first but improves quickly with practice, so don’t worry if it seems hard when you’re just starting out.
Navigation and route-finding: A few scrambles follow clear trails, but many are cross-country routes with only use trails or cairns to guide you. Being able to read the landscape and determine the safest, most efficient path is a valuable skill. This also means understanding topographic maps and possibly using a compass or GPS device. You may need to anticipate potential difficulties or hazards on your route, such as loose rock, steep drop-offs, or areas that may become treacherous in bad weather.
Risk assessment: When scrambling you can’t simply put one foot in front of the other and hope for the best. Risk assessment – being aware of your environment and any potential hazards like changing weather, unstable ground, or your dwindling water supply – is an essential skill. You’ll need to start looking around and asking yourself “What could go wrong? How likely is it? What would I do if it did?” You can safely develop this skill over time by starting with straightforward routes and progressing as you gain experience. More on scrambling safety in the next section!
Is scrambling dangerous?
Is scrambling dangerous? With all this talk about risk and exposure, you would be right to wonder. The answer depends on many factors including where you scramble, how well your skill level matches the terrain, and the decisions you make along the way. Scrambling can be dangerous in certain situations, but most casual scrambling is perfectly safe.
The difference between scrambling and hiking, when it comes to safety, is that more can go wrong in scrambling. There’s an increase in both objective hazards (things you can’t do anything about, like rocks falling from above) and subjective hazards (results of your own decisions, like stepping in the wrong place or making a navigation error).
Exposure, or the potential for a dangerous or even fatal fall, is one very important factor to think about when assessing a scrambling route. As you venture into more vertical terrain, your skill becomes part of your protection system. You may find yourself in a place where a fall would be dangerous, with only your own balance and coordination to prevent it. Everyone draws their own personal line here when it comes to acceptable risk. Hikers who lack a “good head for heights” — I am one of them — may especially struggle with exposure and can freeze up on terrain beyond their comfort zone, creating a dangerous situation.
Compared to a hike, even the most benign scrambles have greater potential for a short fall that could twist an ankle or break a bone. Some intermediate scrambles have short “no fall zones” where you’ll need to be very confident in your movements. At the extreme end you can find straightforward class 3 movements atop a very exposed ridge, as on Mt. Russell (one of California’s 14ers).
Here’s a summary of the hazards you may need to pay more attention to when scrambling:
- Rock fall from above
- Shifting rocks and potential for lower limb injuries
- Navigation challenges
- Weather challenges
- Remoteness and the need for self-reliance
- Mental challenges like coping with heights
Safety Tips for Scrambling
Scrambling is accessible to almost any hiker, provided you choose your routes wisely and take safety precautions. Here are some basic tips for how to scramble as safely as possible.
Go with a buddy. Though I’m a big fan of hiking solo, I don’t usually scramble solo, especially in remote places. I’m more comfortable with company due to the greater potential for a minor injury. It’s also possible that you and your buddy might need each other’s help for a hand or a boost up a tricky section of rock.
Move intentionally. As the saying goes, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast,” and I would add “safe” as well. Scrambling requires more coordination, balance, and interaction with the terrain than hiking does. It’s not the time to zone out with a podcast or get lost in conversation. You should be looking ahead, choosing the safest and smoothest path forward, and placing every hand and foot mindfully. This may sound like a burden, but it becomes easier with practice and the meditative flow state it induces is actually one of scrambling’s joys.
Test hand and foot placements. Rocks and mountains are constantly moving and crumbling, albeit very slowly on a geologic time scale, and you might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Don’t fully weight your foot or hand until you’ve felt out the stability of the rock beneath it. When using your hands for upward progress, pull gently downward rather than outward on any suspect hold. This skill takes some practice and comes with experience.
Be prepared to turn back. When attempting a new scrambling route it can be hard to know in advance whether any sections will fall outside your personal zone of acceptable risk. You may need to go right up to the move in question and feel it out before deciding. Weather and timing can also force an early turnaround, given scrambling’s slower and less predictable nature. It’s never worth risking life or limb to finish a route, so start your scramble knowing you may need to turn back early. Groups should discuss possibilities in advance, such as a non-negotiable turnaround time or what happens if one member is uncomfortable but others want to continue.
Allow time for the descent. If you’re scrambling to a summit, the mountaineering adage “Getting up is optional, getting down is mandatory” should be top of mind. Though downhill hiking is usually easier and faster than uphill hiking, this isn’t the case for scrambling. On very rough terrain the descent can actually be more difficult and slower than the ascent, since it’s harder to see your foot placements and more awkward to downclimb. Furthermore, scrambling is tiring and often slower than expected. Decide on a drop-dead turnaround time that takes into account daylight hours and weather conditions, and adhere to it, even if it means turning around close to the summit.
Be mindful of rockfall from above. Not all scrambles carry this hazard, but it’s common on routes that ascend loose gullies. To reduce the risk of injury in such situations, follow these practices:
- Wear a climbing helmet.
- Stay to the sides of loose gullies where the rock is more stable.
- In a group, leave extra space between members so that the downhill scrambler is not directly in range of rockfall dislodged by those uphill.
- Try not to dislodge rocks, but if you do, yell “ROCK!” loudly to give downhill scramblers a chance to duck and cover. Keep in mind that there may be other parties below yours, even if you can’t see them.
Carry a satellite messenger like a SPOT or Garmin InReach if scrambling in remote areas. I always carry one while backpacking regardless, but I consider it especially essential when scrambling. Since you’re likely to see fewer people on rugged scrambling routes than on trails, if something goes wrong you may have more difficulty finding help.
Don’t use ropes without training and experience. When it comes to roping up for scrambling, make sure you’re working with an experienced companion or guide who knows the best practices and has the proper gear for this technical discipline. A mountain guide once told me that two inexperienced scramblers roped together on an exposed route is just a suicide pact. Sorry to be so grim, but please don’t try and DIY a protection system for exposed scrambling; you may well make things even more dangerous for yourself or your companions. If you can’t climb it safely without protection and you’re not experienced with climbing protection systems, don’t climb it.
Gear for Scrambling
The gear list for a scramble isn’t all that different from the standard gear needed for a hike, with a few notable exceptions. Here are the items to pay extra attention to.
Helmet: It’s never a bad idea to wear a climbing helmet while scrambling, especially if your route includes steep and loose gullies (chutes, couloirs) with potential for rockfall from above. Something simple and designed for use on rock, like the Petzl Boreo, is all you need.
Shoes: This is very much a matter of personal preference, but it pays to consider how your footwear needs for scrambling might differ from hiking. Many people, including me, love hiking in trail running shoes and do so even on basic scrambles. Others prefer the support and protection of hiking boots or even a light mountaineering boot, a smart choice for scrambles where unstable rock could land atop your feet. Climbing approach shoes are also a great option thanks to their combination of lightweight comfort and very grippy soles.
Hiking poles: Usually trekking poles are increasingly helpful on more rugged terrain, but this trend stops where scrambling starts. When you need to use your hands for balance and leverage, poles just get in the way. Poles are often helpful on the approach to a scramble though, so what to do? I suggest a lightweight tri-fold pole like the Black Diamond Carbon Distance Z, which can be folded up small and stashed in your pack once the real scrambling begins.
Satellite messenger: If scrambling in a remote area, it’s especially important to carry a communication device like a SPOT Gen 3 or Garmin InReach Mini. If you twist an ankle, lose the route, or encounter dangerous weather this little device will be your literal lifeline.
First aid kit: You should always carry a small first aid kit while hiking, and especially while scrambling where minor injuries like scrapes and sprains are more common.
Extra food, water, clothing, and supplies: Scrambling can be much slower than hiking, more tiring, and less predictable. Thus it’s smart to expect the unexpected. When scrambling, pack your bag with a bit more food and water than you would for a hike (see Day Hiking Lunch Ideas for inspiration). Be conservative in your decisions about clothing and gear. If in doubt, throw in that rain jacket and extra warm layer, a headlamp, or emergency bivvy just in case.
Backpack, and possibly rope: Obviously you’ll need a backpack to carry all this, but scrambling with a large or heavy pack is extra challenging. Keep your pack small, light, and well-fitted so it doesn’t shift around as you move. On some types of scrambles like narrow slot canyons, a large pack can be a total no-go. Occasionally scramblers, especially multi-day backpackers, carry a rope to lower their backpack down longer rocky sections so they can downclimb without it.
Now that you have the basics, you’re ready to go scrambling! Begin with routes in your comfort zone, see what types of terrain and movement you like best, and work up to harder scrambles over time. You might just fall in love with this immersive way of moving through natural landscapes.
More Hiking Resources
If you liked this post, you might also enjoy these:
- Guide to Choosing A Backpack Capacity
- Best Water Filters for Backpacking
- How to Poop in the Woods: Guide for the Sky and Squeamish
Or visit the hiking and backpacking section for lots more.
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