If you love hiking steep, exposed trails and are looking for another thrilling vertical pursuit, rock scrambling could be the perfect outdoor activity for you to try next. Part of the appeal of scrambling is that it doesn’t require any previous experience or technical knowledge to start. Anyone who is physically fit enough to hike a moderately challenging trail can begin scrambling as long as they can manage heights and exposure.
This beginner’s guide will cover all the essential information you need to get started with rock scrambling. We’ll go over topics like how scrambling differs from hiking, how routes are graded, what kinds of equipment, skills, and preparation are required, dangers and risks to consider, and how to find routes.
Rock scrambling, often shortened to just scrambling, is an activity that falls somewhere in between hiking and rock climbing. Scrambling requires using your hands in addition to your feet to make your way up steep, rocky surfaces. If you’ve completed challenging hiking trails on steep terrain, there’s a good chance you’ve already done some scrambling.
Hiking, scrambling, and rock climbing all involve navigating a route to get to a particular destination. Still, there are some key differences in the type of terrain they cover, the equipment required, the risks involved, and the ways they challenge you.
The main difference between these outdoor activities is the angle of the terrain and the parts of your body required to traverse it. Hiking trails can be completely flat or quite steep. While the trails may have some shorter parts that require using the hands for balance, hikers usually walk upright on just their feet. Scrambling routes have longer sections of steep terrain that require you to use your hands frequently. Rock climbing takes things one step further and involves ascending near-vertical or even overhanging rock faces with your hands and feet.
There are also differences in the risks involved in each of these activities. Hiking tends to be the safest activity with the lowest risk of fatal falls. Although many people view scrambling as an easier and safer version of rock climbing, this is not necessarily true. In some ways, scrambling is more dangerous than rock climbing since climbers use ropes and either fixed or placed gear for protection in the event of a fall.
On the other hand, scramblers often rely only on their arms, legs, and balance for protection with no safety net if they fall off of the rock. That said, scrambling is still a fun and safe activity when attempted with the right knowledge, skills, and equipment. Knowing your limits and using ropes and other safety gear on challenging, exposed sections is a crucial step in staying safe while scrambling.
We’ll get to more details about safety while scrambling later on, but first, let’s go over how scrambles are graded.
Scrambling routes are often graded based on their level of difficulty. There are many grading systems used around the world. Below we’ll go over two common systems you’re likely to encounter: the British Grading System and the Yosemite Decimal System.
In the United Kingdom, scrambles are usually graded on a number scale from 1 to 3, with Grade 1 being the easiest and Grade 3 being the most difficult. Here are more details about what to expect from each grade.
- Grade 1: These routes feature steep, rocky terrain with exposed sections that require you to use your hands for balance. Grade 1 scrambles are essentially difficult hikes, and no technical skills or protective equipment are required. Experienced hikers who are comfortable with heights and exposure should be able to navigate Grade 1 scrambles safely.
- Grade 2: Grade 2 scrambles begin to look a bit more like rock climbing. These steeper routes have sections where ropes may be needed or preferred for added protection since they have more exposure and greater potential for fatal falls.
- Grade 3: These challenging scrambles often overlap with easy to moderate rock climbs. Although they may be considered easy for rock climbers, these scrambling routes are very difficult, with steep, technical sections that require a rope for protection. Grade 3 scrambles require advanced skills and knowledge of ropes and safety systems.
The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) was invented in Yosemite National Park in California in the 1950s and is commonly used in the United States and Canada to rate the difficulty of hikes, walks, scrambles, mountain climbs, and rock climbs. The grades range from Class 1 to Class 5. In guidebooks and route descriptions, you may see the YDS classes shortened to just 3rd, 4th, or easy 5th. Members of the climbing community often debate the definitions of each class, but the grades are generally understood as follows.
- Class 1: Walking or hiking that does not require much use of the hands for balance, but may necessitate technical footwear like hiking boots or trail running shoes.
- Class 2: Terrain where some easy scrambling is required, but there is minimal danger. Challenging hikes and trail runs may fall under this class, as well as beginner-friendly scrambles.
- Class 3: More challenging scrambling with increased exposure and risk. Highly experienced hikers who are not afraid of heights and exposure can usually navigate Class 3 scrambles. Ropes are usually not required but can be used by those who want extra protection. Falls on Class 3 routes can be fatal.
- Class 4: Very challenging scrambling or simple rock climbing with plenty of handholds and footholds. Ropes are often used since falls can be fatal.
- Class 5: This marks the beginning of technical free climbing, where climbers almost always use ropes and other equipment to protect themselves in case they fall. There are many sub-grades within this class that range from 5.0 to 5.15.
Good preparation and skill development are crucial for staying safe and having fun while scrambling. Here are some tips for preparing for your scrambling adventures, as well as skills you’ll want to develop to make your experience safer and more enjoyable.
In many ways, rock scrambling is like solving a puzzle. Scrambling and climbing areas can have numerous routes that are close together, overlap for sections, and cross over one another without any signs or trail markers indicating which is which. Good route-finding skills are therefore crucial for staying on your planned route. Poor route-finding skills can lead you to end up on a much more challenging route than you intended and get yourself in an undesirable situation.
It’s not unusual to go the wrong way at some point, but it’s essential to know how to recognize when you’ve deviated from your planned route. It’s relatively straightforward to know when you’ve ventured off of an easy scramble. These routes are usually fairly obvious ways up the mountain that appear to follow the path of least resistance. If the terrain gets very steep and looks like it goes to near-vertical, that is no longer an easy scramble. It is more likely to be a rock climbing route or advanced scramble requiring a rope for protection, and you should turn back and consult your guidebook.
More difficult scrambles may overlap with rock climbs and have steep, almost vertical sections, making the route less obvious and more challenging to find. You’ll therefore need a good route description and solid route-finding skills to stay on track on harder scrambles.
Entry-level scrambling routes are no more physically demanding than a hard hiking trail. If you’re already in good hiking and backpacking shape, you’ll have no problem making the transition.
If it’s been a while since you last hit the trails, or you’ve never attempted a steep, challenging hike, it’s a good idea to do some training to make scrambling more enjoyable and reduce your risk of injury. You can prepare by starting with some easy hikes, then slowly progress the level of difficulty to longer, steeper, and more challenging routes. Try some hikes with short sections of scrambling, then move on to trails with longer rock scrambles.
If you don’t have access to hiking trails in your area, there are tons of ways you can improve your physical preparedness at home or at a regular gym. You can find detailed training tips in our posts about mountain hiking and hiking exercises.
You’ll also want to prepare for the mental aspects and psychological challenges of scrambling. In order to remain calm and focused on the route, scramblers must be comfortable with exposure, significant drop-offs, and the risk of falling. If you’re afraid of heights, scrambling is probably not the right pursuit for you. That said, there are ways you can safely confront your fears (such as in a rock climbing gym or rappelling/abseiling course) and learn to manage and overcome them with time.
It’s crucial to understand and be realistic about your own skill level. Scrambling requires good judgment and solid decision-making skills to ensure you don’t end up somewhere you can’t get out of. Do not attempt to scramble a route that’s too difficult or technically challenging for you, as the consequences can be disastrous.
Most hiking trails allow you to safely turn back at any time, but that’s not always the case with scrambles – especially more challenging routes. You should always evaluate whether you can safely get back down before going any further. If the answer is no, it’s best to turn around and down-climb while you still can.
Since easy scrambles often overlap with hiking trails, there may be an escape route where you can move to easier terrain. On more challenging scrambles, however, it may not be possible to descend until you reach the top or find a natural anchor to abseil off of. It’s therefore essential that you only attempt routes you are capable of completing and that you have the knowledge needed to get down safely.
Look for a good guidebook or hiking app that has detailed route descriptions to help you with selecting a trail, route-finding, and planning your descent. If you’re using a hiking app, make sure it works offline so you can access it in areas without service. If you’re using a guidebook, you can bring the entire book or make a photocopy and take a picture of the pages, route maps, and descriptions you need before you head out. That way, you’ll have them with you without needing to bring the entire book.
Heading out with someone more experienced than you is an excellent way to learn how to scramble safely. If possible, find a mentor who is willing to share their knowledge with you. You can check local forums and social media groups, as well as climbing gyms in your area, to find a scrambling partner and mentor. Some areas – especially in the UK and Canada – offer scrambling courses where you can learn from experts. This is a great way to develop your skills in a safe environment and meet other people near you who are interested in scrambling.
To work on your skills and footwork, go to a rock climbing gym in your area and practice ascending the artificial walls and boulders with your hands and feet. This is an excellent way to develop technical skills and learn about hand and foot placements, as well as fantastic physical training.
Good foot placement is an essential component of learning to scramble better and tackling more challenging routes. As you progress, you’ll want to learn techniques like smearing, edging, and wedging. You can practice these techniques in a climbing gym, but it’s best to try them outdoors while wearing the same shoes you’ll wear scrambling.
Smearing is where you rely on friction to push your way up the rock and works best when the ground is dry. It works by placing your foot so that the maximum amount of sole rubber is contacting the rock. Edging is a technique where you use the perimeter of your shoe, especially the toe and sides, to utilize small ledges and edges protruding from the rock surface. Wedging involves sticking your foot into a crack or crevice and using the friction to help you get a secure footing.
Before committing to a foothold with your whole weight, you want to make sure that it’s solid and will support you. You can tap on the rock, nudge it, and test it by weighing it lightly before fully committing. Take it slow, and don’t rush things. This is crucial as you’re developing your footwork and learning how to manage your center of gravity in a more vertical environment.
If you’re comfortable and confident on easy scrambles and want to take your skills to the next level, the next step is to learn rope skills and more sophisticated climbing and movement techniques.
You can find a trustworthy mentor who is willing to teach you these things or enroll in a course with a guide. Look for climbing schools and workshops in your area, ideally offered outdoors. These courses will teach you valuable skills, including how to rappel or abseil, build anchors, find natural protection, and place protective gear.
No special equipment is required when you’re new to scrambling. You can begin this exhilarating activity and learn the skills you need with standard hiking gear, including:
- Trail running shoes or hiking boots with good grip
- Durable, moisture-wicking clothing that is appropriate for the weather conditions
- Insulating layers
- Waterproof layers
When you head out for a scrambling adventure, you should pack the same things you would bring on a challenging hike. We won’t get into the details here since we’ve covered this in-depth in our backpacking checklist.
Once you begin to progress to more difficult routes, you should consider investing in the following gear items:
- Helmet: A helmet is important for protecting your head if you fall and in the event of falling rocks and debris. Choose a lightweight helmet designed for sports like rock climbing and mountaineering.
- Approach shoes or mountain boots: Technical scrambles require more specialized footwear with features that make them better for steep, rocky terrain. Often used by rock climbers, approach shoes are a hybrid between a hiking boot and a rock climbing shoe. They have very sticky rubber that grips the rock well, a stiffer sole for better edging ability, and a narrower toe box allowing you to cram your feet into cracks and pockets in the rock. There are low-cut styles that hit below the ankle and high-cut versions (sometimes referred to as mountain boots) with more ankle support.
- Rope: Scramblers use ropes for protection on challenging sections while ascending the route and occasionally to abseil down. A 30-meter climbing rope about 9mm to 10mm in diameter is sufficient for most scrambles. You can check your guidebook or online route descriptions to confirm it is suitable for your needs.
- Harness: You’ll need a harness if you want to protect yourself with the rope and for an abseil descent. Look for a lightweight harness geared towards alpine climbing and mountaineering. Since you won’t need it all the time, you can easily stow this in your pack until you reach the steeper sections of the route.
- Belay device and locking carabiner: Many routes have a way to walk off the top, but some steeper scrambles may require an abseil descent – especially if you need to turn back before reaching the summit. You’ll need a belay device and locking carabiner to rappel down and to belay your partner during steep sections on the ascent.
- Slings, nuts, and other protection: These items are used to secure yourself while ascending using the natural features of the rock and trees. You don’t need to worry about buying these items until you are ready for difficult scrambles and know how to place gear and build anchors.
- Gloves: You’ll get the best grip on the rock with your bare hands, but gloves make belaying and rappelling much more comfortable since they reduce friction and potential rope burn on your hands. They are also essential in cold environments. Many climbing companies make sturdy gloves that are perfect for belaying and rappelling.
As with any outdoor activity, there are dangers and risks associated with scrambling that you should be aware of. Many of these risks can be mitigated with good preparation and planning, realistic expectations, and a strong skill set, but other things may be out of your control. It’s important to recognize the potential hazards and embark on a scrambling adventure with full awareness of the risks involved. Here are the major dangers associated with scrambling.
Just like with hiking, it’s essential to monitor the weather and come prepared for a sudden change of conditions when scrambling. The exposed rocky areas that scrambling routes traverse often experience sudden storms, strong winds, lightning strikes, fog, cold temperatures, and other inclement weather that make scrambling more dangerous and challenging. For example, high winds can make exposed ridges extremely scary, while rainstorms can turn gullies into raging waterfalls.
Monitor the weather in the days leading up to your scramble and check current conditions before heading out. If the conditions are not ideal, it’s better to avoid attempting the scramble. You can find a different route with better conditions or wait until the weather is more suitable for a safe scrambling adventure. Even if the forecast looks perfect, you should pack plenty of layers and the 10 essentials, including extra food and water, a first aid kit and emergency kit, and a headlamp with extra batteries.
Generally, scrambling grades are only applicable if the rock is dry and free from snow and ice. If you try a route when the rock is wet, icy, or snowy, understand that it will be significantly more challenging, with an increased risk of slipping and falling. In fact, when scrambling routes are covered with ice and snow, it’s no longer considered scrambling and becomes winter mountaineering or alpine climbing. These are entirely different disciplines with a different set of skills, knowledge, and equipment required.
Falling rocks are a potential hazard in all rocky areas and are more likely during rainy seasons and freeze-thaw cycles. Sometimes the rocks fall down naturally, while other times they are accidentally knocked over by people above you. If you’re in an area prone to rockfall or scrambling on a heavily trafficked route, it’s a good idea to wear a helmet to protect your head from falling rocks and other debris.
Falls while hiking, trail running, and walking can also result in injury or death, but the stakes are typically higher when scrambling due to the exposure and significant drop-offs. It’s unlikely that you’ll be fatally injured while scrambling if you take the proper precautions, but it is a risk that you must be aware of.
Following the tips above about monitoring the weather and trail conditions and knowing your own limits can help you scramble more safely. Still, accidents can happen even when you’re incredibly well prepared and qualified for the task at hand.
There are many ways you can find an appropriate scrambling route for your abilities. Guidebooks, hiking and trail-finding apps, and scrambling websites are excellent places to start. Look for easy, beginner-friendly routes that are considered challenging hikes or graded as easy scrambles with no protective gear required. Here are a few digital resources to start finding scrambling routes.
Many easy scrambling routes are available through AllTrails. There is even a scrambling tag you can look for when evaluating routes. With the free version of AllTrails, you can find routes, read reviews from other users, create custom maps, navigate when you have cell reception, and keep a log of your hikes and scrambles. You’ll need to upgrade to AllTrails Pro ($29.99 per year) if you want to download maps and use them offline or use the Lifeline feature to inform friends and family of your whereabouts.
UK Scrambles is a comprehensive resource for scramblers in England, Wales, and Scotland. The website allows you to explore scrambles filtered by region and grade. It also provides route descriptions, maps, and trail information like elevation gain, expected time commitment, parking and accommodation information, and more.
Mountain Project, a free rock climbing website and app backed by outdoor retailer REI, has information for hundreds of 3rd and 4th class scrambles. Many of the scrambles listed are in the US and Canada, but you can find routes all over the world. The site is free to access and provides route descriptions, recommended safety gear (also called protection), reviews and ratings, and user-submitted photos.
We won’t get into scrambles in every country, but here are some great places and routes for beginners to scramble in the US, Canada, and the UK.
The UK is full of incredible scrambling destinations. While not known for its high altitude, the UK’s geography and geology have created rocky mountain ridges and expansive gullies that are perfect for scrambling. The routes below are classic scrambles rated as Grade 1. They are suitable for experienced hikers who are new to scrambling.
- Tryfan, Snowdonia, Wales
- Crib Goch, Snowdonia, Wales
- Sharp Edge, Lake District, England
- Jack’s Rake, Lake District, England
- CMD Route, Ben Nevis, Scottish Highlands
- Striding Edge, Helvellyn, Lake District, England
- Goat Crag, Coniston Old Man, Lake District, England
- Red Brook, Kinder Scout, Peak District, England
Formal scrambling in the US is not as established as it is in the UK, but there are many challenging hikes that qualify as beginner scrambles. The routes below all have sections that fall under Class 3 in the Yosemite Decimal System and are suitable for new scramblers with extensive hiking experience.
- Knife’s Edge, Katahdin, Maine
- The Labyrinth, Mohonk Preserve, New York
- Old Rag Mountain Loop, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
- Southwest Ridge of Mt. Sneffels, Colorado
- Grandfather Trail, Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina
- Black Mountain Crest to Deep Gap Trail, North Carolina
- Kelso Ridge, Torreys Peak, Colorado (this route has one optional Class 4 section that is not recommended for beginners)
The Canadian Rockies contain an incredibly high concentration of world-class alpine climbing routes and numerous excellent scrambles. Many scrambling routes in Canada are too difficult for absolute beginners, due in part to the high elevation and tall, exposed peaks. Here are a few easier scrambles suitable for well-versed hikers with some scrambling experience and good route-finding skills.
- Mt. Yamnuska, Bow Valley Provincial Park, Alberta
- Heart Mountain, Bow Valley Provincial Park, Alberta
- Mt. Baldy Trail, Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park, Alberta
- Yak Peak, Coquihalla Summit Recreation Area, British Columbia
- Cypress Peak, Brandywine Falls Park, British Columbia
- Mount Cook, Whistler, British Columbia
Scrambling is a physically and mentally demanding pursuit that is an excellent next step for hikers seeking an additional challenge. While there are risks and dangers you must be aware of, scrambling is an incredibly rewarding activity that can be done safely with sound judgment and the right knowledge, skills, and equipment.