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What Hikers Need to Know About Scrambling

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

Scrambling isn’t just something you do to eggs. It’s the term used to describe what you do in those areas where you can no longer walk upright along the trail, yet you don’t need climbing ropes. These sections of the trail are steep but not vertical, often exposed, and compel you to move along on your hands and feet to climb over large rocky areas.

Level of difficulty

Scrambling trails use a grading system to designate their difficulty. These grades vary in different parts of the world, but the following is used commonly in North America. Be sure to research the trail beforehand and read recent reviews, as rock slides can change the landscape, safety, and requirements of scrambling sections.

  • Grade I – These trails require you to climb on your hands and feet but lack severe exposure and don’t require any technical skill.

  • Grade II – Trails with this designation become a little trickier with more exposure and greater drop-offs but likely still require little technical maneuvering or safety equipment.

  • Grade III – Trails of this type will seem more like rock climbing and necessitate harnesses, ropes, and helmets. Previous training or guides are needed when attempting this level of scrambling.

Things to remember when scrambling

  • Assess the climb and determine if you have the appropriate safety equipment for the demands of this adventure.

  • Make sure you’re okay with heights. Scrambles are often on or near ridgelines, so if you’re feeling a bit nervous about the view down, sit this one out.

  • Cinch up your backpack, so it fits securely and snugly against your body. Tuck in any long straps or shoelaces to avoid getting tripped up.

  • Falling rocks sound like clapping, not the rumble you hear in the movies. If you hear clapping, lean into the mountain and cover your head with your arms.

  • Ideally, find a hiking trail to get back down the mountain, as scrambling down is more difficult and dangerous than going up. However, if you’re coming back the same way, make a note of your starting point. You’ll want to be able to target the route to get you back to the start.

  • Wind, water, and even temperature changes can cause shifts and movements in rocks. Be sure to test all hand and footholds before transferring your weight to them to make sure they won’t move. If they do, set them aside carefully and don’t toss them down the mountain below as you could hit other hikers.

  • Don’t blindly go over a boulder. Take a peek before committing to the other side, as there may be a hidden crevasse you could fall into.

  • If you’re scrambling up an area with a lot of vegetation, avoid using it as a contact point if possible. Grabbing onto plants is risky because roots can pull out of the ground, and branches can break, putting you in jeopardy and violating leave no trace principles.

  • Wear snug-fitting gloves. Granite is rough, and arid vegetation often has stickers. Protecting the skin on your hands allows you to be more secure with your contacts and holds, especially if you’re climbing up scree.

  • Keep your eyes on your destination. Scrambling across a rockface or boulder field is a lot like swimming in the ocean. You can quickly lose your point of reference and drift away from your target. Visually check-in with your pre-planned route every two to three moves.

  • Move one limb at a time keeping three points of contact with the trail. Improve your stability by ‘wedging’ your feet into crevices, ‘smearing’ them as flat as possible against the rock to maximize the contact surface area, or using the ‘edge’ of your feet to brace against ledges or outcroppings.

  • Take your time. Slow movements ensure that you are making good choices about contact points. Avoid the temptation to make long reaches. Instead, keep your reaches short and fairly close to your body and your center of gravity back. Also, try moving quietly. Softly placing your hands and feet helps you think about your position and avoid noisily spewing rocks behind you as you desperately grasp for a hold.

  • When downclimbing, the same route will appear steeper. While you might be inclined to go down on your bum, you’ll probably feel more secure descending in the same position as climbing up. Again, take your time and use deliberate movements and foot placements.

To be a better scrambler, you’ll need a training program that emphasizes core strength — and not just your abs — challenges your balance, and increases your confidence. Planks, bear crawl, and crab walk all simulate scrambling movements and get you ready to be rock-solid on the scrambles. The Healthy Hiker virtual training program does all that within the time limits of your busy lifestyle. Schedule a free phone consult with Alicia Filley, PT, MS to find out how this 1:1 custom training program can improve your scrambling skills.

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