A Hiker’s Guide To Scrambling + 10 Tips To Get Started And Stay Safe

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If you’ve spent some time hiking, you may have heard the term scrambling, or rock scrambling, or perhaps you’ve had a chance to do some on your hikes without even knowing it.

But what is rock scrambling in hiking? How is it different from hiking? What are tips that hikers can use to navigate rocky outcrops safer and more efficiently?

In this article, we will discuss rock scrambling hikes and best practices for this challenging activity.

We will cover: 

  • What Is Rock Scrambling In Hiking?
  • Rock Scrambling Vs. Hiking and Rock Climbing
  • Rock Scrambling Trails
  • Rock Scrambling Difficulty Levels
  • Tips To Get Started

Let’s get started!

A person on top of a large rock formation.

What Is Rock Scrambling In Hiking?

Rock scrambling, often shortened to just scrambling, is a form of hiking that involves using both your hands and feet to traverse rocky boulder fields or rocky mountaintops.

Although it’s related to hiking and climbing, it is considered a distinct activity in its own right.

It’s extremely strenuous and, given the difficulty, speed, or pace that you can cover a mile, is much slower than that of most hiking trails.

Rock Scrambling Vs. Hiking and Rock Climbing

Although scrambling shares many of the same characteristics as both hiking and rock climbing, there are distinct differences as well.

Both activities take place outdoors, and both activities do not involve the use of a harness.

Many hikers need to scramble when the trail they are hiking on ascends to a mountaintop.

Many mountain tops are bald in terms of tree coverage and soft ground, covered only by jagged boulders or smaller fields of rock. This is where hiking becomes rock scrambling, as hikers may need to use their hands and feet together to “scramble” on all fours across the boulder field to the summit.

Therein lies the primary difference between rock scrambling and hiking: scrambling takes place only on rocks or boulder fields and uses your feet and hands for locomotion, whereas hiking can take place on a trail on any kind of terrain (dirt, grass, pebbles, rocks) and is performed upright walking with just the feet.

A person rock scrambling.

Therefore, the form you use for rock scrambling—or the technique—is quite different from normal walking

You amble on all fours, using your feet and hands together, without putting your knees down. You can envision “walking” with the hands and feet in a reciprocal gait rather than jumping the two hands and then the two feet.

Scrambling usually takes place on fairly steep slopes, which is primarily why the hands are used, but the hands also provide traction and support on unsteady rocks. 

The other primary difference is that hiking takes place on defined trails, and scrambling typically does not. 

In many cases, there aren’t set ”scrambling trails” with clear markers of which way to go. 

Rock scrambling shares some of the same characteristics as rock climbing, and they both require the use of the hands and feet, and both can scale pretty steep rock faces.

However, rock climbing uses safety gear such as harnesses and ropes, whereas rock scrambling does not. 

Additionally, rock climbing is typically performed up steeper rock faces that are essentially vertical, while rock scrambling hikes can be anywhere from a nearly flat boulder field to a steep mountain peak.

Based on the differences between rock climbing, hiking, and rock scrambling, it can be said that rock scrambling falls just about in the middle between hiking and rock climbing as sort of a hybrid of the two activities.

A person rock climbing.

Rock Scrambling Trails

As mentioned, scrambling often takes place on rocky surfaces that lack a defined path or trail.

A scrambling trail is, therefore, usually much more informal than a hiking trail, if there’s a “trail” at all.

Without trail markers, rock scramblers make up their own path as they navigate the rocky incline, adding a mental challenge to most adventures.

Indeed, one of the main difficulties is having the mental endurance to maintain clarity in your strategy as you navigate long scrambles.

Scramblers need to stay focused even as they fatigue. Otherwise, they will go off course and not reach the peak.

Therefore, one of the key skills for a successful rock scrambler is the ability to spot the summit and stay on course toward reaching it, even if that means taking an indirect route so they can scramble up a more manageable path.

Poeple rock scrambling.

Rock Scrambling Difficulty Levels

Despite the fact that rock scrambling sounds like a free-for-all activity, there’s actually more organization than you might think.

For example, there’s an official grading system that describes the difficulty in a hierarchy.

Here are the three tiers in the grading system:

Grade 1

A grade 1 scramble is the easiest of the three levels of rock scrambling.

These rock scrambles are the least steep and may not even really require your hands in some parts. For this reason, hikers may navigate through a grade 1 scramble on a mountainside on a regular hike.

However, there may be areas that are steep enough that hikers have to use their hands and begin to scramble.

Grade 1 scramblers are considered entry-level scrambles, so they are ideal for beginners.

Grade 2

Grade 2 scrambles are steeper than grade 1 scrambles and typically longer. Therefore, navigating a grade 2 scramble is more arduous.

Grade 3

Grade 3 scrambles includes very steep slopes, more akin to rock climbing.

These scrambles are only safe for experienced rock scramblers, as they require skill and safety knowledge.

A person rock scrambling.

Tips To Get Started

Because rock scrambling is a bit of a unique activity, many people find it really challenging and awkward at first. 

More importantly, it can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, so it’s vital that you’re properly prepared and skilled enough to handle the scrambles you take on.

Here are some tips:

#1: Know the Risks

Before you do any kind of rock climbing, it’s important to be aware of the inherent risks and have contingency plans in place to mitigate those risks.

Hikers who come across grade 1 rock scrambles on mountaintops may need to revert to scrambling to reach the summit.

Be mindful of loose rock pieces. You may slip or twist an ankle. Sheer rock faces can be quite slippery.

Move slowly and carefully. Rock scrambling isn’t a sport of speed—at least not for beginners. It’s better to go slower than you think you need to go than to risk falling.

Rock scramblers who take on more challenging scrambles should be mindful of steep drop-offs and cliffs. 

Falling can result in serious injuries, if not death. If you get hurt on a mountaintop, it may not be easy or quick to retrieve help.

A mountain scene.

#2: Get the Right Boots

You wouldn’t go on a long hike in old tennis shoes, and you shouldn’t go rock scrambling without proper footwear. 

Hiking boots with good traction will ensure you can grip the rocks without slipping. You also need to have ample mobility in the ankle so that you have unrestricted movement.

For this reason, low-cut hiking boots often work better than mid-height hiking boots that cover the ankle. 

In this way, the best footwear is sort of a hybrid between hiking boots and rock climbing shoes.

Rock scrambling shoes need a reinforced toe with a sturdy bumper to protect your toes from smashing into the rocks.

#3: Wear Sunglasses

There’s often a glare on rock faces, and many scrambling areas are exposed to the sun. 

Polarized sunglasses can improve contrast and clarity to help you spot nuances in the rocks and stay safe and comfortable without squinting.

A person rock scrambling with gloves.

#4: Wear Sun Protection

This activity mostly takes place on open mountaintops, where you are completely exposed to the sun with little to no tree coverage.

Wearing UV-protective clothing, sunscreen, and a hat are vital steps you should take to protect your skin from sun damage.

#5: Use a Hydration Pack

You will need full use of your hands, so wearing a hydration pack is the easiest way to have water at your convenience.

Make sure your hydration pack is aerodynamic and adjustable so that it stays in place while you move without throwing off your center of balance.

You can also carry other gear and snacks you’ll need in your pack.

#6: Bring Gloves

Leather gloves or full-fingered, padded bike gloves or weightlifting gloves will protect your hands as you rock scramble.

Some scramblers choose not to use gloves, but your hands can get really torn up and sore (sometimes even with gloves!).

Putting on a salve, like Working Hands, is a good practice to get into after your scrambling is over.

It will soothe any sore spots and soften cracked and calloused skin.

A person sitting on a ledge.

#7: Look Out for Snakes

Snakes can hide in the rocks, depending on where you are. Know the wildlife in the areas you scramble to keep yourself safe and calm.

#8: Plan Your Route

Make sure you have a keen sense of the area you’ll be in so that you will have a good idea of the direction you’ll need to head.

Remember, many rock scrambling areas lack trail markings, so you’ll need to navigate on your own.

#9: Bring a Map and Compass

A GPS device, along with a map and compass in case you can’t get a signal, can be a saving grace in case you lose your way.

#10: Think About the Descent

The descent is usually even more dangerous and challenging than the climb.

Do NOT take on a steep rock scramble that you don’t feel you can safely get down.

Plan your descent route as meticulously as the ascent. Keep your center of gravity as low and as far back as possible to prevent falling.

Rock scrambling can be a challenging but rewarding activity. It takes skill and practice but can be a fun way to augment your love of hiking or other outdoor activities.

A person jumping in the air celebrating on a rock.

Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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