What is Scrambling in Hiking? A Beginner’s Guide

In this article, we embark on how scrambling differs from rock climbing, hiking, and mountaineering and take a deeper dive into the various grading systems.

Kieran Avatar
Written by: | Reviewed by: Brian Conghalie
Last Update:

With any new pursuit, it’s a good idea to find out what you are letting yourself in for before jumping in at the deep end. In this guide, we aim to give you the full lowdown on scrambling, providing a short definition, an explanation of the grades, tips for beginners, and a list of some of the best scrambles in North America and elsewhere.

Ready to learn more about scrambling? Read on to find out and join in the fun!

Key Takeaways

  • Scrambling in a nutshell – Using both your hands and feet to ascend steep, often exposed rocky terrain
  • Level up – It has its own grading system, which varies from country to country
  • Warning – While not as technical as rock climbing, scrambling can be every bit as dangerous without adequate experience and safety equipment
  • Be prepared – Scrambling requires a good head for heights, good decision making, appropriate gear, and, on harder scrambles, proficient ropework
  • Enjoy – Scrambling is fun!

Scrambling Defined

In a few words, scrambling can be described as a middle ground between hiking/hill walking and technical climbing in which you have to use your hands to progress in exposed and steep terrain.

hiker scambling
You need to use your hands, as well as your feet in scrambling.

Scrambling Grades Explained

As is the case in rock climbing, the grades assigned to scrambling vary from country to country.

In North America, rock scrambles are graded using the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). In this system, routes range from Class 1 (hiking) to Class 4 (moderate/easy rock climbing). The threshold to technical rock climbing is crossed at Class 5.

  • Class 1: Normal hiking.
  • Class 2: More challenging hiking in which you’ll need to use your hands and feet. 
  • Class 3: More sustained routes with steeper sections and exposed sections.
  • Class 4: Technical ascents in terrain where a fall would result in serious injury or death. Similar to moderate rock climbs.
  • Class 5: Moderate rock climbing for which ropes are required.

In the UK, the grading system for rock scrambles ranges from grade 1 to grade 4.

  • Grade 1: A difficult hike with some sections of easier scrambling with limited exposure.
  • Grade 2: A longer, more exposed, and more sustained scramble on which a rope might be necessary for inexperienced scramblers.
  • Grade 3: Technical scrambling in exposed, no-fall terrain. A rope will be necessary for more exposed, challenging, and steep sections. 
  • Grade 4: The point where scrambling and climbing/mountaineering meet. Only to be undertaken by climbers with extensive scrambling experience. Expect steep slopes, difficulty in finding routes, loose rock, increased exposure, and/or technical passages. 

Scrambling Tips

1. Route Selection

When starting out, choose a route that isn’t too technical, exposed, or committed. Cut your teeth on lower grades and then progress to harder routes once you’ve gained confidence and improved your technique. 

When choosing a route, pay close attention to descriptions online or in guidebooks. Numerous routes at the lower end of the grade scale have a “crux” or “bad step” where you’ll encounter more exposure or trickier moves than elsewhere on the route. If these feel above your pay grade, find another route or be sure to take a rope.

hikers scrambling grade 1
Easy scrambling on a Grade 1 ridge. ©Kieran Cunningham/My Open Country®

2. Find the Right Footwear 

Even the most basic scrambles require good foot placements – something that’s tricky to achieve with a pair of trail runners or regular hiking shoes. A pair of more technical approach shoes with a grippy rubber outsole, more low-profile toe, and a slightly stiffer sole will make a world of difference. Our favorites? The La Sportiva TX4.

Otherwise, appropriate clothing for scrambling is the same as for hiking.

3. Do It On a Dry Day

As all rock climbers will tell you, climbing wet rock is no fun, and, for obvious reasons, far more dangerous than climbing dry rock. Before setting off on a scramble, check the forecast carefully and don’t attempt after periods of rain, particularly if the route is north-facing and likely to dry slowly.

scrambling on a dry day
Climbing wet rock is never fun, schedule your scrambling during dry weather. ©Kieran Cunningham/My Open Country®

4. Maintain Three Points of Contact

Ensuring you have three points of contact at all times (two hands and one foot or vice-versa) will help you maintain your balance and reduce the risk of falling if you slip. 

three points of contact in scrambling
The formula is always two hands + one foot or vice versa! ©Kieran Cunningham/My Open Country®

5. Get the Gear

Even on easy scrambles, we recommend wearing a helmet and roping up with a partner. Even if you’re a competent scrambler, there’s always a risk of rockfall, slipping, or encountering loose handholds, all of which could spell disaster if you don’t have protection for your head or the security of a rope.

If you don’t want to carry a trad rack when using a rope, we recommend taking a few slings and carabiners to thread spikes, chockstones, or other features. Particularly on steeper routes of a higher technical difficulty. On trickier routes, a small rack of wires, cams, and/or hexes will be useful.

climber with a trad rack
There are risks in scrambling, ensure that you have gear like a trad rack if you are using a rope.

6. Test the Rock

Before committing to any move, make sure to test handholds and footholds by placing weight on them. As above, only do so when you have three other solid points of contact.

test the rock
Test the rock you are about to put your weight onto!

7. Find a Descent Route

Going up is always far easier than going down, whether you’re hiking or scrambling. Given this, we recommend identifying a safe descent on which you can walk off the top of the route rather than attempting to downclimb it. 

climbing down
Rather than scrambling back down, choose an easier descent where you can just walk off the top of the route.

10 Awesome Scrambling Routes Worldwide

  1. The Sawtooth, Mt. Evans, Colorado (YDS 3)
  2. Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah (YDS 3)
  3. Curved Ridge, Buachaille Etive Mòr, Scotland (YDS 3)
  4. Forbes Route, Baboquivari Peak, Arizona (YDS 5)
  5. Weavers Needle West Face, Arizona (YDS 5)
  6. Crib Goch, Snowdon, Wales
  7. Aonach Eagach Ridge, Glencoe, Scotland
  8. Devil’sThumb, Banff National Park, Canada (YDS 1–2)
  9. Mt Superior South Ridge, Utah (YDS 1–2)
  10. Pinnacle Ridge, Lake District, England
angels landing zion national park
Angels Landing, Zion National Park.

What is Scrambling in Hiking? Final Thoughts

Scrambling is a hiking-climbing hybrid activity that lets you enjoy some of the thrills of rock climbing without quite so much risk. If you’ve already cut your teeth on the trails, it provides an excellent way to up your game and take on new challenges.

We hope this article has inspired you to give scrambling a go and we would love to hear about any awesome scrambles or tips we might have missed out. Let us know in the comments box below! And if your friends are wondering ‘what is scrambling in hiking?’ then share this post with them too!

Last update on 2023-10-03 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Kieran Avatar

Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

Kieran has taught mountaineering, ice climbing, and single-pitch and multi-pitch rock climbing in a variety of contexts over the years and has led trekking and mountaineering expeditions in the Alps, Rockies, and UK. He is currently working towards qualifying as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and International Mountain Leader.

Kieran’s book Climbing the Walls—an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors—is scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in April 2021.

Articles - Email - Linkedin - Facebook - Instagram

Leave a Comment