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What is Scrambling in Hiking? The Complete Guide

What is Scrambling in hiking

Scrambling in hiking is when you need to use both of your hands and your feet to traverse an area that you are hiking, usually when you reach a steep rocky area.

It is considered the “middle-ground” between hiking and rock climbing—more complex than regular hiking but not requiring the special equipment of rock climbing.

As you assess what type of trail you will be mountaineering, sometimes the description or notes about it will indicate that it requires you to rock scramble in certain areas.

When you see this note in the description, you know that the hike will be more complex than walking up the hill or mountain on a path. 

What Is the Meaning of Scramble?

When you look up the meaning of scramble, the Cambridge English Dictionary defines scramble as “to move or climb quickly but with difficulty, often by using your hands to help you.”

As you can see, this definition implies that the action involves some level of degree of difficulty and will provide you with a different experience than a regular hike. 

How Do You Prepare to Scramble? 

hiking scrambling
Karen scrambling – Courtesy of garshna @ Flickr

The most important thing that you can do when you prepare to scramble during a mountain climb is to know the route that you intend to take.

You need to have a good awareness of the areas that will require you to scramble, any risks you might encounter on the route (such as loose rocks), and have a plan for how you will return back in the event something unexpected happens. 

You should also make sure that you have the proper gear that you need to complete the climb successfully.

Although scrambling does not require the extensive equipment and ropes that rock climbing does, you will need to have proper hiking boots and may want to take along hiking gloves as well to protect your hands from swelling and provide a better grip. 

Read more: Best Winter Gloves

Scrambling vs Bouldering 

Scrambling vs Bouldering
The visual difference between bouldering and scrambling

Bouldering and scrambling are not the same things. Bouldering is a popular form of rock climbing that involves technical moves and requires great strength.

The individual scales a large boulder (usually less than 15 feet high) without any ropes or gear and must figure out the maneuvers (called problems) as they climb.

Although scrambling does not require ropes either, it does not involve climbing vertically up a rock but rather using your hands and feet to move over a rocky area as you make your way up a mountain. 

How Hard is Scrambling? 

As we saw with the definition of a scramble, you can expect a certain degree of difficulty on routes where you will need to rock scramble in certain areas.

There are different difficulty levels assigned to forms of scrambling, and as a hiker, you should be aware of what level is assigned to your route before you attempt to take it on.

Beginners should stick to the lowest scrambling grade level. The higher-level grades of rock scrambling require significant experience and skill.

It would not be safe for a beginner to attempt these levels, as they often require rock climbing experience. 

Related Article: What Is a Switchback in Hiking?

US Scrambling Classes (Grades) Explained 

In the United States, the difficulty of scrambling is broken down into the following five classes (or grades). You should always be aware of which grade your hike falls into before attempting it. 

Class 1

Class 1 is the easiest level of hiking. These hikes are suitable for any level, and no hands are generally required to traverse over the landscape.

Any rocks you encounter, you will be able to walk over. 

Class 2 

This class level will involve some hands-on scrambling by the individual, meaning that there will be areas where you have to use your hands for both support and balance.

There are chances for the scrambler to fall and get hurt, but usually not serious injuries.  

Class 3 

If you attempt a class 3 scramble, you will need to use your hands and feet together more frequently, and the moves you need to make will be more moderately difficult.

If you fall during this type of scramble, you could break a bone. This level requires extensive experience. 

Class 4

Only expert-level scramblers should attempt class 4 scrambles. This level involves extremely technical moves and usually occurs over terrain that is exposed.

A fall from this type of terrain and difficulty level could result in death. 

Class 5 

Class 5 refers to technical rock climbing that would require a rope, and only experienced climbers with the proper equipment, strength, and technical knowledge should attempt these. 

UK Scrambling Classes (Grades) Explained

In the UK, the scrambling classes are broken down into the following four levels of difficulty. 

Class 1 

Refers to a hike that has a degree of difficulty and will require some hands-on scrambling to complete it successfully. It is generally an exposed walking route without presenting too many difficulties. 

Class 2

This level intensifies in difficulty and involves scrambling across challenging terrain. Some Class 2 scrambling routes may require ropes.

This level is a step closer to technical rock climbing and requires some experience. 

Class 3 

When you reach class 3, the scrambling is very tough and usually requires some roping at points.

These types of scrambles require dry conditions and should only be attempted by the confident and experienced climber, as some of them can be considered “difficult” for rock climbing standards. 

Class 4

Class 4 scrambles are extremely difficult climbs that always require ropework and should only be attempted by those skilled in mountaineering with the proper experience, technical knowledge, and equipment.

Inexperienced rock climbers should not attempt class 4 scrambles.

You, who know that all the bruises and scrapes from scrambling and rambling are the best because they remind you of being alive.

Madison Perrins, Content Creator

6 Rock Scrambling Tips and Recommendations

scrambling to the top of the mountain
Scrambling to the Top of the Mountain – Courtesy of nineonesix @ Flickr

If you’re venturing out on a trail that will require scrambling, there are a few things you can do to make your experience as safe and enjoyable as possible.

The following tips will help you to best prepare for your adventure. 

Have the Right Gear 

Although scrambling does not require an extensive amount of gear, the few things that you should have are a pair of good hiking boots and some gloves to protect your hands over the rocky areas.

flat feet hiking boots

Make sure that you break in your hiking boots in advance, as the last thing you want is to be in the middle of a hike with a pair of uncomfortable boots.

The boots you select should be sturdy enough to handle the terrain but also flexible enough to allow you to move without restriction. 

Beginning scramblers should also wear a helmet for head protection.

A lightweight backpack will carry other essentials, such as a windbreaker, a good hiking water bottle to keep you hydrated, and the right food for hiking

Plan Your Route 

Before you start on a hike that requires a scramble, make sure to refer to guidebooks and learn about the area where you will be scrambling.

You need to be very familiar with the slope that you will take and plan your exact route ahead of time. We also recommend having a GPS or compass to help you navigate your route. 

Another thing to remember is the importance of planning your descent back, as your hike involves more than just getting to the top.

Many scramblers say that the way back down is more complicated and dangerous, typically involving more slips and falls due to gravity pulling you down.

If you can find a different switchback trail on the way back, it might be beneficial and safer. 

Test Your Hand and Foot Holds 

testing Hand and Foot Holds when scrambling
Testing Hand Holds When Scrambling
Courtesy of Lena Heffern @ Flickr

Make sure that your hands and feet maintain proper contact at all times as they help you to maintain your balance.

Test all of your hand and foot holds before you commit to them. You need to make sure that the rock is not loose and can handle your weight before you transfer to it.

Never assume that a hand or foothold will hold your weight without testing it. You can also come across a loose one. 

Know the Weather Conditions 

Dry conditions make the best weather for scrambling because of the hazard of slipping and falling.

Always be aware of the current and expected weather conditions before you embark on a hike that will require a scramble. 

Have a Partner With You 

Even the most experienced scramblers can run into trouble on the terrain.

Having another person with you will give you the peace of mind of knowing that should you encounter trouble along the way, another person can help you or call for help. 

Take Your Time 

Although the definition of scrambling uses the word “quickly,” you do not need to rush along the routes, especially if you are starting out.

Moving too quickly will set you up to make mistakes, such as using loose hand holds. A simple slip or fall can cause a severe injury, and it is better to take your time and get to your destination safely. 

How is Scrambling Different From Climbing? 

scrambling vs rock climbing
Difference between scrambling and rock climbing.

In rock climbing, you are ascending vertically up the face of a larger rock or boulder. Because of the very vertical ascent, you need a rope and technical ability to do the climb.

In scrambling, your ascent is more gradual, so it does not require special equipment. 

What is a Scramble Walk? 

A scramble walk refers to a type of hike that involves walking for a portion of the trail and then scrambling across rocks on other parts of the trail to get to the destination.

It is like hillwalking but requires the use of hands and feet in certain areas. 

Can You Scramble in Hiking Boots? 

Yes, a good pair of hiking boots are essentially the only equipment that you need to start scrambling.

The boots should be well-broken in, strong but flexible, and have a sturdy toe area to help with your footholds. 

Depending on your foot type, we recommend you check our guides on the best-hiking boots for flat feet or hiking boots for wide feet.