What Is Scrambling In Hiking: A Comprehensive Guide

The cool clear air, the endless blue sky, the dense patches of forest trees, the mountains, can it get any better? We both know that hiking is one of our most enjoyable outdoor activities. Although…see that steep rock face to your side? Wait, it’s not that steep…is climbing it possible? You whip out your phone, but despite being nowhere near a Wi-Fi spot, you risk using data and search for some answers.

Throughout your brief digital journey, you notice the term “scrambling” a lot. Some references mention “hiking” as well. Just what is scrambling in hiking anyway? In this article, we’ll go over a simple explanation covering “scrambling,” what you can do to prepare for it, some of the different scrambling grading systems used, and some other interesting facts about this tough but fun experience.

What Is Scrambling and How Is It Defined?

Scrambling is defined as “a walk up steep terrain involving the use of one’s hands”. Think of it as a hybrid between rock climbing and hiking. If anything you do involves scrambling, you’ll be using your hands at some point to either help you climb or steady yourself against steep edges.

Are you getting nervous yet? No need to worry! Later on, we’ll go over various grading systems so you can set your experience level.

If your acrophobia levels aren’t too high, then as long as you keep a level head and equip a bit of scrambling knowledge before your new journey, you’ll be able to take on some beginner-level scrambling areas.

Naturally, just like any skill, it takes time and practice to develop. As the definition puts it, it’s “steep” terrain. This means you’ll be exerting more effort and therefore need to learn how to climb a tad. The more challenging scrambling trails will require more climbing, but not as much as scaling up a rock face using a rope and belay system.

What Is the Scrambling Grading System?

As we looked at earlier, grading systems that define which trails are which and who should and shouldn’t go on them. Depending on which country you decide to scramble and hike in, they will vary.

Scrambling Grading System in the US

The US uses the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), which comes with several grade levels. Developed in the 1950s at Yosemite Valley, this system has a total of five classes. The lower the number, the lower the difficulty level.

At the lowest, “classes 1-2,” you probably did trails like these all the time last season and didn’t even realize it. Involving “hiking” and “trail running,” most people can expect to do these trails without much difficulty. And by difficulty, we mean being aware of the weather, don’t go alone, equipping the right equipment, you know, things you usually do before going on a long hike.

In the case of classes three and up, expect to climb steeper slopes and rock faces. It would be wise to start climbing a bit more on your usual hikes to get the necessary experience.

Specifically, start planning for trails that deal with grade 2 or higher if you’re in good shape and have someone to go with. We’ll touch up on the safety aspects a bit later. The most you can expect out of a grade two trail is the “use of hands is possible to likely.” Once you step onto a grade three route, expect to use your hands indefinitely, as they will be “necessary” to finish the trail.

It’s recommended that before you even depart, you should brush up on exercises that improve core strength and work capacity. This needs to be combined with “weekly to bi-weekly” outdoor cardio excursions that you can either take in the city or on a mountain trail. If you’re bringing equipment with you (you will need it on more challenging trails), wear it when you exercise during cardio. That can mean strapping on your backpack, your large water bottle, a first aid kit, food, and bear spray; yeah, you’ll need to get used to all of it.

For gyms, try picking places that include many “CrossFit” options you can include in a workout. By combining cardio with muscle building, such as push-ups and burpees, you’ll be preparing both your upper and lower body strength for slopes that go up and down. That’s right, going down is said to be more difficult than climbing up!

Scrambling Grade System in the UK

The UK uses a different system and only has grades 1 to 3. However, their definitions of what necessitates an increase in grade differ slightly from the YDS. Anything above grade one should only be attempted by those with experience and some climbing equipment. Oh, and don’t forget your scrambling buddy!

The only thing higher than a three is defined as a “3S” and should only be tackled by a seasoned scrambler. The US equivalent would be grade four, and you’ll definitely need some rock climbing equipment and lessons.

These systems are here for a reason: people’s safety. Consider going on a higher grade trail similar to swimming in deeper waters out in the ocean. There’s going to be more risk to anyone involved.

How to Prepare for Scrambling

We highly recommend taking a course to get the fundamentals down. Even if you have the right equipment, you’ll still need to know how to use it.

Some of that equipment will include, but might not be limited to:

  • Helmet
  • Sunglasses
  • Full water bottle
  • Bear spray
  • First aid items
  • Meals and snacks
  • “Daypack” (essentially a water pouch)
  • Blister kit
  • Camera
  • Sunscreen
  • SPF lip balm

And for what you might need to wear, consider bringing any of the following:

  • Gloves
  • Sun hat
  • Waterproof hard shell pants
  • Socks
  • Hiking boots
  • Midweight synthetic or down jacket (gets colder at higher elevations)
  • Waterproof hard shell jacket with hood

Whereas bringing helmets for lower-level scrambling trails might seem a bit unnecessary, during a course, you might be expected to walk trails that are steeper than what you’re used to, so consider the potential falls. This can be especially important for rock climbing, as the risks of getting concussions in that activity become pretty high.

Consider investing in a good quality pair of hiking boots to pair with the helmet (Further reading: How to break in hiking boots). Your feet will need better protection against hard surfaces and a better grip on slippery ground. Your instructors will probably require you to bring that combo if you sign up.

And the essential part of preparing? Keeping safe. Use common sense, especially on trails you’re not used to. This can include anything from being aware of your surroundings to how we recommend you group up when traveling with others to having the right insurance before setting foot on a scrambling trail.

Something important to note is the potential increase in falls that you’ll come across. It might not seem like much at first, but imagine falling from that. Would your body be able to handle it? Could you land on your feet?

Know what your body can take and what it can’t. Sure, it’s good to push past our physical limits, especially when we want to try something more challenging, but avoid doing anything that could result in a trip to the emergency room. If your wrists get too sore climbing up that rocky slope, try finding another way around rather than letting your hands get tired and letting go.

Other Interesting Scrambling Facts

In countries like Poland and Slovakia, an aspiring scrambler will need to hire a mountain guide for more challenging trails, especially within the Tatras mountain range. You can try other tourist trails if scaling a mountain sounds too difficult.

Oh yeah, and the UK? Some trails are so worn out from footfalls that once you encounter a trail with a “bad step,” you’ll have to finish the whole thing, meaning you might not be able to go back the way you came!

In Italy, they have a specialized trail called a “via Ferrata,” areas with “built-in” equipment such as steel cables, rungs, bridges, and ladders. Meaning “iron path,” these trails shouldn’t be taken lightly. You may not need climbing equipment, but you’ll still need some good upper and lower body strength to ascend and descend those areas.

In the US, here’s a list of states that are known for their hiking trails:

  • Nevada
  • Oregon
  • California
  • Arizona
  • Utah
  • Wyoming
  • Montana
  • New York
  • Massachusetts

Each state on this list features areas with mountainous and steep terrain. There’s a lot more out there than Yosemite Valley!

Don’t forget about Canada! Try exploring the Canadian Rockies for those challenging scrambling trails if you’re ever in the country!

Experts point to cold weather being the top contender for the most common hazard a scrambler will face. Case in point, bring something to keep you warm. Remember those hiking boots we mentioned earlier?

Hiking boots will keep those feet much more toasty than lighter footwear such as sneakers. They can also be quite waterproof, meaning you’ll be dry and warm. Oh yeah, bring some waterproof clothing as well. That helps too.

Conclusion: What Is Scrambling in Hiking?

Even though you might want to tackle a scrambling trail right away, we do recommend that you get a bit of practice and strength training first. Increasing your physical capacity means reducing the risks you might face later on.

Also, bring enough food and water to last you the whole trip. Having a bit of extra energy on hand never hurts.

So maybe you can handle that steep trail, or maybe you’ll need to plan some more days at the gym. As long as you know your physical and mental limits, you might be ready for the scrambling life.

Last Update: 05. May 2022
About the Author

My name is Thomas, and I love the outdoors. I'm currently living in Germany and I would like to encourage my readers to go outside with this blog. Here you can read more about me.