Do you love hiking, and want to learn how to go rock scrambling? This guide will walk you through tips on how to scramble safely.
If you're an avid hiker, you may (at times) find yourself hiking on trails that require rock scrambling.
These paths might start off as easy trails but unexpectedly turn into a boulder-filled climb.
Or maybe you love rock scrambling, and search out trails that require a little more effort than placing one foot after another.
Either way, this rock scrambling guide will help you learn more about rock scrambling, including how to scramble safely.
What is Rock Scrambling?
Rock scrambling is a method of climbing up boulders and rocks using both your hands and your feet.
It's not exactly hiking (although you might rock scramble on a hiking trail), because hiking generally involves walking upright.
Is Rock Scrambling the Same as Rock Climbing?
While rock scrambling, you most often use your hands for balance. If you can no longer walk along a rocky path without using your hands to help, you're probably scrambling.
In rock climbing, on the other hand, climbers use their hands to grip rocks to hold and pull their body weight.
Think of rock scrambling as a middle-ground between hiking and rock climbing.
Is This Dangerous?
Just like with hiking trails, there's a wide range of difficulty levels.
Some scrambling will be fairly simple and straightforward, and at other times the ascent (and descent) will be much more difficult (and possibly dangerous).
It's a good idea to do a little research before beginning your scramble so that you know what you're getting into.
Find out how difficult the trail is ahead of time by looking up trail ratings (especially if you can find trails rated with the Yosemite Decimal System), looking at photos of the path, and watching YouTube videos of the scramble.
And (as with a lot of hiking trails), rock scrambling areas that are perfectly safe in dry weather can become treacherous with rain, snow, or ice.
How to Rock Scramble Safely: The Basics
- Keep your hands available. Store your water in your day-pack, strap your trekking poles to the pack (for the ascent), and avoid carrying anything at all in your hands while scrambling.
- Wear shoes with a good grip. Whether you choose hiking boots or trail runners, make sure your shoes can grip tightly onto the rock.
- Pack heavy items close to your body. Pack the heaviest items in your pack against the middle of your back, and avoid hanging heavy things (like water bottles) from your pack. It's not just easier on your back, it'll help you maintain your center of gravity and sense of balance on the trail.
- Do research ahead of time and be aware as you hike. Do you know how difficult this trail is? Is it well-marked? Are you following colored trail-blazes or rock cairns?
- On steep terrain, maintain three points of contact at all times. Points of contact include your hands, feet, back, or stomach.
- Test before you commit. Before placing your weight on a rock, test it. Before gripping a tree-root, test it. Are you sure it won't shift, slide, or move if you put weight on it?
- Step intentionally. Place as much of your rubber sole as possible firmly onto the rock, lean into the rock, and step without sliding. The friction from your step will help keep your foot in place.
Look for edges or wedges in the rock to help hold your foot in place while stepping.
- The descent is often more challenging than the climb, so make sure you have enough energy left to go back down. Turn around and climb backwards in steep sections, and use a trekking pole to help you keep your balance.
- Know your limits. It's okay to stop before the end of the trail.
My Favorite Gear
I like to hike with trekking poles (these Kelty trekking poles are my favorite), because it helps me keep my balance (both when walking and when descending a scramble).
Wear hiking shoes with excellent grip. My favorite are these Innov-8 Roclite hiking boots because they're so grippy.
If you plan on hiking when it's dark out (or if you're on a long trail and there's a chance it will be dark), bring a headlamp so you can light the path without using your hands. I like this Black Diamond headlamp because it's affordable and bright.
How to Get Better at Rock Scrambling
This is going to be obvious, but-- practice, practice, practice!
Try going with a friend who is more comfortable rock scrambling than you are, and who won't mind helping you know where to place your hands and feet when needed.
Keep in mind that, although rock scrambling is not the same as rock climbing, a lot of the techniques are similar. If there's one near you, try going to a rock climbing gym and practice handholds and footholds as you climb the wall.
If you're looking for places to go rock scrambling, some of our favorite trails include Bonticou Crag (Mohonk Preserve, New York), Camelback Mountain (Phoenix, Arizona), the Double O Arch trail (Arches National Park, Utah), and the hike to Half Dome (Yosemite National Park, California).