The Dos and Don’ts of Scrambling Walks: Start Today!
Scrambling is a complex beast. It is an ambiguous sport that involves aspects of hiking, mountaineering, and rock climbing. It is an activity that is done outdoors, usually on rocky alpine landscapes.
Scrambling walks generally involve hiking across challenging terrain with the assistance of your hands. However, the use of technical skills and ropes are sometimes required.
Scrambling is generally an activity saved for experienced hikers. Most scrambling walks occur off the regular trail and by their very definition are unpaved. Some of the UK’s most famous hiking routes are scrambling walks such as Crib Goch in Snowdonia and Striding Ridge in the Lake District.
These are perhaps the most famous examples in the UK due to their height and exposure levels. However, a scramble may simply be a small boulder field or craggy ridge you must cross as part of a bigger hike.
Clearly, scrambling can be dangerous. Loose rocks, trip hazards, and steep verges can all be causes of injury. To make sure you get to grips with your scrambling adventures, here are a few “dos” and “don’ts” to bear in mind on your future scrambling walks.
Do – Go on Practice Hikes
Scrambling takes a bit of time to prepare for. You can’t simply jump in at the deep end. That’s how accidents happen. It’s not advisable for beginner hikers to head to their nearest boulder field straight off the mark. Take some time to build up your mountaineering skills and get confident with hiking first.
This could involve going on weekend camping trips or day hiking adventures. You will learn a whole host of skills by doing these practice hikes. You will strengthen your muscles, improve your balance, and increase your flexibility – all valuable skills for scrambling.
You will learn how to read the land and become sure-footed when crossing challenging terrain. You will become accustomed to your equipment and know the limitations of carrying gear. Each one of these experiences will be another string to your bow making you a better hiker and a more confident scrambler.
Don’t – Go on Scrambling Walks in Bad Weather
A crucial aspect of scrambling safely involves reading the weather. Scrambling walks have more variables at play than standard trail hiking. As the risks are higher, you need to think about some of the things that could go wrong and prepare for them in advance.
For example, if a thick fog rolls in and you’re hiking along a paved path, it’s not the end of the world. Chances are, you can still follow the trail easily enough and will eventually come across a sign. If this happens when you’re scrambling, you might not be able to see the sheer cliffs on either side of you. You may slowly drift off course and find yourself in a treacherous place on the mountain.
If rain begins to fall or there is ice on the terrain, you could be at serious risk. Slippery rocks can make scrambling very dangerous. Manoeuvring over slabs and boulders is challenging enough without the added complication of slick and slimy surfaces. At best this will drastically slow your pace, at worse it could cause a broken limb or concussion. Make sure you check the weather in advance and only go scrambling if it’s suitable!
Do – Hike with Friends
When you go on scrambling walks, it’s always better to opt on the safe side. Your preparations should be thorough and like those of a rock climber or mountaineer. One such consideration is to go scrambling with a partner.
There are multiple benefits to this. You will have two pairs of eyes to scan the terrain and pick out a route. You will have a companion to watch your back in case you do fall and get injured. You will also have a friend to talk to and keep your spirits up whilst scrambling.
Experienced mountaineers may wish to go on scrambling walks alone. However, in this case, it’s recommended to give your itinerary to a friend or family member. That way, you have someone back home who can send help should anything go wrong.
Don’t – Wear Poor Footwear
Scrambling footwear should be agile, grippy, and comfortable. That means no sandals and flip-flops! Of course, you wouldn’t take a pair of those shoes hiking, but the point still stands. You need to invest in proper footwear if you’re going scrambling. A standard pair of sports trainers aren’t going to cut it.
There are two avenues you can pursue. In one, you can select a classic hiking boot. It’s important the boot isn’t too heavy or clunky as this will hamper your movement. Hiking boots provide ankle support which is an excellent protective feature for scrambling. However, they are far from nimble, and the constant shifting movement of scrambling may cause you to get blisters.
Another alternative is trail running shoes. These shoes are much softer and more lightweight. They are designed to be agile and swift over rocky terrain. They will improve your movement and they are comfortable. However, they don’t have ankle support and often they’re not waterproof.
Each hiker should make their own decision about what footwear they find appropriate. It is down to personal discretion to know what shoes give you confidence when scrambling. Approach shoes are a great option as they offer the best of both worlds and are well-suited for avid scramblers!
Do – Limber Up
Scrambling requires a greater range of motion and flexibility than hiking. You will often be down on your hands, crouching, bending, and even crawling to move your way across a variable landscape. This causes you to use more muscles, tendons, and joints than when you hike, and your body might not be prepared for this extra stress.
A good way to prepare for the physicality of scrambling is to stretch and warm up before you set off on your adventure. Begin by doing some static stretches. Slowly flex your arms and legs working the joints and ligaments.
Start at your feet and move up through your calves, thighs, and hamstrings to your hips. Then work on your rotary movement, back, shoulders, arms, and finally your neck. Hold each stretch for at least 10 seconds and lean into the stiff joints. Effectively, let your body do the talking and listen to how it feels at each stage.
After you’ve done some static warmups, try bringing some movement into your stretching – short jogs, high knees, and heel flicks. These stretches are all useful pre-hiking warmups but they’re even more crucial for scrambling walks. If you’re invested in scrambling, try doing yoga in between trips. This will build up your core strength and flexibility making you a stronger scrambler and hiker.
Don’t – Be Overly Confident
There can be a temptation when you’re scrambling to try and speed up the crossing. You may feel an urge to climb over the top of a boulder rather than down into a gulley. Or you may want to hop from one slab to another to save bending down and climbing round. This is a hazardous technique.
You need to manage your risks when scrambling. A good rule of thumb is to always move with at least three points of contact to the ground during tough sections. This allows you to have two feet and a hand to offer any support should you fall. You will also be closer to the ground and better able to mitigate any slips as a result.
Try to move with confidence but be constantly reviewing your environment. Test each handhold and foothold before applying your full weight. Move slowly when climbing downwards as this is more difficult and disorientating than making an ascent.
Overall, just use your best judgement. Obviously, crouching on the floor and crawling prone across a standard rocky slope is unnecessary. But it’s good to have the mindset of prioritising your safety. Don’t make any risky choices that could lead to mistakes. Be responsible when scrambling.
Do – Know Your Grades
Scrambling is divided into grades and not every landscape is equal. This refers to the points already mentioned about knowing how to read the landscape and choosing the best route across the terrain. Your decision-making will be strongly influenced by what grade the scramble is.
Grade 1 is a rough climb or exposed hike. You may have some steep sections that require handwork, but for the most part, you will move upright. Grade 2 includes more challenging types of scrambling walks. The routes are often longer, more difficult, and access can be harder.
Grade 3 starts to linger into rock climbing territory. Almost the entire scrambling section will require the use of hands; ropes become advisable. Grade 4 is the highest grade and should only be attempted by mountaineers and rock climbers. Exposure will be high, ropes are necessary, and a mountaineering skillset is essential.
For most hikers, Grade 1 is the most common section you will come across. However, this is not to say that a Grade 1 scramble is easy. Challenging hikes like Tryfan and the Snowdon Horseshoe are technically a Grade 1 scramble, and few would claim these scrambling walks to be stress-free!
Don’t – Invest in Specialist Equipment
Scrambling doesn’t require any special equipment other than what you already hike in. As mentioned, some scrambles require rope work and harnesses – but these are rare routes only attempted by the experienced.
For anyone else looking to go on scrambling walks, you can simply head out on your adventures in your best outdoor kit. You may benefit from having a guidebook or map with more information on the scrambling route, but for everything else, only invest once you are sure you’ll need it.
Scrambling is a thrill. It is a level up from your average hike and for many, it acts as the next adrenaline-fuelled challenge. As with any outdoor sport, trust your instinct when you’re exploring. If you reach a section you don’t feel comfortable attempting, don’t feel sad about turning back and giving it a go another day.
Trail navigation is a tricky feature of scrambling. The waymarkers often get lost amongst the rubble and there won’t be any signs to guide you along the way. Keep an eye out for rock cairns or eroded areas where other hikers may have gone before. Ultimately, you have the final say and it’s up to you to be responsible and choose the right route.
Take your time when scrambling. Enjoy the scenery and embrace the challenge. Stay present with what you’re doing and keep focused on the task. This is all part of what makes the sport so exciting and invigorating. Before you know it, you’ll be hooked on the world of scrambling!