A textbook example of wedging
© Plas y Brenin/Karl Midlane
Mountaineering

Up your walking game with our beginner's guide to scrambling

Take your mountain trail walking off-piste with these nine tips from expert scramblers.
By Charlie Allenby
9 min readPublished on
If you’re new to hiking, you may have heard whispers about a more challenging discipline called scrambling. Its purpose is similar to that of hill walking – getting to the top of a peak – but you’re unlikely to find any signs marking the route to the top.
Instead, it’s up to you to find your way through the terrain: trails range from a slightly more difficult summiting of a mountain that might require use of your hands, through to an adrenaline-pumping ascent up vertical cliff faces more aligned with rock climbing.
For a fast-track guide we spoke to mountaineering instructor Rob Johnson of Expeditionguide.com and Mike Raine, senior instructor at Plas y Brenin, the UK's national mountain centre, who offer some pro tips on scrambling.

1. Realise you may fall down

Ryan Sandes runs during a trip to the Cederberg Mountains outside Cape Town, South Africa on October 23, 2015
Harder scrambles will require the use of hands
Scrambling ranges from grade one (which the British Mountaineering Council describes as an exposed walking route) up to grade three (a moderately graded climbing route), and many mountains and hills are home to a range of routes that differ in difficulty. “For harder scrambles, you need the skills of a rock climber,” adds Raine. “While for the easier scrambles, they are generally journeys up the mountains where you begin to need to use your hands.”
“A lot of people come into scrambling through hill walking, which is generally pretty safe and there are very little consequences to a slip or a slide,” explains Johnson. “But when you’re starting to go scrambling, you’re on ground where there’s a potential to fall off of it for the first time. That’s part of the attraction because it’s part of the excitement of being there – you’re in a situation that’s exhilarating and you get that sense of exposure. The flip side of that is if you do slip, you can fall off of it.”

2. No prior experience is needed

Trail of hikers walking up Snowdonia in Wales.
A group of hikers tackle a mountainside in Snowdonia, Wales
The beauty of scrambling is, unlike the more technically challenging pursuits of rock climbing or canyoning, the basics are the same as hill walking – putting one foot in front of the other. That’s not to say it’s a walk in the park though: “People need to have the fitness to keep going long enough to do the routes in the first place, and psychologically they need to be up for it,” says Johnson.
It is as much a test of your puzzle-solving abilities as it is your physical capabilities, with good judgement and decision-making also important skills according to Raine. “The techniques are pretty limited, so a key thing is route finding and knowing that you’re going into a sensible place that you can get out of."
One final necessity is a good head for heights. “You may not be on such difficult terrain, but you’ll be above massive drops,” adds Raine. “If you’re doing something like Crib Goch [in Snowdonia, Wales], it’s not particularly hard, but it’s ridiculously exposed and you can’t just sit down and say ‘I don’t like it’. You’ve got to get to the end."

3. Hold off buying scrambling-specific kit

Woman scrambles above a tarn in Tryfan, Wales.
You don't need scrambling-specific gear to get started
As with most disciplines of adventure spots, clothing and footwear brands have specialist lines of kit suited to scrambling. But before you buy a helmet, harness, ropes and all of the other paraphernalia, a normal pair of walking boots are all you need to get started on grade one trails.
“The beauty of it is that you don’t need anything extra,” says Johnson. “If you’re going to do a bit of it and enjoy it, you can certainly go out and buy scrambling-specific footwear, but you’re using them for walking as well, they’re not as comfortable as a walking boot. If it’s bone dry, you can also wear approach shoes and they tend to be a really nice compromise – they’ll be comfortable to walk in and super grippy for the scrambling.”

4. Get yourself a guide book

Know before you go - the team maps out the trail
Know before you go - the team maps out the trail
Although there's a lot of information available online about scrambling routes, that won’t help when you’re halfway up a mountain, not sure if you’re heading in the right direction and your phone has no Gs.
“People have already done all of the exploratory work for you,” explains Johnson. “Get a guide book, read the route descriptions and then go follow them. You know the grade of the ground you’re on, and as a beginner, you don’t want to go up something that’s way harder or steeper than you've got the experience for or the desire to do.”
Try walking up scree without making a noise. It'll make you think about foot placement, moving efficiently and not overstretching
Mike Raine

5. If the trail disappears, look out for clues

David Wallmann, Bernhard Hug, Mark and Janelle Smiley having a break on the Col della Finestre during Red Bull Der Lange Weg near Entraque, Italy on April 21, 2018.
Look out for clues if you lose the trail
It is still possible to get lost on the mountain though, even if you follow the guide book down to a tee. “Some can be quite vague – you might get 1,000m of scrambling in half a page of text description – so you’re looking for the easiest line through the terrain,” says Johnson. “It will often be well travelled, so look out for signs of polish on the rock from other people’s feet, or even crampon scratches from where people have been up there in winter.”
It’s not just about following these marks blindly though, as you could end up on a grade that's out of your comfort zone. “What will catch you out is where you start to follow sheep troughs or where you’re on some really popular hills where people go the wrong way,” adds Raine. “I hesitate to say ‘the wrong way’ because some people may have chosen to go that way for different reasons, but a number of people on popular climbs, such as Tryfan [in Snowdonia], will get themselves into a bit of a blind alley and often need some assistance to get off the hill.
“Going the wrong way is not a big problem. It’s realising you’ve gone the wrong way – you’ve got to think about what you’re doing and look after yourself."

6. How to know you’re no longer on grade one

Participant runs Xreid 2016 in Senja, Norway on July 2nd, 2016.
Scrambling can take you to some incredible places
Unlike a popular hill walk, there won’t be signs at various points along the scramble marking out the different routes that weave their way up the mountain. So how can you tell if you’ve accidentally stumbled upon a grade two or three trail?
“On a grade one scramble, you’ll need to use your hands, but you’ll never be on pure vertical terrain,” says Johnson. “Most of the time, if you weren’t happy on grade one, you can step off and go around onto more hill walking terrain.
“Grades two and three will no longer be the classic aesthetic lines on the mountain – you actually have to go out and hunt them because they're steeper. They will be on the north-facing cliffs or certainly on the steeper parts of the mountain, will have sections of verticality and generally won’t have escapable routes.”

7. The three essential foot placements

Man scrambles up rock face in Wales.
A textbook example of wedging
Smearing, edging and wedging may sound like an odd set of movements, but all have their different uses when it comes to scrambling. “Smearing is where you’re putting as much of the rubber as possible in contact with the rock,” explains Johnson. This maximising of grip helps prevent any falls or slips, but is only useful when the terrain is bone dry. Edging sees you use the sides of your feet to climb your way up small ledges in the rock, while wedging does exactly as it says on the tin – securing the tip of your foot in vertical or horizontal crevices to give you a footing when ascending or descending.

8. Take things slowly and quietly

Karl Meltzer summits Mount Washington while attempting to break the record for fastest completion of the Appalachian Trail.
Move efficiently
Now that you know the basic movements, you could be forgiven for thinking that you can safely tackle any grade one climbs. But there’s a lot more to scrambling than smearing, edging and wedging your way to the top.
“The first thing I encourage people to do is move slowly,” says Johnson. “You often see people scrabbling rather than scrambling, and generally that’s because they’re moving too quickly. Slow down and take much smaller steps than normal – you will not only move more efficiently, but your balance will be in the right place. You’ll be centrally positioned over your feet rather than taking big strides and getting thrown off by the weight of a rucksack.
“I then get people to think about where their centre of gravity is. Generally, your nose should be above the big toe of your lead foot. This will keep your weight in the right place – as beginner's have a tendency to lean too far forward into the rock and that can cause them to slide back down and out of the rock."
Raine agrees with Johnson’s emphasis on moving conservatively, adding: “Try walking up scree without making a noise. It will make you think about how you’re putting your feet down, moving efficiently and not overstretching.”
When it comes to edging and wedging, and using your hands to aid your movement up a rock face, it’s also important to check that the ledge that you’re going to use can support your weight. “Think about tapping on the rock before pulling or pushing on it to see if it’s solid,” says Johnson. “That’s a big thing that catches people out – they commit their weight to something and then it pings off and takes them with it.”

9. Extra things to look out for in winter

Scrambling isn’t just a summer pursuit, and the weather at the summit of a mountain can be changeable and bitterly cold year-round. When heading out in the winter months and there’s no snow on the ground, the same rules apply as above, but it’s best to overpack your rucksack.
“You need some technical, high-end gloves, a hat and some extra layers to put on at times,” says Raine. “It’s thinking about that extra kit you’ve got in your bag – not necessarily in case something goes wrong in your group, but because you may come across another group where something has gone wrong and might need to offer them some help.”
If there is snow and ice on the ground, then it’s no longer scrambling. “You’re then going winter mountaineering, which is a whole new skill set – it’s more exciting but it’s more dangerous,” explains Johnson. “There are a lot more background skills that go into that – you’d need to be good with a set of crampons on your feet and with an axe in your hand. You should also have some avalanche avoidance knowledge."