A Beginner’s Guide To Scrambling
Ever gazed upon a route to a summit and felt the urge to add a dose of adventure to your hillwalking? Or been keen to try climbing but feel put off by all the equipment, technical skills and experience you need to tackle those big exposed-looking routes? If you’re looking to take your hillwalking to the next level without jumping right in at the deep end of climbing, then scrambling could be for you.
Our handy guide will take you through everything you need to know from what it is, where to go and the kit you’ll need to make the exciting transition from walker to scrambler.
What is scrambling?
When it comes to describing what scrambling is, it’s sometimes easier to think about what it isn’t. That’s to say, scrambling isn’t just as simple as walking up a hill or mountain, but it also isn’t anything like as technical or exposed as actual rock climbing, where you’re exclusively relying on ropes and lots of specialist equipment help you ascend. Scrambling lies somewhere in the middle ground between the two. It’s where you head out to the hills equipped for a day of walking, but where your route to the summit (for at least some of the way) follows lines that are slightly more exposed, requiring the use of your hands to clamber over rocks. So, if you’re looking to add a bit more of a challenge to your hillwalking adventures, this blend of walking, mountaineering and rock climbing is the logical next step and a great way to add a bit of adrenaline to your outdoor adventures.
To make the transition from walker to scrambler whilst avoiding inadvertently straying into more advanced rock-climbing territory, understanding the grading system is crucial. Scrambles in the UK are graded from 1 to 3 and assume weather conditions are good and dry whilst being undertaken. The natural progression for experienced walkers looking to start scrambling is to start at grade 1.
A grade 1 scramble is essentially an exposed walking route that takes an interesting route or line up a gully, ridge, or buttress that will require the use of your hands to climb over the steeper sections. If you’ve previously only ever done hillwalking, you’ll need to be prepared for some reasonably exposed sections which will certainly raise your heart rate, but typically you can expect routes that are easy to follow and can be completed without any need for ropes or protection. Whilst the scrambling sections you encounter are relatively straightforward, any difficulties you do run into are generally avoidable with alternative routes. If you’re a competent hillwalker with a decent head for heights, there’s no reason why you can’t immediately make the transition from hillwalking to grade 1 scrambling.
Some of our favourite grade 1 scrambles include:
This is where the line between scrambling and rock climbing starts to become much more blurred, and the use of a rope and harness for protection becomes advisable. That’s because grade 2 scrambles usually include exposed sections where an inexperienced scrambler may want a rope for confidence and protection, and the person in front (the leader) will need to feel confident moving over exposed yet relatively short and easy climbing terrain to overcome a particular obstacle. As such, having knowledge and practice of rock climbing becomes essential, so as you move out of grade 1, we would recommend learning to climb to at least V Diff level or taking a scrambling course before attempting serious scrambling of grade 2 routes or above. Don’t let this put you off though, as once you build up the skills and experience, the routes and rewards are even more spectacular.
As you move into these higher grades, it’s also important not to fall into the misconception that scrambling is a milder and less dangerous version of rock climbing. Because people typically attempt scrambling with less protection than rock climbing, it can actually be the more serious activity. So take your time and build up your experience on different routes and by working safely and steadily through the grades.
Some of our favourite grade 2 scrambles include:
Grade 3 scrambles often appear in climbing guides as ‘Moderately’ graded climbing routes (the easiest climbing grade) and should only be tackled by experienced scramblers and if you are confident using climbing equipment and lead climbing. On these routes, you can expect to use a rope on several quite highly exposed sections, or the route to contain steep grassy sections which offer no hand holds and where a potential fall would have serious consequences. Escape via alternative routes also becomes more limited as you move up to grade 3 so skills like abseiling may be needed if you need to retreat. However, with the right climbing skills and experience on grade 1 and 2 scrambles, progressing onto something a bit more difficult like grade 3 can be very rewarding and opens up even more great routes to add to your bucket list.
Some of our favourite grade 3 scrambles include:
Pinnacle Ridge/St Sunday Crag, Lake District
Pinnacle Ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean, Isle of Skye
Cuillin Ridge, Isle of Skye - * this route is the Holy Grail of British Scrambling with 12km of scrambling, 4000 plus metres of ascent/descent, several classic climbs and some abseils, usually completed over two days.
What equipment do I need?
Grade 1 Routes
To take on grade 1 routes, you shouldn’t require any additional special equipment beyond your normal walking kit. So, check the weather forecast and wear the same kit you would for a regular hill walk.
Footwear – Wear standard walking boots for good all-round protection, or approach shoes with sticky soles and good edges if you’re looking for even better grip and easier foot placement. Choosing between shoes and boots really comes down to personal preference and can depend on the conditions and route. Having a pair of both is ideal or you could go for something in between like a mid-boot which is flexible enough to be comfortable, but also offers ankle support.
Clothing – The weather will impact your choice of clothing in the same way it would normal hiking. Wear a breathable base layer and mid-layer to help regulate your temperature and pack a breathable and waterproof jacket in case the weather changes. In terms of your lower half, comfortable, lightweight walking trousers will allow you to move freely over the rocks, but if you are after more protection, look for clothing with extra reinforcement around the knees and elbows.
Pack – Taking a lightweight daypack big enough to carry just the essentials you need, rather than larger, bulkier packs will make the scrambling sections much easier to negotiate.
Scrambling Guidebooks – Don’t expect to find signposts or obvious tracks to follow up a scrambling route. There are normally different route options to consider and that’s part of the fun in reaching the summit. Guidebooks do exist for popular scrambling areas though and are highly recommended. A good guide (with pictures) will let you know the grade route in advance and help you navigate and avoid harder sections if you need to.
Some of our favourite guidebooks include:
North Wales Scrambles, Garry Smith
Scrambles in the Lake District, Cicerone (North and South)
Lake District climbs and scrambles, Stephen Goodwin
Skye Scrambles, Noel Williams
Scrambles in the Dark Peak, Tom Corker & Terry Sleaford (Peak District)
Skye's Cuillin Ridge Traverse, Cicerone, Adrian Trendall
And of course, don’t forget to pack all the usual essentials you’d take a walk like a map, compass, first aid kit and all the food and water you’ll need for the day.
Grade 2 and 3 Routes
In addition to the equipment you need for grade 1, for these higher scrambling grades you’ll also want to take along:
Helmet, harness, 30-60m rope (depending on where you are scrambling), belay plate, nuts and hex set (as a minimum), 2-3 smaller cams, a selection of slings (for pinnacles and flakes), 5 carabiners, 3 BOA HMS carabiners, nut key, headtorch and a prusik.
To get started on grade 1 pick a good weather day and research your route fully in advance, but if you feel like you still want the help of more experienced scramblers for your first scrambling adventures you can look into booking a scrambling course. Here’s a list of some oranisations who can provide you with the guidance you need to take you on your first scramble.
In these videos, our in-store expert Tom talks you through some of his favourite scrambling kit and puts it through its paces on a scramble up Curved Ridge, Glencoe.
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