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What is Scrambling?

Most of us have heard of it in the outdoor world, but what is scrambling? This guide aims to provide the definitions and concepts you need to understand what someone means when they say “Class 3 scrambling”.

The Definition of Scrambling

People scrambling up a big mountain

Scrambling is, at its simplest, the middle ground between hiking and rock climbing. When you start to use your hands and arms for balance or to propel yourself upward, you’re scrambling.

Scrambling can vary in difficulty and risk, ranging from “barely tougher than a normal hike” to “Oh wow, I am exhausted and I will die if I slip!”

Another characteristic of scrambling is that of exposure: your level of exposure to falls that could seriously injure or kill you. The more often a fall like that is possible, the more exposure you are facing.

Does Scrambling Require Extra Equipment?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The more exposure you face, the more you want to think about wearing a helmet. Some hiking and climbing areas require that you wear a helmet because of the increased risks that come with scrambling.

If you know how to belay, you may also choose to use rope on certain scrambles to be extra careful. Being roped up is a good way to ensure safety on more difficult scrambles, and it doesn’t affect your enjoyment of the climb at all.

Types of Scrambling: Where Scrambling Falls in Grading Systems

Scrambling has a definition, but it’s hard to apply that definition to real-world trails and mountains. There is a big difference between light and extreme scrambling, which is why the Yosemite Decimal System (YSD) is used to help hikers, climbers, and backpackers understand the challenges ahead of them.

A primer on the Yosemite Decimal System

The YDS allows for objective classification of different trails and mountains, based on the difficulty, risk factor, and equipment required. There are 5 classifications in this system, ranging from average walking to all-out technical rock climbing.

Scrambling Ratings (s-ratings) and the YSD

The Yosemite Decimal System is pretty basic, though, and it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. That’s where Scrambing Ratings come in – they fit within the YDS ratings and provide extra clarity. Below, we’ll walk through each of the 5 classes of the YDS, with Scrambling Ratings described within (ex. “S-1.0”). The Screaming Ratings come from this Sierra Club guide.

Class 1: Normal Walking

A Class 1 hike is nothing more than a walk. It may be a strenuous one, but it’s a walk nonetheless. Class 1 trails are well-maintained and can be hiked with very little risk.

  • S-1.0: Very easy trails, you can walk with your hands in your pockets. Almost 0 fall risk.
  • S-1.1: A slight step up in difficulty, requiring a little more leg muscle, but still easy and on maintained trails. Very little risk.
  • S-1.2: Slightly more difficult trails that may not be as easy to follow and might require some route-finding skills. Still low fall risk, but chances of getting lost are higher.

Class 2: Light Scrambles

Man walking up a steep rocky trail

Class 2 is where you see the first elements of scrambling. These areas may require the use of hands and arms, but they are still generally walkable and easy to follow. Class 2 scrambles have very little exposure, and falls are not a significant risk.

  • S-2.0: Using your hands occasionally for balance on rocky, rough trails that do not have much exposure.
  • S-2.1: Longer distances, extensive yet easy scrambling, low exposure and fall risk. More strenuous, and higher grades, but not necessarily more dangerous.
  • S-2.2: Moderate-long hikes on rough ground. Rocks can sometimes be unstable, and the scrambling ranges from easy to moderate difficulty. Risk of injury from falls starts to become more serious.

Class 3: Moderate Scrambles

Man looking down at a rocky mountainside

Class 3 trails are where it starts to get difficult. Class 3 scrambles require some skill and experience, as they are steep and come with more exposure. The risks of falling on a Class 3 scramble are steeper (no pun intended), and potentially fatal.

Class 3 scrambles require hikers to use their hands and arms more than half the time. In some situations, hikers may choose to use a rope for safety, especially if they are lacking in experience. Alternatively, cables may be drilled into the rock for you to hold onto.

  • S-3.0: More exposure, higher grades, and more physical exertion. Footholds and handholds are easy to find. Experience isn’t required but is beneficial. Scrambling sections are getting longer.
  • S-3.1: Steeper, harder, and with increased fall risk. The hiking is more like climbing at this stage, as you are constantly using your hands and arms to propel yourself upward. Route-finding skills may be necessary. Helmets are a good idea.
  • S-3.2: Difficult scrambling with more constant, high exposure. Falls are almost always life-threatening or fatal. Ropes are not required but can make the journey safer and easier. Inexperienced hikers should strongly consider whether or not these trails are safe for them. Helmets are either encouraged or required, depending on the area.

Class 4: Intense Scrambling on extremely steep slopes

This is where it gets really hard. Most hikers can handle a Class 3 challenge, so long as they have a little experience and come prepared. Class 4 scrambles, however, should be taken very seriously. Helmets and ropes are recommended for safety, because of the added exposure of the trails and the potential for footholds and handholds to be unstable.

  • S-4.0: Steep, intense scrambling sections that require some know-how to navigate safely. Helmets advised, death from a fall is very likely.
  • S-4.1: Longer scrambling sections, more exposure, and more climbing skills required. Most climbers, at this stage, are wearing helmets and using ropes.
  • S-4.2: You’re pretty much mountain climbing at this stage, even though you technically aren’t. Severe exposure means an increased risk of a fatal fall, and climbers need to be experienced at finding and testing handholds/footholds.

Class 5: Technical Climbing

Now this is really mountain climbing. Ropes, harnesses, and all sorts of technical climbing equipment is required. Class 5 climbs are for people with training and experience, or a guide who’s taking them every step of the way.

Class 5 climbs have a lot of different sub-classifications, but since this article isn’t about rock climbing, we won’t get into that now. If you want to learn more about Class 5 climbs, you can read this guide.

Is Scrambling Safe for Beginners?

what is scrambling

Scrambling isn’t inherently dangerous, but it does carry more risks than your average hike. There are a few things you need to do to prepare for a scramble:

  1. Understand where you’re going: Before you start your hike, read about the trail and make sure you know what type of scrambling you’ll be doing. It’s safe to embark on a class 4 hike as a beginner, but not if you’re expecting a Class 2.
  2. Be mentally ready: Scrambling is hard. That means your brain needs to be ready to push itself and to make good decisions on handholds and footholds when you’re tired. Furthermore, you need to know when to turn back if things are looking a little too risky.
  3. Prep your body: This one goes without saying, but we’re saying it anyway!

As long as you are prepared and in decent physical shape, scrambling is generally safe. Most of the time, you won’t be facing deadly exposure, as the most exposed portions of a trail are usually short. All you need to do is prepare your mind and body, make good decisions, and avoid taking unnecessary risks.

Resources to Learn More About Scrambling

Looking to go deeper? Check out some of the most helpful, in-depth resources on scrambling from around the web:

  1. MasterClass: How to Use the Yosemite Decimal System
  2. International Climbing Grade Conversion Charts
  3. A Comprehensive Guide to Climbing Technique
  4. Understanding Climbing Grades

If scrambling doesn’t fit your definition of fun, you can check out our backpacking guides here:

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