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Beginner's Guide to Scrambling

12 April 2024
Beginner's Guide to Scrambling

Calum Muskett, professional climber and IFMGA qualified British Mountain Guide introduces the joys of scrambling and his advice for getting started.

Scrambling provides a beautiful way of enjoying the mountains. It takes you on interesting routes through rugged terrain, it’s free of charge, and adds an element of adventure to your day out.

What is scrambling?

Man in red jacket scrambling

The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) defines scrambling as using both your hands and feet to ascend a hill or rock face. So how does that differ from rock climbing? A scrambling route blends walking, mountaineering and rock climbing into one, rather than specialising in a single discipline.

Where to scramble in the UK

The UK has excellent scrambling across much of the country due to the craggy nature of our hills.

My favourite destinations are:

Cuillin hills on the Isle of Skye


Ben Nevis

Glen Coe


There’s a huge amount of information available online on the best scrambles in the UK. When researching routes, look for a description and a topographic image (a photo of the scramble with the line it takes highlighted) to help identify the right way to go. The Scottish Mountaineering Club have produced some excellent scrambling guides and in Cymru, Garry Smith’s ‘North Wales Scrambles’ is a great introduction to the area.

What are scrambling grades?

Scrambling in the UK is generally assigned a difficulty level from a Grade 1 scramble to a Grade 3 scramble. 

A Grade 1 scramble feels like adventurous hill walking. The difficulties are often short and stepped but be aware that there can be a great deal of exposure. Some of the most classic Grade 1 scrambles in the UK are Crib Goch in Eryri, Striding Edge on Helvellyn and Càrn Mòr Dearg on Ben Nevis. 

Routes that are Grade 2 scrambles tend to have more sustained difficulties, where one scrambling step leads to the next. They occasionally involve some challenging route finding. 

A Grade 3 scramble is the borderline between scrambling and proper climbing. Parties will typically use a rope and climbing equipment to safeguard these sections. Classic examples of Grade 3 scrambles include Bilberry Terrace on Lliwedd, Cneifion Arete on Glyder Fawr and Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mòr. 

The UK’s more popular scrambles are well travelled. So, once you’re on the route signs of wear and polish on the rock and small ‘sheep’-type paths along terraces are tell-tale signs you’re going the right way. The opposite is true when you stray off-track – with loose-feeling holds, unexpected difficulties and large amounts of vegetation.

What equipment do I need for scrambling?

For the majority of scrambling, all you need is a helmet and a good set of approach shoes or boots with a sticky/rubber sole. Having the right footwear will make a huge difference to your enjoyment and security. Look for scuff protection, straight edges that are close to the toes (rather than a splayed edge) and a stiff, grippy sole such as Vibram.

For more difficult scrambles, you might consider wearing a light harness and carrying carabiners, a small climbing rack with slings and nuts, and a climbing rope between 30 and 50 metres in length. Bare hands are usually best since you get more feedback from holds and can apply more power. But in cold conditions, a set of thin, leathery gloves can be useful.

When is the best time to go scrambling?

Scrambling can be enjoyed throughout the year and you can adjust the level of difficulty to match the conditions. Winter scrambling can be especially enjoyable. But you’ll need an understanding of how winter conditions can change the difficulty of terrain, as well as experience using crampons and an axe.

How to stay safe while scrambling

Guided scrambling is available through private providers and centres in all the hillier regions of the UK. Look out for qualified IFMGA British Mountain Guides or AMI instructors.

While this is a great way to kick start your scrambling skills, you can also gain experience by yourself. Start on lower-graded scrambles and work your way up to more challenging routes if you so choose.

The majority of scrambling in the UK is un-roped, so a fall in the wrong place can be serious or fatal. Always make sure that you can downclimb what you’ve climbed up, and build up knowledge over time to ensure good route-finding ability. Be careful not to knock rocks on those beneath you – while being mindful of rockfall from above

How to improve your scrambling technique

In scrambling, like climbing, good footwork and tactics are the key to making upward progress. Look for small, flat edges to place your feet, watching your toe onto the hold, and use the toe area of your boot or shoe.

When teaching beginner and intermediate-level scramblers I’m often surprised by the overuse of the side of their boots. Although people are good at identifying holds, they rarely place their feet carefully and end up having to pull harder than necessary with their upper body.

It’s also good to think about ‘opposition’. Not all handholds will take a downward pull, so when pulling sideways remember to use the opposite force from the feet. It can help to imagine trying to open a lift door with both hands – pulling on one side while your feet push against the other.

How fit do I need to be for scrambling?

There is no magic pill for overcoming a fear of heights– indeed it’s a perfectly natural response! Intermittent exposure to heights and keeping away from your ‘panic zone’ will, over time, build your confidence so that you can enjoy scrambles that were once daunting.

Although it helps with speed and recovery, a high level of fitness is not required. You just need to be ‘hill fit’ with plenty of walking experience. This is an activity that can be enjoyed by many and doesn’t need to be completed quickly, as long as you’ve set off at an appropriate time with a good forecast.

About the Author:

Calum Muskett

Calum Muskett is an IFMGA mountain guide and a professional climber. He spends most of his time in the mountains – whether on skis, running, climbing or biking – and loves to share his passion for the outdoors with others.

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