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First Time Scrambling Tips

by Karen Ung

An easy scramble is NOT an easy hike. Here are some tips and tricks to help you scramble safely.

One of the greatest thing about the girls being a bit bigger, is that they can do bigger hikes! We were thrilled to bag a few peaks this year!! While most could be considered hikes, Ha Ling Peak was the most challenging as it is very steep (741 metres/2431′ elevation gain over 2.4 kilometres/1.5 miles) and there is slab and scree above treeline. It’s graded a Class 1 scramble for its steepness and possible need to use your hands. As we made our way up, slowly but steadily, we saw many hikers having a harder than time than us due to poor footwear and technique. It was worse on the way down… At one point, a woman looked over at us and burst into tears because my four year old was skipping down the trail while she was struggling. While you can’t do much about the elevation gain or steepness except get in better shape, there are many things you can do to make scrambling easier and safer starting with the right footwear! Scrambling is so much fun if you do it right!!



  1. Stay on the trail. Going off route is one of the main ways people get injured scrambling. It’s easy to lose the trail when you’re above treeline and there aren’t many landmarks, so pay attention to your surroundings. Missing a chimney (column-like break in a cliff band) could mean a dangerous downclimb. I heard of many rescues this year because people lost their way and weren’t able to find a safe way down the mountain. (There were also some fatalities close to home, sadly.) For tips on how not to get lost, please see this post.
    Pack a map and know how to use it!
    Compass or GPS highly recommended.
  2. Invest in proper footwear. I recommend mid-cut (height) hiking boots for superior traction, ankle support, reduction in blisters, and protection from debris. Those may sound like big claims, but if your boots fit well and are laced up properly, the extra height on the boots prevents your ankles from lifting and rubbing, and reducing friction prevents blisters. Higher tops also help keep rocks and pine needles out of your boots, but if you will be bushwhacking or heading into deep scree, you should also wear gaiters. Most importantly, hiking boots give you superior traction on loose rock and slab so you will not slip and slide as much and thereby reduce the risk of injury. All the folks sliding down the slope on their bums were wearing the wrong footwear! Shopping tip: Look for mid-height hiking boots with Vibram (or similar) soles. Backpacking boots are heavy and overkill for scrambling, while trail runners will not give you the traction you need on loose rock. I prefer synthetic, waterproof boots for comfort, but leather boots will last you much longer if you can tolerate the heat (they don’t breathe as well as Goretex).
    Hiking boots are a scrambling must-have
  3. Wear the right socks. Technical socks are the way to go for comfort and blister prevention. I like Smartwool and Teko socks, but less expensive socks such as the Kirkland Merino hiking socks (from Costco) are also great. In warmer weather, running socks work well to wick moisture. Just don’t wear cotton socks!
  4. Lace up your boots properly. I learned more than a decade ago to lace my boots up moderately for the ascent and snugly for the descent. If your boots are too loose, you risk blisters on your heels (going up) or toes (going down) and can even lose toenails (been there, done that). It’s also important to pay attention to the tension at different parts of your boot. Lacing the top properly is also important – too loose and your heel will lift, too tight and you will cut off your circulation. Adjust your laces as needed throughout the hike for comfort. On steeper ascents, I don’t like the tops of my boots too tight as I need to be able to bend.
  5. Don’t kick rocks down on people! A rolling rock gathers speed and cause considerable injury. Watch your step and if you inadvertently loosen a rock, holler “ROCK!” to hikers below so they can get out of the way. Stay back from cliff faces for your safety and the safety of others below. Rock climbers may be ascending or hikers may be traversing the cliff base.
  6. Learn basic scrambling techniques. Lean forward when ascending, and lean slightly back and dig your heels in on the descent if there is a lot of loose rock. If there is deep, fine rock, you can use this method of digging in your heels to boot ski on scree. It’s so much fun and easy to master! Big POG (6 years old) nailed it on her first attempt! Alternately, where the trail surface is more packed and there aren’t huge rocks to trip over, try jogging down using small, light steps and zigzagging back and forth. I love flying down the mountain this way and it warms me up too!
    Boot skiing on scree
  7. Pay attention to the weather. If nasty weather is moving in, head down the mountain. The mountain will still be there next time, but you may not if you get lost in a snowstorm and fall off a cliff. This sounds severe, but it happens all.the.time. in the Rockies. Please be safe!
  8. Stayed fueled and hydrated. Your stomach is your furnace and it needs fuel! A well known fact among mountain people is that being hydrated also keeps you warm. Being hydrated also forestalls exhaustion, so sip water frequently even if you aren’t thirsty. For more information, please see this post.
  9. Stow the hiking poles. Save hiking poles for nontechnical or long, flatter stretches. For safety’s sake, collapse and pack poles where it is steep. Poles should not be used going down very steep sections either. I’ve seen hikers snap their poles and then tumble downhill because they were relying on their poles and not their own balance (the same can happen when poles collapse unexpectedly). Experienced hikers and scramblers can use poles on some scrambles, but newbies can get a false sense of security. If in doubt, stow the poles and rely on your hands to stop a fall.
  10. Bring extra layers! It can be quite chilly above treeline due to wind and altitude. A windproof and waterproof layer should always be carried, but a midlayer, toque and gloves are also a good idea. Mittens and handwarmers are great on really cold days. For more information, please see this post.
    A soft shell jacket provides warmth, wind and rain protection.
    I also keep a down sweater in my pack.
    Do you remember your first scramble? What do you wish you knew then that you know now?

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