If you like hiking but always wished for a higher fatality risk, you’ll love scrambling.
Andy H. is a jack-of-all-adventures, master of none. Depending on the season, you might find him rock climbing, trail running, kayaking, skiing, mountain biking, surfing or good ol’ hiking. He runs AdventureOnTheCheap.com.
Scrambling is the addictive intersection between hiking and rock climbing. Equipped with nothing more than a sticky pair of hiking shoes and your fearless nature, you can ascend towering slabs of limestone, granite mountain sides, and sandstone boulder fields.
I’ve been scrambling all over North America, from the West Slab of Mt. Olympus outside Salt Lake City to the Tuscarora sandstone spires of West Virginia. It’s one of my favorite pastimes.
Even though many classic scrambles are out West, there are dozens of hidden gems located all over the Eastern half of the country. But no one talks about them!
Here’s what you need to know before you go!
Scrambling is the act of ascending or traversing rough terrain requiring the use of your hands for balance and support. It’s somewhere between hillwalking, trekking, and easy mountaineering.
In the Yosemite Decimal System, scrambling is usually considered a Class 3 or Class 4 activity.
In fact, many famous “hikes,” such as Angel’s Landing in Utah or the Keyhole on Longs Peak in Colorado, are actually scrambles!
Scrambling attracts all sorts. Adrenaline junkies enjoy the exposure and distant horizons. For others, scrambling is an act of meditation and hyper-focus. When you’re pasted to the rock, nothing else exists.*
How do you go scrambling? Well, if you can walk, you can scramble! Here are some tips to get started:
Here’s a video from a fellow rock scrambler you might find useful.
Scrambling can be enjoyed around the world! But here in the Eastern U.S., scrambling takes on a rather unique character.
Unlike in the western U.S. and Europe, most of the scrambling in the Eastern U.S. occurs below the treeline, in thick forest canopy. And outside of a few classic hikes, it occurs on side trails and in the backcountry. You’ll often be climbing alone, navigating thorny thickets, and keeping an eye on incoming clouds.
Scrambling is a fair-weather sport. In the winter, snow, frost and ice make scrambling extremely dangerous, not to mention risks of exposure to frigid weather that can turn wet and ugly in an instant.
Late summer and autumn is the best season for rock scrambling. By then, many of the summer insect populations, such as black flies and cicadas, have died down. If you’re lucky, you’ll even catch glimpses of autumn color in the trees.
Scrambling season ends as early as September for the high country of the White Mountains. In the southern Midwest and low-elevation Mid-Atlantic, scrambling can continue all the way through November, until the first snow flurries arrive.
In the Eastern United States, scrambling can be divided into three regions.
New England owns most of the classic rock scrambles east of the Missipppi. Prime locations include the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, and Mt. Katahdin in Maine. It would take you decades to conquer all the scrambles New England has to offer!
Here is an excellent local source of rock scrambles in New England: Hikes with Rock Scrambling in New England (newenglandwaterfalls.com)
Spanning the Smoky Mountains to the Catskills and beyond, Appalachia is home to many mini-scrambles. You can find summit rock falls dotting state parks all over the Mid-Atlantic region, especially along the Allegheny Front and Blue Ridge Mountains. Highlights include Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park, Billy Goat Trail in Potomac/C&O Canal National Historic Park, and Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina.
Once you cross the Appalachian mountains heading west, you enter the Midwest. This is a land of rolling prairie and big rivers, not mountains. If you want to go scrambling, you’ll need to find a river bluff or rockfall. These pocketed limestone walls occur naturally along the entrenched meanders of many Midwestern rivers, especially in the karst topography of southern Missouri, Arkansas Ozarks, and southern Illinois.
Other opportunities for great scrambling include the Porcupine mountains in upper Michigan and along the bluffs of the central Mississippi river.
Scrambling requires a thorough knowledge of outdoor navigation and first aid.
Scrambling is a sport of managed, mitigated and calculated risk. Dangers include falling off a rock slab, spraining your ankle or wrist, exposure to high winds or driving rain, exposure to elevated temperatures without shade, etc.
Easy scrambles can be accomplished with nothing more than a pair of hiking shoes and the 10 Essentials. Difficult scrambles may require rubber-soled approach shoes, an emergency rope, climbing harness, descender device, climbing gear, and the knowledge of how to use them!
Scrambling through the hardwood, pine or boreal forests of the East means you could see anything! Deer, bobcats, birds, lizards, bees, even black bear or rattlesnakes.
Thankfully, few of these animals pose any real risk. The most dangerous is the venomous rattlesnake, who might bite if caught unawares while sunning on a rock. Look before you leap!
If you are climbing in bear country, consider bringing bear spray.
Training for scrambling means having the endurance to complete the approach, climb the route, and return safely.
Scrambling requires moderate to exceptional levels of physical fitness.
I recommend being able to hike at least 10 miles and/or run a 5K at a 25:00 pace or faster before attempting a scramble. Also, you should be able to perform at least 50 consecutive bodyweight squats.
In particular, rock scrambling taxes the quadriceps, calves, and core muscle groups. Advanced scrambling, requiring substantial use of the hands for balance or ascension, also requires a strong upper body, particularly back and shoulders.
It’s not uncommon for roundtrip distances to range between 8 and 20 miles! You should be accustomed to spending 4-8 hours on your feet.
Merely hiking is not enough. If possible, you should perform resistance weight training to improve your length strength, focusing on fundamental movements: squats, deadlifts, and lunges. Perform sets of 10-20 reps.
If you are unable to perform resistance training, do bodyweight pushups, squats and lunges. Aim for 3-4 sets of each, targeting at least 10 pushups and 30 squats or lunges per set.
The king of all lower-body movements, the squat can be performed weighted or with bodyweight only.
Deadlifts require careful form, but they develop the entire posterior chain, including the glutes and hamstrings.
You’ll need strong shoulders and back muscles to carry a pack and pull yourself up the occasional handhold!
Scrambling does not require any special gear. At a minimum, sturdy hiking shoes are required. Advanced scrambling may require technical rock climbing protective gear and lead climbing gear.
At Adventure on the Cheap, we’re all about affordable! At its essence, scrambling is essentially FREE. Just a pair of sturdy hiking shoes.
Scrambling, at its essence, is free. If you purchase climbing rope ($200), descender device ($60), harness ($100), helmet ($50) and other required gear ($100), you could spend as much as $500 in protective gear.
Most scrambles are half-day to full-day occasions. You can either feast at the base and famine on the climb, or you can pack along snack bars for replenishment. Plan on $15 a day for basic protein bars and electrolyte sports drinks. Keep the pack weight down!
Most of the cost of scrambling is time and transportation. Driving to and from the route may require several hours (2-4 hours on average). Public airlines and public transportation don’t service most of these remote locations.
There is usually nowhere to make camp along a scramble route. Plan to complete the route and return to base camp or your vehicle in a single day. Cost: $0
Many scrambles are located on state parks or federal land. Consider purchasing a state park pass or U.S. Interagency Pass ($80) for uninhibited exploration.
Looking to save more? Consider these tips:
Expect to bail at least 10-20% of the time due to bad weather. Wet rock can be extremely slippery, and no amount of technique can prevent all falls. Protect yourself first!
Easy scrambling is a great family activity! I’ve taken my family several times. Everyone returns with jelly legs, but we all love the stories.
Some scrambles are suitable for children, but age 6-8 is about the minimum. There is no age maximum, but Adventurers should have strong bones and mental acuity.
Use a toilet before you go. If you are summoned by Nature during the route, pack it out! Follow Leave No Trace principles.
See Notes on transportation in the Finances & Budget section.
See notes in the “Where and When to Go?” section.
You can find a few guided tours, such as the Via Ferrata in West Virginia and Katahdin in Maine. But most scrambles are too remote for commercial exploitation.