Rock scrambling is a niche outdoor activity that is growing in popularity. If you are new to it or just curious what all the fuss is about this article is a basic introduction on what it is and why it’s awesome.
Rock scrambling is a little difficult to define. It’s not just hiking and it’s not as extreme as rock climbing, at least not usually. Rock scrambling fills that place in between.
When you are on a trail and have to use your hands for balance while you clamber over a jagged rock to get further up the path, that’s rock scrambling.
It sounds simple enough, and it is, but that understates just how much fun rock scrambling is.
1. What’s the difference between rock climbing and rock scrambling?
Most of us probably have some idea of what rock climbing is but might not have heard of rock scrambling.
Rock Climbing, and bouldering for that matter, is moving over rock and supporting your weight with your hands.
Often you will move over vertical surfaces and a falling injury can range from “this is going to hurt” to “goodbye, cruel world”.
Safety equipment when rock climbing is necessary always, unless you are a one of those free climbing maniacs.
Rock scrambling does require the use of your hands and feet, but where the goal of rock climbing is scaling the rock, the goal of rock scrambling is moving past the rock.
Sometimes that’s a simple as stepping over a large rock and using your hands to balance against a nearby tree.
Most people that hike regularly have rock scrambled some whether they know it or not.
Falling injuries can be severe or fatal but choosing areas that don’t have long drops if you slip can prevent most serious injury.
You shouldn’t need any special equipment to rock scramble, especially if you are just getting started.
2. How do I get started?
The great thing about rock scrambling is there are low barriers to entry. No special equipment or training is necessary. Some outdoor recreational activities, aka cool stuff outside, requires learning special techniques or expensive gear. Rock scrambling does not. Just get some hard soled shoes and get to it.
You’ve likely already done it and not realized you were. Our kids regularly climb on rocks while they’re playing; that’s rock scrambling too.
The most difficult part of rock scrambling is finding places that have cool rock formations that you can climb. When I first started rock scrambling it took awhile to find places. This was also before smart phones so, yeah, it’s easier now.
If you live in Virginia I have a list of some cool rock scrambles below. If you are looking for other places you can search for rock scrambles, just make sure you find pictures of people on the hike. Rock scrambling isn’t well defined so sometimes things get lumped into rock scrambling when they aren’t.
One great way to get into rock scrambling is to find a trail that has a small rock scrambling section and then play a little. When I started I would go on hikes with rock scrambles and only go as far as the rock scramble and just do it over and over and trying out new routes and trying to find harder ways to do easy rock scrambles.
If you already have a favorite trail this is a good way to make it feel new again.
3. Do I need to be in good shape to rock scramble?
I’m not a doctor, if you have a health concern you should see a doctor to evaluate your specific situation. As far as needing to have a six pack and run a 6 minute mile, no. Definitely not.
You can get in shape rock scrambling, but you don’t need to be in shape to start. If you’ve never hiked before I would say start there before trying a long technical rock scramble, but if you already hike you should have most of the fitness you need to rock scramble.
You might be unsure about finding your way up and across rocks, that’s okay. Actually, that’s the beauty of it.
Rock scrambling is a puzzle that you solve with your body.
As long as you can maintain your balance, are confident that you can figure out how to get past an obstacle, and temper that confidence with knowing when to stop you have the tools you need.
4. What skills do you need to rock scramble?
Unlike rock climbing, there aren’t a lot of technical skills that you need to master before you can begin rock scrambling. Most people who are able to do moderate to difficult hikes are also able to rock scramble.
There are, however, a few less technical skills that are really helpful for rock scrambling. If you are not quite sure if you are ready to try rock scrambling or you’re trying to figure out if your kids are ready to join you, these are the three basic skills you’ll need.
Balance, for our purposes, is having the ability to maintain stability in different positions.
It’s the easiest to define skill on the list and maybe the most important. You don’t need to be able to do a crane kick, but having a good feel for your body helps a lot.
I started trail running years ago and after a few months of stumbling over rocks and roots, I started to feel my body in different ways. I think most types of fitness training (yoga, martial arts, sports, etc.) can lead to the same outcome, but for me, trail running really helped.
I know, I know, confidence is a loaded word. Not the get the guy/girl kind of confidence. I mean, that’s awesome if you have that too, but confidence that your body can do this.
If you can walk over uneven ground, then you can learn to rock scramble. Humans have been doing this for a long, long time.
You are a human (if not please comment below). You can do it, if you want.
If you aren’t sure yet, that’s fine. You don’t have to have all of the confidence.
You need just enough to be willing to try to get over the obstacles you run into. Confidence that you can do it is the fire that will push you further.
The last thing you really need is to be able to think ahead. If you scramble up something can you get back down safely?
Sometimes when you (really talking about me here) run into an obstacle your confidence swells. Of course you can get over this rock. In a matter of seconds you’ve visualized how to get up the rock in your way. In another few seconds you’ve made your way up and over only to find you can’t make it over the next obstacle and the route down isn’t clear or worse, dangerous. Now what?
Hopefully you have someone else with you that can guide you back down. A couple extra seconds and thinking about the route down could have prevented this. When you run into something that you have to figure out how to get passed, figure out how to get back before you maneuver over the rock.
I’ve found rock scrambling is typically more dangerous on the way down. If you are going on a trail and have the choice to walk down a trail on the way back down and avoid rock scrambling you should consider bypassing the rock scramble.
5. Where should I go to Rock Scramble?
In Virginia, I would suggest going to Black Rock Summit in Shenandoah National Park if you’ve never been rock scrambling before. The trail is easy and there is an optional rock scramble. You can get on a few rocks and see how you like it.
If you find it’s not for you, just climb off the rocks. If you do like it, then go further. The view from the top is awesome and the time and effort investment is pretty low.
The most famous rock scramble in Virginia is Devil’s Marbleyard. There is an 8 acre maze of boulders to explore and no established routes.
It’s truly spectacular, but it’s a lot to take on if you’re new to rock scrambling. If you do decide to try, keep in mind, there’s no shame in turning around and heading back down before you reach the top.
My Favorite Rock Scramble
My absolute favorite rock scramble is at Dragon’s Tooth.
Most of the trail is not a rock scramble. It’s not hard scrambling when you do have obstacles and aside from one or two spots, it isn’t even that technical but it’s where I realized that I love rock scrambling. I suppose you can call it sentimental.
The runner up is Bearfence Rock Scramble in Shenandoah National Park. I don’t think it’s the easiest rock scramble around or even the easiest in Shenandoah, but it is fun and the views are fabulous.
If I had to choose one rock scramble as the best in the region, I’d have to choose Devil’s Marbleyard. There’s just so much. There’s no established route up, so every time you complete it is an entirely new experience.
More Resources for Rock Scrambling
If you want more rock scrambling information here are some resources from others that I’ve found helpful.
Classification System for Rock Scrambling
Rock climbing has a well established grading system for the sport. There is something similar, although much less defined, in rock scrambling. The Sierra Club has a useful document that can help classify routes.
This can give you a rough idea of what the upper and lower limits of rock scrambling can be. For something a little more interpretative, you can head over to ascensionism. They take the basic rating system and add some flavor and description to make it more clear what the ratings mean.
Rock Scrambling Videos
I’ve found these videos helpful in the past and I think that they can give you even more information about how to grow your skill set and passion for rock scrambling.
If you want to learn some of the movements you can be expected to perform when you scramble, this video from Chase Mountains is pretty comprehensive. He also goes over some great safety tips.
Another video for what rock scrambling can be in a more extreme environment is this video by Beyond the Trail where they take on a trail in the Dolmen Ridge in North Wales.
Now, I’m not suggesting you run off and try the same. It’s more to show you what kind of epic adventures open up if you really want to explore rock scrambling.
If you have a favorite rock scramble, whether or not it is in the Blue Ridge, let us know in the comments. I love rock scrambling and always on the lookout for more.