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Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Hiking Trail Information

Scrambling - Hiking Safely In Rocky Terrain
By Steven Gillman

After scrambling to the the summit of Mount Bushnell, I sat on a boulder that was cracked down the middle. Five seconds after my usual summit photo of my bare feet hanging over the edge, the left half of my rock fell loose. I watched as it bounced down the mountainside. I took out my crackers and continued to watch. The rock, and the others it had collected along the way, stopped about 500 feet below. I'm glad I chose the right side of the rock to sit on.

Later, scrambling down from the top, I slipped. I got a bruised leg from one rock, and a gash on one hand from another - the one that kept me from tumbling down the mountainside. The irony was that I rarely ever have a bad slip when hiking and climbing, and I had just stopped a moment earlier to take some notes on "safe scrambling" for this article. I guess the first safety lesson is to concentrate on the task at hand and take your notes later.

Scrambling, according to one dictionary, is "an ambiguous term - somewhere between hill-walking and rock climbing." It is a necessary part of hiking and backpacking in the mountains unless you are content to stick to the trails and always be looking up at the peaks. I'm not. I like to be looking down at everything from time to time. Since not all mountains have easy trails to the top, this sometimes means crossing long stretches of rock.

Of course, rock isn't a problem by itself. Sometimes it is solid and sloped gently, so you can hike across it easily. Other times, as on Mount Bushnell, it is loose, and mixed with almost vertical stretches which require your hands as much as your feet. Here are some tips for making this kind of scrambling a little bit safer.

Scrambling Tips

1. Beware of pulling rocks loose. You can use the rocks above you to steady yourself on steep parts, but try not to put much weight on them unless absolutely necessary. Remember that when they come loose, you are below them. More than one hiker has pulled a rock down upon himself with fatal results.

2. Big is better. When crossing loose rocks, try to step on the larger ones. They are less likely to move, and when they do move, they usually do so more slowly.

3. Stay away from each other. If there are two or more in your group, don't travel directly below each other on steep slopes. The rock that one person knocks loose will aim for the next in line. Keep some distance between you, and if ascending straight up, do so parallel to each other, ten feet or more apart.

4. Know your abilities. In particular, consider whether you'll be able to climb down the rocks you are scrambling up. Down is always more dangerous and usually more difficult.

5. Head for the grass. If you have a choice of routes, stick to those where the rocks are mixed with patches of grass. They are usually anchored more solidly here.

6. Learn to read the rocks. With experience you'll get a "feel" for which rocks are more likely to break loose, and which slopes are more easily climbed. Speed up this learning process by paying attention as you scramble, making rules as you go, like "these kind of boulders are slippery," and "that type of rock breaks easily."

7. Avoid wet rock. It's bad enough to have every second rock you step on move under your foot, but it's downright treacherous when they are slippery too. Wet usually equals slippery. Be aware of the surface of the rocks you are crossing, and whether it might rain before you get back down to the trail.

8. Use a walking stick. If you'll be doing a lot of scrambling, you may want to consider using a walking stick instead of trekking poles. When I consider the number of times my walking stick was wedged between rocks or holding my weight the other day, I'm not sure that a trekking pole would have survived. A good walking stick can help with balance, reduce knee-strain, and take a lot of abuse.

Copyright Steve Gillman. To get a free book on Backpacking (And Wilderness Survival Tips), as well as photos, gear recommendations, and a new wilderness survival section, visit:

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Like this article?  You may also enjoy:  Ultralight Backpacking by Steve Gillman, Games for Backpackers, and Breakfast Recipes by Steve Gillman


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