So, you’ve got to grips with hill walking, and now you’re keen to start tackling some scrambles. But what kit do you take? Take too much and you feel encumbered, it’ll be heavy, and it’ll slow you down. Take too little and you’ll have a nice light bag but come that tricky section when you don’t have the right gear you may end up regretting it! So to help you decide I’ve put together this article on what kit to take scrambling.
I remember when I did my first scramble, we weren’t sure what kit to take and so being climbers we just took our hill walking kit and a full climbing rack. We thought it might be a tad heavy and having read stuff in the magazines about going fast and light we decided to slash the weight by just taking a single rope instead of two half ropes! Suffice to say, we didn’t really have a clue. So fully laden with enough kit to aid our way up El Cap we tackled the scramble and very quickly realised we could solo most of it and we ended up only using the rope for one short section!
As true aspiring British alpinists we reflected on this in the pub afterwards and quickly concluded that we had taken way too much kit. Several pints, and a quick planning session later, we had decided to drastically cut back on the amount of kit – with hindsight this was a mistake. The next day found us roping up from the word go and being at least 5m short of reaching every belay as we had taken a 20m rope. Luckily for us that wasn’t really an issue as we didn’t have any kit with us to make belays either!
Since then I’ve done a lot more scrambling and mountaineering, and through a fair amount of trial and error, I’ve come to know what kit to take. To help you get started below I have put my suggestions of what kit to take on different grade scrambles. It’s worth mentioning that it’s best to view the kit suggestions as a guidelines to help you on your way rather than hard and fast rules.
Grade 1: Generally straight forward scrambles which most hill walkers, with a head for heights, will be capable of without the need for a rope.
Grade 2: More challenging scrambles, where the use of a rope to safeguard a short trick step may be useful.
Grade 3: Harder scrambles, where the use of rope will be required for several sections.
It’s worth adding that these are generalisations as in the right weather conditions and with a confident approach and the capability to match it then some people will be happy to solo up a grade 2/3 without a rope. It’s also worth noting that the grades will vary depending on which mountain region you’re in and what the weather and mountain conditions are like e.g. a grade 1 in Snowdonia in the sunshine is somewhat different to a grade 1 on the Cuillin ridge in the wet!
The kit needed to tackle grade 1 scrambles will, in essence, be the same as what you’d usually take out for a walk in the hills. Part of the joy of scrambling is the freedom and flow that you get from moving efficiently through technical terrain. So it’s worth bearing in mind the old adage of ‘light is right’ otherwise if you pack too much kit you’ll barely be able to move without breaking a sweat, and you’ll be more likely to experience fatigue and failure!
So you’ve got to grips with grade 1’s, and now you’re keen to start tackling some harder grade scrambles. But what kit do you take?
If you already have a climbing harness then obviously you can just use that. But if you are looking at buying one then there are two main options; a climbing harness or a alpine harness (sometimes called a mountaineering or ski touring harness). If you’re only after one harness to go scrambling and climbing then buy a climbing harness and try to get one that doesn’t have lots of foam padding. The reason for this is that often you’ll get wet whilst out scrambling in the UK, and those big chunky foam bits can become brilliant sponges!
If you’re after a dedicated harness for scrambling then it’s worth considering an alpine harness. These tend to be lighter, have a few fewer gear loops and minimal padding or support. Personally I use one of these because they pack down small so I can take a smaller rucksack, are lightweight so are great for keeping the pack weight down, I can take them on/off easily without having to put muddy boots through the leg loops, and if they get wet they dry quickly.
Helmets have come a long way over the years and nowadays they can loosely be split into three main types:
Shell/Cradle helmets, consist of a hard outer shell and a flexible internal cradle made of webbing.
Foam helmets, are typically made from expanded polystyrene (EPS) and have a very thin polycarbonate shell.
Shell/Foam helmets, combine both of these by having a relatively hard outer shell and a foam inner.
It’s true that all of these helmets will offer their wearer protection, though it’s worth being aware that each has its own pro’s and con’s. For more about this then check out this article for everything you need to know – https://www.ukclimbing.com/gear/climbing/helmets/s_-_-1116. In regards to scrambling then personally I would recommend a shell/foam helmet as it offers the best all round level of protection.
Before choosing a rope it’s worth asking yourself why you are taking one. If you’re taking one just in case then chances are if it all goes to plan then you will only be needing it to protect you up/down a short tricky step either because you didn’t clock it at the planning stage the night before or because it looks harder than you first thought – we’ve all been there! In this instance then I would tend to take something like a 9mm 30m rope. This should be a sufficient enough length to help manage a short tricky step, without being so long, thick, and heavy that it’s a burden to you for the rest of the scramble whilst it’s in your rucksack.
If you’re taking a rope as you envisage that you may be needing to use it a fair bit, due to the difficulty of the route, bad weather/mountain conditions etc then I would go for a 50m single rope that’s between 9mm to 10mm (unless you know that you can get away with a shorter one for a particular route). The extra length means that a longer ‘pitch’ can be done if required and should an abseil need to be made, planned or unplanned, then you can abseil further. The extra length will make it heavier but as you will be using it more, and have more options available to you, then the weight penalty isn’t really an issue.
The rack below shouldn’t be seen as the definitive scrambling rack for every scramble in the UK. As the exact rack you’ll take will vary depending on your ability, the intended scramble, the rock type, and the current mountain conditions. The rack below is just a guideline- a good starting point- and one that can be tweaked, by adding or removing items, depending on the adventure you have planned. For example on grade 2 scrambles then I’ll probably get rid of a few pieces of kit. As you tackle more and more scrambles then you’ll find it easier and easier to decide what to take and what to leave behind.
Personal Kit for both the Leader and the Second
The Scrambling Rack
Below is a bit more information about each of the items on the rack.
Any belay plate with two slots will work as this will enable you to easily use it to abseil. It’s important to check that the belay device you get is compatible with the diameter of ropes you intend to use it with. It’s worth getting a dedicated carabiner that works well with your belay device. A HMS or Pear Shaped screwgate will work, but personally I use an Oval and this works well for me.
There’s a whole host of screwgate crabiner options out there, I would avoid the autolocking type as they can be a lot faffier to operate, especially whilst you’re getting to grips with the basics. Shape wise then you’ll want one HMS for popping your clove hitches in when tying off your anchors at the top of a climb or for using with Italian hitches. Several smaller and lighter d-shaped screwgates are good to have with each sling plus a spare one for attaching you to your anchors.
One nutkey in the team is definitely essential, however it can be handy to have one each. That way you don’t have to keep remembering to pass it over when your swinging leads. Plus it can be handy to remove any stuck nuts that you might place and need to tweak whilst leading and they can be used to clear out muddy/vegetated cracks so that gear can be placed- Do ensure you don’t damage any rare or unique vegetation!
On a lot of scrambling routes you’ll often be using natural anchors where possible, as there’s often a lot of them plus they’re very quick and simple to use. Therefore a whole set of nuts is rarely called for. As such I tend to just take a half set of nuts- either all of the even sizes or all of the odd sizes. This will ensure that if you require them you should be able to protect a good range of crack sizes. Personally I think the DMM wallnuts are great for this, especially as there designed so that placed sideways they’ll match up to a nut two sizes bigger which is handy if you’ve already used that size.
A couple of Hexes can be handy to cover the larger crack sizes. I personally think the DMM Torque nuts are best as they fit most cracks well and have a sewn sling which can be extended therefore an additional quickdraw isn’t always needed. Depending on the route and rock type then I generally either take size 3 and 4 or I take size 2 and size 4 and each is carried on its own wire gate carabiner.
A couple of cams can be handy to enable you to protect or build a belay where there are only parallel cracks present. Personally, I’d go for DMM Dragon cams as they’re a great cam, they have an extendable sling, and they cover a wide range (per unit). Most of the time I take size 3 and 4 as this coupled with the hexes enables me to cover a good spread of larger crack sizes. I also rack these cams on the same colour wire gate carabiners as that makes identification on your harness a lot easier, and quicker.
Three 120cm Slings, each with their own d-shaped screwgate carabiner, will enable you to take advantage of any threads or spikes whilst leading or setting up a quick belay. An additional 240cm sling can be handy for setting up a belay around a large spike, block, or thread. Slings can be made from different materials: nylon, dynema, aramid etc. Any of these will do and each has its advantages and disadvantages. Personally for scrambling I would go for dynema, or aramid, as these are slightly lighter than nylon and less bulky when racked up on your harness or around your body.
Scrambling routes often wander left and right a lot and through complex terrain with lots of changes of angles. So extendable quickdraws (aka slingdraws) are great, as they’re ideal for using on pieces of gear that are quite a way off to one side or underneath any bulges as they help to keep your rope/s running straight, which in turn reduces rope drag and the likelihood of the gear lifting out. Plus if you’ve not used all of them then they can easily be disassembled and used in making a belay. 4 of these is usually enough for most routes. Personally I use DMM revolver wiregates on a couple of them as this can help further reduce rope drag on wandering pitches.
Prussiks are short knotted loops of 5mm or 6mm climbing cord. A Prussik is only as good as the person using it, therefore there only worth carrying if you know what to do with them. They are often used to back up a belay plate when abseiling and they have a whole range of uses when it comes to performing various self-rescue techniques. If you don’t know how to use them then it can be worth getting some Instruction. Also for scrambling I often carry a small knife which can be useful for cutting tat for abseils etc, and it lives on the carabiner that has my prussiks so I can’t forget it.
Tat is just a length of climbing cord or rope. Any climbing cord that’s at least 6mm or thicker will work. Personally I quite like 7mm cord as this is just a bit thicker and more re-assuring to use on the rougher rock types. I usually carry around a 4m length, and depending on the nature of the intended route then I might take a slightly longer or shorter length.
Written by Jake Phillips, Chief Instructor & Programme Manager
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