“Hiking.” “Scrambling.” ”Trekking.” “Mountain climbing.” “Mountaineering.” These are all things we do on two feet in the mountains. But what differentiates a “hike” from a “scramble,” or what defines a “hike”? When does a “hike” stop being a “hike”, and become something else? We talk on this page about when a trail is not a trail, and in some ways, these two topics are related.
What is clearly hiking
Is strolling down a sidewalk in a city “hiking”? How about if your sidewalk is actually the paved Bill Milne trail near Kananaskis Village? How about if your city stopped paving a section and it turned to a gravel path – is walking on that gravel “hiking”?
We tend to call any walk in the woods a “hike”, and in many ways, it is. But there is a continuum. Walking on a sidewalk in the city is on one extreme end, and climbing a mountain is on the other end. Having said that, some mountains (such as Ha Ling, Jumpingpound Mountain and Centennial Ridge) have official trails leading to their summits. Others (like Pigeon Mountain and Prairie Mountain) have fairly simple but unofficial routes leading up them (or official trails leading most of the way, and a unofficial route leading the remainder). On both you’re climbing a mountain, but obviously just hiking, too.
What is obviously not hiking?
There are routes like the Yamnuska Traverse, Tent Ridge, East End of Rundle (“EEOR”), Heart Mountain and others where it’s clear to all that we have left the realm of hiking and are now into something else. We’re not into mountaineering yet, but obviously, it’s beyond hiking. We’re clearly well into the realm of scrambling on these.
The trouble is, there’s no real consistent definition of scrambling (but then there isn’t a globally consistent one for hiking, either). It’s especially confusing for new hikers.
The closest set of definitions, and the one we and Kananaskis Public Safety use, comes from the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), which is a three-part system used for rating the difficulty of walks, hikes, and climbs, primarily used by mountaineers in the US and Canada. The system divides all hikes and climbs into five classes. The nuances of the definitions of the classes can be debated, and updated versions of these classifications have been proposed, but it is still a great place to start.
The YDS grade of an objective is always the highest grade you have to clear. Even if there is only one short Class 2 wall on a 20 km route, the rating is of the whole route is Class 2.
The YDS definitions
- Class 1: Walking with a low chance of injury, hiking boots a good idea. You can balance with your hands.
- Class 2: Simple scrambling, with the possibility of occasional use of the hands. Little potential danger is encountered. Hiking boots highly recommended. You can use a rope if necessary.
- Class 3: Scrambling with increased exposure. Handholds are necessary. A rope should be available for learning climbers, or if you just choose to use one that day, but is usually not required. Falls could easily be fatal.
- Class 4: Simple climbing, with exposure. A rope is often used. Natural protection can be easily found. Falls may well be fatal.
- Class 5: Is considered technical roped free (without hanging on the rope, pulling on, or stepping on anchors) climbing; belaying, and other protection hardware is used for safety. Un-roped falls can result in severe injury or death. Class 5 has a range of sub-classes, ranging from 5.0 to 5.15d, to define progressively more difficult free moves.
The climbing community actively uses the Class 5 designations, understands them well, and uses them consistently. Experienced climbers who scramble often refer to it when describing routes, saying things like “Class 3 terrain with the odd Class 4 move, and one 5.1 section”.
Within the hiking community (especially on social media), many people call all of them hikes. That’s the case even if there is Class 5 sections that they don’t use roped protection for, which in the climbing community calls “free climbing” and considers fairly dangerous.
Applying the YDS
What would it look like if we actually applied the YDS to things people on social media call “hikes”?
Hiking, as defined and used by guiding associations like the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (“ACMG”) or Interpretive Guiding Association (“IGA”), is YDS Class 1 terrain only. So for everything from Troll Falls to Ha Ling, Jumpingpound, Pigeon and Prairie, it’s obvious they are “hikes”. They are “Walking with a low chance of injury, hiking boots a good idea. You can balance with your hands.”. Use of poles for balance is always recommended, but doesn’t mean you’ve left Class 1 terrain. You can, indeed, actually hike up many mountains or ridges in the Canadian Rockies.
Class 2 = Hands
What happens when you start to grab onto rock with your hands? You’re into Class 2 terrain at a minimum. Examples would be Wind Ridge (pictured at right) or many of the myriad of braided routes up EEOR. There are a few sections on each where you must use your hands. On both, if you misjudge it and fall, the results probably won’t be catastrophic; you might end up with scrapes and bruises. That being said, a lady passed away in a fall at EEOR a few years back, and EEOR is the site of a growing number rescues each year. It’s now second only to Yamnuska for Public Safety calls.
Class 2 routes are still technically hikes, but should be considered “high consequence” hikes. Note that professional Hiking and Climbing Guides will call Class 2 terrain “scrambles”, always.
Some may argue that the moment you go off-route and are making up your own cross-country adventure, you’re in Class 2 as well. However, Class 2 almost always comes back to “having to put your hands on something for balance”, so being on or off a recognized route really doesn’t matter.
Class 2 is the fuzzy cross-over space where “hiking” ends and “scrambling” begins.
Class 3 – Exposure
The next consideration is exposure. The moment you add exposure – “if you fall, you WILL be severely hurt or die” – you enter Class 3 terrain, and are now scrambling, not hiking. Some of the local scrambles get you well into Class 3 terrain with ease. Some examples of Class 3 Terrain:
- The summit of Lady McDonald above the helipad. The exposure on the summit ridge alone makes it Class 3;
- The summit blocks of Bald Eagle Mountain or Mt. Sparrowhawk;
- The Big Sister;
- The summit of Nihahi Ridge above the end of the official trail.
Class 4 & beyond – Risk
Other local routes that are often referred to as “hikes” in social media forums ramp that risk and YDS Class up even higher:
- The full Tent Ridge Horseshoe is Class 3 scrambling with some sections of Class 4 depending on route chosen. This results directly from the YDS definitions of Class 4: the “ease of finding natural protection” with addition of the “falls may well be fatal”. Where you need to use your hands on Tent, if you fall, you will most certainly die. Careful route selection can reduce it to Class 3, but the exposure is always there. Less experienced folks often end up in Class 4 terrain here;
- Heart Mountain is Class 1 with bits of Class 2. But it has a single short crux section of Class 4. The crux is now marked so people don’t miss it and end up in Class 5 terrain by accident, This happens still, with some frequency, and has resulted in fatalities. Folks falling off the marked crux “easier” route has resulted in fatalities, too;
- The Yamnuska Traverse section is mostly Class 2 & 3, with bits of Class 4. It has one section of Class 5 that has protection hardware (a chain), which was installed because so many people fell, resulting in severe injury or death, before the chain was there. The route is now blazed due to so many severe injuries and fatalities from folks “looking for an easier way”.
Yet more language alternatives
Several popular local scrambling guidebooks (notably “Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies” by Alan Kane and “More Scrambles” by Andrew Nugara) use their own language of “Easy”, “Moderate” and “Difficult”. These subjective descriptors are constantly debated in on-line forums of the scrambling and mountaineering communities. Someone with much skill and practice might deem something “Easy” while someone new to scrambling would readily find the exact same thing “Difficult”. We can’t say we are fans of subjective descriptors.
Surprisingly, popular hiking Apps such as AllTrails do not use the YDS (or any other methodology) to describe the technical difficulty of “hikes” that are listed. All of the trails listed on the AllTrails app, including some Class 5+ scrambles, are described as “hikes”. This is extremely concerning, but as Kane and Nugara, they just refer to them as “easy, “moderate” and “difficult”. Strikes us that it would be useful information to know if we risk dying during a “hike.” This is yet another reason why reliance on AllTrails is exceptionally risky. Believe it or not, even the highly technical climb of Mt. Temple in Banff is considered a “hike” in AllTrails.
When is a hike not a hike?
This brings us back to our original question. Simply put, the moment you need anything other than your feet and hiking poles to move, you are not hiking: you are scrambling. We do ourselves and others a disservice when we suggest that things like the Yam Traverse or Heart Mountain are hikes. They are scrambles. Scrambles require a completely different skill set than walking on a sidewalk in the city, or walking on a recognized trail to the top of Ha Ling.
How do you progress from hiking to scrambling?
One suggestion is that you could go to a climbing gym, and take a lesson or two. You’ll find out exactly how to use your hands to help you move. You’ll see the kind of strength and balance you have, and you’ll develop it more. You can see exactly how hard it is to downclimb something, and learn proper downclimbing techniques.
There are courses specific to learning how to scramble. Most any certified guide can teach you the basics. Consider folks like the University of Calgary Outdoor program, Yamnuska Mountain Adventures and their scrambling basics course, or through guides like Cloud Nine Guiding, OnTop Mountaineering or others. All have specific Learn to Scramble programs.
We can’t say we recommend a strategy widely suggested on social media: to grab a copy of Kane or Nugara, and just start scrambling with their “Easy” scrambles. Scrambling is not the place to learn from your own mistakes. Those mistakes can be fatal.
How you can help
- You can learn the difference between hiking and the various grades of scrambling;
- Every time you’re out, you can assess for yourself what YDS Class something is;
- Don’t talk about scrambles in hiking forums on social media (nor about hikes in scrambling forums);
- Rather than just post pretty pictures in any forum, help others coming after you by making it clear that “this section requires the use of hands and so is a scramble”;
- Change your language and call scrambles “scrambles”.
- Don’t support apps (like AllTrails) that don’t distinguish between the two;
- Be disciplined about not calling something “Easy”, “Moderate” or “Difficult”. Be specific as to what the issues are.
And help others understand that a hike isn’t always a hike.
We want to acknowledge ACMG Hiking Guides Peter Lebitka and Nathalie Drotar for contributing to this page.
Learn more about safety in K-Country here!