How to Scramble With Kids - A Parent's Guide
Scrambling is a lot of fun: it makes climbing a mountain seem so effortless compared with trudging up a path. And children are instinctive climbers, so scrambling seems such a natural way to get your kids up a big hill. But scrambling with youngsters in tow is not something to undertake lightly.
Scrambling is potentially the most dangerous mountain pursuit: with scrambling comes risk. If you're not sure about which route to choose for that day, or you're not sure about how to find it or how to follow it then you might risk ending up on dangerously steep ground that you're unable to escape from. So taking your children scrambling requires a huge degree of responsibility.
Is there a lower age limit?
With any outdoor activity or adventure, age is just a number. If they can walk then your kids are already old enough to go scrambling to some extent (and likewise your grandparents are not necessarily too old either!). But whether your kids or your grandparents actually can do it is another question altogether. In the outdoors we have three key variables to line up: people, the terrain and the weather. People are all different, and the level of past experience determines how best they can be accessing the outdoors safely. Similarly, the route choice and the weather on the day will have far more bearing on any plan than the age of any participant. That said, you do want to have a basic level of confidence in a child's coordination, and their ability to follow instruction without being silly or dangerous.
Practice makes perfect
A novice adult scrambler in charge of kids is a recipe for disaster. Since you are responsible for their welfare as well as your own, you need to be experienced, sure footed, and confident in your judgement and decision making. The routes you take children on must be comfortably within your own ability, so that the your main focus can be on them. It's essential that you already have a solid grounding in hillwalking, scrambling, and all the associated skills. Climbing experience would be helpful, too.
Ideally, before you take your kids scrambling for the first time in their lives, they will have developed and honed their own climbing movement skills on safer ground.
Hopefully your children's climbing experience has evolved over the years, and those neural pathways are well and truly established. Adventure playgrounds, tree climbing at the park, time spent at the local climbing wall pulling on plastic, and simple clambering over real rocks outside will all have helped your child develop intuitive climbing skills from the outset. What you don't want to be doing when you head to the mountains for the first time, is worrying about your child's ability to actually climb the rock.
So as early as possible, let your children start exploring the vertical world around them. Encourage them to see trees and walls as an extension of their playgrounds and quickly their climbing brains, abilities and confidence will grow!
Time in recce is seldom wasted
When you first take your children scrambling don't pioneer new routes with them! Make sure that the ground you're covering is ground you already know like the back of your hand. Know where the route goes, know the hazards, know the tricky bits and know where you can escape the route. Know where your children might need a bit of extra support, know where you will need to position yourself at these moments, know where they might climb out of sight! Essentially, know before go. Work completely in your comfort zone and this way you can completely turn all your attention to your climbing child.
If we thought through all the variables behind every decision we have to make in life we'd be in a state of paralysis by analysis (and that's why I never ask my youngest what he wants for breakfast!). For example if you need to do a five mile drive across town you won't explore all the pros and cons of different route choices, instead you'll likely just go the way you've always gone. This is because your brain makes decision making into a simpler process by making decisions based upon a bank of past knowledge/performance. Psychologists call this the application of heuristics.
For most day to day decisions this is fine. But when we're in a mountain environment we need to be careful about being a bit more considered in our approach to what we do. Just because when we last did a route it was fine, that's no guarantee it'll be fine today. The ground may have changed significantly, the weather is likely to be different, the people you're with will be different.
Human nature dictates that if we see other people doing something then it becomes legitimised as being OK, or safe. We also know that this is what sheep do and we must try to think independently. Sometimes we make a decision and then refuse to back down no matter that a disaster is looming in our faces. Or the weather might be ace and such scarcity of opportunity means we decide to go out and take greater risks.
So my advice is that when they sound, hear those alarm bells. If you start having self doubts when scrambling with your kids, heed those doubts. Think about who's agenda you're trying to fulfil and try to remain focused and objective in your decision making. The mountains will always be there another day!
With this in mind let's talk about helmets, kit and ropes …
Some routes dictate that you should wear a helmet regardless of the fact that you're scrambling with children or not. Often this might be because there's an increased chance of loose rock above you, or the likelihood of slipping over on wet rocks means there's a fair chance you'll lose your footing. With kids who are still perfecting their movement skills and whose heads are still not quite hardened likes yours or mine, helmets are even more worth considering. As ever, there's no hard and fast rule, but whatever decision you make in this regard, do make it a considered decision.
Maybe it doesn't need saying, but if you think you may need a rope on a day out scrambling with the kids, then you've probably chosen the wrong route in the first place. If you're a confident and experienced climber, multi-pitch climbing is easy compared to say doing a grade 3 scramble. On a climb, the team will pretty much always be roped up: there's no decision making needed in this respect. When you're scrambling on tougher terrain, this is not likely to be the case. As well as having good technical rope and climbing skills, you need to be able to read the ground and know the abilities of the people you're with. It's an acquired art that comes with experience. With kids in tow the responsibility here is really ramped up. So if you are questioning if you need a rope for a route, either you need more experience/training, or the route is totally inappropriate.
Because children are always growing we tend not to invest in their kit as much or as richly as we might in our own! Consequently your children probably are not getting the same benefits from their clothing as you are from the technical delights you're wearing. Make sure their footwear is up to the job: walking boots with decent support and grip are a good idea for a child on scrambling terrain, and not necessarily expensive. Bear in mind too that children are far more susceptible to the cold than adults: they are more likely to plummet into hypothermia than we are. To that end be sure when scrambling in ghylls or near water to have spare clothes ready in a dry bag. Hot drinks and sugary snacks are also good energy sources for your kids to metabolise energy into heat following a good soaking!
Steer clear of routes that are committing
My kids are all confident at height and have a good background with climbing, but there are still routes I would steer clear of. Routes that offer your children a chance to escape should things not be working out so well are the best ones to head for. For their first scrambles, routes that have short-lived interest also work well.
My general recommendation is to steer clear of ridges in particular. Routes like Crib Goch for example are sustained and offer no escape once you're up there (that said, pictured above is my 7-year-old lad on Crib Goch, and he was lapping it up!). Jack's Rake in the Lake District is an awesome route, but if you need to escape it with your kids then you have the recipe for a disaster. Tryfan's North Ridge in Snowdonia is a favourite for many, but it's so easy to wander onto challenging, exposed grade 2 territory, so again if you're just starting out scrambling with the kids I suggest that this is a route best saved for another day.
We've listed a number of child-friendly recommendations at the bottom of this page.
Who will you go with?
If you're planning on scrambling with children sometimes it's a good idea to have another adult come along too. Often when leading people scrambling, having two leaders works really well. One of you can go ahead and offer advice from above about what handholds work best, or to make sure that your charges don't charge off too quickly and into trouble up above. Meanwhile, having someone beneath a novice scrambler gives them confidence that there is someone there to catch them and that makes them more certain (and safe) on their feet. But be careful who you choose to take along. My missus has an excellent head for heights, and while she's a great one to have with the kids on a mountain adventure, she won't ever watch them abseiling off a cliff or over a bridge. Essentially have someone along who won't be a liability in their own right!
Only go in good weather
When you're headed to steep ground the chances of coming a cropper are greatly increased if the weather isn't just right. For me, wind and rain often rule out scrambling. Anything that means my hands are going to get wet touching rock usually means the day will be pigging miserable without me needing the additional worry for my life or those about me. My rule of thumb is that winds that exceed gusting speeds of 25mph will rule out a day scrambling where I am responsible for those around me. Look at the weather forecast and also consider the direction of wind as well as the speed and force. A wind gusting even as little as 15mph across your line of climb can lift a small child off the mountain altogether.
Remember: scrambling is fun
Scrambling is exciting, it's airy, it's exposed, it's exhilarating, and most of all it's simply a GREAT way to ascend a mountain. It is so important to allow our kids to have adventures, to experience a bit of fear and to allow them to grow through these experiences. It's also important for us as parents to step outside our own comfort zones and to grow some of our own confidence and trust in our kids. There is no reason not to take your kids on a scrambling adventure: just make sure you go prepared for the day, and you should all have a great day to remember!
Recommended routes for scrambling families
People often ask for recommendations of scrambles that are suitable for children. You'll often see folk recommending great grade 1 routes, but they are not necessarily routes that really lend themselves to families with smaller children. A good family-friendly scramble should not be overly commiting and hence there should be opportunities to escape from the outset. The route-finding should be straight forward so that you don't accidentally wander off onto more serious terrain. As little walking as possible will also be much appreciated from those with the shorter legs!
Crowden Clough, Peak District
This must be my favourite way to ascend Kinder Scout, and once you've climbed to the top you can have a picnic with fine views, explore and find aircraft wrecks or just amble off down Jacob's Ladder.
This route offers a lot more interest than you might initially realise. When I take kids up here we start early by boulder hopping along the stream. I get the kids to take it in turns to find an interesting route that the others have to follow. The trick is to keep it exciting but get them to try and keep their feet dry. By doing this the kids have to think about their balance and movement. It gives me a chance to see what they're like before we've even got onto steep ground.
As the ground starts to get a little steeper look out for sections that provide more interest: boulders that you can climb over or need to traverse around over pools of water. Inevitably you will arrive at the waterfall. This is fun in its own right and by the time you climb up this, you're pretty much done.
- Guidebook: Scrambles in the Dark Peak
Striding Edge, Helvellyn
Many people seem to overestimate the scariness of Striding Edge, but in reality it's a great way for anyone with a modest head for heights to climb England's third highest mountain. On a good day, when it's dry and not windy, you can choose for most of the way how exposed or exciting you wish to make it, following either the airy crest itself or a footpath that runs in parallel just below it, which allows you to avoid the gnarly stuff for most of the way. To that end, if anyone in your party doesn't like it at all, then you can easily clamber off down to the path and safely head back.
To see the route through there's a time when that path leads you unavoidably to the crest. Here it will feel a bit exposed. You have to continue along the crest for a short way and then down-climb maybe five metres to a worn path. As someone leading the party I would always position myself beneath the down-climber to best show them where to place their foot next.
The finale to the top up the final flank of the mountain has you romping all the way up on generous handholds and steps, and with only a frisson of exposure.
Having taken your summit-selfie, the fun doesn't have to end there, for then you can descend Swirral Edge, a shorter grade 1 scramble.
Do not confuse this scramble with Sharp Edge, on Blencathra. As grade 1 scrambles go, that one is a much more exposed and awkward proposition, and not best suited to families.
Stickle Ghyll, Langdale
Often when I lead people on Jack's Rake I will start the day's fun with an ascent of Stickle Ghyll. For scrambling with children, it's perfect: It starts around 200m from the car park, it's got water, it's forever escapable and you can end the day back at the pub for ice-cream.
You can choose to take Stickle Ghyll one of two ways. Go dry, or get wet from the outset. You will see many commercial groups choosing the latter, with teams of children wearing various forms of apparel, but all those wetsuits, cagoules and buoyancy aids do rather impede the freedom and flow of movement and that's what scrambling (in my book) should be all about. I generally choose to go dry. However on anything but a roasting hot summer's day, I like to have a flask of hot chocolate to hand; a towel and some spare dry clothes won't go amiss either!
I miss out the very first walls which take you up short gushing water spouts and waterfalls, and hop into the water-course 50 – 100m upstream. With less gear, but helmets worn, the kids can take it in turns to lead the dance through the boulders. They are not allowed to take the easiest line, but should look for interest, whilst all the time trying to keep their feet dry.
Eventually you will come to a 10m waterfall. The rock here is greasy and slippery pretty much the whole way up, and you can all miss out and skirt around this section easily enough.
Commercial groups tend to head down from here: session over. But there is so much more to enjoy. In fact the rock gets slightly better as it gets steeper now (and all the time you're within 50m or so of the path over to your right). This higher section does now need you the adult to be closely supervising. At every stage, think carefully where you are best placed, up ahead or down below?
Eventually the scramble comes to its natural end. It would be rude not to continue up to Stickle Tarn, from where you can show your kids another brilliant grade 1 scramble, the scratched and improbable line of Jack's Rake on Pavey Ark. But this is another route that I suggest that you steer clear of for the time being. While it's a great and easy route to follow, there is a lot of exposure, potential for falling rock from climbers above and just before the end there's a chance you may go off route. Instead maybe go for a dip before heading back down.
- Guidebook: Scrambles in the Lake District South
Y Gribin and East Ridge of Snowdon
If you are not keen to join the throngs on the usual routes up Wales' highest peak, the Gribin Ridge (not to be confused with Ogwen's ridge of the same name - also good fun) makes a great alternative.
You start your day walking amiably enough on the Miners' Track before breaking off left up a short bank of slabbed rock. These initial moves allow you an early opportunity for getting your eye in on the steep ground. It's a good place to watch your charges individually move up the rocks. Here you can proffer advice on route choice, holds and footwork. If the youths are looking uncertain at this stage, or really at any point for the first half of the ascent on this scramble, there are ample opportunities to escape back to the main path below.
But, if they like it, carry on! The ridge will slowly narrow and in places you can choose between slippery polished corners or slightly grippier and juggier (but more exposed), arêtes. There's plenty of wear and tear to show you the way.
All too soon the joy comes to a natural conclusion and you find yourself on a grassy saddle between Y Lliwedd and Snowdon. If you have scratched the itch of Snowdon on a previous expedition, head left and seek out further grade 1 scrambling interest as you climb to the summit of Y Lliwedd.
Should you decide to go for Snowdon itself, again, steer clear of the paths which will seem the natural way up. Instead, continue to gain height, but by looking for a route that is direct and over to the right. This is the east ridge, and it will spit you out on what must be one of the most crowded mountains of the UK, almost at its very top. All in all, it's a great way to ascend Snowdon, almost free of anyone else the whole way up.
- Guidebook: Scrambles in Snowdonia
The Elie Chain Walk, Fife
Out in the 'East Neuk' of Fife is Scotland's first via ferrata. Climbing up and over a series of rocky fins and headlands on a craggy coastline overlooking the sea, this unique chain-assisted coastal traverse is great fun for families.
It's not a via ferrata in the strict sense, since there's no cable to clip into for safety, but the chunky chain and carved footholds make for an unusual experience. Since a couple of sections are subject to an incoming sea, and escape upwards would be ill advised, it's worth checking the tide tables before you go, and allowing yourself a few hours leeway from high tide.
About the author
Will Legon of Will4Adventure is a father of active kids, a rock climbing instructor and a professional Mountain Leader. His days out include guided scrambling in Snowdonia and the Lake District, as well as bespoke family adventure days.