How to Hike on Scree - A Sloped Field of Loose Rocks

Not for those with sensitive toes

Hiker sitting above a scree field

 VisitBritain/James McCormick/Britain On View/Getty Images

Imagine what it'd feel like to hike up a slope covered in poorly made marbles, and you're pretty close to the feel of hiking up a scree slope.

These deposits of loose, weathered rock -- typically around fist-size, although they can be larger or smaller -- shift and roll unpredictably beneath you or can even slide en mass. Worse yet, other objects resting on the scree -- larger rocks, say -- can slide too.

Questions to Ask Yourself

We can't tell you strictly which scree slopes you should stay away from -- that's going to depend on your personal ability, agility, and comfort level -- but we can recommend some questions you should ask yourself before crossing any scree field:

  • Is the scree slope obviously unstable?
  • Are there any signs of a recent slide?
  • Are there cliffs or other landforms above the scree that might shed more loose rock down on me?
  • How much exposure is there? Or, to put it another way -- what are the possible consequences if you fall?

Tips If You Dare

Of course, not all scree slopes are death traps filled with sliding, misshapen marbles -- but a certain degree of instability is present in all scree deposits and it's murder on your toes. If you do decide to give the scree slope a go, here are my favorite tips for doing so safely:

  • Leave the sandals at home -- this is the time to wear sturdy footwear with solid heel and toe protection, and good ankle support. If you find yourself getting pebbles or grit down your shoes or boots, next time wear gaiters.
  • Dig your toes in when going uphill. When going downhill, kick your heels in.
  • Use solid objects like trees, spots of bare ground or large rocks as hand- and footholds to work your way up. The trick is in making sure they're solid -- even when it's obvious, double-check; objects that look to be firmly seated in a scree field can still slide.
  • Take switchbacks when you can.
  • Follow the path of least resistance. I'd never advocate group-think, but I do recommend paying attention to where the trail across the scree is and sticking to it unless you see some reason not to; this will usually be the path of least resistance.

We've seen some people use hiking poles to good effect when hiking in scree, but we think they're a hindrance -- We find that having our hands free to grab handholds is much more useful.

A Word on Screeing

Screeing is the term for sliding down a scree slope on your feet -- think of it like skiing without the skis (thus the name). It can be a (barely) controlled slide or somewhere between a slide and a jog. Don't do this! It is fun -- but it's also incredibly dangerous, and you could end up tumbling headfirst down the slope. Given that the entirety of said slope is unstable, you might even have a few tons of rocks come tumbling after -- and the fun usually ends there.