Talus vs. Scree – What is the difference?

When off-trail routes are described, you’ll often see “go down a scree field” or “make your way through a talus slope. “

So what the heck is talus? What the heck is scree? And what the heck is the difference???

Technically there is no difference as defined by outdoor users.

However, most people, myself included, make a distinction between the two in outdoor circles.  As has been the case for over two-hundred years.  

The Oxford English Dictionary, states that the first recorded written use of the term “scree” was by the Reverend John Hutton in the glossary of his 1781 guidebook, “Tour to Caves” (2nd Ed.), in which he defined “scree” as small stones or pebbles and that the first recorded written use of the term “talus” was by the eminent English geologist Sir Charles Lyell in his classic 1830 treatise, “Principles of Geology.”

(Emphasis mine)

Note that the word scree has been defined longer than talus.

In general for common outdoor usage…

Scree is loose. Generally small sized rocks. I’d say up to a ping-pong ball or so in size at the most:

Scree towards the bottom of the slope in the Indian Peaks

 

Talus is  generally larger and can be loose or not:

Talus in the Wind River Range

Larger, more stable talus on Eldorado Mountain

As with the YDS classes, there is some gray area between what is scree and what is talus. And you’ll often find them gradually mixing into each other, too.

Overall summary: Among hikers, climbers, and outdoor users in general scree is loose and small; talus is larger and not nearly as loose as scree. You can often go boulder hopping with talus. You can “ski” a scree field.

And for the professional geologists who question this commonly accepted outdoors definition, don’t tell your IT person that the internet is down when you can FTP, access Usenet, email, and ssh into a server when you actually mean you can’t get to your Game of Thrones recap on YouTube. And please stop referring to monochromatic film on old movies or archival photos as “black and white.”  😉

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Rick
Rick
3 years ago

This is nonsense: geologists hold the scree is the material, talus the actual slope.

Reality
Reality
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

People have believed there are gods for thousands of years so people can be wrong for long periods of time. I was taught by my geo professor that if it’s on a slope, it is talus. Everything you are referencing is people talking a message board which is hardly a good reference. The reference also talks about what CLIMBERS call it, not geologists.

Candace Peterkin
Candace Peterkin
2 years ago

Hi. Talus & Scree – like Kith & Kin (Jekyll & Hyde? Heheheheh!) Both descriptions/definitions are acceptable. From a geological standpoint, scree is the material & talus the landform around it, the slope created by it. In more lay terms (not to be interpreted as insult or lack of education/comprehension – but used & useful in a more general – non-scientific or technical use; talus & scree are widely used among climbers/trekkers & hikers as descriptions of the make-up of fairly distinctive “rock” slopes. An example of such a common differentiation from the general to the technical or scientific is:… Read more »

Cee
Cee
2 years ago

Of course you’d continue to use the terms! That’s what I was trying to say! They are perfectly acceptable in a number of ways, in different areas of human communication and as a former hiker –> – geology type I am – I was – comfortable with both meanings – as I tried so clumsily to say! So. Not challenging you or thousands of hikers – but the fact that the question comes up … opens the subject to discussion – that’s all! Oops! Gotta go – my falcon is hungry … Sheesh! :))

RJ
RJ
1 year ago

Does this help resolve the “kerfuffle”? https://www.etymonline.com/word/talus https://www.etymonline.com/word/scree ——————————— talus (n.2) “slope,” 1640s, from French talus (16c.), from Old French talu “slope, mound, small hill” (12c.), probably from Gallo-Roman *talutum, from Latin talutium “a slope or outcrop of rock debris,” perhaps of Celtic origin (compare Welsh, Breton tal “forehead, brow”). OED, however, suggests derivation from root of talus (n.1) in the sense of “heel” which developed in its Romanic descendants. Mainly used of military earthwork at first; meaning “sloping mass of rocky fragments that has fallen from a cliff” is first recorded 1830. ————————————— scree (n.) “pile of debris at… Read more »

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[…] west ridge descends in hundreds of meters of loose, terrible rock. Horrendously steep scree slopes, massively tilted boulders in delicate balance, it was hours of slow, hot, dusty descent […]

Trail Runner Jim
Trail Runner Jim
4 months ago

Thank you, Paul, for keeping it simple on the basics that the normal hiker truly needs to know. Scree is small-stone gravel – so expect questionable footing on a good day. Talus are bigger rocks providing slightly better traction. And -again, for the normal hiker- the slope is just the angle of ascent/descent. Ergo, scree on a steep slope is big trouble; go slow and be extra cautious with each step. I won’t discount the geological reference that Talus is the slope or gradient or platform; but I will discount it based upon the placement of that argument on this… Read more »

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[…] Talus slopes are super scary. Keeping my eyes focused downward to the next step and rock I was going to move to helped. Check out more on talus if you’re not up on it. […]