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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11 Replies to “Talus vs. Scree – What is the difference?”

      1. 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.

        1. Well, since this is an outdoor site and my definition is what outdoor people use, I’ll again go to the 1781 reference that happens to be listed on the board:

          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.”

          Basically, your reality is FOS and you do not understand how words have different meanings in different context and use. Or you are being pedantic. 🙂

  1. 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: Pisces – the astroogist & nearly everyone who speaks English “knows” this term “in general”. The zoologist might tend to differ. Talus also has a couple other meaninings: a male in “Falconry” and the descriptive term in Elizabethan times as the (ahem) part of anatomy that describes the difference so to speak of male anatomy to female anatomy … Heheheheh.
    So, in the big picture, the usage of descriptive terminology is made “legal” and perfectly acceptable by virtue of its usage – common or scientific. (Common of course is not meant as cheap or floozyish, but in terms of popularity … Heheheheh!)
    English is a language I describe often as “Whackadoodle”, I mean really – have u ever looked up a word such as : “TAP?” “TAPS”, “PIPE”??? Ah! Whadoo i know anyhoo, I’m just a silly Canuckian from Canuckia? (a description of Canada that I’m spreading around to make it in the “popular usage genre”. Heheheheh. And if Mr. Silly wants to stop “nonsrnse” – how about ending poverty, war & disease? Or saving mountain goats & true, pure, geologists from extinction? Hmmm? Heheheheh.
    Yeah, I do go on … But then, we’re known far … wide – I think grammatically that should maybe be “widely” … but what the heck – popular use yeah?
    Keep smilin’,
    Cee Pee.
    Postus scripts
    (p.s. by popular, universal use …): No one likes a snobby science guy. Words have feelings too … Heheheheh
    P.s.s.:
    What a great site!

    1. 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.

      Well, since this is a site focused primarily on hiking and related activities, I’ll still go by my assertion as written above. As has been the case for two-hundred years. 🙂

  2. 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! :))

  3. 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 the base of a cliff,” 1781, back-formation from screes (plural) “pebbles, small stones,” from Old Norse skriða “landslide,” from skriða “to creep, crawl;” of a ship, “to sail, glide,” also “to slide” (on snow-shoes), from Proto-Germanic *skrithanan (source also of Old English scriþan “to go, glide,” Old Saxon skridan, Dutch schrijden, Old High German scritan, German schreiten “to stride”).
    ————————–

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