15+ Things You Need to Know before You Hit the Trails in Taiwan
70% of Taiwan is covered by mountains and complex terrains, which shapes special hiking culture. I like doing solo hikes, but I still join hiking associations for group hikes. The main reason is the safety, and the second one is I get to see the most beautiful views in Taiwan when hiking with groups. Without those groups, I don't think I could get to those remote places and learn new things about hiking and trails. Therefore, I highly recommend visitors from other countries to hike with local hiking groups or associations, because this will save you time to do research about the trails and, most importantly, you feel safe when hiking with the experienced locals.
Disclaimer: Please note some of the following are based on my personal observations, and I will try to provide the latest and correct information as possible as I can. Please feel free to let me know if I make any mistake and thank you for reading. Please also note that your safety is your own responsibility.
1. Important!!! The Emergency Call on the Trail is 112 and 119 in Taiwan
112 and 119 also provide English service if you don't speak Chinese. Try 112 first because seasoned hikers say dialing 112 is easier to get through when the phone signal is weak.
2. Difficulty Levels Might Be Different from Your Home Countries
At first glance, you might think the hiking distance in Taiwan is very short. You even will find trips less than 10 km (6.2 miles). However, the jungle terrains make the short hikes more time consuming, and you may need to take extra efforts to traverse in the woods. Having a short distance doesn't mean those hikes will be easier.
Before we discuss the difficulty levels, there are several criteria about difficulty rating of trails in Taiwan. There are at least 3 kinds of trails defined by the altitudes and accessibility:
The 100 Peaks in Taiwan 百岳
The 100 Peaks in Taiwan, Three-thousander trails, or Top 100, or Baiyue 百岳 in Chinese, refer to the peak elevations greater 3,000 meters / 9,842 feet above sea level. Most of those locate within the National Parks in Taiwan and hikers need to apply for permits for hiking or camping.
Mid-elevation Mountain Trails, or 中級山
Mid-elevation Mountain Trails or 中級山, refer to those elevations between 1,000 meters and 3,000 meters (between 3,281 and 9,842 feet). Some define them between 1,500 meters and 3,000 meters (between 4,921 and 9,842 feet). Some of those are very remote, and hikers need to drive or hire a private transportation to get to the trails. Sometimes hikers have to stay the closest hotel, B&B, or camps near those trails to save time.
Mid-elevation Mountain Trails can be very challenging, and some even more difficult than the 100 Peaks. For those who want to avoid altitude sickness but still want to experience the unique beauty in the wilderness in Taiwan, I highly recommend Mid-elevation Mountain Trails. Some trails locate in national nature preserved areas, so you need to apply for permits in advance, but it's easier than applying to the 100 peaks, especially during Covid-19 pandemic. The views you can see on those trails aren't any less amazing than those on the 100 Peaks.
One thing to bear in mind is those trails aren't for everyone. Hiking on those trails requires a better physical condition, and most of the hiking guides will ask hikers' previous hiking experience before joining the group hikes. The guides also have the right to turn you down if they don't think this trail is for you.
Suburb Mountain Trails 郊山
Suburb Mountain Trails or 郊山, roughly below 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) in height. Most of them are close to Taipei City or other big cities and can be reached and finish the hike within one day.
This name is translated literally from Chinese. Those trails are not necessary located in the suburban or near the cities. Some of those trails can still be very challenging. For example, you might need to hike through creeks, climb up and down steep slopes or narrow ridges. Usually, the difficulty levels of those trails are also categorized in 3 levels: easy, moderate, challenging. Those trails can be finished within one day and most of them can be access by public transport.
In Taiwan, hiking over 12 km (7.5 miles) can be deemed as a long-distance hike because of the complex terrains covered by thick mud or intertwined tree roots. In Europe or in the U.S. or other countries, hiking 20+ km or even 20+ miles in one day seems to be normal, but the jungles in Taiwan increase the hiking difficulty, and can make the hike a daunting task.
Local government and some hiking organizations will establish new trail categories to encourage the public to go hiking. Some of those trails can be connected into a long-distance hike. If you take a wrong turn, you might end up in a different trail and exit in a totally different place. Therefore, please prepare maps or GPX tracks on your navigation device when you go hiking in Taiwan. The jungle-like terrains usually make things more complicated.
High Altitudes ≠ Difficulty
Another thing about the trails in Taiwan is the difficulty level is not necessarily associated with the elevations. Many Mid-elevation Mountain Trails are more difficult than the 100 Peaks because of the total descending and ascending and the terrains. Many trails on the 100 Peaks are easier to detect than those on the Mid-elevation ones. Some Suburb Mountain Trails can also make you curse yourself for hiking there, too. I once hiked a Mid-elevation Mountain Trail, Mt. Baxian Main Peak Trail 八仙山主峰, with more than 1,300 meters (4,265 feet) in total descending and ascending. I still don't know how I made it.
The best example might be Mt. Yu, 3,952 meters / 12,966 feet, the highest mountain in Taiwan. There are still some dangerous sections on the trail, but overall, it's not as difficult as you thought. However, the most difficult part about hiking in Mt. Yu is to win the lottery draw to get a sleeping space at Baiyun Lodge. There are even at least 3 levels of difficulty for the 100 Peaks labeled by the National Parks, starting from A, which is the easiest one.
Xiao Baiyue or Junior 100 Peaks 小百岳
To promote hiking, government surveyed and selected 100 Suburb Mountains (some are overlapped with Mid-elevation Mountains) in 2013 to establish a list called Xiao Baiyue, meaning junior or small 100 Peaks. Those are much easier to hike, and some have great views on the summits. Xiao Baiyue trails are very popular here.
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3. Hiking the 100 Peaks Can Be Dangerous Because of Altitude Sickness
For local hikers, applying for the permits to hike the 100 Peaks sometimes depends on luck to get a space at the cabins or camping ground. But for international visitors, the process is different from the locals and almost certain you will get a space because they will preserve some beds for intentional visitors.
Not all 100 Peaks are difficult to hike. Mt. Hehuan 合歡山 is very easy to access, and five of Mt. Hehuan summits are listed in the 100 Peaks. But even it's not difficult to hike Mt. Hehuan, you still have to worry about the altitude sickness.
Here's a great post about the altitude sickness. The altitude sickness can happen when hikers climb to elevation over 2,500 meters (8,202 feet) too fast, and it can cause deaths. The only way to relieve the sickness is to move to lower elevation as soon as possible.
That's why every guide in the group will ask hikers to report any illness to them, no matter how minor you think it is, because those symptoms can get worse that things might be out of control. Hikers in Taiwan usually will visit the doctors a few days before the hike to get some medicine like Diamox for precaution. I took Diamox before my 100 Peak hikes, but I experience side effects like figure tingling. I'm not professional medical personnel. Please check with your doctor.
4. The Translations on The Trails Can be Confusing and Funny
As a local, our translation system confuses me, too. So, I can totally understand how frustrated the international visitors feel and wonder how they can survive when they are here. According to the website of our Bureau of Consular Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, you might get up to 4 different English pronunciations when you type one Chinese phrase.
For example, the translations on Mt. Xue, 雪山. I've seen both Mt. Xue and Syue Mountain on the trail, not to mention Mt. Snow, which is literally translated from Chinese. When you hike the highest peak in Taipei City, you will see the post on the peak says Mt. Cishing, instead of Mt. Qixing. As the popular hike to Mt. Teapot, you will also see Cha Hu Shan, or Cha Hu Mountain, and the official Chinese name is 無耳茶壺山.
So, which one is the standard or correct translation? I still have no idea. I'll try to keep the translations on the website consistent and put Chinese names for reference in case you need to ask the local people for directions. Or, just hike with the local people.
5. Triangulation Stones 三角點 Are A Big Thing in Taiwan
There are many Triangulation Stones on the peaks of mountains, and they are usually (but not always) the indicators of whether you will see the views. There are three main classes of those stones in Taiwan: Class 1 Triangulation Stones usually mean you can see the vest views on the summits, but sometimes those Triangulation Stones are placed in the woods and there is no view to see. There are five Class 1 Triangulation Stones in Taipei City and New Taipei City, but you can only get a great view from three of them. The highest peak in Taipei City, Mt. Qixing, 1,120 meters / 3,675 feet, also has a Class 1 Triangulation Stone. Not every peak will have those stones because some of them have been missing for a while. Triangulation Stones are for geodetic surveying.
There are several taboos when you see those stones. The biggest one is, do not stand on them or use your feet to touch them. You probably will get scolded by older hikers. Some hikers say touching those stones will make your hike easier. Of course, this is not true. Those are encouragements to help you keep going and show respect the mountains. There are some hand-made signs near those stones so hikers will take those signs and take photos to prove they've been there. Sometimes you can see hikers queueing up to take photos with those stones.
6. Plastic Ribbons and Plates on The Trails
When you hike on Suburban Mountain Trails (not those maintained by governments with stone or wooden steps), the most common terrains are tangled tree roots or dirt trails covered by grasses or bamboo woods. Many hiking associations will tie bright-colored plastic ribbons or tags on the trees for fellow hikers to see where the trails go. A group of volunteers organized by Lantian Group 藍天隊 even devote their time and money to clean the trails from time to time in north Taiwan and put plates for directions on the trail. Their devotion has helped hikers a lot and let us enjoy the trails. The current leader of Lantian Group is Mr. Jiang Qixiang.
7. Your Physical Fitness and Fear of Height Matter
Some local hiking associations will screen hikers' physical conditions or their hiking experience for certain trails. However, there is also a gap between self-assessment and the reality. Every outdoor activity is different. Being good at running marathons doesn't mean you will be fine with a long hike. I've met some new hikers (me included) who have exercise habits thought they could take on the more difficult hikes, but it turns out the trail is too much for them. We all misjudge sometimes, which is fine. If you think the trail is too much for you, please don't feel embarrassed to let the guides know. Ask for help whenever you need, you and fellow hikers will thank you later.
Another thing is the fear of height, or acrophobia. Sometimes, we have to hike through the thin barren ridges or climb the steep slopes with the ropes. If there are trees along those ridges or slopes, things will not be too bad because you have something to grab. The worse situation is there is nothing on the rocks to block your imagination for fear of losing your footing and fall to your death.
Usually, the hiking groups or associations will give you the warning in advance. However, misjudgment happens. That happened to me when I was hiking on Bitou Cape Trail, and it didn't go well. I knew some parts of the trail might trigger the fear of height, but I didn't expect the slopes were so steep and there were almost no edges to put my feet. I still made it back, but it was really scary. Luckily, I saw one of the most fantastic views I've ever seen and that gave me some comfort. If you are not sure, you can always check with the guides to make sure this trail is for you.
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8. The Ideal Clothing and Footwear Here Might Be Beyond Your Imagination
It's very hot and humid in Taiwan, especially in summer. It is understandable that you want to wear tank tops and shorts on the trails. But please still wear long-sleeve hiking shirts and breathable hiking pants for the following reasons. And NO JEANS please. If you don't wear properly for the hike, some guides may have to turn you down the sake of you and other people's safety. Even if you hike alone, proper clothing will help you enjoy your hike much better.
A) Protect Yourself from Sharp Bamboo Grass, Plants with Thorns and Poisons
Many volunteers devote their weekends to clean up the trails in Taiwan. Without their efforts, it is difficult to hike through some trails with the grass as tall as an adult. If a trail hasn't been tended for 3 months, it will grow very fast, and can cut you or lash you on your face, arms or legs, which feels like paper cuts.
Bamboo grass is one of the most common plants on the trails, and those are more notorious than grass. Wearing long sleeves and pants can reduce the damages or pain when you try to navigate through those tall grasses.
Being whipped on the trails may not be as painful as being stung by poison plants. If your accidentally touch them with your bare skin, those will not kill you but definitely will make your hike less enjoyable. This is a good reason to cover yourself up to get some protection.
B) Sun Burn Can Be Serious
You will see how hikers cover up or holding umbrellas on the trails in Taiwan, especially female hikers. Aside from the obsession of pale complexion, covering up can also protect yourself from sun burn. From time to time, we hike on the exposed ridges without any shade. If you hike on those trails in summer, it will make you feel like you are the human BBQ or dim sum, which is another good reason to wear long sleeves and pants. Hats are a must, too.
C) Most of the Time, Rainboots Are Your Best Friends
For hikers from different countries, it must surprise them a lot when they see local hikers wearing rainboots on the trails. Many even wear them to the 100 Peaks or in hot summer, including myself. Why are Taiwanese hikers so obsessed with rainboots?
Even without muddy trails, it's still very slippery on the trails. The humid weather is perfect for moss to thrive, and those tiny plants cover up the surface of the trails or rocks, which makes them very slippery. Although hiking with rainboots doesn't totally reduce the slippery on those trails, it indeed increases the friction compared to hiking boots. And please don't step on the green rocks because they are covered by moss. Those are very slippery and may cause a great harm.
I watch many YouTube videos about hikes on Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail, and the hikers seldom wear hiking boots on those long trails. They wear light weight trail running shoes. In Taiwan, this kind of footwear may not be suitable and will make your miserable if you hike on the difficult terrains. Rainboots are bulky and heavy, and I have to say I'm not a big fan of them, but I still wear them on the trails. Before my hike, I will Google to see the trail condition to decide what I'm going to wear. Most of time, I just wear rainboots.
D) The Little Vampires That Live in The Broad Daylight
The humid weather and jungle landscape are perfect for leeches to thrive, especially after raining. Wearing long sleeves and pants doesn't totally protect you from being bitten by leeches, but it can at least give those blood suckers some hard time to attach to your bare skin.
Most people are taken back when they hear leeches on the trails in Taiwan, but personally I think they are much better than wasps, bees, ticks and poison plants. Leech bites are not fun, but they are almost harmless and usually won't give you bad reactions, and it's very easy to get rid of them once they lay their suckers on your skin. Just a pinch of salt and they will drop right away. I tried to use my fingers to pull them away from my skin, but they stuck on my fingertip instead. Later, I put a pinch of salts and it works well.
Yes, we still have ticks on the trails in Taiwan.
F) A Pair of Cotton Yarn Gloves and A Headlamp Will Be A Plus
You can find cheap cotton yarn gloves at 7-11 or any convenience stores in Taiwan. Having a pair will make your hiking experience more pleasant and avoid rope burns or cuts. Other than that, a headlamp is also a must-have item. If you don't have one, at least have a power bank for your smartphone with you in case you have to hike in the dark.
9. Regulations about Wild Camping and Camp Fire
Wild camping and campfire are not allowed at the National Parks, preservation parks and other designated areas in Taiwan. There are cabins and campsites on those areas and hikers must apply for permits beforehand to hike and stay on those areas overnight. Some sections of the trails are open to the public, but hikers still should apply to enter after certain areas for the habitat conservation purposes.
For example, not every part of Yangmingshan National Park is open to the public. Hikers or tourists need to apply permits for entry in advance to enter some conversation areas.
As to trails other than those mentioned above, hikers usually can camp there as long as they don't camp on private lands or farms. Sometimes hikers can camp on elementary school campus, but not every school allows that. Some police stations welcome hikers or cyclists to use the toilets and water or even bathrooms and camp near them, but again it's better to check with them first.
For some remote trails, wild camping is usually fine, if you can find water source. There are many private campsites in Taiwan. However, most of them are not legal and they are quite expensive. Here is a list of public campsites in Chinese.
In September 2020, two families got swept away by river when they camped on the riverbed. Please do your homework about the safety of camping.
10. Public Transport
I'm very proud to say that Taiwan probably has the cleanest and safest subway systems in the world. New routes are still under construction and the whole network will expand even more later. For what we have and the connecting bus services now, it's very good and safe. Moreover, just get yourself an EasyCard and you can use it to pay for MRT, buses, trains, rent a public bike (you'll have to register your EasyCard first), and buy things at the convenient stores as long as you have enough deposit in it. Some taxis take EasyCard, too. If you don't have enough deposit in the card, you can add balance in your card at the convenient stores or the MRT stations. You can purchase your card at those places, too.
Moreover, there are several smartphone apps to check the bus schedules. Other than local buses, there are also long-distance bus services in Taiwan, and you can download Android app or Apple app for the timetables in English. Usually those buses will go through highway, which means passengers are required to be seated and buckled up for safety reasons. If all the seats are taken, you have to wait for the next one.
As to trains, I think the quality of ours is above the average or better. There can be some delays and very crowded during rush hours, but most of them are within tolerance, unless accidents happen. I used to complain about our train service, but I change my mind after I experience the longest delay I've been through while I visited Germany, 140 minutes. You can also find apps to check the schedule. We also have high speed trains if you want to travel to the south.
If the trails are located in other counties, many hiking associations will hire buses for the hikers or arrange carpool. Hikers pay the fee first when signing up. Some are one-day trips, and others are multi-day hikes. Hikers need show up on time at the meeting points and you can take a nap on the bus, bring extra clothing and leave them on the bus during your hike. The hikers who take those trips are also insured by the bus companies and hiking groups. I joined a hike like this a while ago and met some foreign hikers hoping to get a hitchhike. The driver didn't take them because according to the driver, the bus company had to take responsibility if accidents happened. So, I guess if you want to hitchhike, you probably will have to ask for private cars or wait patiently for the bus to come.
A very famous hiker, Gigi Wu, who sadly passed away due to a hiking accident, wrote a detailed note about how to use public transport to get to the trailheads of some 100 Peaks. Some information may be outdated since she's no longer with us. It's still a great reference.
The main reasons that will lead to hiking trips cancelled are typhoons and torrential rains. Multiple-day or the 100 Peaks hikes are usually planned months beforehand, and it is difficult to predict what the weather will be when you finally departure for the hike. Check out hte local weather forcast here or download the app..
12. Boomer and Female Hikers Rock on the Trail
Boomer hikers are the major demographic group on the trails in Taiwan. The interesting thing about hiking in Taiwan is it's deemed as old people's activity, because many people start hiking after they retire. I guess it's because people think only middle-class has the leisure to participate recreational activities like hiking.
In 2017, I joined a group hike, I was 45 years old at that time and I was also the youngest one. The oldest hiker I've ever met is an 88-year-old grandpa, and he grabbed the rope gliding down the slope like anybody else. Nowadays, outdoor activities are getting popular in Taiwan. However, the younger generations seem more into triathlon, marathons, or cycling. You still can find young people on the trails. Another interesting thing is female hikers also take the majority on the trail.
Taiwanese hikers enjoy taking group photos and they will change the poses several times, at least this is what I've observed, whether they are boomers or Millennials. Facebook groups are the most popular social media for hikers to connect and share hiking information and photos. Selfie sticks are popular, too. If you get a chance to hike with local hikers, be prepared to be asked for taking many photos with them. If you don't hike with them, they might still ask for photos with you if they see you on the trails.
Sharing food is common. Many friendly hikers, especially the guides, will bring extra fruit or snacks and share them with other hikers. I don't have many international hiking experiences, so I am not sure this is also common in other countries. From the YouTube channels I watch, most hikers from other countries usually hike with their family or hiking mates. It will be fun to know how and what hikers in different countries do on the trails.
Expect crowds and noise on the trials. Most of the hiking associations don't set up a maximum number of hikers to join their hikes. Many people may show up if the weather is perfect. Sometimes, there might be even 100 or more hikers showing up. When it gets crowded on the trail, please remember to keep a certain distance from hiker in front of you if she or he uses trekking poles and keep yours near you as much as you can.
You might find ropes on some steep slopes, but it can be difficult to use the ropes if the hikers behind you also grab the rope at the same time. I usually try to grab tree roots, pointed rocks, or strong grass if I climb steep slopes and avoid the rope as much as I can. Check to see whether the ropes are strong enough to hold your weight.
Since the hiking groups can be very big, hikers in Taiwan have established a habit to inform those behind them about the trail condition ahead. For example, most hikers will say Xiǎo xīn tóu 小心頭 ‘watch out your head' if there are low branches, or Xiǎo xīn jiǎo 小心腳 'watch out your feet' if there are holes or big tree roots on the trails. This can prevent some injuries and it hurts so much to bump your head into the low branches. I've seen some serious cut on hikers' heads when they accidently bump into the trees.
13. Let Someone Know Where You Are Going to Hike
Please let your family or friends from your home country or at least the hotel you stay know where you are going and when you plan to return. Just in case something happens, and you fail to return to your hotel on time, they can ask for help on your behalf. In the mountains, it's difficult to find the phone signals, unless you have a satellite phone with you, which is unlikely.
If you decide to hike alone, please at least bring a whistle with you so you can make a distress call to let other hikers near you know you need help. Please also prepare for the worst to happen, even though you think the trail you pick is very easy, but sometimes they might be more difficult than you could have imagined. It's even better if you can write a hiking trip plan and give it to people before you start your hike.
14. Facebook and Line Groups are hiking clubs' best friends in Taiwan
Taiwanese are heavy Facebook Groups and Line users. Line is like WhatsApp, except with many funny emojis. Some hiking groups don't have their own websites or blogs, and they mainly rely on Facebook and Line to share the latest trips and photos and connect with members. If things come up or they must cancel the trips, they usually announce through Facebook. Some will send emails.
15. Last but not Least, Always Have a Plan B
The weather casts a major influence on whether you can hike or not. It's normal to have trips canceled or postponed due to the sudden weather change. For local hikers, this might be easy to solve. We just stay home. However, for international hikers, if your main goal is to hike the 100 Peaks, the sudden cancellation can be very frustrating. But safety first. All hiking trips will be canceled if the Central Weather Bureau in Taiwan issues typhoon alerts. If you still insist to go (if, surprisingly, the guide also agrees), it's not fun to hike in a bad weather. You potentially put yourself and others in danger. I know you may not visit Taiwan again after this trip, which I hope you will, but there are still many things for you to enjoy during your stay if the weather is not in your favor. Always have a plan B, and this won't hurt.
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