4 Ways to Hike in Taiwan with Pros and Cons
It seems easy to hike in Taiwan, and I've met several international visitors Google their way to the trails, and there are many great blogs in English to tell you where you can hike in Taiwan. But there are other options to enjoy hiking in Taiwan, and here are the pros and cons of each method.
Before 2001, if you wanted to hike the 100 Peaks, the elevation greater than 3,000 meters/ 9,842 feet above sea level, people had to go with licensed high mountain hiking guides and applied with registered hiking associations (reference, Chinese). During that time, hiking guides were quite well trained and many of them started hiking since college.
After this regulation was abolished in 2001, hiking with the associations is not the only option, and there are good and bad outcomes with the abolishment of this regulation. Sports Administration Ministry of Education in Taiwan has issued a new regulation to regulate qualifications of the mountain activity guides. Most hiking associations also establish their own training to build up their guide teams.
1. Go with the Hiking Associations
This is the most popular way to hike in Taiwan, and also my main approach to explore the trails.
Cost and Hassle-free Guided Hikes
There are so many registered hiking associations in Taiwan, and they have many well-trained and experienced guides. They have meetings regularly to decide which trails they are going to hike for the coming quarters. Taiwan Mountain LOHAS Association even requires their guides to check the trails at least once to make sure the trail condition is suitable before the trips are available, and some other groups will help clean up the fallen branches or debris if manageable. All the participants have to do is to check those associations' schedules for the information like difficulty ratings, length, etc., and show up at the meeting point on time.
For people who want to hike the 100 Peaks, hikers have to apply permits to the administrations the National Parks of Taiwan for legal entry and staying at the cabins or campsites, because most of the 100 Peaks locate in the National Parks. Hikers are not allowed to go there without applying and do wild camping, either. The main purpose is to prevent the vegetation and wildlife from too many human activities and forest fire. There are designated areas for hikers to use gas canisters to cook. For the popular hiking destinations, sometimes it can be really difficult to apply, especially for the local hikers, you have to remember when to apply in advance, and submit the application materials.
If you decide to hike with the hiking associations for the 100 Peaks, you just sign up, wait for the application results before paying the cost. If you are lucky enough and get a place at the cabin or the campsite, those associations will arrange pickups and decent hotels or B&B or even porters to carry your tents, sleeping bags and meals depending on what the trips provide, which can save weight you have to carry and a lot of time on figuring out how and when to get to the trail.
Safety Is the Biggest Reason to Hike with A Group
Although accidents may still occur even if you hike with a group, safety is still considered as the main concern why people join the group hikes. According to government regulations (Chinese), qualified hiking guides must receive at least 48 hours of indoor and outdoor training, and meet other requirements to become certificated.
Qualified hiking guides not only know how to survive, navigate and perform first aid in the wilderness, but, most importantly, also know the trails and potential risks very well to prevent any danger from happening beforehand. For example, experienced guides know the trail terrains well so they can warn the hikers when they traverse that area, or other things like wasp activities, etc. Of course, there are many unforeseen dangers, like sudden rains or collapsed slopes, but at least they are well aware of most of the trail conditions.
Another benefit is most hiking associations will arrange several guides to assist hikers. One will be the lead guide and she or he will ask hikers not to go before her or him, and one as the designated guide to be the last person in the group. They also arrange several guides in between hikers depending on the size of the group. If the hikers need any help, they will know who to turn to. So basically, the hikers will be surrounded by guides to make sure everyone is there. If something is up or someone is missing, the guides can react immediately, and they have enough guides to take care of the rest people.
For some challenging hikes, some hiking associations will screen people based on their physical assessments and hiking experience to ensure the hikers can have a good trip. But sometimes there is a gap between self-assessment and the reality.
I joined a challenging hike in March 2019, and there were three people who came from other country. They had hiking experience back home and they were also marathon runners, so they thought hiking in Taiwan shouldn't be that difficult. It turned out to be a different story. The trail was muddy with fallen trees, entwined tree roots and steep slopes. Their running shoes got stuck in the mud all the time, and they lagged behind a lot and one guy's shoes just gave up upon him. The female guide kept them company all the time, and our lead guide even got back on the trail to assist them after he settled us down at the campsite. They were late from the most of us for 3 hours, and they had to hike in the dark.
You Get to Hike on Rare and Remote Trails.
There are many easy-access trails in Taiwan, but there are more trails that we don't know about. With the hiking associations, I've been to many beautiful trails since 2017. Gradually, I build up a pocket list of trails that I'd like to hike again. If you hike regularly and want to experience special trails when you visit Taiwan, I definitely will recommend you going with those local hiking associations.
Having Hiking Mates to Boost Morale
I personally think one the benefits of hiking with a group is to have some people there to keep you going. When you hike with a group, you and your hiking mates will be there to encourage and help each other. When I hiked on a long difficult trail, the thought of giving up and turning back came up from time to time, and my pace would get slower and slower. At this moment, some mental support from other hikers will help you continue and make it to the summit.
I once hiked on a high-altitude trail, and the thin air and the lack of proper sleep made the ascending extremely hard for me. I stopped almost every three steps and had to rest, and the guide who was in a better condition than I was also followed my pace. I felt so sorry but very grateful for her patience and tolerance. It isn't easy to slow your pace just to accommodate other hikers' need, but I am very lucky to meet those great guides on the trails. But please also bear in mind that not every guide will be so patient, and some can even be mad at you, but they still keep you accompany.
Some guides even share their knowledge about the vegetation, trail history and how to survive in the woods. Some guides even go beyond and prepare free trail food or snacks for hikers to enjoy. When you hike in a cold weather and your guides boil hot water and hand you a cup of hot drink, it feels like heaven.
It Might Be Too Crowded on the Trail.
Some hiking associations are very popular, and they welcome anyone who is interested to join the hike. Usually they will not set up a quota of how many people can participate for free guided hikes. Therefore, it can be very crowded and noisy on the trail.
You Might Become the Focus in the Group
Taiwanese people are very friendly, especially older hikers. If you get to hike with the locals, according to my observations, you pretty much will get special treatment and care, and other hikers will help you as much as they can and even provide you trail foods. They might not speak English fluently, but they are very welcoming. You might feel like a celebrity because almost everyone wants to take photos with you.
If you enjoy being around with people, this may not be a problem. But if you prefer to be left alone, you might think the extra attention is too much. Of course, this will not happen to each hiking association, but it's possible. Some of the expat hikers in Taiwan share their stories with me about their encounters with the local hikers and some are hilarious.
Most of the Hikes Are on the Weekend.
Those guides from the free guided hikes are not paid and most of them have full-time jobs. They devote their time to help hikers enjoy the nature. The only time they are available is on the weekends, and that's why those free guided hikes you find are mainly on the weekend. You still can find some free ones during the weekdays, but those are not common. For those weekday hikes, the guides are retirees, and some are only open to members.
2. Join Commercial Hiking Groups
Most of those don't have free guided hikes, and they offer customized hikes, too. However, if you consider a customized trip with them, please take those mentioned below into consideration carefully. Although you take the major responsibility of being safe on the trail, hiking with a qualified and good guide is still essential to whether you can have a great trip here in Taiwan.
A few of those groups may be registered as companies, but many of them work like freelancers. Some guides start running their business and taking clients after hiking for a few years. Therefore, many of them may not have the qualifications as hiking guides and their background, experience and training of those guides can be varied.
Technically, those are not legal in Taiwan. According to the regulations in Taiwan, you must have a travel agency license to run commercial trips and take clients. Many commercial hiking groups adopt different approach by working with travel agencies, but this is a grey area. Others just start taking clients without any license or certificates.
They mainly focus on the most popular hiking routes like Mt. Yu or Jiaming Lake.
Hikers often don't have to carry tents and food, because they hire porters to carry the essential gear.
Hikers often don't have to carry tents and food, because they hire porters to carry the essential gear.
Profit orientation might compromise safety, which means there might be only one guide for a large group.
The ideal guide-to-hiker ratio is 1 to 6 – 8, but following this ratio also means that the cost will increase. If there is only one guide, and some of the hikers in the group have issues, the only guide may not be able to take care of the rest of the group.
Guides don't have proper training or lack of team management skills.
Usually guides are also drivers, which also increases potential risks during transportation.
Those groups take whoever want to hike without screening hikers' hiking experience and physical conditions.
Although there is still some miss even after screening, some unexperienced hikers may treat popular hikes like Mt. Yu as sightseeing, which increases the risks of getting high altitude sickness and other potential injuries or carry the wrong gear or wear wrong clothing.
Lack of proper attitudes toward the nature, like LNT (leave no trace principles), and outdoor activities.
Currently there is no regulation to govern these kinds of groups in Taiwan. Therefore, disputes may occur, and it's difficult to file a complaint.
The cost to join those groups vary a lot. They can be very expensive or extremely cheap.
3. Social Media Hiking Groups
Facebook and Line (an instant communication app like WhatsApp) are very popular in Taiwan. Therefore, it has become a trend to find hiking mates from those apps to share the hiking cost, and the hiking mates can be total strangers.
It's cheaper because hikers don't have to pay for a professional guide.
It's easy to find people to hike the routes and dates you want.
The biggest concern is safety.
There is no professional guide to assist. The one who starts the trip will become the lead and she or he will determine the major things. However, their hiking experience can vary. People without training or many hiking experiences can be the lead or the person who is in charge. However, when injuries or even death occur, the lead and other hiking mates sill have certain liability. It is very important to understand those liabilities before you join.
It's also very important to discuss how to deal with the possible things or accidents happening before you go, for example, what to do when the weather is bad, if someone is injured or even dead, etc. In order to save money, some members will drive their own cars and others share the cost. However, when the car breaks down or gets into accident or a traffic ticket, what to do with the rest trip or the extra cost? For trips held by hiking associations, the lead guides have the authority to make the decisions agreed upon beforehand, and they've been trained to deal with emergencies. If the members of this social media group don't reach consensus in advance, disputes might occur.
You don't know how fit your hiking mates are.
As a hiker myself, I misjudge my physical condition sometimes, not to mention that things like sudden illness or lack of proper sleep do happen. Those things will affect your performance on the trail. The same things apply to your unknown hiking mates. They might think they should be okay on the trail, but there's always a gap between the expectation and the reality. There are always some people who hike slower. If the physical conditions vary a lot among those strangers, who should lead the group and who should keep accompany with the slower ones? Those are things that might be beyond control if you hike with a bunch of strangers.
4. Solo Hikes
If the trails you choose are like Xianshan or Elephant Mountain Hiking Trail or Xianjiyan Hiking Trail with very obvious signs and endless stone steps, please feel free to hike by yourself. Otherwise, please note that doing solo hikes in Taiwan requires hikers to have certain skills like technical climbing, navigation, survival skills, and right gear and clothing if they go for much more challenging hikes like the 100 Peaks.
Even Mid-elevation Mountain Trails 中級山 could catch you off guard because of the difficult terrains, humidity, weather and jungle-like vegetation. Many blogs in Chinese or English can help you get some ideas about what the trails look like, but hiking on them is still different from reading blog posts, unless you have hiked the trails with similar terrains before. According to regulations, hikers must have navigation gadgets like GPS, smartphones or other communication devices when they go hiking.
Freedom and solitude
For people who enjoy the nature and solitude, there is no need to explain more. If you hike on the weekdays, the trail might be all yours. There's a famous solo hiker nicknamed Bikini Hiker, and she spent 2/3 of 2018 on the 100 Peaks before her unfortunate accident in early 2019, and her hiking plans and gear were so thorough and detailed that probably only very experienced guides could compete.
You have to learn many skills like navigation and how to pitch a tent and do a lot of research about the trails and figure out the transportation.
If things happen, it might be difficult to ask for help unless you have a satellite phone. You are on your own, unless you are lucky to have other hikers near you.
It's better to have an experienced hiker as a communicator off the trail.
This person should know your gear, physical condition, trail plans, food supply, etc., in case that things happen. That person will know when to call for help and might be able to know your possible location for the rescue team to find you as soon as possible. This person is required if you want to apply for the permit to hike the 100 Peaks in Taiwan.
Hiking with the locals: One of the Best Ways to Travel
I joined a hiking trip with a local guide in Norway in 2017. Our Norwegian guide was professional, friendly and funny, and he knew the weather and the terrains very well, and could pick up the best dates for us to enjoy the most beautiful views. He also shared many local things with us, and that is exactly the point of traveling: learn new things from the locals. That's why I highly recommend visitors to hike with the local hiking associations, because you get to experience the local culture and people, and they know the trail well enough.
Other Option: Considering A Customized Hiking Trip
If you want to enjoy the freedom but don't want to spend too much time doing planning or carrying tents and food, I will recommend you to have a customized trip based on your physical condition, hiking experience and what you'd like to see in Taiwan. So, you can enjoy the freedom and hike with qualified guides.
Hiking Is Not A Sightseeing
Last but not least, one thing should be born in mind is hiking should be labeled as an outdoor sport, not sightseeing, from my humble opinion. Hiking and sightseeing require different levels of physical strength, clothing, gear, and knowledge toward the activities, the nature and risk managements. Besides, hiking involves greater dangers which might cause injuries or even death.
New Regulations about Hiking on the Way
In 2019, Taiwan government has announced it's going to change the laws and regulations toward hiking activities and remove the restrictions of mountain trekking after the death of Bikini Hiker , we are not certain how the new regulations will be at this moment, because it's still in progress. I'll update the new ones when the government issues them.
Finally, wherever you hike, please do homework and be well-prepared.