Independent Backcountry Travel in China

Independent Backcountry Travel in China

by Adam Meckel

Recreational hiking and backpacking are novel concepts to most Chinese. Even more so if we are talking about more than a few kilometers past any road, village, temple, or other scenic spot. Any further than that, trails exist but primarily providing access to remote homes or villages or for herding, hunting, farming, and gathering resources. You will need to consider a few important points when you take these trails without a guide:

  • These trails aren’t maintained or designed for tourism. Some can unexpectedly get dangerously steep and exposed, start twisting and turning or just vanish altogether
  • They can’t be found on a map. Except for the odd hand-drawn sketch, or by those who use digital map applications. Sketches can be difficult to decipher. You can’t always rely on GPS or your device’s battery life.

  • Finding a trailhead can be very difficult. Even if you dropped a pin in Google Earth on what you thought was the logical start of your trail, on the ground you will likely find several potential trailheads.
  • There are no signs. You will need to use your orienteering skills at every crossroads.

  • The majority of the locals won’t speak Chinese, and almost certainly no English. Many might speak enough Chinese to give some directions. You might get lucky and encounter an enthusiastic English student.
  • There is no search and rescue team ready to save you. There are certainly no helicopters. Some counties might have teams of volunteers on call. Rangers might also respond, but they will likely not have had any training for emergencies.

The easiest and safest way to travel the backcountry is to hire a guide. In guesthouses or villages near relatively popular trekking routes, guides can usually be hired. Some China-based travel agencies can organize small group hiking tours.

Please keep the above points in mind if you plan to do any unguided backcountry travel. Prepare by plotting your route ahead of time with GPS. At the same time, be prepared to do a lot of navigating without GPS. Brush-up on your Mandarin and don’t expect a speedy rescue if things go wrong. Most of all, enjoy the solitude, the spectacular scenery, the opportunity to spot exotic wildlife, and the notion that you might be the first person to ever step foot there to explore.

Excerpt from Adam Meckel’s website, Used and edited by permission.

Note to the Reader: Is it legal to camp in China? Simple answer: yes and no. For more on this topic, read Josh Summer’s Traveler’s Guide to Camping in China.