Stretching from one end of China to the other with a total length of over 21,000 kilometers and a history of over 2,500 years, the Great Wall of China is an incredible tourist attraction. For people who like the outdoors and enjoy hiking, walking the great all is a very enjoyable and rewarding way of experiencing the great wall and life in China.
If you are passionate about the great wall, have a lot of spare time, are an experienced hiker and are extremely determined and/or a little crazy, you can hike from one end of the wall to the other or thru-hiking the great wall. Outlined below are some key points for thru-hiking the Great Wall of China.
A Quick Introduction to the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is not just one wall, it is a vast network of different walls, fortifications, earthworks and towers sprawled across northern China. The wall was built piecemeal by different dynasties and the style of the wall and the material it is built from vary enormously. The largest section of the wall is the Ming Dynasty Wall that had an estimated length of 6,400 kilomters. If you thru-hike the wall, you should thru-hike the Ming Dynasty wall.
Starting Points and the route for Great Wall of China Walk
Western End – The western end of the Great Wall of China is Yumenguan or Yumen Pass which was a strategic pass on the ancient Silk Road connecting Central Asia to China. Yumenguan is around 80 kilometers north west of Dunhuang City in Gansu Province.
Eastern End – The eastern end of the Great Wall of China is on Tiger Mountain in Dadong City on the border of North Korea in Liaoning Province.
Direction – Most great wall thru-walkers start in the Yumenguan and follow the wall east. This is considered the better route because the land is flat in the west and less demanding than the mountainous terrain in the east. If you start in Yumenguan and make it to the mountains, you’ll be in a much better condition for the difficult terrain than if you begin in the mountains around Beijing or Dadong City.
Terrain – The terrain ranges from deserts in the west of China where sand storms are a common hazard to mountains in Shaanxi in the center of China and rugged hills to the east of China in Hebei and Liaoning.
The Wall – The condition of the wall varies from non existent in Shaanxi and piles of crumbling mud in the west to pristine in Hubei. Shaanxi Province has the least amount of standing and tangible wall and Liaoning province where the presence of the wall is a rarity is not much better. Much of the wall in Gansu is isolated towers, many of them are not much better than mounds of mud.
The western section of the wall is mainly made out of packed sand stone, mud and earth and the eastern section is made out of stone bricks. You would see the first part of the stone wall in Shanxi Province after around 1,500 kilometers and the wall does not emerge in its full glory until 2,500 kilomters into the walk.
Length and Duration of the Walk
To successfully thru-walk the complete length of the great wall, you will need between 6 to 18 months or more. Some people claim to have done the thru-walk in 4 months but they probably skipped longer sections of the wall. The actual time taken would depend on a number of factors such as how many rest days you give yourself, how hard you push yourself and how often do you need to interrupt the hike to renew visas.
Robert Loken is regarded as the first person to thru-hike the full length of the great wall and he took 601 days and covered 4,500 kilometers. Most people barely make it half way and many who do thru-hike the full length do so in sections with breaks in between. The maximum number of kilometres you’d be able to hike in one day mainly depends on the terrain and varies from just a few kilometres to around 40 kilometers at the most on a good day.
When to Walk the Great Wall of China
Temperature can range from 40C in Gansu’s desert to -30C in Shanxi near the border of Inner Mongolia and in Liaoning. If you walk the wall at the wrong time, these extreme temperatures can be deadly. Ideally you would avoid walking the great wall in the middle of summer (July/August) or in the middle of winter (November-February).
For the truly committed, thru-walking the wall during these times cannot be avoided so being prepared and having the correct equipment is critical.
Backpack – Choose a very light model and aim for a carrying capacity of around 72 liters and up to 20 kilograms. The walk will be very punishing so the pack will also need to be durable.
GPS – During much of the walk the great wall will not be visible so a GPS is essential. It needs to be small and compact with standard replaceable batteries that you can buy in small country towns.
Maps – You need two sets. The first set is digital maps for your GPS with your planned trail and coordinates marked. The second is provincial paper maps with Chinese names and locations such as roads.
Shoes – Also critical and bad shoes have been the downfall of many great wall thru-walkers. Ideally you would break them in and make sure they are suitable before you start your hike. The first half of the walk will be mostly flat so walking boots without heavy ankle support are best.
Sleeping Bag – You’ll probably end up sleeping in sub zero conditions so you need a very good sleeping bag. A light weight three season down bag is good choice.
Tent – You need a tent to provide shelter during snow storms, sand storms and from the heat in the desert in the middle of the day. A one man tent would be very crowded even for a solo walker so two man is better.
Water Filters & Purifiers – Don’t take them, you don’t need them. You’ll rarely be far from some a small village or town shop where you can resupply with bottles of water.
Supplies – Normally two days of water and food such as noodles and nuts is plenty. Adjust your load depending on how isolated the wall is in that area and in some parts of the desert you’ll want to carry up to 10 liters on the longer stretches.
Trekking Poles – Every successful great wall walker used them so good to have.
Miscellaneous – You’ll also need a lot of smaller items such as sunglasses, lip balm, sunscreen, gloves, first aid kit, head lamp, Chinese sim card……
Problems and Hazards Walking the Great Wall
When you walk thousands of kilometres over rugged and often inhospitable terrain, plenty of things can go wrong. Listed below are the main hazards and problems that great wall thru-walkers face.
Blisters & Sore Feet – This problem normally occurs in the first few weeks of the walk as your feet adapt to sudden intense use. To minimise this problem hike regularly before you start the walk, have good shoes, take the first few weeks easy and take a few days off when necessary.
Visa Renewal – Most people enter China on a tourist visa that is valid for 3 to 6 months, often have conditions and must be renewed. Sometimes you may be able to renew your visa in China at a local police station. Other times you may need to leave China and go to Hong Kong. So when you plan your great wall thru-walk, take into account you will need to interrupt the walk for visa runs.
Extreme Temperatures – As you know, temperatures along the walk can range from -30C to 40C which can be deadly. Be prepared, have the right equipment and when necessary take a break from walk when the temperatures are too extreme.
Language – Most of the people you meet will be country people, friendly, hospitable but very unlikely to speak English. Try to learn enough Chinese to find a hotel, ask for help, get directions and order meals.
This post is just an introduction to thru-hiking the Great of China and you’ll need a LOT MORE information if you plan on doing this thru-hike. Some of the points you would need to research in advance are visas, maps, routes and equipment. Thru-hiking the great wall is only recommended for experienced hikers because if you are not prepared and don’t know what you are doing, you are likely to have a horrible time and end up in a lot of trouble. Also keep in mind that even just walking the great wall for a week or so can be extremely rewarding and enjoyable.
One last point to keep in mind is respect and preservation of the great wall. The great wall is a priceless and in many ways fragile structure so when walking and sleeping on it, do no harm. There is not that much knowledge on the more isolated and “lost” parts of the wall so if you do thru-hike the wall, your observations, photos and records can contribute to the growing knowledge of the last remaining ancient wonder of the world.