Hiking problems and solutions

Despite our best efforts, sometimes things don't go as planned. This section lists some of the most common issues that can arise and offers some suggestions on how to deal with them.

As is so often the case, prevention is better than cure for these problems. There are ways you can prepare yourself for these problems. You can reduce the likelihood that they will happen, and you can be prepared for them in case they do. The preparation you do before your trip to the Great Wall will give you the confidence to enjoy your walk on the Great Wall with a minimum of concerns.


One of the first problems you are likely to encounter when you reach the Great Wall, assuming you're in mountainous regions, is acrophobia. While acrophobia can be described as an unnatural or excessive fear of heights, some degree of fear of heights is natural and logical. But it can also be debilitating and therefore needs to be controlled, or at least, acknowledged and respected.

Remember the reason why heights can make you fearful. Falling is a bad thing. In modern society, we're generally pretty well protected from dangerous locations by man-made barriers like railings and fences. But put yourself in an adventure situation like climbing the Great Wall and suddenly you feel utterly exposed. It's the lack of protection that makes you most fearful because you aren't accustomed to it. If you are standing near the edge of a cliff, you would feel secure if there were a railing there, but without one, you can feel threatened and frightened. You need to use reason. If there were a railing there, what are the chances that you would actually fall against it and it would save you? The truth is, the chance is very remote. And therefore, in the absence of a railing, the chance of your actually falling off the cliff is equally remote, if not more so because you would be extra careful. After a while, you get used to the lack of the railing because you find you can walk near (but not too near) the cliff without ever falling off of it.

If for some reason you decided to walk extremely close to the cliff, however, the likelihood of falling increases. And if you do so in rainy or icy conditions, the likelihood increases more. Jump and play around in the rain very near the edge and you're almost certain to fall. The idea here is that it's your decisions, and your actions, that affect your level of safety.

Understand that no situation is 100 percent safe. There's always a potential for something bad to happen. All you can do is manage the risks within reason. You can't stay at home all day because walking out the front door is dangerous. Everyone has their own level of tolerance, and they find it by living life. Since walking the Great Wall is not a normal activity for you, it will be necessary to develop your own limits by experience.

Start off with moderate Great Wall walking if at all possible. Visit some restored areas where the surface is secure and free from small stones and perhaps there are handrails at the steepest parts. This will give you a chance to acclimate yourself before attempting more difficult and scary hikes and risking a panic attack, which can be very dangerous. Soon you will find out where your limits are. There's no point in going beyond your limits. Not only are you endangering your safety and the safety of others, you aren't having fun. And the main point of walking the Great Wall is to have fun, not to scare yourself or risk injury or death.

There are ways to overcome acrophobia. Some can be done before you reach the Great Wall. If you can get some experience in exposure to heights in controlled circumstances, you will begin the acclimatization process that will allow your conscious mind to overcome the irrational fears of your subconscious mind. Experience and confidence are your best defense against fear of heights.


Fatigue can interfere with walking the Great Wall in several ways. Your legs can get tired, not only from extended walking, but also from going up and down thousands of steps. Your heart can get tired from the extreme and prolonged exertion. And you can experience mental fatigue due to long periods of intense concentration, especially in dangerous situations, which is exactly where you don't need mental fatigue.

Exercise and conditioning are your best defense against physical fatigue. We've already discussed the importance of doing exercise that is as similar as possible to walking the Great Wall. Don't disappoint yourself by arriving at the Great Wall and finding that your physical limitations are preventing you from doing what you want to do.

Another topic we've already discussed is the importance of carrying the lightest possible load. Other ways that your gear can help you is in wearing lightweight, well-broken-in shoes that fit properly and provide good protection, and in protecting you from the sun and thereby reducing the fatigue caused from the heat.

Avoiding the hottest weather of the summertime is another good defense against fatigue.

Once you're walking the Great Wall, moderation is your best protection from fatigue. Pace yourself; don't try to cover too much ground in too little time. Walk at a reasonable rate, and take breaks from time to time as needed. Pay attention to your body and don't ask too much of it. And take care of your body by drinking plenty of fluids and consuming nutritious foods regularly and in the proper amounts.


Blisters are a very common malady for long-distance walkers. Friction is the cause of blisters, so reduction of friction is the way to reduce blisters. The keys to the reduction or prevention of blisters are your shoes and socks.

Blisters can be prevented by wearing comfortable shoes that fit properly, and by wearing clean, dry socks. Any shoes must be broken in to fit properly. Quality replacement insoles can also help to make shoes fit better and to reduce friction on the bottom of your feet by equalizing the distribution of the load. Shoes that breathe are helpful. Learn to tie your shoes properly; tightly, but not too tightly, and evenly. Socks can be kept dry via built-in moisture management of quality outdoor and hiking socks, based on both material and design, and by regularly changing your socks. A protective layer of padding or a friction-reducing device between a sensitive area and your footwear can prevent the formation of a blister. Bandages, moleskin and tapes generally must be applied to the foot daily, but a friction management patch applied to the shoe will remain in place much longer. Applying talcum powder is effective in reducing friction, but it must be replaced regularly, as it absorbs moisture. You can purchase lubricating creams and ointments that are designed to prevent blisters, and they generally work quite well.

Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration. Staying well hydrated will help prevent friction by allowing you to perspire. When you aren't perspiring adequately, your perspiration will form salt crystals on your body, increasing friction.

Trekking poles can help prevent blisters by taking some of the load off of your feet and transferring it to your hands and arms. Of course, carrying a light pack will reduce the stress on your feet as well.

Walking technique is also important. Practice walking in a way that produces minimal friction. This requires paying close attention to any friction you feel on your feet as you walk. Walk softly, using your knees to cushion the shock of every step. Learn the best walking technique for uphill and downhill as well as level ground.

Prevention is invaluable because curing blisters is slow and difficult. Blisters should not be drained unless you are prepared to inject medication, because the fluid within a blister promotes healing, and because broken blisters are prone to infection. Keep blisters clean and, if they break, use disinfectant and antibiotic to keep them from getting infected. Friction should be reduced in the affected areas, if possible, and a few days' rest is ideal.

Knee pain

Knee pain can really be a problem when walking, and even more so when walking for long distances or on steep terrain. Usually the problem is first noticed going downhill, as this is where the greatest strain on your knees occurs. Pain is a result of damage; if you can avoid damaging your knees then you won't suffer from this problem. These are some habits that are very valuable to learn early, before your knees sustain damage and begin to hurt as a result.

The most important way to prevent knee pain before it happens is to learn to walk downhill properly. The key is to avoid putting your weight down when your leg is straight. Rather, make sure your knee is slightly bent when you shift your weight onto it. And learn to step down gently—don't jar your knees when you put weight onto your leg. Get into the habit of descending slowly. This is good for safety reasons as well as for taking care of your body. If the steps you're going down are so high that you can't transfer your weight onto your lower leg without straightening your knee then you must go very slowly indeed, perhaps even sitting down on each step before proceeding down to the next one.

Use trekking poles. They should be adjustable so that they can be set somewhat longer for downhill use. Use only the highest quality poles in good condition; you don't want them to fail while you're going down a steep incline. I have personally tried several brands and found Black Diamond to have the best locking mechanism. The section lock on these poles can be seen clearly, so you can tell when it's locking securely. And it's adjustable, so as it wears, you can tighten it slightly to keep it locking securely every time.

If you're still feeling pain going downhill after applying all of those methods, consider some of these suggestions that can give you some relief.

Try walking down steps sideways rather than forwards. You can even go backwards on really steep sections. In addition to offering relief for your knees, these methods can make your descent safer since you're facing the wall instead of the sky.

Carry a lighter load. The number of times you have read this advice so far is a good indicator of how important lightweight hiking is and how many benefits it brings. And remember that your body is part of your load. If you're overweight, you must either lose some weight or be prepared to adjust your walking style to compensate.

Take occasional breaks to give your body a chance to rest and recover.

Get regular exercise. There are some exercises designed specifically to alleviate knee pain.

Stretch before doing any strenuous exercise or hiking.

You already know that it's important to eat a healthy diet, but it's worth remembering that this will make your body stronger in many ways, including helping your knees to bear your weight over and over again.

Penetrating ointments and aspirin can help to alleviate the pain, although if you have a real problem with your knee, you must address it instead of covering it up.

Knee braces or knee supports can help to relieve some of the stress on your knees.

Keep your knees warm in cold weather, and keep them cool in hot weather, by dressing properly and by avoiding exposure to extreme temperatures.

If symptoms are severe or persistent, see a doctor. Many knee injuries will not heal by themselves, and ignoring the pain can lead to making your existing injuries worse.


Injury is the perfect example of the importance of avoidance. Taking precautions not to hurt yourself may slow you down and distract you, but the inconvenience is trivial compared with the consequences of an injury. Always remember this and don't let a momentary lapse in concentration spoil your whole trip—or worse.

However, no matter how well-prepared and careful you are, injuries are possible. Sometimes an injury happens through no fault of your own. If you do get injured, try to keep calm and take the best course of action.

The first thing to do is to assess your injury. Is it too serious for you to treat yourself? Use your judgment, but if you are at all unsure, do the safe thing; seek medical help.

If your injury is minor, your first aid kit may well provide all the help you need. Minor cuts and flesh wounds, for example, can be treated with antiseptic and bandages.

If, however, your injury is more serious, you must see a doctor. In China, this means going to the hospital. If you can walk safely, take the shortest route to transportation. If you cannot walk, use your cell phone to call for help. The emergency phone number for medical help is 120.


Like injury, illness is best avoided by using extra care in China. Most illnesses will come from food, water, or personal contact or proximity. Be careful with these threats and you're likely to enjoy a healthy and trouble-free time in China.

If you do become ill, you have three primary possible courses of action: you could wait for your illness to subside, you could go to a pharmacy for medicine, or you could visit a doctor in a hospital.

Visiting a pharmacy is a good choice in China. Pharmacy staff can give you suggestions on the best medicines to take for your sickness based on your symptoms. The bigger pharmacies offer both Chinese and western medicines.

If you decide to go to a hospital, you would do well to do some research. Some of this research can be done ahead of time if you're motivated. Find out about good doctors and good hospitals. This is important because the quality of health care providers and facilities varies quite a lot. Some doctors seem more interested in your money than in your health; others are quite ethical and supportive. Investigate hospitals for foreigners. Some of these are independent and some are a part of a larger, domestic hospital. If you have insurance that's effective in China, you must find out who will accept your insurance as not everyone will. A contact with your insurance company will help clarify this.

If the situation is serious, you should contact your country's consulate or embassy. They will help you to find a suitable doctor or, if necessary, to evacuate you to your home country. Most will not, however, provide any kind of financial assistance or medical advice. If you don't have sufficient funds to cover emergency travel home, make sure you have a travel insurance policy. Otherwise you could be stuck in a bad situation with no way out.

Getting lost

It may seem that getting lost would not be a concern when walking the Great Wall. After all, the only thing you should need to do is to follow the wall. However, it's not that simple. First, there are sometimes long hikes getting to or from the wall. Also, because the wall is not continuous, it is sometimes necessary to find your way from one section of the Great Wall to another. Often the walking is in forests where it's hard to see a long distance, or in the desert where there are few landmarks, and so it can be difficult to remain aware of your exact location.

The best course of action, again, is prevention. There are many steps you can take to avoid getting lost. Make these steps a habit and getting lost will never be a problem.

Keep track of your location on the map at all times. Once you are unable to indicate your location on the map, you are technically lost. Check your location on your GPS receiver periodically, but don't depend solely on it. Always know that if your GPS fails, you will still be able to make it where you are going, or at least make it back where you came from.

If you are not following some kind of distinct path or trail, you must be especially vigilant. If you're making your own trail, and you are not in sight of some kind of distant landmark to which you can navigate by visual contact, you are in the situation that can lead to getting lost.

As you walk along, periodically turn around and make a note of what the return path looks like. If you later have to retrace your route, this simple step can help immensely in allowing you to confirm that you are indeed returning along the proper path.

If you find you are lost, you have three basic choices: You can press on in hopes of finding your goal or some other civilization, you can return along the path by which you came, or you can stay where you are and wait for help. You must carefully choose which of these courses of action you want to follow.

The least painful choice, psychologically, is to continue towards your intended destination. But this can also be the most dangerous choice and the most likely to place you even further away from where you wanted to go. There are certain things that make this choice more likely to succeed. The more of these things you have in your favor, the more reasonable it would be to continue once you are lost. These things include a map and a compass that you know how to use, good ability and experience in using maps and finding your way on them, a working GPS receiver, sufficient reserves of water and food, being in a group, and being in a populated area. If you don't have a good map or GPS, you are low on supplies, are far from civilization, or you are alone, then continuing forward once you realize you are lost is not a good idea and is likely to make you become even more lost.

Staying where you are is only sensible if you have some way of summoning help. If you have a working cell phone, for example, and you can call for help, then it may be best to describe which way you came in as much detail as possible, and then to wait for help. Sometimes it's useful to move a short distance to where you would be easier to find, such as the top of a hill or a clearing.

The safest choice is often to turn back and retrace your steps. If you don't see a very high likelihood of finding civilization by continuing forward, and you don't expect to be rescued if you stay where you are, then consider going back where you came from. Sometimes you will find where you took the wrong turn and you can get back onto the correct path without having to backtrack too far.

What's most important is not to underestimate the potential consequences of getting lost.