Planning and preparation

Travel planning

Your travel planning includes getting to and from China, and traveling within China.

Find out what flights are available from your location and how long they take. Departure and arrival times can be inconvenient because the flights are usually very long.

Jet lag can be a problem both coming to and returning from China due to the extreme time change. Try to arrange at least one rest day after you arrive in China and after you return home, especially if you have difficulty sleeping on airplanes.

If you aren't flying to the city where you want to begin your Great Wall visit, you'll also need to plan on how to get there. Usually this involves air or rail travel. Train travel in China is reasonably convenient, but it's not always easy to get the tickets you want, especially on faster trains and during busy times. Further complicating this issue is the fact that rail travel is very popular in China and train tickets are not available far in advance or via the Internet. Air tickets, however, can be bought at any time and in any place.

Once you have made your basic plans, you're ready to begin your actual trip preparation. You'll need to procure and test any equipment and supplies you don't already have and arrange travel documentation and travel reservations.

Travel preparation

Gathering the necessary documentation and getting any necessary medical treatments before you go to China are some of the things you must do to ensure a smooth and pleasant trip.


In addition to your airline reservations, you will need a current passport and a valid Chinese visa. Make sure your passport will be valid for at least six months from the date you will enter China.

Most visitors to China will want a tourist visa. Different types of tourist visas are available for different lengths of stays in China. The default is 30 days, but you can get 60-day or 90-day visas by request. Consult the Chinese consulate in your area for details.

Mail service is not available for your visa application in the USA and Canada. If you do not live near a Chinese embassy, or if it's otherwise difficult for you to appear there in person, you can find agents to apply for you. You can mail your application, payment, and passport to them along with a fee, and they will return your passport to you with the visa attached to a page.

Just search the Internet for “Chinese visa” and you will find all the details you need.

Be sure to apply for your visa well ahead of time to avoid having to pay extra money for rush services.

Once you are in China, the Public Security Bureau can extend your visa if you want to stay in China longer. They do this at their discretion, however, and if you repeatedly apply for visa extensions, they may eventually refuse to grant one.

Before you leave for China, prepare a document with essential information. Carry this document in your money belt or other secure location at all times. This document should include emergency contact information, telephone numbers such as your country's embassy in China, travel itineraries and confirmation numbers, and any other important information that you might need.

Also consider making a copy of your passport and visa and other ID and keeping them in a separate place from the originals.


Depending on the area where you live and conditions at the time of your visit, you may need certain inoculations before going to China. Check with the US State Department and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) or other local official sources for current information before you leave.

Here are some websites that may be useful:



New Zealand

United Kingdom

United States CDC travelers' health:

United States CDC China travel information:

U. S. State Department international travel information:

U. S. State Department China travel information:


Many health insurance policies won't cover the policy holder in foreign countries. Find out if yours does, and if not, consider buying a policy to protect you in the event of illness or accident in China. These policies are reasonably priced and the peace of mind is good to have even if you feel your chance of needing the coverage is minimal. Some policies also cover you if you are not able to take your trip, if your luggage is lost, and more.

Make sure your insurance policy covers accidents which may occur while hiking in undeveloped locations which are not necessarily designated as official tourist locations.

Basic planning

Planning is an essential part of any excursion. Some people find trip planning fun and exciting, while others consider it boring. Try to be in the first group.

The level of detail in the ideal plan is different for different people. Some people like to leave as little as possible to chance, so that they know exactly what to expect before the trip begins. Others like to plan only the most basic considerations and then let the details work themselves out, leaving room for impromptu activities. While your trip planning doesn't have to be excessively detailed, if you don't do enough of it, you will end up wasting time during your trip instead of maximizing the amount of time you can relax and enjoy the experience.

Those who prefer to plan all the details should be aware that unexpected things often come up, especially in China. Decide beforehand to take these unplanned events in stride and with a sense of humor, and they will become memorable parts of your trip instead of making you upset. And don't be averse to deviating from your plan if and when the opportunity presents itself.

When making your plans, keep in mind the immense scale of the Great Wall. A two-year mapping project completed in 2009 concluded that the structure includes 6,259.6 kilometers (3889.5 miles) of actual wall, plus 359.7 kilometers (223.5 miles) of trenches and 2,232.5 kilometers (1387.2 miles) of natural barriers such as hills and rivers. If you wanted to just cover five percent of the actual wall, ignoring the trenches and natural barriers, you would be walking 313 kilometers (194 miles), and most of it would probably be in the mountains. That's ambitious! While extensive hiking like this is feasible, most people will want to make shorter visits to a variety of areas to get the best feel for the overall Great Wall and its extensive variety of geography and style in a reasonable time and without extreme effort. However, if you're set on thru-hiking a particular part of the Great Wall, this book will help you to achieve that goal.

How many?

As we've already mentioned, there's nothing like walking in an interesting place to improve the experience. But walking with good companions is also important. Take time to evaluate who, if anyone, you will walk the Great Wall with. Sometimes this is an obvious decision, but for many people, there are choices. This needs to be decided before other plans can be made.

While walking alone may be the best choice for some people, there are many advantages to hiking in a group of two or more. First, safety is enhanced with more than one person. Obviously, if you get hurt, it's a lot more difficult to get help if you're alone. In a rich visual environment like the Great Wall, more things get noticed with more people looking; if you're alone, you can miss a lot. If you're on a multiple-day hike, two people can share parts of the load such as tent, cooking equipment, and so forth, reducing your individual load. But the biggest advantage is camaraderie. A fantastic experience like walking the Great Wall is simply better if it can be shared.

However, there are also advantages to walking alone. It's easier to concentrate on the experience itself without distractions. You can go at your own pace, walking fast or slow and taking detours or breaks when, and only when, you desire. No company means no compromise.

If you do decide to share the experience, make sure your hiking partners are compatible. Careful selection will help to ensure your partners are assets rather than liabilities. Try to select partners with similar hiking abilities and experience so one person isn't frequently waiting for the other. You should both have similar time constraints, dedication levels, and tolerance for risk. If possible, hike with close friends rather than people you don't know well in order to minimize the chance of incompatibility.

How long?

The most important question to ask yourself is how much time you will have available to walk the Great Wall during your trip to China.

You will need a minimum of one day. If you think you want to spend a part of a day at the Great Wall and another part of a day at some other activity, try to arrange some way to give yourself at least one full day at the Great Wall. Extend your trip by a day, forego some other activity, or plan an additional trip. The Great Wall simply deserves more of your time, and once you arrive there you will not want to have to watch the time.

If you can plan on a number of days, rather than just one, do so. You can always change your plan later if you decide you can't continue walking the Great Wall for some reason. But it's far more common for people to wish they had more time available at the Great Wall than to wish they had less.

How far?

Once you have decided how much time you want to devote to the Great Wall, you can think about how far you would like to plan to walk. This is a judgment call and it depends on many factors. Your motivation is an important consideration. How hard do you want to work while you're walking the Great Wall? Be aware that you can have a great experience while walking slowly. Your physical condition and hiking experience will help you to estimate how consistently fast you can walk for the time you have allotted. The terrain of the area you select will have a major effect. You just can't make the same progress in the mountains that you can make on level ground. Finally, weather is a major factor that is hard to judge in advance. Rain, snow, wind, heat, and humidity can all impede your progress.

Especially in mountainous areas, people are often surprised at how little distance can be covered in a given time. Many factors will slow you down. The steepness of the terrain, the deteriorated condition of the unrestored Great Wall, the thousands of steep and uneven steps, and the extra need to be careful can all reduce the distance you can cover in your available time. And you'll find yourself taking extra time for photography, for route-finding, and for simply pausing to enjoy the scenery.

How strenuous?

Along with the decisions on how long and how far comes the consideration of how strenuous of an outing you want. It's important to realize how steep the terrain is in the eastern part of north China. The Great Wall follows high mountain ridges because it was designed to provide the best possible vantage point and to be as difficult as possible to breach. So following the Great Wall in this area involves constantly climbing up and down steps, sometimes on very long and steep inclines.

Elevation profile from a walk on the Great Wall in Gubeikou, north of Beijing

If you are sure you want to walk on this part of the Great Wall, but you aren't sure you have the energy, you can compensate by planning to walk a shorter distance. This is an excellent approach. It's much better to find you have completed your planned distance with time to spare than to have to push yourself to make your goal, missing the scenery and increasing the chance of a fall.

The alternative is to hike on the Great Wall further to the west, where the terrain is more level. There are many advantages to this approach. Far fewer tourists visit this area, so you will have more privacy. You will be seeing parts of the Great Wall that are much less frequently visited and photographed, but are no less impressive than the eastern areas.

As you read further and learn about specific Great Wall locations, and keeping in mind your preference for strain level, you will develop a better feel for what areas suit you best.

How risky?

In making your general plan, and closely related to the consideration of how strenuous a walk you want, it's important to evaluate your tolerance for risk. There's no denying that the Great Wall can be downright dangerous.

It's good to understand that, in the mountains, the Great Wall puts you very high up above the surrounding terrain. For those that are not accustomed to hiking in the mountains, the perceived risk level can be extreme. Whether or not there is an actual high risk level is a different question. A fear of heights can really affect your ability to walk on the Great Wall, and being honest with yourself about this ahead of time is important.

There are places along the Great Wall where a fall would obviously be very serious if not fatal. And there isn't always a lot to protect you from a fall. Sometimes there is an intimidating precipice and a slippery, loose surface with little room to walk by. In these situations, balance, confidence, and nerve are critical. If you panic in a situation like this, you're a serious threat to yourself and those that are walking with you.

Sometimes, even though you are very high up on the Great Wall, the safety margin is quite tolerable, because you are still on solid footing and not likely to fall. Even in this situation, be aware that if for any reason you do fall, the consequences can be much worse than falling on a more routine hike.

Don't worry, because the Great Wall can accommodate any level of risk tolerance. There are vast areas that are level and represent no more threat of falling than walking down the sidewalk. There are places that are extremely dangerous even to experienced rock climbers. And there is everything in between.

If you're in doubt, start by walking where many people visit a restored Great Wall location, which will be in better condition than an original area and from which help would be easier to access in case of an accident. You can gradually work your way up to more difficult areas as you gain experience and confidence. Always beware of becoming desensitized to the danger, for the danger remains real whether we respect it or not. And always be willing to turn around and retrace your steps when you are in doubt of your safety or the safety of those in your party.

Again, as you read on and learn about specific Great Wall locations, you will be able to judge what walking in these areas is like, and you will then be able to decide where you want to go and what places you want to avoid.

Guided or solo?

One key choice you will make is whether or not to use a tour guide. Many tour guides are happy to provide their services to you not only for Great Wall hiking but other tourism activities as well. These tour guides vary greatly in the quality of their service and the fairness of their prices.

What exactly can a tour guide do for you? Details vary, but in general, they can meet you at your hotel or at the airport, transport you to the Great Wall, walk along with you, carry gear, food, and water for you, and direct you to restaurants, shops, and accommodations. Most offer private transportation but some use public transportation. You can hire a private tour guide or you can go with a group.

We will return to the subject of tour guides and how to select one later when we discuss traveling within China.

When to go?

You may not have a choice, but if you do, pick a season that suits your preferences. Northern China has four distinct seasons. It's cold in the winter and it's hot and rainy in the summer. It's nice in the spring and it's even better in the autumn.

Winter: Keep in mind that the eastern Great Wall follows mountain ridges, which means it can be cold and windy. If you don't mind cold weather, winter can be a good time to visit the Great Wall because tourists are few and clear weather is common. It doesn't snow often at the Great Wall, but when it does, the photo opportunities are wonderful.

Great Wall in Snow
Photo by Luan Qi

In the west, the weather can be extremely cold in the winter.

Spring: After winter weather has passed, there are often many beautiful days in the springtime which are neither cold nor hot, and are not humid. Sometimes it's very windy, and sometimes there are sandstorms, but in general, spring is not a bad time to visit the Great Wall.

Summer: Summers in northeastern China can be hot and humid. Thunderstorms are not uncommon, and the Great Wall's location on mountain ridges makes it a dangerous place to be in thunderstorms. Unless you don't mind the heat and humidity, summer is not an ideal time to visit the Great Wall.

In the west, the weather can be terribly hot in the summer.

Autumn: The best season for walking on the Great Wall is surely the autumn season. Temperatures start to cool and rain starts to subside in September. Weather is usually crisp and cool in the mornings and warm in the afternoons. Temperatures start to get cool in the afternoons and cold at night around early to mid-November.

In addition to season and weather considerations, it's a good idea to try to avoid major tourist attractions in China during Chinese national holidays, when tourist attractions and public transportation can be crowded.

Spring Festival, celebrated at the beginning of the Chinese New Year, is the biggest holiday. Many businesses close for Spring Festival. This holiday begins between January 20 and February 20 and lasts for a week. Since the dates of Spring Festival are based on the lunar calendar, they differ from year to year.

National Day, the second-biggest holiday in China, occurs on October 1. This is a one-day holiday but travel can be heavy for a day or two before and after.

If you're going to the Great Wall during a major Chinese holiday, try to avoid the most popular ones if you prefer to avoid crowding, and use private transportation if possible.

An important part of preparation is to learn at least some basic Chinese language and Chinese culture.