Camping in China can be an exciting adventure in the untamed outdoors of Asia. It’s also technically illegal. Before you set off on an adventure camping in China, there are a few things you should know that could save you a lot of trouble and headache.
As the sun slowly climbed the horizon, the hanging fog that was disrupting my view finally began to break revealing the beautiful panorama that I had come here to see:
China’s Great Wall at sunrise.
I had camped on the wall overnight, one of the most incredible experiences of my time here in China. It had been a strenuous climb and a chilly night, but overall it had been completely worth the time and effort.
I hadn’t just climbed the Great Wall of China, I had pitched my tent and camped on it!
Over the years I have received a number of questions from people asking about camping in China. Most people are drawn to the adventure of it all but are scared away by the unknowns.
Can it be done? Is it safe? Since there aren’t any official camping grounds in China, how is it possible to set up your tent here?
To the best of my ability, I’d like to answer some of the most common China camping questions here in this simple guide.
Is it Legal to Camp in China?
The first question that always gets asked about camping in China is whether or not it is legal.
It’s a good question because the last thing you want is to be pulled into a police station at 2am in the morning.
The short and confusing answer to the question is this:
Yes, it is legal to tent camp in China. And at the same time it is illegal.
That’s what’s terrible about the Chinese system of law: contradictions are purposely placed in order to give freedom for the local authorities to decide what they want to do.
So while authorities around Beijing have realized the economic benefit of allowing people to camp on the Great Wall, authorities in Tibet may decide that it’s too risky.
Both can be “right”.
Strictly speaking, foreigners in China are supposed to register each night they stay in China. Hotels and hostels automatically do this for you but if you’re camping in China that’s not possible.
The reality, however, is that such rules aren’t – and cannot be – enforced. Let’s say you buy a train ticket in China that goes overnight. Do you register?
And nobody knows or cares.
The same goes for camping.
As long as you stay under the radar and off the beaten path, you won’t draw the ire of any local authorities. Everybody is happy.
The key is figuring out where to pitch your tent.
Where Can I Camp in China?
As you probably already know, there are no official camping grounds or KOAs with nice bathrooms and running water in China. In fact, the idea is laughable to most Chinese people.
When it comes to camping in China…
…you’re on your own.
In order to successfully camp in China, you have to know where to set up your tent. There are common places like the Great Wall, where tour groups set up tent almost every night. But this isn’t the case for the other 99.9% of China (unless you’re joining a registered China travel agency).
Finding a spot to pitch your camping tent may seem daunting at first but really the rules are the same no matter where you try to camp in the world where there aren’t official camp grounds.
Tips for Finding a Good Spot to Camp
Here are some thoughts on finding a good place to camp:
- Ask a Local: If you can speak Mandarin, ask the people around town or in the village where you want to go if they know of any nice streams or outdoor vistas. At best they’ll be able to point you in a direction and at worst you’ll have some good interaction with the locals!
- Don’t Camp Close to a Big City: This is just asking for the authorities to find you and escort you to the closest hotel (which has happened to me).
- Give Yourself Time: I budget at least an hour or more before sundown to find a suitable place to set up tent. You need time to find the place, scout the area and move if necessary.
- Avoid Roads, Open Fields and Lake Shores: At most Chinese national parks, the first place that authorities check is what they can see from the road or along the shoreline from a boat. All it takes is just a couple extra minutes to hike in to a more secluded place and you’ll be fine.
- Be Camouflaged: Having a tent that blends in with the surroundings definitely helps. The idea isn’t that you’re hiding because you’re doing something wrong, you just want to blend in.
- Don’t Run: If for some reason the authorities discover you and decide they don’t want you camping, don’t try to run. Just give the innocent foreigner act and most of the time they’ll just make sure you make it safely to a hotel.
Of course, before you can even set up tent you need to get your gear.
Can I Rent or Purchase Camping Gear in China?
Although the industry is still young, the camping market in China is growing at an unbelievable rate.
Whereas 10 years ago it might have been difficult to get a high quality tent or sleeping bag, now the outdoor stores in certain parts of each city are innumerable.
…all of these brands and more are available for purchase in specialty stores all across China.
The best option is to bring your own gear, of course, since the gear you’ll find in China is also quite expensive. You can find butane canisters, so you don’t need to bring those on the plane with you.
Finally, it is entirely possible to find stores that can rent gear at a reasonable price.
You can ask around at the different stores to find out where and as a last resort you can contact a travel agency that should be able to provide you with the appropriate gear you need for a price.
Tips for Avoiding Problems While Camping in China
Finally, I want to share with you a few tips that might be important as you consider how you want to camp here in China.
Whether you’re camping on the Great Wall or in the sands of the Gobi Desert, the first thing you should consider is whether or not you should hire a guide.
The dangers of trying to make it out on your own are real, especially if you’re not an experienced outdoors man. Don’t be too prideful too admit you need help!
A few other tidbits of advice:
- Be Careful Around Borderlands: While hiking around eastern China is a bit easier to do, places like Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia are significantly harder, especially when camping close to the borders. Security is tighter and there’s a chance you might accidentally run into a military base, which would be bad.
- Don’t Use a GPS Unit: Use your phone if you have to but leave the professional GPS unit at home. A man hiking around the Xinjiang region in 2012 was picked up and charged with espionage because he had a GPS unit in his possession. He wasn’t doing anything wrong, but that didn’t matter.
- Bring Everything You Need: Like I said before, these aren’t campgrounds. You’re hiking in wilderness that may not have fresh water available. Don’t get caught without the things you need.
- Have Good Travel Insurance: There’s always a risk when you’re hiking and camping and even more so when you’re doing so in a foreign country with less-than-stellar levels of healthcare. Be sure that you have good travel insurance that can medivac you out if needed. Every year there are reports of hikers – both foreign and local – who fall down a cliff or severely injure themselves in another way.
- Have Fun!! Don’t let all these “do’s and don’ts” get to you…camping in China is AWESOME! Have fun, bring a great travel camera and enjoy the ride. You won’t regret it 🙂
Final Thoughts on Camping in China
The fact of the matter is that camping in China is not for everybody. If you don’t have your own equipment and you don’t know what you’re doing, you shouldn’t try to camp on your own without a tour group.
That said, you will experience an incredible amount of beauty when you get out beyond the big cities and into the outdoors.
Waking up in nature, away from the millions and millions of people in the city, always creates an amazing memory for me.