A brief introduction to a really fun activity that you can do in Hong Kong, enjoying the summer heat outdoors.
In a nutshell, stream hiking is going (usually) up a watercourse, involving hiking, scrambling, and sometimes swimming. Dry and wet options might be available, but it will depend on the path and your ability/preferences.
Gear. You will need shoes with good grip on wet surfaces. The best option are specific canyoning or similar shoes with tons of ground contact (no deep lugs) and specially designed rubber: Adidas canyoning line or five ten access for example. If you don’t want to invest in this kind of shoes (cheapest around HKD600), your second best option are (trail) running shoes with softer soles. I have had good experience with the Asics 2000 non-trail running series, new Salomon (since 2017 their rubber is way better, for example, the Wings Pro 3), NB Summit and others. Try to avoid clunky, heavy and hard-soled shoes or you will feel like on skates as soon as the rocks are a bit wet. Avoid water shoes with no much upper structure and lacing system. They might be difficult to wear on angled rocks and you might even lose them if the stream flow is strong. Full article explaining further about shoes.
Clothes. Fast drying, non-chafing fabrics. I always suggest to bring swimming wear below, so you can dip into the pools comfortably. A cap, long (or detachable) sleeves
and long tights help to avoid scratches from vegetation and minimize the sunscreen used. Part of their chemicals will end up in the stream…
A comfortable backpack which won’t swing around, ideally with a chest and/or a belly strap. No shoulder bags or similar stuff. Usually, we bring a waterproof bag within, so that your dry clothes, electronics, and valuables do not get wet if you fall into the water or need to climb under a waterfall. The secondary option is using kitchen zipper bags.
Additional security gear. Gloves can help in different ways, but the main one is minimizing the risk of getting into trouble with thorny vegetation. A helmet (to avoid being hit by rocks dropped by hikers above you), a rope, and others can be handy depending on the route and your ability. Whenever a rope is needed/recommended, I have written about it in the description of the route. Usually, the ropes I bring are climbing type, but short and thin so that they are not too heavy, up to a max of 25m 7mm one. In few occasions, we bring machetes or pruning scissors for opening our way in the most jungle-like streams.
In quite some routes you need to be comfortable scrambling. A video summarizing the main concepts.
He mentions that wet rocks should be avoided… Not an option in most of the streams. How to prevent slipping down then? First, your shoes’ grip, already mentioned, will define what you will be able to do. No matter how coordinated and good balanced you are, eventually, you will get into trouble with improper shoes. It works opposite too: I have seen unsteady hikers getting way more confident and faster as soon as they started using Five Ten like shoes. Remember, anyhow, that shoes will not make you Spiderman. So be cautious with your waterfall climbing and leaps around…
Not all the rocks are made equal. Porous (“relief”) rocks tend to have good grip, smoother ones are the dangerous ones. Add water and lichens (we use to oversimplify saying “dark and green = bad”) and the surface can become ice-like. Any rubber will slip on those. Avoid them as much as possible, but if you need you can still walk on them. Short slow steps on your center of gravity, help with your hands, check for flattest surfaces, not angled in dangerous degrees, and find your way to safer areas asap.
Flash flood. Hong Kong suffers very heavy rain frequently, so you should be aware of the dangers if stream hiking. If you are relatively new to this, try to find an easy exit to a major hiking path as soon as you see the storm around. Look at the sky and the Hong Kong Observatory web’s radar and Isohyet maps. If you have more experience you might want to “enjoy the fun”. Each stream is different, with some that are “safe” to hike even under heavy raining, others that flood easily and very fast. My two cents for this. Look the stream structure on a topographic map. The longer the stream, the higher it goes up the mountain, the more water it will gather. The usual water flow and slope around will also affect. Tai Shing is the perfect example of a stream that is able to gather tons of water in a very little time, transforming a nice easy hike into dangerous rapids. This stream has a decent water flow all year long (even in the driest months), it is under the highest mountain in Hong Kong, funneling all the water of the hills around with several tributaries connecting to it and the stream being the lowest point around in a big area.
It gets all the items that I could think of in the checklist for being flood prone. A little video, with the stream in a slightly rainy day Vs after 30 minutes of heavy rain in all Tai Mo Shan area.
I have been climbing the stream up to the Peak even under heavy rain with no problem. It is under a smaller hill, little flow in dry days, sometimes even dry in winter time, a water flow control mechanism just above Lugard fall, with no major tributaries. Safer on the paper and reality.
Typhoons can change the routes too. Beware of old information. Forest nice streams can become way more complicated with fallen trees and landslides that destroyed previous easy paths. Tsing Tam stream, for example.
Bigger groups. Define from the start how you will handle if someone gets lost on the way or two subgroups separate. Ideally, everyone should know roughly the route that you will be hiking on, have an app downloaded in their phones to check offline their location, know the procedure if they find themselves alone/lost. Several times someone took the wrong tributary or a completely wrong side path out of the stream and took me some time to find them… The simplest way to handle this is to decide beforehand to trace back to the last point where you all know 100% sure that you were together. It is way easier to avoid this if the groups are smaller and with similar speed hikers. If you have slower ones with you try to keep them in front, ask them taking the easier parallel side paths (even if they miss some of the stream “fun”) or nicely request to the fast ones to wait every now and then and take it really easy. Not the ideal.
Which streams can you hike on? I have already uploaded quite some routes and there are tons more that I will upload little by little. Understand how I grade the difficulty of all the routes, to avoid getting into unnecessary trouble. You can try to find more routes on your own. On the internet, on webs like hkadventurers or googling 石澗 you should get quite some ideas. In my case, I like to explore and sometimes I just look on a topographic map for a clear stream with steep slopes, which tend to = waterfalls. Little by little, the more experience I got, the easier that it is guessing the correct potential of each. Although you can always have nice (beautiful waterfall in a barely sloped stream otherwise) or bad surprises (extremely bushy). There are approx 400 streams in all HK territory.
Before ending, remember that this can be dangerous, so be cautious up there. And help us keep the streams clean. Definitely, do not drop/throw rubbish around and try to pick up some random trash (bottles of plastic, etc) left by others. It will make a significant difference if we all do it, even if it is just some few items each time 🙂