Your Home Away from Home – Camping in Taiwan

Stuart Dawson / Taiwan Adventures

Camping is the ideal way to rest and relax in nature and has become an extremely popular leisure activity in Taiwan over the past decade. For good reason.  

One night while camping in Pingtung County’s Kenting beach area, my family and I were awakened by a whooshing sound – like flames spreading quickly – and people hollering. Though alarmed by visions of tents on fire, we were soon relieved to discover that the commotion was caused by a group of fire-eaters putting on an impromptu show, cheered by about 40 people.

This event occurred during the annual revelries of the Spring Scream festival, but still shows that with camping in Taiwan, you should be ready for anything. It’s part of the charm of the outdoors and being close to nature, together with a whole lot of similarly minded campers.

Taiwan is currently experiencing a “golden age” of camping, according to Morio Chen, honorary president of the Formosa Camping and Caravanning Club (FCCC). With a temperate climate, nature in abundance, and ease of access to good sites, Taiwan is a “paradise for camping,” Chen says. Some 1,300 campsites ranging from basic to practically luxurious dot the island, and there’s nearly always a 7-Eleven nearby to pick up vital supplies. Every weekend, upwards of 300,000 people head for the hills and down to the beaches to set up their tents in order to hike, climb, river trace, surf, cycle, and visit hot springs.

A member of a fire- eating troupe practices in the morning. (Photo: Jules Quarterly)
A member of a fire- eating troupe practices in the morning. (Photo: Jules Quarterly)

Morio Chen is Taiwan’s camping guru. After a lifetime of camping, the 72-year-old still goes out on trips every week, and you can tell from his gait that he could out-hike someone half his age. Before he retired, Chen was a professor at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU), where he taught middle-school teachers about outdoor pursuits and scouting. They in turn passed on their knowledge to hundreds of thousands of youngsters over the years.

For Chen, the first golden age of camping occurred after the Kuomintang (KMT) government beat a retreat from China in 1949. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek placed a strong emphasis in the schools on outdoor adventuring, with the idea of raising sturdy kids who would make strong soldiers able to “recover the mainland.”

Boys and girls alike took mandatory courses on camping and wilderness survival under the aegis of the General Association of the Scouts of China. In 1974, a record 570,000 scouts took part in camping trips and jamborees. Until the 1990s, when the scouting association’s affiliation with the government came to an end, its programs were how most Taiwanese learned to camp.

The average adult, however, rarely went camping – and those like Chen who did, rarely had well-provided campsites to visit. Rather, it was a case of finding some open land where campers wouldn’t be bothered by snakes or stray dogs; landowners rarely charged a fee for putting up a rudimentary tent. In the absence of toilets, campers dug latrine pits, and the adventurers had to wait for their return to civilization to enjoy a shower.

“They were simpler, more innocent days,” Chen reminisces. “At 15, I loved camping and used to go with friends. My parents didn’t come because in those days no one expected anything bad to happen. Back then there wasn’t so much free time or money, and there were no outdoor activities like surfing.”

As in to many countries, interest in camping and later caravanning (with horse-drawn carriages to begin with) developed in line with mass prosperity and more leisure time. “In Taiwan during the 1990s, people started traveling around more and taking weekend breaks,” observes Chen, adding that the burgeoning environmental movement at the time inspired more people to camp in a cleaner and more environmentally friendly manner. More campgrounds opened as well, with many offering luxurious amenities.

Sunrise at Snow Mountain. (Photo: Stuart Dawson / Taiwan Adventures)
Sunrise at Snow Mountain. (Photo: Stuart Dawson / Taiwan Adventures)

On the other hand, Taiwan’s temperamental weather means that even the most luxurious campground is subject to risk. For example, a trip that this writer planned along the East Coast in August 2015 turned out to be a washout, as Typhoon Soudelor barreled through Taiwan, causing eight deaths. Some of the campsites we had booked were wiped off the face of the Earth. Others, such as Shitiping (石珶坪) in Hualien County, are only now slowly being brought back to life.

The campground in Hualien’s Fengbin Township was regarded as among the country’s finest, with splendiferous views of the staircase-shaped rock formations that plunge into the sea. Built by the East Coast Scenic Area Tourism Bureau, it had three bathrooms with hot water, picnic tables and 29 wooden gazebos to camp on and under. Currently, it is partly open, with just four gazebos. The rest of the two-hectare site still under repair, according to management.

Chen says that today many campsites are fully booked on weekends, sometimes for up to a year in advance. Prices at popular and well-equipped sites can hit NT$1,500 a night in peak periods, roughly the cost of a room at a small hotel. “Naturally, because there are so many campers there will be new campsites – and then there will be too many, so less business and less money for each, but that’s the way it goes,” observes Chen.

He should know. A firm believer in “doing what you love,” he set up a tent and rucksack company, Camping International, which ran from 1973 to 1998. He became president of both of Taiwan’s camping associations (the internationally affiliated FCCC and the Camping Association of the ROC). In his retirement, he designs campground sites, much like famous golfers acting as consultants for new golf courses.

Not always roughing it

Asked how camping Taiwan-style differs from the European or American versions, he says: “Generally, foreigners want more space and don’t travel in large groups as much. We like putting our tents together and enjoy eating with one another. We tend to take more stuff with us to keep comfortable – and yes, sometimes it might look a bit more like home.”

“Taiwanese are so friendly and helpful, when you arrive they help you set up your tent and are willing to share everything they have. They tend to buy the latest camping equipment, from table sets to outdoor living room extensions.”

Chen notes that membership in the country’s camping clubs has fallen in recent years, even as the popularity of camping has grown. While camping club members in Europe and the United States get discounts on equipment and camping fees, Taiwan’s campsite operators tend to act independently, leading to a wider variety of standards.

David Treston, a teacher at the Taipei European School, has become something of a camping aficionado over the past two-and-a-half years, taking his young family around the country on holiday breaks. “Taiwanese are so friendly and helpful, when you arrive they help you set up your tent and are willing to share everything they have. They tend to buy the latest camping equipment, from table sets to outdoor living room extensions,” he observes.

“At a camping ground in Yilan, we saw a group with a massive tent. They had set up lots of chairs and had a huge screen to watch movies,” he relates. “That was a bit of an exception, though. Most Taiwanese enjoy the outdoors, the night sky, and camp fires, just like we do in the West.”

The cliff section of the Zhuilu Old Trail. (Photo: Stuart Dawson / Taiwan Adventures)
The cliff section of the Zhuilu Old Trail. (Photo: Stuart Dawson / Taiwan Adventures)

Treston says camping in Taiwan is easy for novices as the campsites often rent out equipment. Although it’s possible to camp all-year round, he says October to April is the best time, as summers can be very hot unless you head up into the mountains. Taiwan has the greatest density of high mountains in the world, with over 200 peaks above 3,000 meters. Treston recommends the many camping spots in the mountains of Yilan and Miaoli counties. “It can be quite scary to get up there, with very narrow roads, but once there it’s peaceful and beautiful in the morning looking down at white puffy clouds.”

Stuart Dawson, co-founder 11 years ago of the company Taiwan Adventures, has still not managed to convince his Taiwanese wife to go camping with him, but lives in hope. Dawson and the three other outdoor enthusiasts who set up the company are all qualified Wilderness First Responders and trained in first-aid. They specialize in providing small-group custom tours to domestic, Asian, and Western clients. Dawson notes a particular interest among Singaporeans, saying “I guess they don’t have a lot of mountains.”

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Group shot on top of Snow Mountain. (Photo: Stuart Dawson / Taiwan Adventures)

In the early days Taiwan Adventures produced a travel app, but quickly realized that with the need for constant updating, the market wasn’t big enough to make it pay. The hiking and camping element of Taiwan Adventures, however, supports two full-time workers, two part-timers, and a satellite crew of drivers and porters.

One of Dawson’s favorite trips is up Snow Mountain, beyond the commercial camping sites, parking lots, and barbecue pits. “Everyone wants to do Jade Mountain because of its height, but with a hike up Snow Mountain the terrain changes so much and you can see so many things. You can start in pine forest, come out and see fantastic views of the central mountain range. Then, in the early morning, you head through the `black forest’ (so called because the density of foliage blocks out so much light) and up to the peak.

“Of course, there’s the view and clouds below, but it’s also cool when you descend and realize what you walked through on the way up,” he says. Such hikes are not for everyone, notes Dawson. “You have to be pretty fit and sometimes it’s difficult to make people understand that.”

Posing by one of the largest trees by the Atayal village of Smangus. (Photo: Stuart Dawson / Taiwan Adventures)
Posing by one of the largest trees by the Atayal village of Smangus. (Photo: Stuart Dawson / Taiwan Adventures)

Due to the growing “Leave No Trace” (LNT) movement to preserve the countryside, Dawson says, standards have gone up in Taiwan. “It’s not too bad. People come over and are surprised by how clean the trails are, especially in national parks. The hiking and camping community is pretty good about clearing up after themselves.

“The permit system (for mountains and national parks) has certainly helped keep the environment pristine,” he adds. “There are a lot of park volunteers who do their bit and keep reminding the public about clearing up after themselves, and also the porters do a fantastic job.”

The porters, typically members of Aboriginal tribes, carry backpacks and supplies up steep trails for tour groups. “After the typhoons in August last year, they removed a lot of the damaged trees that were blocking the paths and generally cleaned up the area and campsites,” Dawson says. “They’re good people to work with.”

Other camping and hiking tours that Dawson recommends are the Zhuilu Old Trail (錐麓古道) in Hualien’s Taroko Gorge. Though only half open and difficult to get permits for unless you join a group, the walk along a worryingly narrow cliff face 400 meters above the gorge is something to write home about – after you have made it home safely. Also in Taroko is the Baiyang Waterfall Trail, which starts with an eerie walk through an unlit 100-meter tunnel before leading to the waterfall, the Liwu River, and cascading “water curtain tunnels.”

Looking down the cirque of Snow Mountain. (Photo: Stuart Dawson / Taiwan Adventures)
Looking down the cirque of Snow Mountain. (Photo: Stuart Dawson / Taiwan Adventures)

Camping gear

Despite the strong interest in camping in Taiwan and the country’s prowess in other types of manufacturing industry, it has never found much success as a producer of camping and hiking gear. Morio Chen says that while companies like his tried to get a foothold in the market as original equipment manufacturers from the 1970s onward, the advantage of cheap labor quickly passed to China.

In addition, Taiwan’s manufacturers never really made the leap to designing their own camping and hiking equipment, as the Japanese were able to. “Taiwan’s camping supplies designers were never that advanced,” Chen says. “Today, you buy the cheap stuff from China and the better stuff from Japan. Either that or it’s expensive imported gear from Europe and the U.S.”

But whatever the source of the gear, camping is appealing to more and more Taiwanese as an opportunity to switch off from our connected, materialistic lives and get back to nature.