Been sitting a bit too much? Or perhaps just tired of the urban life and hankering for something more in nature? If you’re someone who gets bored of the treadmill and likes a challenge, then trail-running might be for you.
Trail-running combines the best of both worlds – you get to tick the cardio box for the week, while enjoying Hong Kong’s breathtaking landscapes. Because despite its fame for the concrete jungle, three-quarters of the land in Hong Kong is unbuilt and made up of mountains, marshes, beaches, cliffs, woodlands and grasslands.
As autumn rears its head and the weather cools down to the balmy mid-20s, it’s time to hit the trails. Even locals ditch the air-conditioned malls for the winding roads amongst the city’s mountains every weekend.
Uniquely Hong Kong
Unlike track or road running, trail running tends to be more exciting due to the city’s varied topography. And Hong Kong’s natural landscape creates some of the best trails on the planet.
“The variety is amazing,” said veteran trail runner and partner Gone Running, a running gear specialist store, John Ellis. “You’ve got the contours of mountains, rocky trails, beach trails, wooded land…the steepness you get [on trails] is unique to Hong Kong here.”
Most cities are made up of flat land, while Hong Kong is distinctly hilly, with a variety of elevation, which makes trails interesting to run. Hong Kong’s trails offer everything — steep climbs, technical descents, beaches, forests, reservoirs, streams, hills, gorgeous views that are natural and unspoilt as well as views of the unique skyline and cityscape.
And secondly, trails are extremely accessible around the city.
“The proximity of the trails to the city is absolutely unique,” said Janet Ng, president of the Hong Kong Trail Runners Association and Hong Kong 100 race director. “No other major city on earth has this number or variety of trails so close by.”
Just 20 minutes of running, you can be transported from the bustling neon-lit shopping streets to a dirt path winding up a mountain.
“The best thing about trail-running in Hong Kong is the convenience,” Ellis agreed. Ellis, who has been hitting the slopes since he arrived in Hong Kong over a decade ago, pointed out that trails often lead straight from the city centre. “You can leave work or the central business districts and in 15 minutes, get to a country trail.”
Not many places in the world would have this kind of ease, which means it is easy for even a traveller new to the city to find an accessible trail.
And if this is getting you all fired up, here are some basics and pointers on how to trail-run in Hong Kong.
“It’s a trail-runner’s paradise,” said Janet.
Season matters, and so does preparation
The ideal running season in Hong Kong starts in October and continues to April. Winter in the city tends to be mild and crisp, while the summers are hot and with high humidity, making it difficult to run. There is also less rainfall in winter, which means the slopes are less muddy and slippery.
In terms of kit, you’ll need a lightweight and comfortable backpack for your essentials: mobile phone, wallet, drinks and a change of clothes. Considering Hong Kong is subtropical and has considerable rainfall, a lightweight waterproof jacket is also recommended. For longer races, a food store are also necessary. Night runs will require a headlamp. Trail-running shoes with exceptional grip and comfort are essential.
Hong Kong boasts a wide array of trail-running gear shops.Well-established shops include Escapade Sports, RC Outfitters (also a hikers’ dream store!), to more trail-running specific and independent stores such as Gone Running, Cam2 and Action Panda.
Ng said the crucial safety tip is to remember to bring enough water.
“With our subtropical climate, dehydration and heatstroke are real risks,” she said. She also recommended bringing quick snacks as well. Most runners would bring nutrition packs, gels and chews. Nutrition packs like tailwind, which packs electrolytes, hydration and vitamins into a sachet you can add into your water. Gels and chews are little consumable packets made up of carbohydrates and sugars which helps replenish the energy you’ve lost.
And before you set out, consider downloading the Hiking Trail HK app, which has the local trails on a map.
“It’s good from a safety perspective, but also for spotting landmarks and working out what you are looking at when you’re admiring a view,” she adds.
Join the community
One of the best things to do would be to join a running club. While you don’t need to join a group to run – you can just grab a friend and head for the nearest trail, clubs are a great way to gain support, tap into experience and find community.
“Finding a club is one of the best things you can do,” said Ellis. “You get to meet great people, people who have a bit more experience. It’s fun to run with others.”
The city has a vibrant and close-knit, supportive trail-running community. Ng said that running groups are made up of people from all walks of life and all over the world, and are very active and welcoming to newcomers and beginners.
“The vibe is very friendly and informal,” she added.
Clubs can range from being very established with hundreds of members, training sessions and competitive racing teams, to informal running groups which are like a neighbourhood party. The Gone Runners offer both trail and road running, a ladies session, as well as a shop for you to get your kit. The GreenRacers have weekly Wednesday runs.
Some other groups to check out:
- The Harbour Runners are a running crew – you don’t need to sign up nor get a membership. You just need to show up!
- The Peak Hunters provide trail-running training sessions and actively participate in competitions
- The Asia Trail Girls is a women’s trail-running community which also shares tips, stories and knowledge on their online platform
- Hill & Heal combines trail running with gym workout and yoga sessions for healing and rehabilitation.
Sign up for a race
If you’re already an experienced runner or feel ready to take it to the next level, sign up for some races. Hong Kong boasts of world class races known for their varied courses that take you through breathtaking panoramic views, calm beaches, foggy plains and more. Many people fly in specifically to compete in some of the big ones – something which the community hopes will revive as Covid-19 restrictions start to lift.
“Give yourself a goal,” said Ellis. “It’s more fun to train when you’re aiming at something.”
There are at least a dozen races in Hong Kong, with lengths ranging from 3km to 170km. Some are individual events, while others have team competition options.
The usual race schedules have been disrupted by the city’s Covid-19 restrictions on public gatherings, but things are slowly opening up. Organisers are also hopeful that some races will be able to be reinstated to their former formats.
One of the biggest of the races is the be Hong Kong 100 Ultra which is normally held in January. HK100 attracts a lot of foreign runners who fly in specially to take part.
The HK100 trail starts in Sai Kung, located Hong Kong’s eastern peninsula, and home to some of the city’s most pristine beaches and bays. It then winds deeper into the New Territories and ends in the Tai Mo Shan country park, which is Hong Kong’s highest peak. It also passes through city landmarks such as Lion Rock.
And the view from the top, looking at the clustering urbanscape flanked by mountains, is unforgettable.
“I guess as a local, you kind of forget how special it is,” said Ellis. “But visiting runners are always blown away, and I’m reminded about how special it is.” The last couple years had been tough for the city as covid-19 restrictions limited the number of sport events and also travellers to the city. But for Ellis, trails like these are irreplaceable. ” From a trail-running point of view, I can’t think of anywhere else better than this.”
Another well-known race is the Translantau, part of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) World series, a collection of the world’s ultimate trails. There are four races – the 100km, 50km and 25km and the new ultra distance 140km – taking runners across Hong Kong’s largest island Lantau, over some of the wild mountain terrains overlooking the open ocean.
A race strictly for experienced trailrunners would be the Hong Kong 4 Trails Ultra Challenge, where participants will do all four of Hong Kong’s long distance trails (a total of 298km) within 60 hours.
For beginners, Ng recommends signing up with a team, which helps with the camaraderie. Hong Kong has a lot of charity races which allow team entries, combining sport with money-raising for worthy charities. Examples are Sowers Action Challenging 12 Hours, Raleigh Challenge, Water for All, Oxfam Trailwalker and Green Power.
“Start with shorter distance events, so perhaps those under 25 km, then build the racing distance up,” added Ng. “This allows your body to build up endurance and reduce injury risks.”
Check out race schedules provided by Race Time Solutions will help with choosing which race to take part in, while also keeping track of event changes in these unpredictable Covid times.
One of Ellis’ favourite trails would be the paths around Jardine’s Lookout. The trail is accessible from Tin Hau, Fortress Hill, Quarry Bay and Kornhill. It is varied, with fun descents, a good chunk of climbing up Siu Ma Shan Peak offers a stunning vista of Hong Kong’s landmark toothpick buildings among the hills, from a unique angle.
Janet loves the beach sections of the Hong Kong 100 course, which are part of the Maclehose Trail for their gorgeous white sands and turquoise waters.
Other relatively easy trails include the Dragon’s Back, Maclehose trails 1 and 2, Lugard Road peak, all offering unique views of the city.
For those in the intermediate level and opting for something slightly off the beaten track, are be the Tai To Yan, a ridge-line hike from Kadoorie Farm to the Fanling MTR station in the New Territories. For advanced runners, the Eight Immortals trail is a must do.
Ultimately, trail-running can be as simple as putting on a pair of running shoes, then walking 20 minutes to the nearest hilly path in Hong Kong.