Health and wellness

Could a hiking pole ban protect Hong Kong’s country park trails, some of them rapidly eroding?

One Hong Kong race director is considering a ban on hiking poles to slow damage to country park trails. While preferable to suggestions by the government of concreting over trails, not all runners agree with the idea

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 April, 2018, 6:18pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 April, 2018, 6:33pm

A ban on hiking poles could be a way to protect Hong Kong’s natural trails against erosion and damage. So says Martin Cai, race director of The Green Race – a series of long-distance, trail-based races that aim for minimum environmental impact – who has floated the idea of banning poles, or restricting them on certain sections of races, among members of his organisation’s Facebook group.

“Ever since we started The Green Race, we’ve discouraged the use of poles from a green perspective, to make some kind of a difference and set an example for other similar events,” Cai explains.

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Cai, a Canadian with a background in resource management, believes that Hong Kong’s natural trails – those that aren’t covered in concrete or stone – are being adversely affected by the sheer volume of hikers and runners that use them, especially those that use hiking poles.

“There’s this perception that the use of poles is highly degrading to the trail – more so than foot traffic,” he says. “[But] banning poles isn’t necessarily going to save or change anything in Hong Kong – in a lot of respects, it’s too late. All the steep places where you’d gain an advantage from using poles are all capped in concrete or stone anyway. It was an idea we wanted to put out there and make people think about it.”

Established in 2015, The Green Race organises a series of Hong Kong runs ranging between 10 and 75 kilometres long. If Cai and his team decide to put restrictions on poles, they will be following the lead of the Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge (HK4TUC), a 298-kilometre race last held in February.

Poles help alleviate some of the strain on hikers’ knees and ankle joints, provide stability on uneven terrain, and aid balance when crossing streams or descending steep hills. The busier sections of Hong Kong hiking trails, however, show signs of erosion from the repeated jabbing by hundreds of sharp poles every weekend.

One suggestion from the government to help protect natural trails is to cover them with concrete. There has been strong public resistance to the idea, however, led by celebrated local trail runner Stone Tsang Siu-keung and his concern group. Tsang’s survey of nearly 6,000 people – half of whom claimed they hiked Hong Kong’s trails “very often” – showed that Hongkongers stand unanimously against the government covering natural trails in concrete.

Tsang, a pole user himself over distances of 100km or more, is concerned about damage to trails, but does not believe that poles are the main culprit. “But it can be one of the contributing factors if poles are not used properly,” he says.

Instead, he calls for more sustainable management, such as repairing paths using natural materials instead of concrete. He also thinks trails should be allowed more time to recover in between events, and that people should be educated on how to use poles in a way that does not loosen soil or uproot vegetation.

Both Tsang and Cai point out that artificial paths can be even more damaging to surrounding greenery. “Hikers often don’t want to walk on concrete steps and widen the sides of dirt paths next to the concrete,” Tsang says.

Criticism of poles ranges beyond their environmental impact, though. Debate over correct use of the equipment often surfaces among the running community.

“A lot of people find them very irritating; people don’t use them correctly or have very good pole etiquette. In crowds, people get jabbed in the heels,” Cai says.

“But a lot of long-distance runners really depend on them, too, and they don’t feel they’d be able to get through a longer-distance race without them.”

Tsang agrees, adding that personal safety is also a problem: “It is more an issue of etiquette and safety. Sometimes hikers tend to rely on poles too much. They think that with poles, they can tackle very challenging landscapes without realising the importance of sufficient understanding of the landscape, the possible danger, the need for training on technical skills and physical stamina.”

You can’t helicopter a dump truck full of soil back down onto the mountain to restore the trails
Martin Cai

However, if natural trails are to be preserved, users will need to take more care, Cai says.

Guidance to runners on The Green Race’s website reads: “The more we disturb the soil on our trails, the more we contribute to erosion (especially when typhoon season comes around!). This forces the ‘concretisation’ of some of our favourite running routes! Please think twice before deciding to use poles at our Green Race events.”

Cai says that everyone should be able to enjoy trails, but anyone using them needs to accept that they have a responsibility. “I think there needs to be more of a user-pays system in Hong Kong, where users of country parks actually need to pay directly or indirectly to be able to access them. The fund pool that would be created would be able to restore and rejuvenate some of these sections of trail that just don’t have any budget to be able to do so.”

One of Cai’s suggestions is increasing the permit fee for holding a “public meeting or sporting competition”, which is currently HK$520. Cai says an increase could fund maintenance of trails, even if that means that runners pay more to sign up to races.

“Things have been ignored for too long … it’s really not sustainable in a lot of places. If you look at how degraded some trails are, they’re beyond repair,” he says.

Guidelines for holding a sporting event in a country park from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) read: “Sporting competitions and fundraising events should be confined to maintained trails as far as possible. Pristine ridgeline and seriously eroded areas shall be avoided for running events in order to prevent exacerbating soil erosion, preserve the integrity of natural landscape and ensure public safety … In general, events that will adversely impact on the natural environment and country park facilities ... will not be approved in principle.”

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For top trail runner Stephanie Roland, who currently holds the record for the 43-kilometre all-night Moontrekker race on Lantau Island, poles come in handy during ultra-distance races.

“On long courses or races with lots of elevation they help mitigate quad fatigue,” she says. “The debate seems centred around whether they negatively impact the trails … I don’t think there is any objective evidence to prove this in Hong Kong yet, so banning them in a race is a personal decision by the race director rather than anything scientific.

“There seems some wariness in the trail-running community to start a trend that the AFCD could later use as fact when denying race organisers permits – especially since there is no way that they can ban the use of poles for recreational hiking. My opinion is that it is up to every race director to decide what their race rules are. It would be refreshing to see some of them use their profits for improving the trails rather than doling out T-shirts or medals to finishers, though.”

Peter Hopper, who leads a regular Saturday running group on Hong Kong Island, says poles should be banned, or at least discouraged, in shorter races as opposed to ultra events. “I can see where poles make a difference [in ultra-running] … I used poles once in an 80-kilometre race and found them a big help, especially on big, technical climbs.”

However, he thinks they are unnecessary for shorter events in Hong Kong. “The trails are pretty crowded and a forest of poles is a nightmare for others either running or walking. If people are sensible and careful in their use for longer races, I can see the benefits.”

Hopper believes damage to trails is coming from another, rather unusual source. “The wild pig population is causing most trail damage at the moment in particular areas,” he says. “The Hong Kong trail between Wan Chai Gap and Peel Rise is getting quite seriously damaged from it. If you run it as often as I do – every Saturday for the last 15 years – you can see how damaged it has been in the last two years.”

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Cai says that ultimately it is about setting a precedent and inspiring trail users to take better care of the environment. “It’s highly likely that we’ll ban poles on any racecourse under 30km,” he says. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can’t helicopter a dump truck full of soil back down onto the mountain to restore the trails.

“It’s a very sensitive topic and I don’t regret bringing it up. We’re far from having all the answers, but we know what our passion is and our view on the use of trails in Hong Kong, so we just do our best to take it from there.”