Hiking and backpacking in Israel

Israel is a very convenient country for hiking in the wild, thanks to its mild weather, relatively unthreatening wilderness, and not least – its extensive marked-trails system. However, many complications could occur – both natural and legal ones – that people travelling from abroad should familiarize themselves with, before hitting the trails.

The main considerations for planning your trip are summarized in the following checklist. Consult the list of destinations to choose where you want to go and understand how you should prepare yourself. Read also the safety issues below.

Prepare

Checklist

If you're inexperienced in wilderness hiking in Israel, it's very advisable to consult local guides. See the section about travel consulting and information, below. In any case, the most important points to check out while you plan your trip are:

Travel maps

All Israeli hikers in Israel use the travel maps issued by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. They are topographic maps on a 1:50,000 scale and contain marked trails and road information. Regrettably, they are currently available only in Hebrew; however, most information is simply visual, so they're still very useful even for non Hebrew speakers. If you're planning to hike a lot, you should definitely get one of these. They can be bought here from the government-operated Survey of Israel.

On the back of these maps are all sorts of useful diagrams, explanations and suggested itineraries, though most of these would only be relevant for Hebrew readers.

Marked trails

Marking for a green trail
The Golan Trail mark

In all areas of Israel, trails were marked to indicate interesting and fun trails and routes for travelling by foot or by car (usually requiring 4-wheel drive). The first image on the right is an example of a trail-marking in Israel: it has three parallel lines, about 20cm (8 inches) in length – one colored line in the middle surrounded by two white lines. Each trail has a color, which can be green, red, blue or black. The trails are marked in these color in Israeli hiking maps, so it's easy for travelers in the field to follow the trail marked in their map.

Wherever a marked-trail starts-off from a road, a roadsign is placed indicating the name of the trail or its destination, along with the trail color. Also, when several trails intersect there would sometimes be signs indicating which trail goes where. However, this isn't always the case so travellers are advised to carry maps with them. Many nature reserves have brochures that contain a schematic trail map of the area and also of the main attractions. Also, try to find the WikiVoyage page for your trail as it might also contain a trail map.

As mentioned above, in Israeli nature reserves hiking is allowed only on marked trails, and leaving these could incur a fine. Marked trails can also be found outside reserves, where they are not obligatory but they usually mark the most convenient, fun and/or interesting path. A Hebrew proverb says that "the trail is smarter than the one who walks it" (חכם השביל מן ההולך בו): the trail has been made by many people who walked it in the past, meaning that it is the best way across the area.

In addition to the standard trails, several long trails exist that cross a large area and usually connect between several "normal" trails. The most famous one is the Israel National Trail which takes the traveller through the entire length of Israel from north to south (or the other way around), passing through many famous sites and areas such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Sea of Galilee and Makhtesh Ramon in about 900km (600 miles) of hiking. Other popular long hikes include the 5-day Golan Trail, which includes Mount Hermon and many of the Golan rivers; and the Gospel Trail or Jesus' Trail, visiting prominent sites mentioned in the New Testament.

Weather

Israel is hot in summer and cold in winter, though not extremely so in either. It's very advisable to check the forecast at the Israeli Meteorological Service (IMS),  +972 3 5600600. (or any other reliable source) before heading out anywhere in the wild, and gear up accordingly.

During winter, as well as spring and fall, there are rains every now and then. During September there are usually only some dribbles, November to February could have a few storms, and rains still occasionally fall through April or May. Even in mid-season, rains are mostly very bearable and no storm-suits are required, but the occasional storm could take place and soak you to the bone. Rains mostly come in a streak of 2-4 days, then to die out and be followed by a few dry – sometimes warm – days; longer-lasting storms are pretty rare. When not raining, temperatures could be cold enough to warrant a coat or jacket, but if you walk intensively there's a good chance you'll find these overheating. In that case, it's advisable to dress in layers, so you can put on your coat while resting and strip down to short clothes during the walk. When it does rain (or when hiking just after rain), it's best to either use waterproof clothing and shoes, or to wear pants that aren't very long, as these are likely to drag in the mud and water. Hail in Israel is rare and would only fall during storms. Snow rarely falls in most of Israel, but it does fall on Mount Hermon a few times each year, and sometimes also in Jerusalem, Mitzpe Ramon and the high peaks of the Golan Heights and Galilee. The forecast will always be able to provide prior warning for these occurrences, and even then it's not unlikely to be a false alarm.

Flash floods are probably the greatest wilderness danger in Israel and should never be underestimated. Carefully read the safety instructions regarding those.

During summer, days are hot and dry. Rains almost never fall between June and August. Humidity is usually still very high except in the Negev, making the heat really unbearable. When hiking in the Israeli summer, it's very advisable to plan your trip to include siestas during the peak heat hours. These are usually 13:00-16:00, but could vary in different regions as cool winds are common in different times of day. Small bodies of water such as springs and reservoirs (for bathing, not drinking) aren't too rare in Israel and should be included in your plan. However, they're also not common enough to simply stumble upon them (in most areas), so you'll have to find out about these locations in advance.

Consult

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel operates "Field Schools" in many popular hiking regions in Israel. These establishments function as information centres for travellers, and also provide services such as inn rooms, guided trips (which must be booked in advance) and the like. Consult these about hiking trails as well as hazards and safety instructions.

Below is a list of those Field Schools, each specializing in a different area of Israel, ordered north to south:

Respect

Nature reserves

Reserves and parks are managed by the Israeli Authority for Nature Reserves and National Parks. Some have an entrance fee (usually around ₪30 per person), though most are simply free wilderness areas. The most important regulations to note about these reserves, both the paid and the free of charge, are:

Nature Authority Rangers patrol the various reserves to enforce the regulations mentioned above. Violations will be fined, usually at a sum of several hundred shekels for each person. Do remember that the rangers are also glad to aid travelers in need so do not hesitate to ask for help and advice.

Gear up

Water

Food

Clothing

Survival gear

Rung ladders of the type common in canyon and cliff-side trails in Israel

Equipment for overnight stay

Camp

Camping is allowed everywhere in Israel, except in nature reserves. The catch is, of course, that most interesting places for hiking are inside reserves, even if you didn't pass through any gate and didn't have to pay anything at the entrance. Consult a travel map to find out whether your journey goes through a reserve, and if it does – find the permitted campsites. Unless noted otherwise on the map, these campsites are just plain areas in which camping is allowed, and they don't have running water or any facilities at all. Review the equipment list for everything you're likely to need there.

When planning a trip of several days, make sure to plan for resupply stations. Carry enough water in between, as well as cash for food purchases.

Animals can be attracted to food, both fresh and leftovers. While these won't be bears like you get in Yellowstone, these could be wolves or jackals that can steal your food, or can even (rarely) be rabid. Clean all your pots and other items before you go to sleep, and leave them to dry away from where you lay. Put any food inside your backpack, and place the bag very close to you. When hiking in a group, best to have everybody sleep around the backpacks. Garbage and leftovers should also be placed inside the backpacks. If that is not possible, better put everything in a bag and hang it on a tree, away from your sleeping bags. If you have some warm food left in a pot which you want to save for tomorrow, cover the pot and place some heavy rocks on it, and again – place it at a safe distance.

Avoid

This section details safety considerations that need to be made while planning the trip. For safety issues that may arise during the hike, see Stay safe, below.

Flash floods

Flood at Ein Avdat. On any other day you'd happily hike inside that canyon.

Flash floods can occur in some streams and creeks, mostly in the Judaean Desert, Jordan Valley (essentially a part of the West Bank) and some places in the Negev. The catch is, even a light rain in the right place could cause a flash-flood to build up many kilometers down the stream where no clouds may be visible. Don't assume that a seemingly cloudless sky means that all's well – always check the weather forecast in advance, in any trip, any time. The aforementioned IMS provides special warnings for those events, stating the specific problematic locations.

If you do encounter a flooded stream, don't ever try to cross it, even if it doesn't look too intimidating. There are two reasons for that: first, rocks and debris carried hidden in the water could hit you without warning and bring you down; and second, a weak flow of water could change in a second to the strong wave of a flash flood.

If a dry stream you're walking in suddenly starts flowing, you must immediately find a way to climb up and out of the path of the water. Each year in Israel, some lives are lost because of these floods.

Army firing zones

Many areas of Israel, especially in the Negev, are used by Israel Defense Force (IDF) units for training, sometimes using live fire. Most of these areas are not fenced or marked in the field, therefore it's a critical point to check out before going on a trip. Entrance to these firing zones is allowed only on Saturdays, as well as on certain Jewish holidays − but not all of them! On all other days, prior coordination with the IDF is required. Unless you're a Hebrew speaker and very familiar with Israel and with the specific area in which you intend to hike, it's recommended to simply contact one of the Field Schools mentioned above and ask for their assistance in the matter, or simply to go on some organized trip (ones are occasionally lead by said Field Schools).

Note also that in certain areas of the southern Negev, south of Makhtesh Ramon, hiking is prohibited even on Saturdays, and allowed only for a few days a year, in specific holidays.

If you do wish to make all arrangements on your own, you can try and coordinate with the IDF using one of the following numbers, depending on where in Israel you intend to hike:

Keep in mind several things:

Minefields

Minefield fence in the Golan Heights

In its short history, Israel has invaded into and been invaded by all of the countries surrounding it, and had taken some precaution against any future recurrences. Minefields are well fenced and signed, and their boundaries are marked on travel maps. However, mines can and do wander away because of earth shifts, water streaming and even by getting dragged by unwitting animals. When hiking in the Negev (especially near the Egyptian and Jordanian borders), Judaean Desert and the Golan Heights, consult a map to make sure you don't get anywhere near a minefield. Especially in the Golan Heights, which are riddled with those, hike only on roads and marked trails. Don't underestimate the risk, for once in every few years some Israeli hiker does in fact get killed or loses a limb because of that.

If the trails do lead you to the vicinity of a minefield, just watch your step and make sure not to deviate from the path. In all areas, if you see some unidentified metallic object, don't touch it and inform the police as soon as possible. The most common mines are fist-sized and cylindrical with some protruding features, but there are other varieties, and besides – mines aren't the only danger: duds can be found near military training areas.

Hostile areas

The Arab-Israeli conflict is a constant issue at present. For hikers, these are the most dangerous areas:

Other considerations

Pick your destination

Golan Heights

Offering terrific viewpoints and many running streams and springs. You'll also find a lot of abandoned bunkers which can be fun to explore. Trails are mostly easy to moderate.

Primary considerations:

Galilee

A mountainous landscape with tall peaks, offering great views and many streams. The Sea of Galilee is also nearby. Many heritage sites also dot the region, including ruins from the Crusades and the Roman period as well as tombs of Sheikhs and Rabbis. Trails are mostly of moderate difficulty, and can be hard when containing long or steep ascents.

Primary considerations:

The Carmel Range

While climbing the carmel is a pretty rough ascent, once you reach the top the trails aren't too steep. Walk through authentic Mediterranean forest and get a great view of the surrounding country. At the western slopes there are many caves, including sites where prehistoric remains where found. Ascents to the Carmel are moderate to difficult, but trails on top are fairly easy.

Primary considerations:

Ramot Menashe

The hill-country found south of the Carmel is a green, flowery region with some running streams and a lot of forests. Trails are mostly easy.

Coastal Plain

Generally not considered a hot spot for hiking, this area mainly offers walks along the beach. However, several large streams – mainly the Alexander and the Yarkon – make for nice one-day hikes or picnic excursions. Ancient ruins also make for beautiful stops along the way, found mainly east or south of Tel Aviv.

Shfela and the Jerusalem Mountains

The hill-country stretching west of Jerusalem is full to the brim with ancient ruins of settlements, water holes, hideout caverns, wine- and oil-presses, agriculture terraces and virtually any building required by human civilization. The vast forests make for pleasant, richly green scenery. Trails are mostly easy to moderate.

Judaean Desert

Also see Hiking in the Judaean Desert

Tall ridges and deep canyons are the characteristics of this region, as well as searing heat but also beautiful oases. Here you'll find steep climbs and dramatic cliffs, but make sure your trip also goes through some of the fantastic water basins that can be found in some of the streams. Trails are mostly difficult, but there can be found many spots that are also fit for family trips.

Primary considerations:

Negev

Mostly a barren wasteland, the Negev – unlike the Judaean Desert – consists mainly of vast planes and massive mountains, though it also has its share of canyons and ridges. This is where you go to truly challenge yourself, to feel the desert, or to be alone and watch the stars. Trails are mainly difficult, sometimes extremely so (mainly in the Eilat mountains at the south).

Primary considerations:

Arava

Though it does not offer many trails, the Arava (the plain stretching along the east side of the Negev) does offer some beautiful desert scenery. Many trails to or from the Negev end here, and since this region is a little more accessible to buses, you might want to start or end your hikes here.

Considerations are mostly the same as in the Negev.

Itineraries

Tiuli has a comprehensive list of hikes, with descriptions, maps and pictures.

Stay safe

This section only deals with emergencies that may arise during the hike. For general safety considerations, consult the Avoid section, above.

Emergency services

The two phone numbers which it's absolutely vital to remember are:

It is also recommended to have the number of the local Field School handy, though it won't be any help in case of an emergency.

Venomous animals

Israel doesn't have any bears, lions or other large animals. The dangerous animals are less obvious but, in some cases, no less deadly.

A deathstalker, common in Israel
Scorpions
The primary venomous animals of Israel, along with snakes, they can be found in all regions of the country. You are most likely to get stung by these if you shove your hand under rocks, so if you have to move one, first push it with you foot. As a general rule of thumb in Israel, the scorpions that have a thin build are the deadly ones. However, in case of a stinging, don't take any chances – evacuate the victim as quickly as possible and get professional medical aid. The Israeli health services are well equipped to deal with all scorpions. Until help arrives, the first aid is pretty much the same as with snake bites – see below.
Spiders
Though they are very common in Israel, cases of attacks by them are rare. Deadly spiders are very rare in Israel (though they do exist), but even the other species can cause great inconvenience, such as local paralysis that could last several days, accompanied by excruciating pain. If getting stung, it's very advisable to go to the hospital as quickly as possible, and it's best to try to take a photo of the spider.
The common Israeli viper
Snakes
Israel boasts a great variety of snakes, and the venomous species are very deadly. The most common Israeli viper, called in Hebrew Tzefa (pictured to the right), can be found in all regions of the country. Snakes hibernate in winter, meaning you may only encounter them if you actually push your hands into their caves. They are most deadly in late spring, when they just wake up with a fresh load of venom. Walking in high undergrowth during summer can be very dangerous, and you should always watch your step. Probing with a stick before every move could be helpful. It's vital to remember that most of the field-treatments you were told of as a child are lies: you can't actually tell weather a snakebite is venomous just by the shape; sucking the venom is in fact useless; using a tourniquet will in most cases do more harm than good. There's still amputation, but you don't want that, and are unlikely to get it right anyway. What you should do is get the victim to rest completely and immediately, preferably with the bitten limb laid lower than the rest of the body, and if possible, set it using planks or something like that; and most importantly, get professional help ASAP. If possible, take a photo of the snake (no need to catch it). Hospitals in Israel keep a supply of antidote for almost all species of vipers found in Israel. That's right, almost all. As always, prevention is the best cure.
Rabies and various infections
Though not actually "venomous", bites by any other animal can prove dangerous. If bitten, you should definitely consult a doctor about treatment. It's usually not extremely urgent, but use discretion. To avoid attracting animals, review the Camp section for the recommended handling of food while camping.

Dangerous Pests

Similar to the Cave Tick found in Israel
Ticks
Most common in the deserts of Israel. Ticks lay in a hibernated state in areas where animals are likely to rest; caves are very common, as are trees and bushes large enough to provide shade. When they sense an animal (or human) nearby, they wake up and race towards it, then bite. It's hardly felt, and the mark left is pretty small, but it can infect the victim with various fevers, mainly the Relapsing Fever. If, 1-3 weeks after a hike, you start feeling unwell – mainly high body temperature and headaches – immediately consult a doctor and inform him of your situation. The Relapsing Fever is called in Hebrew Kadakhat HaMe'arot (literally "Cave Fever"). It can be deadly in some cases, so do not delay after the symptoms appear.
Sandflies carrying leishmania
The sandfly, pretty much indistinguishable from any normal housefly, is sometimes a carrier for the leishmania parasites which nest under your skin and cause leishmaniasis, nicknamed in Hebrew Shoshanat Yericho – literally "Jericho Rose". It's so called because it was common mainly in the Jordan Valley and the Jericho region, though nowadays it can (uncommonly) be found in most regions of Israel. The "Rose" part derives from the appearance of the fly bite; it looks like a mosquito bite, only it stays there for months, and every once in a while bursts out with blood. In Israel it usually results in nothing more than a really ugly scar, but in very rare cases – primarily in people with previous health conditions – it can cause permanent damage and even death, if the parasites nest internally. Treatment is very advisable, both for a faster healing of the blistering wound and to minimize the remaining scar. Consult a doctor, who would probably advise the use of some ointment.

Poisonous plants

A variety of poisonous plants exist in Israel. Luckily, they're all only dangerous upon consumption and not just by touch or when stung by their barbs. There's no general rule for telling whether a plant is poisonous; if you don't know it, don't eat it (or cook it, or make tea out of it). Below are some of the most common poisonous plants of Israel. Notice how some of them are actually very beautiful, such as the oleander, or the tree tobacco that looks bright and shiny compared to any other plant you'd encounter in the deserts where it sometimes grows.

Kick it up

Watery trails

When the Israelis talk of a stream or river (Nahal in Hebrew or Wadi in Arabic), they're usually talking about dry canyons with perhaps a few short stretches of water that's actually flowing. For this reason, the relatively few ponds and running streams that can be found make for popular attractions and fantastic destinations. It's very common in Israel, when planning a trip, to make such water sources the actual pivot of a hike - all the rest of the plan made just to include it. Travellers from cooler and more lushly watered countries will probably quickly understand the Israelis' enthusiasm for such spots in this relatively warm country, especially if travelling in summer.

A few points you should consider about that subject:

Attractions and sites

Some regions of Israel are rich with the remains of ancient cultures, which make for interesting and impressive stops along the way. Additional "wayside attractions" may include various paid nature reserves that offer short trails.

Paid sites

In some nature reserves in Israel you'd be required to pay for the entrance, a sum in the range of ₪15-50. In national parks the payment is about the same. If you intend to visit a lot of either, you should probably buy the Nature & Parks Authority's "Green Card", sold only to tourists (valid only with a foreign passport) which would allow you a one-time access to all reserves and national parks over a duration of two weeks.

In paid sites you'll be offered brochures that recommend an itinerary/ies for visiting all parts of the location, and also contain background data about the site, its history, geology and the like. In some places there'd be regular guided tours or information headphones, either for extra payment or not. If you are interested in more detailed explanations, consider hiring a guide, possibly from the nearest Field School.

You should be aware that in some of the reserves, there's a sort of a silent agreement between the Authority and the backpackers that if you are passing through as a part of a longer hike, and you don't come through the main entrance, then you don't have to pay. However, that is not always the case, and in some reserves the rangers you'd encounter may demand to see a ticket if they suspect that you haven't passed through the payment stations. As a general rule of thumb, if there's a fence, then you shouldn't climb over it.

Free sites

Numerous ancient ruins in Israel haven't yet been capitalized upon. In the Shfela you'd see them all around you whether you like it or not, and in many other regions you're also bound to stumble upon some. If you acquire a travel map, you'll know where to find them, as they're all clearly marked on these. Some of these sites consist merely of a few half-fallen stone walls, while others contain the remains of actual buildings that you can enter or climb over, and sometimes there'd even be remains of decorative engravings and other such elements.

These sites could be great additions to your trip. However, you should also tread with care in these, as some may be unstable. Don't try to test them, and don't climb unless there's an arranged way that leads to roof or such.

Star gazing

See Astronomy.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Thursday, January 21, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.