Whether you are a novice or an experienced hiker, our essential tips for Madeira hiking will prove useful.
It does not matter if you are hiking in Madeira with kids or a solo adventurer, these tips will help you to plan and enjoy the fantastic hiking trails Madeira has to offer.
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Madeira hiking – planning tips
1. Research your walks
Careful, detailed research is essential when hiking in Madeira.
Each hike we did was different so it is important to be informed and prepared for each hike you attempt. There are no facilities on most of the hiking trails in Madeira and you may not be able to get help if you need it.
We quickly learned that descriptions of the hikes online or in print varied widely. It may be time consuming but I would recommend cross referencing potential hikes to gain a accurate picture of what to expect.
The most accurate information we discovered was the excellent Sunflower Guide to Hiking in Madeira.
This excellent guide book was lying in our Funchal accommodation and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is planning is embarking on Madeira hikes.
2. Check which hiking routes are currently open
Landslides, rockfalls and general construction regularly affects the status of hiking trails.
There is nothing worse than driving through Madeira’s stomach churning mountainous roads to arrive at a trail that is closed.
Or worse still, to have hiked half the trail to find the end is impassable.
So, before you set off, check the status of your proposed hiking trial on the Madeira Tourist Office website. It has a useful, regularly updated section on current trail conditions. Check it out here.
3. Choose your walks carefully
Sorry for the pun but hiking in Madeira is not a walk in the park!
Choose a hike that accurately reflect your current abilities, and not a route that encompasses sights or experiences you wish to have.
We would have loved to have tackled Vereda do Areeiro to Pico Ruivo but it wasn’t right for our family at the time.
There are frequent injuries, and tragic fatalities, on Madeira’s hiking trails.
4. Start your Madeira hiking experience with an easy trail
Tempting as it is to dive in to the most amazing trails, start off with an easy hiking route.
This will help you to acclimatise but also to gauge the level of accuracy in the information you have gathered before you embark on a challenging hike.
5. Always tell someone which route you are going to hike
There are over 200 walks to choose from on Madeira. If you disappear ‘on a hike’, rescuers will not know where to start looking.
If, like us, you do not know anyone on the island to leave your hiking details with, inform your Madeira accommodation staff or owner.
We sent social media messages to family members letting them know which hike we were doing and what time we expected to finish.
Just don’t forget to check in at the end of your hike!
6. If possible, do not hike alone
There is safety in numbers.
Try to join other tourists or join a guided walk.
7. Check the weather forecast for the specific area you will be hiking in
We learnt the hard way that Madeira weather is notoriously variable from coast to mountain. It can be sunny and clear on the coast but heavy rain and dense fog in the mountains.
We set off from Calheta beach on a warm sunny day. When we arrived at the starting point of our hike in the mountains, it was dense fog with strong winds and heavy rain. Plus, there was a 10 degree Celsius temperature drop. Lesson learned.
If the weather is bad in the mountains, you may still be able to hike but choose a less exposed route. Alternatively, if the weather is very hot, you may want a hike that offers some shade.
It is also worth checking the weather the day before a planned hike because…
8. Madeira hiking trails need time to recover after heavy rain
Unfortunately, you cannot assume that it is safe to hike in Madeira the day after heavy rain, even if the weather forecast for your specific hike is good.
The dry, earthen levada paths turn to a mud bath very quickly and need time to dry out. If you choose to hike the day after heavy rain, your path may still be slippery and treacherous.
We were strongly advised against a planned hike by our car rental company.
Unbeknownst to us, it had rained heavily the day before in the mountains (it had not rained where we were in Funchal) and the rental agent said our chosen path would be treacherous. We listened to the more knowledgeable local!
9. Be prepared for all weathers
As well as varying from coast to mountain, Madeira weather is very changeable. Plus, changes can occur quickly.
Carry equipment for all weathers on your hikes – sweater/jumpers, waterproofs, sun screen, sun hat etc.
10. Know what ‘easy’ means in Madeira hiking speak!
We quickly realized that when a levada trail is classed as ‘easy’, it means that the terrain is easy. The trail will not contain steep ascents or descents and is well maintained and easy to follow.
But ‘easy’ does not refer to the location of the walk.
One of the ‘easy’ hikes we did was flat and easy to follow but involved walking on very narrow paths alongside sheer drops and steep inclines.
It would be ok for adults but it was heart stopping with three children in tow.
11. Narrow means narrow
A path which is described as narrow means it is six inches across (or less) and only wide enough for one foot behind the other!
If you are hiking with kids, this can be nerve racking depending on the drop beside the path.
13. Plan your travel to and from Madeira hikes carefully
Levada walks are mostly linear so you will end the hike in a different location to where you started.
If you are relying on public buses for transportation at the end of your hike, make sure you know the bus timetable before you start your walk. This will avoid a long wait for a bus – or an expensive taxi ride – at the end of your hike.
Bus timetables in Madeira are reliable and regular during the week but are restricted on weekends and public holidays. And, as we found, around Easter time.
We abandoned a planned hike after discovering we would have a five-hour wait for a bus if we finished the hike in the suggested time. Not an option with three kids!
14. Avoid popular routes when a cruise ship is in town
Any Madeira hike that is accessible from Funchal is guaranteed to be busy if there is a cruise ship in Funchal marina. One day we saw three cruise ships in Funchal.
Avoid Vereda do Balcoes on these days and choose a hiking trail further away from Funchal.
Madeira hiking – on the trail tips
15. Avoid standing or walking on the edges of the levada paths
There is a lot of vegetation debris at the side of the levada hiking trails.
This ‘floating’ vegetation looks solid when it is not. And often there are steep drops hidden below it.
16. Do not lean on railings
Railings on a levada hiking trail are provided to highlight where the steep drops are and to act as a guide in bad weather.
They are not designed for support. The railings are not regularly maintained or checked and will not support your weight. Or leaning back for selfies.
17. Wear sturdy, good gripping footwear
Yes I know I am stating the obvious but we saw several hikers setting off on rugged, mountainous paths wearing flip flops!
Levada hiking trails range from uneven, lichen covered rocky paths to smooth, impacted earthen paths. Both become a slippery mud bath when wet. And it rains a lot in the mountains.
Plus, many paths will be wet even in dry weather due to the water spray from tumbling levadas and waterfalls.
Good gripping footwear is a must.
18. Madeira hiking with kids
Our experience of hiking in Madeira was different to other world locations that we have hiked with our kids.
The terrain in Madeira changes so abruptly – and so frequently – that we could not allow our children to distance from us in ways we have allowed on previous family hikes.
After experiencing sudden sheer drops with crumbling path edges, the children walked between us for the rest of our Madeira walking holiday.
The hiking trails are not pushchair or buggy friendly.
19. Pack lots of drink and snacks
We did not see any catering facilities on the rural levada paths we hiked. Cafes at the start and end of hiking trails are rare.
Pack plenty of water and snacks. A reusable water bottle is a must and with Madeira’s changeable weather, I’d recommend an insulated water bottle that can double as a flask for hot drinks.
And if you are hiking with kids, don’t forget a bag of rewards/treats/bribes. We never hike without our trusty bribe of Jelly Babies.
20. Leave no trace – bring all your litter home
And that includes toilet paper and fruit peelings!
There are no waste bins anywhere on the hiking trails so bring all your rubbish home with you. Pack some lightweight biodegradable bags for your litter.
We have been lucky enough to hike all over the world with our kids and I’m happy to say that the Madeira hiking trails are one of the cleanest we have seen.
21.Bring a torch and spare batteries on every hike
Many hikes in Madeira involve following the levada into an irrigation tunnel under a mountain.
The map will just say tunnel. It will not say how long!
A phone torch or screen light will not cut it. Pack a torch.
We started the Levada do Risco hike from an unplanned location. (But we think it was actually a better location than the one we were aiming for! You can read all about our lucky error – and our other Madeira hikes – here)
Therefore, we were not expecting to encounter a tunnel on route.
The tunnel turned out to be a low ceiling utility tunnel over 1 kilometre long. There were no lights at all inside the tunnel and within seconds we were plunged into pitch blackness.
The kids loved it but it would have been impossible (and dangerous) without our trusty head torches.
21. Pack binoculars
Hikes in Madeira provide expansive, incredible views.
Binoculars are a must. You will regret not packing them; I know we did!
22. Pack a First Aid kit
A small lightweight First Aid kit is a must on any hike, especially with kids who are prone to grazed knees.
I use a Walkers First Aid kit from Ordnance Survey. Designed specially for walkers, the compact kit has everything I need – including tweezers – for just 180 grams in weight.
Plus, unlike many first aid kits it has a handy carabiner on it so it can be carried on the outside of my rucksack freeing up valuable space inside it.
I also like to carry a durable safety whistle on our family hikes.
We encountered very few walkers on our Madeira hikes so I would highly recommend adding a whistle to your Madeira packing list, just in case.
Don’t let my tips put you off hiking in Madeira. With careful research and good preparation, Madeira’s rural hiking trails are a joy to hike, even with kids.
Hikers from all over the world flock to this tiny island and it is easy to see why.
Hiking trails in Madeira vary in difficulty and landscape. They provide incredible views, immersion in nature and were quieter than many other hiking trails we have done.
If you discover a fantastic trail, please let me know as we hope to return one day!