Hiking in Madeira truly requires you to be prepared for it. Some of the most important aspects that you should take into consideration are weather, necessary gear, basic knowledge about the trails you are about to attempt, and where you can find accurate status information that is up to date.
Although Madeira is a year-round hiking destination, the weather conditions differ from one season to another, namely between summer and winter. BUT.. even in the same season, there can be huge differences from one part of the island to another. For example, winter in Madeira can offer you sun and 20°C (68°F) or even more, but also snow and 0°C (32°F).
The key to getting the weather right is to know how to check it out. Never check one single city, but look out for different locations, on different parts of the island. Funchal, Calheta, Ponta do Sol, Jardim do Mar, and Paul do Mar, are all located on the southern part of the island where the weather is mostly sunny and warm. Santana, Seixal, and Porto Moniz are located on the northern part of the island where the weather is colder with higher chances of fog and rain. For the central mountain range, there is no accurate forecast, especially on regular weather sources. Here we recommend you to use https://www.mountain-forecast.com/ .
While you’re in Madeira you can get a better idea of the real-time weather conditions by checking the live cameras arround the island.
As an island in the middle of the ocean, Madeira is generally a windy destination, with the highest winds during the winter season. Even in the summer season, the winds can still be very high on some hikes, especially in the high mountain range and on the east coast, although not daily.
The high mountains in the center of the island keep the clouds and cold air in the North part of the island. Therefore, the northern part of the island sees more rain year-round compared to the southern coast. The amount of rain is higher in the winter than in the summer, but rain is definitely not missing in the summer season. Some rainy days are expected during the summer in the northern part of the island and in the central mountain range.
Sun and Heat
The southern part of Madeira receives more sun in every season. During the winter months, the weather here is very pleasant, making hiking this part of the island a pleasure. However, during the summer months, the heat builds up, and some hikes might become a challenge because of the heat.
The fog coverage varies between seasons, but there are some places on Madeira that see fog all year. Although you have more sunnier days in the summer, the central mountain range has foggy days as well.
A place worth mentioning is Fanal. Here you rarely get to see the ancient trees without fog.
Some of the most popular hikes on Madeira are the Levada walks. Levadas are open irrigation channels through which water flows either slowly or rapidly, depending on the terrain. Some areas on the levada walks are very wet and muddy in any season, including during the summer.
There are even waterfalls on the trails that contribute to the existence of mud on the trails. Mud, combined with the concrete edges of the levadas, makes for a very slippery surface.
Waterfalls on trail
I know this sounds crazy, but it’s true. We haven’t hiked every trail on this island, but we can tell you for sure that PR 9 - Levada do Caldeirão Verde has waterfalls that drop exactly on the trail and there are no ways around it. You literally have to walk through the waterfalls.
Besides the gear that you need to take with you, you should also consider the dangers that walking through a waterfall poses.
- If the water debit is high, then the water that comes down on you will add an extra force that you might not anticipate, and that might take you off balance. Don’t rush and make sure you step well.
- All that water is sure to create some algae on the surfaces nearby. Expect the stones, and rocks around the water to be slippery.
- The water that comes down goes over the surface above you which is most likely made of rocks. We all know that moving water erodes the surfaces it touches. This makes rock falls very likely in that area. In fact, we turned back at some point because the trail was destroyed, at this happened exactly under a waterfall.
Tunnels are extremely common on levada walks. Some are short, but others are neverending. Some are wide, but others are quite narrow and claustrophobic. Be well equipped with the recommended gear or avoid trails with tunnels.
What happens if you step in a levada? Well, I actually did that by accident, but not in a tunnel. You simply get wet and that’s it.
The Hiking Gear for Madeira
Before talking about the hiking essentials for Madeira, don’t forget to take a look at the hiking gear you need for every hike:
The weather on Madeira, waterfalls on trails, and tunnels probably spark some ideas of what the essential gear for hiking in Madeira should be. Let’s go over them to make sure you don’t forget anything. Firstly, here’s the list so you can easily check it out. Then we will go into details for each item.
- Waterproof sturdy shoes with good grip
- Ideally poncho, otherwise waterproof jacket, pants, and backpack cover
- Warm clothing
- First aid kit
From rocky mountain trails to muddy trails and levadas, all of them require sturdy shoes with good grip to prevent you from slipping. If you are sure-footed, you can also opt for some low-cut hiking shoes. I’ve been using a pair of La Sportiva TX2 approach shoes, and Stefan has been wearing a pair of La Sportiva Akasha II trail running shoes.
To be honest, we occasionally got wet inside our shoes and we regret we haven’t taken with us our La Sportiva TX4 MID GTX boots with Gore-Tex waterproof membrane. We strongly recommend you take waterproof shoes on your hiking trip to Madeira. The PR 9 - Levada do Caldeirão Verde trail is the hike on which we got very wet inside of our shoes because of the waterfalls coming down on the trail. Keep in mind, that it doesn’t have to rain to get your feet wet.
Another must is rain protective clothes especially for the levada walks. You can take either a rain jacket , with backpack rain cover and rain pants , or simply take a poncho. Don’t forget that on some levada walks (e.g. PR 9 - Levada do Caldeirão Verde) you have to literally walk through waterfalls. If you plan on doing this hike we strongly recommend taking a poncho to make sure your backpack doesn’t get wet. If you are using a rain jacket and a backpack rain cover you risk for water to get between your back and backpack.
Cold Weather Hiking Gear
Don’t judge all hikes on Madeira based on the weather forecast for Funchal. Remember that if you go hiking in the central mountain range in the winter months you might even see snow. During the summer, the temperature in the central mountain range is a lot more bearable, but still cooler than the rest of the island. High winds can make it feel even cooler, so don’t forget to take a wind jacket.
Tunnels are very popular on most trails in Madeira. If you are not claustrophobic or afraid of tunnels in any way, you can also opt to go through 0.8km (0.5 miles) long tunnels. For this we highly recommend you to take headlamps for 2 reasons: you can see more and better, and you have your hands free.
At first, we attempted to only use our phones, but the light they make was barely enough. Not to mention that we were not able to take any photos or film without pausing, switching the light completely off to open the camera, and then pausing again to reopen the light when we were done using the camera. In the black darkness of a tunnel, the camera flash for photos didn’t help too much with the quality of the image. Having a headlamp on my head proved to be far better for image quality, not just convenience.
First Aid Kit
We can’t stress enough how important a first aid kit is on any hike. Madeira is no exception. On the contrary, with slippery surfaces, tunnels, and rocks, the probability to get injured while hiking in Madeira is relatively high.
Landslides and falling rocks
Landslides do happen and falling rocks are a danger that we are continuously exposed to while hiking in Madeira. With mountains and high cliffs, falling rocks can’t be prevented. Some of the levada walks have been carved in the wall of a mountain, and while the scenery is jaw-dropping, you can’t help but notice that in some places the levadas and the handrails have been crushed by rocks that have fallen from above. It is just luck that no one was there when that happened. We’ve seen small rocks crumbling just in front of us, big enough to get a headache, but nothing more.
Sometimes the damage caused by landslides and falling rocks is so extensive that the entire trail is going to be closed. That takes me to the next point, checking if the trails are open.
Check if the trails are open
We’ve been closely following the official Visit Madeira website and it seems that it is frequently updated with the current status of the hiking trails. Open the hike you are interested in, and, after a short description of the trail, there will be a note if the trail or a section of the trail is temporarily closed.
Information regarding the status of the trails can also be found in the All Trails application, although we prefer to rely on the official website. However, checking both sources is the best way to go.
Note: People have died on the trails of Madeira in the past, never push yourself if you don’t feel comfortable. Even if a trail is open, there still might be something that happened recently that makes it unsafe for you to go any further. Don’t push yourself if your gut feeling tells you otherwise. Sometimes a trail is open because the authorities haven’t closed it yet. This was exactly the case when we hiked PR 9 - Levada do Caldeirão Verde, towards Caldeirão do Inferno. The trail was open, but a section has been recently destroyed. It made us turn around, but some people were still passing over the dangerous part. Don’t risk your life!
Height Vertigo and Fear of Heights
There are a lot of levada walks on Madeira that have the risk of height vertigo. There is also a risk of height vertigo on the PR1 - Pico Arieiro to Pico Ruivo Hike. We found that the hikes that are well-marked and listed on the official Visit Madeira website all have handrails in areas with higher chances of height vertigo. I have mild height vertigo and I haven’t had any major issues on these hikes.
We wrote an article about height vertigo in order to help people that suffer from this condition to understand that they are not cowards. For those that don’t have height vertigo, we also recommend you to check out this article in order to understand what is truly happening with your friend or partner. We also talk about how to simulate similar feelings of vertigo to everyone, including those that don’t have height vertigo.
Have fun, enjoy, and take good care!