Why Everyone Should Hike at Least Once in Korea
I spent the first 25 years of my life in midwestern American states that were expansive, flat, and virtually devoid of any scenic value. As I turned 25, I got the opportunity to move to the significantly more interesting state of California – specifically if you are into landform undulations or variety. It was on a random weekend outside Los Angeles that I went into the mountains for the first time of my life and almost immediately discovered why an individual might get hooked on hiking. I have moved a few times since then and had the chance to visit a few other places around the globe, but the hiking hobby has followed me to each of them.
I think it is fair to say that the majority of hikers view the activity as a great way to view nature and escape the constant stimulation of civilization in 2015, but my favorite aspect of hiking has always been the feeling of pure exhaustion you have after 6-8 hours of traversing mountains, waterfalls, boulders, and whatever other obstacles a particular trail may throw at you. For me, endurance exercise provides a mental clarity where the stresses of daily life can be sorted out. Dwelling on a particular workplace controversy in the car will frustrate me to the point where it actually endangers my fellow motorists, but the endorphins generated while hiking seem to balance out my anger to the point that I can actually more clearly sort through a situation in a somewhat detached fashion.
I certainly did not move to Korea with hiking as the primary driver, but there was little doubt that it would eventually fit into my overall life equation while living here. My first assessment of Korea from the alpinist’s point of view was that the country was perfectly organized for hikers in that the cities encompass the base of mountains, and snake around them instead of blanketing them. Regardless of where someone lives, it is almost absolutely assured that they are within a 30 minute mass transport ride of a major trailhead that can take them well above the bustle of the metropolis. Though the urban areas can seem endless while navigating them amongst the traffic and buildings, looking down from a mountaintop can even put the entire Seoul metro area in a more manageable and real context. Hiking further away from Seoul means you may see no other structures than the occasional temple or backpacker hut.
In the past I have found most hikers around the globe share some similar traits. They may run an enormous gamut in terms of aptitude and seriousness, but on a core level they tend to enjoy nature, are usually open and friendly, and often have a bit more free spirit than someone focused solely on corporate ladder climbing. Interestingly, I have found hiking in Korea to be an entirely different animal on a number of levels, to the point that the pastime itself at times bears only slight resemblance to the same pastime elsewhere around the globe. While somewhat startling at first, today I find most of these differences absolutely fascinating. Below are the few of the reasons why hiking in Korea is different:
1. On the trail, you will almost certainly be on the low end of the age scale.
As you begin a hike, the first person you come across is significantly more likely to be 75 than they are to be 25. While your initial reaction may be “good for this geezer to get out of the house for a few hours”, I promise that will quickly transition to “why did that elderly gentleman feel the need to crush my spirit by charging past me as if I were another rooted tree?”
2. Hiking in Korea really is a social activity rather than a solitary one.
A typical group you will see along the trail seems to be in the neighborhood of 8-10 hikers, but at times you will see herds of people 30-40 strong charging towards a peak. Most other places I have hiked feature individuals that are introspective and quiet, and small groups of these people feature the somber looks of one might expect if immediate and forceful groin kicks had been promised to each person upon reaching the day’s destination.
3. Koreans actually have good reason to eagerly anticipate stopping their climb for a mid-hike meal.
I have been on many hiking and backpacking trips outside Korea and there is a herd-accepted strategy to packing food. That strategy is primarily built around maximizing the calorie to volume ratio. Peanuts, granola bars, and any other foodstuffs that promise to cement up your large intestine for a few days are typically considered ideal. In contract, Korean hikers do not find being kilometers away from a paved road to be a compelling reason to sacrifice high cuisine. I have seen bossam, bulgogi, and once even saw a guy pull out a grill and start frying up samgyeopsal. During my first few Korean hikes, I would see people who hefted around bags so full that I could only assume they had been thrown out of their house and were now looking to take up residence in the first available cave that they found. Now I realize they just had lunch for a few friends.
4. Sobriety is 100% optional.
This may be the most shocking difference to a foreigner but couples well with the mid-day feasts described above. It is most common to see a group’s banquet paired with Makkgoli at or near the top of mountain, but coming across those consuming soju and beer is certainly not out of the question either. I initially thought people were just having a nip or two as flavored hydration or as a celebration tool upon reaching a particular summit, but you won’t have to wander past too many picnic blankets before you will find one featuring a ratio of bottles to humans at 2:1 or even 3:1.
5. Similar to high school, your personal style is perpetually being judged by those around you.
Part of the reason I got into hiking in the first place was that I was recently out of college and the hobby offered boundless entertainment at virtually zero cost. For my first hike in Korea, I wore a baseball cap, cotton t-shirt, and assorted clothes that would have made me look just as at home with a change cup in front of Seoul Station. In contrast, my Korean trailmate fashionistas could often be found sporting outfits more expensive than the one in which I got married. Clothing articles are clearly discarded at the first sign of wear and tear, as all of the brightly-colored ensembles never seem to show an ounce of use and the colors maintain a radiance so intense that they can be difficult to look at without sunglasses. At times it has occurred to me that the reason for the more advanced age of hikers is that the young simply cannot afford the investment to avoid mock and ridicule from their contemporaries.
6. On a hike in Korea, safety is truly your responsibility.
American park rangers seem to be (rightfully) terrified of lawsuits from the clumsy and reckless, and will shut down any trail where there is even a remote possibility of a hiker ending up dead after a futile battle between themselves, gravity, and a cliff. In Korea, ropes, chains, foot pegs, and upper body strength are key to conquering even modest peaks and these tools often represent the thin line between a relaxing afternoon in the woods and one that ends in a slightly less relaxing helicopter ride on a body board. Korean hike leaders that categorize a particular hike as “challenging” or “interesting” are merely indicating that you should have your personal affairs are in order prior to leaving home.
7. Daylight is not a prerequisite for starting a Korean hike.
I had always considered hiking to be a sunrise to sunset activity, but sunrise in Korea seems to actually be the busiest time of the entire day on many trails. The majority of national parks open at 3:00AM, and there will often be dozens of people at the gate waiting to strap on a headlamp and stumble over rocks and tree roots in a single-file line. Sometimes the reward for your early start is an amazing sunrise on a windswept mountaintop. Just as often it is a skinned knee earned while not paying attention to your footing for just a few seconds.
8. Even if you don’t bring food, it may be provided by serendipity or Buddhists.
I can say with relative certainty that there is no place in the US where you may come across a temple serving high-quality food without cost mid-hike. Though they may not load you up with protein, temples frequently will serve buffet-style vegetable smorgasbords that will almost certainly be more appealing than whatever you stuffed in your pack in the morning. If you don’t find a temple, merely sitting down anywhere near another hiking group will probably get you an almost instantaneous offer to share whatever they brought. Obviously it is poor form to show up unprepared with the goal of merely taking advantage of the kindness of others, but it is an invitation to bring some extra trade-able food so that you can share in the micro-economies that form in many popular lunch destinations.
9. You will probably be dressed for a different season than most Koreans.
I have marveled in the past at how Koreans can wear an almost inconceivable amount of clothing on the hottest days during normal life, but what you see on a hike can be borderline ridiculous. Seeing whole groups of people that are hiking straight up a mountain donning a windbreaker with long sleeves, black pants, and a facemask is common. Either these people are impervious to exercise and sweating, or on the lam and terrified that someone may recognize them.
10. If you thought the lunchtime feast was good…
Most hiking globally is found in parks and forests where there is no access to prepared food immediately upon completion of the day’s trek. As a result, many people will retreat back to civilization to clean up and change clothes before heading out to a restaurant where they will consume enough french fries to counteract whatever health benefit the day’s physical activity has bestowed upon them. In Korea, every major trailhead seems to offer countless pajeon stands (either tents or more permanent structures) serving every form of pancake along with enough makkgeoli and beer to make sure the hydration you lost through perspiration can be efficiently replaced with alcohol.
Even if you are not an avid hiker, Korea certainly has enough to offer than you should attempt to give it a shot at least once while you are here. I don’t recommend striking off on your own without experience as there are seemingly an endless number of crisscrossing trails with various degrees of marking and labeling, but there are several options to allow you to take orienteering out of the trip. Meetup.com has a myriad of groups dedicated almost exclusively to hiking, so feel free to find a group or hike that sounds interesting and have a Korean show you around their country’s wilderness for a day. It is a great way to meet some different people and I can promise you will expose you to some things that you won’t see hiking anywhere else.