Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Odaesan, or Odae Mountain, is three hours west of Seoul. It is three hours east of that city.
South Koreans are weekend warriors. The sport of choice? Hiking. Mountains are everywhere, and most can be climbed in a day. You need only the following prerequisites: a love of nature, multi-course meals packed into Tupperware, several bottles of rice wine and high-end gear.
Hiking has long been a South Korean pastime, but it has become more like a national identity. In a typical month, about 1 in 3 Koreans goes hiking more than once. The mountainous national park north of Seoul attracts more visitors annually than the Grand Canyon.
Part of this passion can be explained by geography. The country is a topographical eggshell mattress, covered with hundreds of steep, climbable peaks.
But it’s the rituals surrounding Korean hiking that define mountain culture here. The pace is brisk, and at the top, big groups spread out on blankets and devour elaborate spreads. They also drink rice wine — sometimes lots of it. Amazingly, the hike down is also brisk.
Although South Korea is famous for its pressure-cooker schools and 60-hour workweeks, hiking represents a far more attractive kind of endurance test. Koreans hold mountains in almost mythical regard, similar to the American veneration for the open spaces of the West. But only recently has hiking taken off as an activity for the masses, a product of national prosperity and increasing leisure time. (Not until 2004 did the government shorten the workweek from six to five days.) It helps that many of the country’s most picturesque mountains ring the outskirts of Seoul, a capital region that is home to about 25 million people.
“It’s almost like an addiction,” said Shin Soon-no, 65, who hikes several times a week with her husband, Kim Hong-seong. “Your body starts to crave it.”
Even farther afield, though, South Korean mountains tend to be clogged with a breathtaking flow of humanity — particularly on weekends. Traffic backs up on roads that lead to trailheads. In parking lots, groups pour out of buses, form circles and stretch. Women put on visors the size of umbrellas.
In other countries, it might be acceptable to set out on a hike in sneakers and shorts. But in South Korea, mountaineer wear is the norm for even the tamest climbs. Those who show up in shabbier gear — typically younger folks — might get a friendly lecture about the importance of multiple layers and sweat-wicking technology. And anyone shamed into upgrading their clothing can do so right away. At the foot of Cheongye Mountain, a modest peak in southern Seoul, more than 20 outdoor companies — North Face, Marmot, Lafuma, Montbell — have stores. Jackets can cost $800, walking sticks $250. Apparel retailers say South Koreans wear, on average, $1,000 worth of garb for a summer hike.
“And probably twice that in winter,” said Kim Sang-beom, owner of a Black Yak store, which sells the upscale Korean domestic outdoor brand.
“Of course, you can wear jeans on a hike, but a lot of Koreans believe they need the perfect clothes,” Kim said. “There are a lot of hiking clubs in Korea, and let’s say you join a club and everybody is carrying hiking sticks and wearing the best gear. If you show up in jeans, you might feel very out of place.”
Between 2006 and 2012, South Korea’s outdoor apparel market grew almost 500 percent, according to the Chosun Ilbo, a major daily newspaper. High-end gear is so commonplace that Koreans, particularly baby boomers, wear it even when going nowhere near a mountain. It’s suitable for traveling and shopping, restaurants and coffee shops.
“Anything but weddings and funerals,” declared Kim Hye-yeong, 64, decked out in a light-green North Face jacket as she climbed a mountain with friends.
Theories abound on why Koreans approach hiking as they do. Some say that South Korea has applied its hyper-competitiveness to the mountains — that hikers are in a race to look good and prove that they have money to spend. Others say the mountains are a place to experience a sense of community. It isn’t uncommon to see strangers share food at the summit, anything from dried persimmon to marinated beef.
“The main purpose for hiking for most people is to be healthy,” said Kim Yong-won, a guide who leads weekend groups. “But for Koreans, it’s to eat on the mountains.”
One recent Sunday, Kim’s group left Seoul at 6 a.m. bound for Odaesan, about three hours to the east. With the temperature in the low 80s, the hikers started on the crowded trail walking single-file. After about 30 minutes, the bottleneck loosened, and hikers moved up in twos or threes.
The total distance was 13 kilometers — about eight miles — but several in Kim’s group said they were up for something more challenging. One took a detour that added several miles. Two women in their 50s joked that they wouldn’t even be sore afterward. Another hiker, Lee Tae-guk, said he has spent years seeking the toughest climbs, and not just in Korea. He’s walked Japan’s Mount Fuji, Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu and Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro. And after this hike, he was headed on another adventure.
“Tibet,” he said. “I’m taking four days off this week. I’ll be sleeping in a tent.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.