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[Weekender] Hiking, a newfound hobby for young Koreans

For young people, hiking is for fun, friends and even romance

Sept. 9, 2023 - 16:01 By Lee Jaeeun
A hiker poses for a photo on Achasan on Sept. 2. (Lee Jaeeun/The Korea Herald)

Hiking has long been considered a popular activity for the middle aged or retirees looking for ways to spend their days in a healthy and low-cost way in South Korea. But the charm of climbing has extended to younger generations, with major trekking trails across the country filled with people in their 20s and 30s. Once regarded as nothing but arduous and time-consuming, hiking has become a favorite weekend activity, says Han Min-seon, a 28-year-old writer in Seoul.

"I enjoy climbing Bukhansan, Dobongsan, Buramsan, Achasan and Suraksan every weekend," Han said on her way to Achasan.

"It's hot, sweaty and painful to climb for hours, but in the end, nothing can compare to the self-satisfaction I feel when I reach the top. I'm grateful to resonate with nature away from the gray city, and the food I get to eat after hiking tastes like honey," she added, mentioning that a picture of her enjoying this newfound hobby posted on Instagram has also become a source of fresh energy during the weekdays.

Hiking has become a trending culture among young people, who are even inventing new words to describe their association with the sport. Young amateur climbers call themselves "deungrini" or "sanrini" -- referring to a beginner who has just started enjoying mountaineering. As of early September, there were nearly 840,000 posts on Instagram with the Korean hashtag “deungrini,” and 200,000 posts with “sanrini.”

For young people, hiking is for fun, not for testing one's limit.

“We hike just for fun. As my motto is to enjoy the moment, I don't force myself to climb to the top of a mountain if it's too hard or if I have a busy schedule the next day," said Kim Min-jung, a 30-year-old middle school teacher in Seoul.

A "croffle" dessert and coffee are served at Under the Cafe Mountain, located in Ui-dong Cafe Street, near Bukhansan, Gangbuk-gu, Seoul. (Lee Jaeeun/The Korea Herald)

New hiking fashion

The influx of young mountaineers has also brought changes in business trends targeting hikers. Fashion is one noticeable thing.

Hiking fashion has been long dominated by straight-legged pants, wind shield jackets made of Gore-Tex fabric and bulky hiking boots. But now this is changing, with women wearing long socks over tight leggings or cropped pants, and men in joggers with sporty, utilitarian jackets and T-shirts that can also double as streetwear.

"It's called 'gorpcore,' which is a fashion trend that involves wearing outdoor recreational outerwear as part of everyday streetwear," said a fashion expert in Seoul.

"It has been trending not only in Korea but also around the world," she said, referring to American celebrity Kendall Jenner and the Kardashian siblings mixing streetwear with leggings.

Touring hip cafes near the mountain after hiking has also become a must for young climbers, Han said. As young people have started hiking, a growing number of them are looking for cafes near the mountains in Korea.

Hip cafes near mountains sell food aimed at the younger generation -- such as croffles, macarons or bingsu.

“Ui-dong Cafe Street near Bukhansan is a hot spot, and there are many well-organized cafes with a nice garden selling delicious desserts near Achasan, so I will visit with my friend after hiking today,” Han said.

Low-cost, healthy hobby

Since mountains are everywhere in Korea, hiking can be an affordable hobby. A full-body workout without pricey equipment makes it the most cost-effective exercise, novice hikers say.

“I have other hobbies such as golf and tennis, but compared to those, hiking costs little money. All I need to pay for hiking every time is the transportation expenses,” said Kim, the teacher.

According to a study conducted by a research team at Chungbuk National University in 2010, the total amount of mountain climbing-related spending per person a year was 330,000 won (around $240) for those in their 20s and 490,000 won for those in their 30s.

Separately, the Korea Institute of Science and Technology Information analyzed this trend through a study, concluding that since the COVID-19 pandemic affected the younger generation more than the older generation, they suffered greater economic damage -- thus fueling their turn to the mountains.

Hiking is also time-efficient, Kim said.

“It is also efficient in terms of time because you don't have to pay for lessons and learn skills for a long time like swimming, tennis or golf,” Kim said.

New way of making friends, finding romance

Joining a hiking club and climbing various mountains together is the most efficient way to make new friends, or sometimes lovers if one is lucky, young people say.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, small hobby-based groups became popular. While the pandemic halted in-person gatherings, undaunted hobbyists remained connected through social gathering platforms for fellow enthusiasts, such as Munto, Frip, Pairplay, Xcrew and Digdig Activity.

Mountain climbing clubs on these platforms usually announce their hiking schedules once a week, and those who sign up meet to climb a mountain together.

The most popular keyword last year on the social platform Munto, which had 430,000 cumulative members as of the end of last year, was "mountain climbing," followed by "gastroventure," "cafe" and "exhibition." Ninety percent of Munto members are in their 20s and 30s, according to the platform.

“Usually, four to five people gather to hike at a time, and most of the participants are office workers in their 20s and 30s. Most people join this club alone, and many people want to make new friends with a healthy hobby,” one of the club admins of the social platform Digdig Activity told The Korea Herald.

For some, the friendship turned into more. A 36-year-old office worker surnamed Koo found a marriage partner on one of those hikes.

“Nowadays, many young people of marriageable age participate in hiking clubs, and many people actually join them to find a partner. Joining a hiking club is the best way to find a partner because it is easy to get close while hiking,” said Koo.

Another advantage is that one can climb mountains with peace of mind, since hiking alone can be dangerous for some.

“As a woman, I sometimes thought it was dangerous to climb a mountain early in the morning, but it feels safe with all the crew members who joined the same club,” one blogger wrote.

Hiking clubs recruit members on the Munto application, Thursday.