With the cold temperatures gone, spring in full bloom, and summer only few weeks away, it’s time to stop and think about how we’re going to enjoy the summer. While Korea is known for hot and muggy days, the nation is also known for its obsession with hiking. Hop on board any subway or bus during the weekend and you will see men and women of all ages dressed to the nines ready to hit the trails. However, as the premiere hiking season is upon us, it’s wise to do it properly so you can reach views such as this.
The first thing to keep in mind is hiking doesn’t have to be hard. The end result doesn’t have to be one where you end up kilometers deep in the back woods. Hiking can be done just about anywhere, even in an urban jungle such as Seoul. Two of my favorite hikes in Seoul are along the Cheonggyecheon and the Five Palaces. Each can take the better part of a day, but not once do you leave the city and are blessed with a multitude of cafés to nourish your body along the way. But what if you do venture into the woods?
Planning is key when hiking. One of the most important things to take into consideration is what kind of trail you’ll be sauntering over. Is it a paved trail? Perhaps it’s going up a mountain with a series of steps? Or maybe it’s nothing more than dirt and rock cut into the mountain? Regardless of the type of trail, each will be rated for difficulty and serve as an important guide to make sure it’s the right one for you. Easy trails are just that – easy. But that doesn’t mean they’re just a walk in the park. The defining feature of this class of trail is that they are generally short and flat. Flat is a relative term, since these trails may include some inclines. Easy trails are most often less than 3.2km. These trails are suitable for all ages and can most often be completed in an hour. Moderate trails include those paths with inclines and cover more ground. Because they cover more ground and include elevation changes, a general fitness level is needed. Younger and older family members, as well as those that are easily winded may find these hikes too difficult. They can be 6km or longer and take several hours to complete. Difficult and Strenuous hikes are very long and often include dramatic elevation changes. Sometimes the elevation difference can be more than 2000 meters on a single hike. As a result, those wishing to tackle these hikes need to be in superb physical condition. Difficult and strenuous hikes will often take the better part of a day, or even multiple days to complete and should not be attempted by those not in great physical condition.
Aside from the trail difficulty listing, it’s also important to know the trail route. These generally fall into three categories. Loops are just that. This type of trail starts and ends at the same location or close to the point of origin. These trails are great for those commuting, since only one vehicle is needed to get to the trail head. A second trail type are those designated as Out and Back. Essentially, this type of hike is to a destination. A hiker begins at Point A, hikes to Point B, and then hikes back to Point A. These are usually to a natural formation or some other natural phenomenon. Actual Trails are just that – trails. Rather than forming a loop or walking the same path over and over again, trails create an interconnected network in the wild, allowing explorers ample opportunity to see new areas each trip by varying their route.
Hiking is different from other activities since it combines strength training and endurance. Remember you’re just not walking, you’re carrying a pack with food and water, even if you’re going for a short distance. So getting in shape is key when tackling longer distances. It isn’t enough to just run or bike, one must get into trail shape. A physical condition that prepares the body for climbing mountains, cutting through forests, crossing deserts, and descending to riverbeds. In my opinion, one of the best exercises available to prepare one’s body for these endeavors is to run stairs. This exercise forces the body to propel itself upwards and forward for extended periods of time. It’s just what one does on the trail; therefore, it better prepares one for what lies ahead. If training for strenuous hikes, it’s wise to run stairs one or two hours a day, provided your physician clears you for such activity.
Things to pack
Before setting out, it’s vital to be prepared. This requires planning and should be taken seriously. The worst mistake one can make is hitting the trails without proper equipment. So what are some of the basics you should take with you?
- Map/ guidebook / GPS– While many trails are clearly marked, it’s always wise to have a backup. Having a local map or guidebook with the trails listed will greatly reduce chances of getting lost along your route. If one has a GPS device (or a GPS enabled phone), then this can also be of great assistance.
- Sunscreen – Summer months can be brutal on your skin. Because hiking is an outdoor activity, and shade may not be present, application of sunscreen is essential for personal safety.
- First-aid kit – A basic kit is recommended for all that hike. These kits should include triple antibiotic ointments, bandages, and moleskin (for blisters). Many hiking stores have small kits that fit well into day packs and are well worth the investment should trouble ever arise.
- Food – When hiking longer distances, it will be important to keep one’s energy levels high. Many times in Korea, we will find food stands on a trail, but that isn’t always the case. Packing fresh fruits, vegetables, proteins, and some sugars are the best way to keep your body’s battery charged when out. If planning on eating a meal, then prepare one that is light and digests easily.
- Water – A general guideline regarding water consumption while exercising is to drink roughly 500ml ever hour. This is a conservative estimate, but one that will keep you safe. If the trail has water sources along the route, then water filters can be packed to refill canteens, bottles, and bladders. One of the most dangerous things for a hiker to face is becoming dehydrated. That’s why it’s usually wise to drink plenty of water before starting a hike, so that you can carry less and consume less when hiking. This pre-hydration is key to hiking safely.
- Phone / ID – When hiking, it’s important to take your phone and ID, just in case there is an emergency. Also, take a photo of your ID before you hike and email it to yourself, just in case you lose it.
- Camera – Hey, we all want to see your pictures, so make sure your camera is charged and memory card empty. If you’re using a film camera, bring an extra roll, just to be sure.
At the root of a good hike is a great pair of shoes. I say shoes here, because many think only boots are fit for trails. That isn’t the case. While it is important to wear the right shoes for the right trail, in many cases, any pair of shoes will work great. I have traversed several strenuous, rocky mountain trails in nothing more than a pair of sandals. It wasn’t the easiest hike I completed, but it was possible. However, those really wanting to get the most out of their experience should invest in foot ware designed for trails.
Walking into many outdoor-focused stores will present the buyer with an incredible selection. It’s enough to make one’s mind explode. However, there are really only two things to take into consideration when purchasing shoes. First, they must fit well. What ever you do, buy a pair of shoes that feel good. After all, you’ll be wearing them for several hours and it’s important that your feet have plenty of room and that there’s no cramping inside. Second, make sure the shoes have some lugs for traction. This feature will enable your shoes to grip the trail better to avoid falling.
As long as those two items are covered, from then on, it’s just personal preference. One can buy trekking shoes or boots with ankle supports. Either is fine and is a matter of personal preference. Boots with GORE-TEX are great if you’re hiking in wet conditions, but are hardly required. Price is also an important thing to consider. Some argue, “You get what you paid for,” and to some extent that is correct. I purchased a pair of boots in the United States for $15 and they lasted one year and only a handful of trails. They were comfortable and did an adequate job. However, it was disappointing that they disintegrated so quickly. Conversely, I purchased an expensive ($250USD) pair of boots previously, and after two hikes had to retire them.
How to dress
Hiking outdoors can be an intense physical activity. Even when starting on cool mornings, it won’t be too long before one realizes that your body is working overtime producing a lot of heat. This is one reason why so many in Korea invest in specialized hiking “outfits.” These clothes are specially designed to insulate the body and wick away water from the skin. They are usually lighter and dry faster than traditional cotton or wool clothing. However, that doesn’t mean you need to go out and purchase expensive technical clothing just to go hiking. For years, I’ve hiked in nothing but jeans and a t-shirt. The important thing to remember is that no matter what clothing you wear, one must layer. As your body heats up from exercising, one must ensure that over heating doesn’t occur. By layering clothes, you can peel away jackets, sweaters, etc. to ensure optimal body temperature.
Hiking is an awesome way to see Korea any time of year. Before you start off on your adventure, just be sure to let a loved one know your expected start and return times, then blaze a course for adventure. So where are you going to explore?