“I Think of the Mountain”: History of Hiking in South Korea

The CIA World Factbook describes South Korea as “mostly hills and mountains.” 64 percent of the country’s land is forest, according to a 2014 report by Korea Forest Service.

Given this geography, hiking naturally is a popular pastime in South Korea. Or is it so natural to assume so? The history of hiking — in its modern form as a popular leisure activity — is actually not that long.

“You first have to define ‘hiking,’” said Nam Sun-woo, the vice president of Korea Alpine Federation, one of the biggest and oldest hiking associations in South Korea.

If hiking refers to climbing a mountain for any purpose, then Koreans have most likely been hiking since the beginning of their history. One of the earliest records of Koreans on a mountain is in Samguk Sagi, a historical record published in the 12th century, which mentions that sometime in 30 BCE, the princes from the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo climbed Bukhansan (in today’s Seoul), to look for a place to settle.

Modern hiking has a more specific meaning, said Nam. It means the mountain isn’t used as a means to accomplishing some specific objective, whether that be military, political, or economic — the mountain becomes the object of adventure and a path to self-discovery.

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