Plant-based hiking the Korean way

☀️ The sun shines, the sky is blue. 💙
Days are warm, but nights are cool. 🌠

Hiking on Mt. Unak 운악산. Gapyeong, October 2017.

Can you guess what season this is?

🌸 Plants blossom and insects arise. 🐛

That sounds like spring, doesn’t it?

But the description can continue like this:

🍎 Fruits ripen and crops mature. 🌾

Now, that could be fall!

What season am I speaking of?

Hiking season! 🥾

In Korea, hiking is most enjoyable during 🌷spring and 🍂fall!*

🌷 When the frozen earth melts and the cold winds of winter disappear, being outdoors for longer periods of time is possible again. With spring, life returns and plants as well as insects and birds begin to get busy. The scenery comes alive with the colors and scents of flowers, while animals populate the area filling it with sound. The air is fresh, the sun is warm, and the shade is cool.

Hiking on Mt. Inwang 인왕산. Seoul, April 2021.
Hiking on Mt. Bukhan 북한산. Seoul, October 2017.

🍂 In fall, when typhoons blow away the heat and humidity of summer, the weather not only becomes bearable but also beautiful and bountiful! The lush green mountains change into a colorful dress of green, yellow, orange, red and brown leaves. Being outside is pleasant to the senses as well as the body. The sun doesn’t burn your skin anymore, and it’s easy to breathe again since there’s no humidity, no pollen and less dust in the air. At the same time, delicious fruits and crops are ready to be harvested – a promising feast for eyes and taste buds!

With a terrain featuring 75% mountains, Korea’s topography appears to constantly invite its inhabitants to go on hikes. ⛰🏔

Hiking on Mt. Gwanak 관악산. Seoul, March 2021.
Hiking on Mt. Gwanak 관악산. Seoul, March 2021.

But crossing a mountain did not use to be an easy undertaking! In recent times, however, South Korea has developed hiking areas, making it not only safer for everyone and more convenient to explore the mountains but even enjoyable: Many hiking locations feature stone stairs, railings and sometimes even paved paths. Food, rest as well as sanitary facilities can be found at least at the entrance of hiking trails. Hiking seems to be a national hobby these days.** [Besides eating and singing!] 🥾

On weekends, around hiking locations but also in buses and subways, you will see crowds of hikers dressed in bright and colorful outfits, equipped with backpacks and walking sticks [threatening to attack anyone who stands in the way]. You may hear constant chattering and the occasional individual who plays loud music from their smartphone for everyone passing by. [If you imagined hiking to be a tranquil journey amidst nature, you’ll be surprised by the Korean experience!]

The activity of hiking itself is referred to as deungsan (등산 登山) in Korean, and it originates from Sino-Korean characters that translate to “ascending a mountain” or simply “going up a mountain”. Correspondingly, the Korean word for “hiking trail” is deungsan-ro (등산로 登山路) or also deungsan koseu (등산코스; from English “course”). A dullegil (둘레길) is another type of hiking trail, but it’s used in context of hiking anywhere amidst mountains, lakes and parks – actually, it seems rather a kind of strolling, walking or wandering. On each mountain, there are normally multiple hiking trails with varying grades of difficulty.

Since eating is important when being active, this post focuses on food in context with hiking. Here are some tips and suggestions for anyone interested in eating plant-based outdoors. Whether you are a “full-time” vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian, it’s best to bring food and drinks on your hike! What should you prepare before hiking? Which vegan and vegetarian foods are typically eaten at mountains? Where can you eat after or during the hike? If you ever asked yourself these questions or wish to go on a hike in Korea, read on to find answers and then get prepared for nature!

Food for to-go 🏞

What can you eat, drink or snack on while hiking? People with experience in outdoor activities know how crucial it is that food is easy to transport (= not too heavy or fragile), is convenient to eat, does not create a lot of waste and is nutritious. Best if it tastes good, too! Classic examples that fit these criteria include granola bars, beef jerky and so-called trail mix with nuts and dried fruit. But in Korea, there exists a local set of foods that are considered to be ideal for hiking! Among those, some are vegan or vegetarian, and you can find a list of the ideal, veggie-friendly hiking snacks here! 🗒 A little bit further below, I will explain why they are popular and good for any outdoor trip (not just hiking, but also bike tours, long walks, picnics, rock climbing, camping etc.). 👇

Typical vegan and vegetarian foods for hiking in Korea
Refreshments

Most of these items are sold at rest areas in the vicinity of hiking trails and by road vendors e.g. at the nearest bus stop or subway station. In addition to that, convenience stores, which are distributed everywhere in the city, offer a large variety of snacks and beverages at any time of the year and day.

🥒 Cucumbers are not only filling and refreshing, they even help your body to re-hydrate because they contain a lot of water. 💧 In other words, they serve as both food and drink! In Korea, cucumbers are a standard “hiking snack” and people simply munch on whole cucumbers that have been washed!

🌽 Steamed or cooked corn is a typical street food in Korea. The most common variety of corn is called chal-oksusu (찰옥수수), which is either white, blue or speckled. [Sweet yellow corn is rather foreign here!] Eating corn on the cob may require you to wash your hands afterwards, unless you know how to eat it without making your hands sticky. It is often sold wrapped in plastic bags, which may serve as a waste bag during your hike. The leftover corncob might be the first thing you put into it.

🥔 Potatoes as well as 🍠 sweet potatoes are often enjoyed as snacks. When they are boiled, steamed or roasted, you only need to peel them before eating. The leftover skin is lightweight and organic material, but it’s better to take the food waste back home with you.

🍌 Among vegans and non-vegans, bananas are popular as a wholesome energy bar for anyone physically active. That’s because bananas provide sweet-tasting fuel and useful magnesium. No tools, cleaning or other preparation is necessary, since every banana comes with its own natural wrapping. One downside is, however, that bananas are easily damaged during transport, so extra care while packing or moving may be required. Lastly, let’s not dispose of the banana peel by throwing it into nature. [It may take a while for it to break down and who wants to step on banana peels on a mountain?]

🍊 Fruits like tangerines and other kinds of mandarin oranges are easy to transport, easy to peel and full of watery juices. They quench your thirst, while providing you with fruit sugar and some satiating fibers. 💧 As with banana peels, please take the peel with you. It’s best not to risk polluting the environment with possibly remaining pesticides.

🥜 Nuts and peanuts seem to be a universal snack, and they are great when traveling outdoors, since they are small yet nutritious. In Korea, tree nuts are usually rather pricey, while peanuts are more affordable. 💲🥜 Occasionally, you may find a food stall with roasted chestnuts around a hiking area. 🌰 You might smell their presence from far away because they are very aromatic!

🍡 Korean rice cakes, also known as tteok (떡), are primarily based on rice and beans. 🍚 They come in diverse shapes and flavors, ranging from less sweet to very sweet. Although most rice cakes look quite small, they consist of compressed rice, which makes their energy content dense and concentrated. 💪🍡 Also note that tteok spoils quickly, so they are recommendable as snacks only on one-day hikes. Silverware is not necessary for tteok and they can be conveniently eaten with your hands. 👌

Various kinds of Tteok 떡 offered by a street vendor.

🍣 Kimbap (김밥) is Korea’s classic “outdoor meal”. Be aware that Kimbap sold by street vendors is normally made in advance and their filling includes fish, ham and egg, plus vegetables. 🐟🥓🥚 Thus it may be difficult to find a veggie-friendly version on location. Sometimes, vendors offer small rolls of Kimbap which do not contain any filling – those should be vegan. If you want to eat a large Kimbap that is filled with vegetables (and egg), stop at a bunsik jeom (분식점) and order a customized vegan/vegetarian Kimbap, before you head to the mountain. You can eat Kimbap with chopsticks – normally wooden chopsticks are included in your order of Kimbap-to-go 🥡. Or simply use your hands! 🥢👌

🥚 In Korea, boiled or baked eggs are a popular source of protein on hikes. Unless the eggs are pre-seasoned or sold with a small pouch of salt [this is usually the case at convenience stores], you may want to bring your own salt with you. 🧂 The shell is the ideal packaging, sturdy and light-weight. But even though egg shells are biodegradable, they are not considered as “food waste” (음식물쓰레기) in South Korea and thus need to be disposed off as “general waste” (일반쓰레기).

💧 Always bring drinking water or other beverages. First of all, staying hydrated is essential. In addition to that, you never know whether you need to wash something [e.g. your hands, equipment, food] along the way. As an alternative to water, Koreans consume cold tea for refreshment. [And they refer to it as “water” (mul ) as well!] 🍵 There is a large diversity of teas which are made from herbs, roots and grains. 🌾🌿🌽 Most common may be roasted barley tea (보리차) and roasted corn tea (옥수수차), which are more popular than green tea or black tea in Korea! Anyways, water and typical teas – conveniently bottled and refreshingly cooled – are available in stores, at vending machines and sold by road vendors. When the weather is warm, you may even get bottled water that is frozen, and then drink ice-cold water as it melts during the journey! ❄️ If you want to lower the use of plastic, however, take your own re-usable water bottle and fill it with whatever you enjoy drinking! 🥤

Furthermore, there are often fresh water springs on mountains. 💧 (Some Koreans regularly commute to a famous spring in order to obtain its natural water.) Sometimes, such a spring can be found directly on the main hiking trail. At other times, there is a spring located on a side path and you’d have to briefly change your course. Buddhist monasteries, of which many are located on mountains, possess a well with drinking water and openly share the water with visitors. Anyways, when you come across a spring on your hike, you can quench your thirst and refill your reserves with fresh spring water! 🚰 So it’s good to have a bottle at hand! 🍼

Makgeolli 막걸리 served during a meal after hiking.

🍶 Aside from water or tea, certain Koreans bring (frozen) Makgeolli (막걸리), an alcoholic rice drink, on mountain hikes. They may drink it when they have reached their goal and enjoy the view from above during a picnic. When you see Korean hikers with a red face, it often means that they A) did not use sun screen, or B) are very hot and sweating, or C) have drunk alcohol while hiking.*** [The latter being the most frequent case, from personal experience. 🤭] Needless to say, it is safer to drink alcohol after hiking, e.g. at one of the restaurants at the entrance of hiking areas. [see below!]

Food options and locations along the way 🛣

What happens if you finish your snacks while hiking? If you’re lucky [or simply know the area], you may come across a Buddhist monastery or a rest area during a mountain hike. 🏛☸️ While eating at a temple is a possibility, there are usually separate restaurants located around a famous temple. At the end of your hike, you might end up being hungry and tired. Now, what can you eat and where can you rest after hiking? Rest assured, because usually there are not only food stalls but also restaurants in the vicinity of most hiking areas!

Whether you want to go to a restaurant during the hike or afterwards, chances are they offer one of the common dishes that are vegan or vegetarian and typically served at mountains. 👇

Veggie-friendly dishes at restaurants in hiking areas:
  • 🥣 bibimbap with wild herbs aka mountain greens 산채비빔밥
  • 🌰 acorn jelly salad 도토리묵무침
  • 🥞 savory pancakes 부침개: popular as anju, i.e. served with alcohol
  • 🔥 grilled roots of lance asiabell (Codonopsis lanceolata): deodeok-gu-i 더덕구이
  • 🍮 fresh hand-made tofu 손두부
  • ⭐️ local specialties 특산물

Above dishes are available around hiking areas, because they contain ingredients associated with mountains, such as acorns and wild plants. 🌿⛰🌰 The composition and taste of each dish varies not only by restaurant but also by location! Particularly mountain herbs are ingredients which differ depending on the environment they grow in.

⭐️ In addition to that, there are local specialties, of which some may be plant-based as well. In Korea, each region has its own natural and cultural characteristics, and may specialize in producing certain foods. Such local produce is called teuksan-mul (특산물 特産物) in Korean.

Pine nut tofu from Gapyeong.

To give an example, the region Gapyeong (가평) is a major producer of pine nuts. When you go hiking in Gapyeong, there are local dishes featuring pine nuts, such as vegan noodles in pine nut broth (잣국수) as well as tofu with pine nuts! 🌲🐿

Final suggestions

In summary, these are the vegan and vegetarian options among South Korea’s conventional hiking foods. [Note that they are not “traditional” because bananas and citrus fruits, for instance, have become widely available and affordable only over the past few decades!]

Apart from that, there are of course more hiking-friendly foods in Korea, for example sticks of green celery, bell pepper, small tomatoes, apples or similar fruits and vegetables which act like cucumbers! 🥬🥕🍅🥒🍏 Personally, I like to pack baked / air-fried tofu, roasted (black) beans or other kinds of plant-based proteins. If you enjoy being active and perhaps also go hiking, do YOU have any personal favorites? What are your preferred outdoor snacks?

Additionally, here are a few items that are related to eating as well and come in handy when you’re outdoors! 👇

Other recommendations for things to bring on your hike
  • 🛍 bag for trash and food waste
  • 🧻 tissues, napkins or handkerchiefs/towel
  • 💦 wet wipes or handkerchiefs/towel with water
  • 🔪 fruit knife
  • 🥤 tumbler or transportable cups
  • 🍽 transportable tableware
  • ⛱ picnic blanket
  • ☀️ sun screen
  • 💸 cash (for street vendors)

Besides the actual food and drinks, some tools for cleaning, serving, and enjoying them may be necessary. 🍽🥤🥢🔪🧻💦 You could reduce waste by avoiding single-use items and bringing your own tableware and fabric handkerchiefs. 🛍 By the way, barbecues have been banned to prevent fires, but many hikers bring picnic blankets to sit more comfortably, when they rest on the ground or on rocks. ⛱☀️ Also, it is best to carry some cash with you in case you want to buy something outdoors – particularly from road vendors! 💸

After all, what do you need for hiking?

Endurance, a sense of direction, some basic equipment and food!

While food and equipment can be purchased easily, (online) maps and sign posts will help you navigate through the mountains. But endurance can only be attained by doing something! So don’t be afraid of being active! You’ll get better, the more you do it! 💪🥾

So in general, prepare in advance, pack some food and water, know your hiking route and regional specialties. And enjoy your time outdoors!

Wishing you a happy hiking season! 🚶‍♀️🚶🚶‍♂️ Be safe!

Hiking on Mt. Samseong 삼성산. Seoul, January 2021.

Additional notes from the author

*) Technically, it’s possible to go hiking in the winter and in the summer as well. But in the winter, special equipment for hiking on snow and ice is necessary. In the summer, it is advisable to start hiking in the very early morning hours and return before temperatures rise. Be careful as not to slip on icy terrain and exhaust yourself in the soaring heat. Also, avoid hiking when it rains, there is a typhoon or during monsoon season.

**) In German, this could be called “Volkssport”, a physical activity voluntarily exercised by a large share of the population.

***) A phenomenon common among certain Koreans is that their face turns red after drinking alcohol, regardless of the amount and whether they are strongly drunk or just slightly tipsy.

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