Hiking Clothing in South Korea

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Hiking in Korea

Mountains are everywhere in S. Korea — according to the Korea Forest Service (산림청), Korea has 4,440 mountains in its territory. Do Koreans like visiting these mountains though? The answer is HELL YEAH.

Koreans visit the mountains for many reasons: to exercise, sightsee, and even socialize. Anywhere from Gangwon to Jeju, hiking is arguably one of the most popular activities in this country.

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The hiking outfits are not just for hiking

Even if it’s your first time visiting Korea, it’d only take a few hours to notice how common these hiking clothes are. Especially for many middle-aged ajummas and ajeossis, bright jackets and active pants have been their favorite outfits.

However, some people are not too proud of this unique culture among middle-aged Koreans. For example, a travel agency asked Korean tourists to “avoid wearing hiking clothes in the beautiful cities of Europe.” I personally think the fashion is awesome. Why would you think it’s embarrassing?

Anyways, Korea’s outdoor fashion market is considered the second biggest in the world. Particularly from 2004 to 2014, the market size grew from less than US$ 500 million to US$ 6 billion.

Above all, The North Face had the biggest success during this period — reporting US$ 500 million in yearly revenue from 2011 to 2014.

The force behind The North Face’s success

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The North Face was ahead of the game because its style appealed to teens and 20s. For example, in the early 2010s, the brand’s goose down and puffer jackets were so popular that teens were wearing them as their school uniforms.

However, the jackets’ enormous popularity among teenagers became a widespread concern in society. There were reports that the students who couldn’t afford the jacket were getting bullied in school. In another case, a 15-year-old boy was dragged and got beaten by five other teens who wanted to steal the jacket.

It’s hard to believe, but buying a jacket somehow became a matter of survival in some schools.

How much is your jacket?

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The news about “The North Face Hierarchy” in middle schools forced tons of parents to buy these US$ 200~700 jackets for their children. Clearly, for many teenagers, the jacket meant more than just clothing — it was a brand-new symbol of wealth and status.

Some people argued that Korea’s highly competitive education system made teens obsessed with anything that boosts one’s self-esteem. But the education system cannot be the sole reason. Kids learn fast from the adults around them.

One time I was in an indoor pool and overheard a conversation between two little teenagers. I was shocked because they were talking about the price of their houses and the future of Seoul’s real estate market.

I’m sure these teens weren’t genuinely interested in the housing market. They observed their parents and simply learned from them to play the same status game.

When one thought spending $$$ for a jacket seemed too much…

Let’s talk about Moncler’s success in Korea. In 2012, a picture of President Lee Myung-bak’s granddaughter wearing an expensive Moncler jacket became a viral topic in the media. Hundreds of articles were titled ‘The Grand Daughter of Lee Ends The North Face Hierarchy.”

Since then, Moncler’s yearly revenue grew from around US$ 40 million to US$ 130 million in 2019. In department stores, Moncler puffer jackets, at US$ 2,500, often get sold out in September (Korea gets cold in November).

Back to the real hiking clothes. “The North Face Hierarchy” has vanished since 2015. At the same time, the outdoor fashion market in Korea has shrunk to about US$ 3 billion. The situation seems pretty dire, but outdoor clothing brands are still trying hard to attract young customers.

Millennials are interested in hiking

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Due to COVID-19, many Koreans could not go to indoor gyms and other sports facilities for a long time. Just like almost every in the world today, Koreans were getting quarantine fatigue.

To overcome the tiredness, more Koreans began to visit the mountains to take a walk and get some fresh air. In 2020, the Korea Park Service published that the number of visitors to major mountains like Bukhansan in Seoul increased by 20 percent.

Black Yak, a Korean outdoor clothing brand, knew this was a great opportunity. Black Yak created an online hiking community called “Black Yak Alpine Club” and released an app that lets users share pictures of the mountains.

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Black Yak Alpine Club has been a great success — In 2020, there were about 40,000 members, and the number became more than 200,000 members after a year. The brand has also created viral content like “100 Best Mountains of Korea” to challenge hikers to visit and post pictures of all of them.

This year, Black Yak is expected to generate more revenue than The North Face to become the biggest outdoor clothing brand in Korea. Thanks to this new trend, hiking is no longer for ajummas and ajeossis only.

Due to the influx of Millennials, outdoor fashion is evolving to embrace leggings and tights. For example, Black Yak’s hiking clothes look like workout clothes from Nike or Adidas Originals.

P.S. Skip Seoul Tower, visit a mountain

About 5 years ago, I was a part-time worker at the famous N Seoul Tower. I enjoyed interacting with tourists from all over the world, but I also thought visiting the tower was the most “unKorean” thing you can do as a tourist.

If my friend’s visiting Korea for the first time, I would recommend skipping the famous attractions (except Gyeongbokgung maybe) and go to the mountains like Bukhansan or Chenggyesan.

Take the subway to get there in the morning and buy some Gimbap and water before hiking. You don’t even need to know the route. Just follow the pros wearing bright jackets and hiking shoes. Stumble upon a Buddhist temple and make a wish in front of stone stacks.

After the long hike, don’t forget to finish off the day with some makgeolli and jeon.

Trust me. Skip the damn tower and visit the mountains.