The concrete road narrows and our expectations sharpen as we putter past fields of mud and rice stalks to the entrance of Geumgwang Tourism Farm Campground. Headed for a camping weekend, my wife, young son and I left Seoul behind some two hours ago. We exchanged looming high-end apartment complexes and 10-lane highways for this rural valley enfolded by round hills of shaggy green oak. Our destination is southwest of the capital, right on the border of Gyeonggi Province, which despite its 13 million residents is mainly covered with farmland and forest.
On arrival at Geumgwang, we’re greeted heartily by the site’s young owner, Lee Jae-hyeong, who leads us to our pitch on his quad bike. The plot is past an ornamental pond, in a wide meadow dotted with Asian pear trees and jagged boulders. Our neighbours have all set up camp already. I quickly realise that our five-person dome tent is humble by comparison. Many of the nearby tents have foyers, living rooms and bedrooms; I spy comfortable looking camp beds promising undisturbed sleep. Fence-like partitions offer privacy, and string lights adorning some tents give a cheerful and characterful effect.
Unlike in my native Canada, Korean-style camping feels more like glamping or “glamorous-camping”, given the amenities and creature comforts that the locals bring to this outdoor activity. Peeking into some of the neighbouring plots, I see whole families sprawled out watching TV shows or Disney films using compact projectors and screens. Seamlessly, they’ve reassembled their living rooms under the shade of tall pines.
Korea’s booming post-pandemic pastime
Camping in Korea was already popular, but began to really make its mark here during the pandemic, when the nearly 30 million Koreans who usually travelled abroad annually were forced by circumstance to holiday closer to home. In a country that doesn’t lack for mountains, valleys, lakes, islands and beaches, camping was the perfect way to enjoy these in a time of social distancing.
According to Statistics Korea, the number of locals who go camping each year almost doubled during the pandemic, rising from 3 million to over 7 million. And the industry itself grew about 89.7% from 2019 to 2021, reaching approximately US$5.5 billion in market size.
The pastime has become so popular that campers have to book weeks or months in advance despite the hundreds of campgrounds across Korea to choose from. Thankfully, we managed to find a spot using the Korean web portal Naver – which brought us to Geumgwang Tourism Farm Campground.
A respite for the whole family
As we set up our camp, the sun sinks behind a high ridge, darkening the dense green slopes, making them seem more mysterious and impenetrable. Down here in the valley, though, the light grows thinner and more delicate, bringing a sense of calm.
I head off with my son to explore the campground. There’s a carefree mood in the air, as if everyone’s spirits are buoyed by the invigorating power of nature. The children have taken full reign of this vast expanse, running about and shouting excitedly, while the grown-ups keep a watchful eye as they recline in cosy camping chairs.
I discover a supersized trampoline hall, where curious kids jump over and pummel me with questions: “Where are you from?” “Can you speak Korean?” “How long are you staying?”
Aside from this popular bouncy hall, camp facilities such as the billiard room, table-tennis room, arcade machine gallery, café and swimming pool ensure that campers are well-entertained during their time here.
Owner Lee explains that the campground began as a family business in 2015. “The pandemic really accelerated the interest in camping,” he says. “Originally, half our business was hosting company workshops, but when my parents fell ill, we switched exclusively to camping – this was around 2020. It was actually great timing for us.”
Feasting and reflection around the fire
Back at our tent, we stick sausages and veggie dogs on skewers to cook over our campfire. This typical Canadian campsite fare is somewhat overshadowed by the rich aroma of barbecued meat wafting over from the portable grills that surround us. Clearly, for Korean campers, feasting is the highlight of the experience. Families break out their strips of pork belly and prime cuts of Hanwoo (native Korean beef); out of nowhere appear spicy stews, bowls of rice and all manner of side dishes. One couple nearby has even brought and assembled a portable deep fryer in order to enjoy pork cutlets in the fresh air.
Meanwhile the flames of portable fire pits that sit outside many of the tents are not for cooking over, it seems. Though hand-split wood burns in them every night, they appear to have a more decorative purpose. On my way to the dishwashing station, I pass by a man sitting alone, staring into his fire with a distant look on his face. “What’s he doing?” I ask my wife.
She explains that this is a new camping craze called bulmeong (staring at a fire and zoning out). The phenomenon, which has been celebrated in the local media, is simply a way of escaping from the stresses of daily life. While it’s not as profound as meditation, it strikes me as a primal pursuit — maybe the ultimate way to unplug from our devices and sink back into a timeless state of mind.
After a surprisingly restful sleep on our air mattress, we start the next morning by grilling pancakes on our portable stove. But our son has made friends with a boy of the same age at the tent next door and decides he likes their Korean-style breakfast better. To thank them for feeding him rice cake soup, we bring over some pancakes. Our neighbours give us some roasted chestnuts in return.
A nation reconnecting with nature
Chatting with the boy’s mother, Cho Nam-mi, I learn that the family started camping during the pandemic, less than two years ago. Cho, who works as a travel agent, reflects that eating and drinking in the open air appeals to her because of the cheerful and celebratory mood that she associates with it. She says, “I like the feeling of sitting outdoors, gazing at trees and mountains. When we eat something, it feels like we’re eating in a pojangmacha (awning-covered Korean street-food stall/bar).”
As comfortable and indulgent as Korean camping is, its popularity is perhaps linked to a rekindling of Koreans’ attachment to nature, as can be seen in nationwide booms in hiking and trail running, as well as the trend for city dwellers to retire to the countryside. It seems to feed a need many Koreans are missing in their daily lives.
Cho puts it simply: “These days, there aren’t many chances to gaze outward into nature. When we go camping, we can really admire the clear, open sky.”
Sights and bites around Geumgwang
After packing up our tent, we drive to nearby Geumgwang Lake, stopping for lunch at the colourfully named Hwangtokotture (Red Clay Cow Nose Ring). There we gaze at fishermen planted around the lakeshore while having hot spoonfuls of cheonggukjang (a rich, pungent stew made from fermented soybeans).
A bit further down the road, we stop for coffee at Chatjipyanggi (Tea House Aroma), a cosy, rustic spot that serves shaved ice with red bean paste. We conclude our trip by sharing a large, refreshing bowl of this soothing dessert. It’s the perfect combination of simple, homely and indulgent to finish off a weekend of getting back to nature without leaving all our creature comforts behind.
Tips for camping near Seoul
Geumgwang is a bring-your-own-gear site, but there are plenty of other camping grounds that offer spacious tents to rent that are already set up, such as Lohas Campground (see below). Camping gear of all kinds can also be rented from suppliers such as Starcamp, though travellers should note that gear rental shops tend to cater to a Korean-speaking crowd.
Here are some options for those seeking to experience camping in Korea:
Within view of a surreal hilltop sculpture called Greetingman, Lohas Campground is well-run and meticulously managed. Its family-friendly draws include a pool and a summer sledding ramp. It’s about two hours north of Seoul, a stone’s throw from the border with North Korea.
The wide, spacious Jaraseom Campground is next to Jara Island, where Korea’s premier jazz festival is held each autumn. It takes about an hour and 40 minutes to reach from Seoul, driving eastward towards rugged, mountainous Gangwon Province.
Travellers should note that many websites for campsite reservation and camping amenities tend to cater to the local market, and are hence set up with Korean speakers in mind. Do consult Google Translate, a friendly Korean speaker or hotel concierge to make campsite bookings if you need it.
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