Haute-couture hiking in South Korea

If you want to go hiking in South Korea, you're going to have to spend a substantial amount of money on stand-out designer gear if you want to blend in.

While jeans and a T-shirt will draw attention -- mainly in the form of thinly-disguised pity -- a $650 North Face jacket with the latest ultra-light, three-ply Gore-Tex technology, will barely merit a second glance.

Hiking is close to a national pastime in South Korea, and millions throng the country's many mountain parks and trails every weekend.

Their ages, stamina and motivation may vary wildly, but one thing that binds the vast majority together is a near-obsession with having the latest brand-name outdoors clothing and equipment.

Although Seoul's highest peak, Mount Bukhansan, is a modest 836 meters (2,744 feet) above sea level, the hordes of hikers who swarm its slopes on a daily basis look dressed for a lengthy assault on the North Face of the Eiger.

"It's not cheap, but everyone dresses this way and I don't want to look out of place," said Chung Da-Hee, a middle-aged housewife decked out in branded gear, right down to a pair of brightly-coloured fingerless gloves.

"Anyway, it's good quality and comfortable," Chung said.

South Korea experienced an initial surge in the popularity of outdoor activities in the late 1980s as living standards improved and people were inspired by the country's hosting of the 1988 summer Olympic Games.

According to Jung Juno, who heads the grandly-named World Walking Headquarters based in Seoul, a second boom was triggered by an unlikely source -- the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

The crisis hit South Korea extremely hard and resulted in mass lay-offs, especially of middle-aged men who suddenly found themselves at a loose end.

"They had nowhere to go in the daytime," Jung told AFP. "At that time, the slogan was for South Koreans to 'remain healthy for comeback,' so a lot of them went walking in the hills and mountains."

The national and local governments have encouraged the trend, opening up trails and creating new hiking courses all over a country that boasts spectacular mountain and coastal scenery.

South Koreans take their hobbies and pastimes seriously and the spectacular growth of what is now Asia's fourth-largest economy means they have the disposable income to spend money on what they enjoy.

As a result, the outdoor apparel market has exploded from $1.1 billion in 2006 to $5.3 billion in 2012.

Seoul is surrounded by mountains, and every major trailhead is approached through a mass of retail outlets selling global brand wear like Merrell, North Face and Berghaus, as well as Korean makes like Black Yak and K2.

Yang Moon-Young of Kolon Industry, a leading South Korean outdoors manufacturer, said the boom was partly attributable to the fact that most companies now allowed staff two full days off a week, rather than one-and a half days as in the past.

The increase in leisure time combined with higher incomes had fuelled the market surge over the past five years, Yang said.

She also highlighted how some of the more stylish hiking gear had been adopted as street wear by young, fashion-conscious South Koreans.

"A widening range of age groups, especially younger consumers, are wearing them because of the casual look sportswear brings," Yang said.

"Outdoor garments have come down from hills and mountains to occupy the streets," she added.

Kim Mi-Hye, a 53-year-old high school teacher who hikes the different ridges and peaks of Mount Bukhansan on most weekends, admitted she had a substantial wardrobe of hiking gear.

"Some of the lines are nice and stylish, and there's a great colour and design choice," Kim said.

"I keep telling myself I have enough, but then I see another jacket and I can't help myself," she added.