Written and photographed by Rachel Hill
I have just realized that my only experiences camping in Korea have been on beaches. Camping here is about as opposite as I can think of compared with the camping I’m used to. Sure, you still sleep in a tent, and you still face formidable opponents with the various bugs trying to share their short lives with you. But most everything else is surprisingly different, for better or for worse. So, sit back and listen to a story with a few short lessons to keep in mind if you are planning to camp on the beach.
We left the ferry terminal as a fellowship of four and set out to an island for the weekend. Our supplies: two tents, clanking cookware, and an appetite for adventure. Rations for the trip were carefully laid in our packs, but we knew there would be a chance to replenish them at the sacred Nong Hyup.
Picture it: a cove and an empty beach in front of us, where directly behind us, following the curvature of the beach and equidistant from the surf, began a neatly organized clump of trees and the beach’s official campsite. In the campsite, a few families were setting up. We continued past, lugging our goods down the beach as far as reasonably possible from any other campers. What is camping for if not being alone with nature and the serenity that comes with it?
We set up camp. The first tent, one of those instant pop-ups, we had lent to a friend the week before. Upon opening it on this beach, we realized that it had been returned to us broken. But we were determined to succeed, borrowed some duct tape, used some nearby sticks, and made a semi-respectable tent. The second tent was more traditional, but showed the wear-and-tear of being secondhand: tape here and there, little holes (perfect for bug buddies), and a difficult zipper.
After a time, our stomachs raised the alarm for food. Setting up our camp stove and lighting the fire proved a challenge due to quick gusts of wind that had gone unnoticed as we had stood in the surf and heat. So, we grabbed a few umbrellas that we had brought in case of rain and set them up in a sort of fortification circle around the camp stove.
Generally, any beach you might endeavor to camp at will have a set up similar to what we saw here: beach with a treed windbreak some distance from the surf. We learned that when making a fire or lighting a stove, using that natural windbreak would have been useful. But our stubbornness (also ingenuity!) let us continue cooking dinner. Be prepared for wind, or be prepared to stay in the safety of the trees.
After dinner, fueled with the success of the umbrella windbreak, we made a fire. Most of our ration pack was full of s’mores materials, so a fire was on the menu.
First: Here is my personal and completely anecdotal experience of building fires here. My rule is that if I see a Korean doing it, I’ll do it; if I don’t see anyone doing it, I’ll probably still do it but feel less comfortable about it. My findings on whether fires are allowed or not vary from “No, it’s totally not allowed” to “It’s probably not, but nobody cares.” So, if you choose to make a fire, please be safe about it. Enclose your fire in a pit, be considerate of others in the area, and be sure to put it out well when finished. Windy beaches mean dangerous embers.
Second: S’mores. As I’m sure you more avid (American) campers have noted, getting graham crackers in Korea is a no-go. I’ve found that a good alternative is Diget Original (Digestive) cookies as a substitute. Chocolate is easy to find, and marshmallows can be found at the big box stores, usually, and sometimes even in Daiso.
We went to bed with full bellies and a warm happiness buzzing around our heads. Personally, I loved camping on the warm sand because I could make myself a little sleeping crater and was not cold for a change. Consciousness slipped from me with the soft lapping of the waves on the sand. Serenity.
After perhaps an hour or so, my eyes snapped open for a reason I couldn’t immediately identify. My heart picked up tempo, and my ears eventually focused on the much louder rush of waves. Woosh. WOOSH. W-O-O-S-H. Unzipping the tent a heads’ width, I peeked outside and spotted the problem from the light of the moon. I woke the rest of our company and alerted them to our new plight: the tide was coming in, and if we didn’t want to get swept out to sea, we had better migrate to someplace else.
Feeling a bit like fools (but laughing also like it was the most hilarious turn of events), we picked up our already made-up tents and other supplies, and carried them to the safety of the windbreak area.
Maybe this is a totally novice mistake to not recognize how far tides come in. In most places, camping on the beach itself may not be allowed, so you might have to camp in the designated area (perhaps for tidal reasons). The beach we stayed at was very small and unmanned, so there was nobody to tell us not to camp on it. If you hope to camp on the beach, take these things into consideration, and further, remember the tides when choosing a spot.
Within the treed camp area, I shivered all night as my mosquito bites bloomed and the stones beneath me were remarkably un-sandlike. In the morning, I woke to the sounds of tourists disembarking a bus to visit the beach. So loud. Admitting defeat, we began the process of packing up our tents.
We four surveyed the tent, which looked little better than a windbreaker jacket propped up by a few jagged sticks. It wasn’t worth lugging back on the ferry, so we found the proper receptacle and gave our tent a final farewell. Arriving back at the site, preparing to pack away the other tent, we stopped dead in our tracks. How was it even possible? Why was it so big? Nature, why? Right down the front entry flap, as if painted there by a toddler, was a multicolored gift from a very obviously large bird, fresh and still on the drip.
We cut our losses, gathered tent two, and left it with the other in a heap. Looking on the bright side, we had less to carry home! The fellowship then boarded the ferry home, nary to return.
Camping in Korea (specifically on beaches) has been a real adventure and a very different experience for me. Whether on a beach or elsewhere, I hope you get out camping and try to be prepared for a different approach to the sport and a unique experience.