Intro to Cross-Country Cycling in South Korea

You may find cycling cross-country in South Korea surprisingly doable with the proximity of towns, regular services, and extensive river bike paths. I personally think that South Korea may be one of the best places to do extended cycling trips since you can carry next to nothing and still ride for days easily. Let’s take a quick look at what riding in Korea may look like for you based on my experiences.

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About Cycling in South Korea

South Korea loves cycling and it has its own cycling culture with many winding trails that follow the rivers all over the country. On the trails you will be riding with people on old bikes just getting from one place to another, families with kids, folks on rental bikes for the day, people on a walk, and serious cyclists. This means you always need to be looking out for others and use your bell or voice often.

Off the bike trails and on the roads, you may find it rare to see another cyclist. Many cyclists in Korea prefer to keep things on the trails and close to home. This means you may be on your own if you aren’t riding from Seoul to Busan. Be prepared to navigate language and cultural differences as you ride through the Korean countryside.

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My Relationship with Cycling

Everyone has their own relationship with physical activity. It’s important to understand how I relate to cycling and doing long trips so that you can better know how your relationship with physical activity and cycling and mine may differ.

For example, I feel I just do biking and not cycling. To me, cycling implies paying money for bike-related gear and being very serious about going fast while wearing very expensive tight pants. Instead, I’m just a lady on an old bike going pretty slow, while goofing off in very cheap, tight pants.

I don’t use fancy gear because I don’t have fancy gear money. I just ride my cheap bike in inappropriate shoes, the ‘wrong’ clothes, and at very slow speeds. I do this near my house and across the country whenever I get a bee in my bonnet.

All this to say if you do have fancy cycling gear and you train on your bike, cycling in Korea will likely be even easier for you than for me. On the other hand, cycling in Korea may also feel more stressful to a serious cyclist than it does to me since I don’t care if my bike gets shoved into the bottom of the bus and I’m not frustrated if I can’t go super fast.

My History With Cycling/Biking

You should also know that I can do physically painful and emotionally complicated things happily for extended periods of time. You should know this when reading my thoughts on any grueling activity that I like to do.

Growing up, in the summers I usually rode 15-25 miles a day as a form of transportation in rural Alaska. I also lived in extremely rural areas where spending 6-12 hours in a day walking, biking, hiking, or doing heavy labor was necessary for survival. Being pushed beyond my mental and physical limits is my happy place.

Of course, that was decades ago and now I’m pushing 50 with a cornucopia of injuries from living that extreme lifestyle. Nowadays, I mostly lay in bed and watch Netflix or research what I’m going to eat next on Instagram except for when I decide to cycle across the country on my holiday.

Also, when I put on pants I dramatically complain about it each time because they make life hard. On the other hand, if you put me into a physically impossible situation I’m going to show up and never give up (like riding my old bike across South Korea on a busted ankle). Such a dichotomy often confuses people and you should know this about me before taking any of my advice about what’s easy and what’s hard. So let’s review: Putting on pants, HARD! Riding my bike across South Korea, EASY!

Now that you know what lens I have when talking about cycling, let’s get into my personal insight into cycling trips in South Korea.

Smart Phone Apps for Cycling Korea

First, we need to talk about the apps you may want to use cycling cross-country in South Korea. We are starting with these because each app will be talked about in different parts of this blog. If you know about them now it makes it easier to follow along.

Smartphone apps that I use the most

  • Naver Maps – I’ve always used the Naver Maps biking route feature for my trips. It’s accurate enough. However, you will still need to be ready for changes in your route based on weather, construction, etc. Additionally, Naver Maps helps you find hotels, restaurants, pharmacies, bike repair shops, and other services you need along the way. *There is an English language interface.*
  • Baedalminja – For me, food delivery on cycling trips is life. I have no desire to leave my hotel at night or carry food with me. As soon as I hit the hotel I order enough pizza and chicken for the night and breakfast in the morning. *You will need a Korean credit or debit card and the ability to manage a Korean app in order to leverage this system.*
  • Papago – The best translation app for Korean is Naver-developed Papago. You may need a translation app for food menus, signs, etc. This can be a huge help when trying to navigate Baedalminja.
  • Air matters – If you are traveling during bad air days make sure you are tracking the air quality and using masks to avoid breathing bad air.

Now, let’s talk about what I ‘consider’ when ‘planning’ my biking trips. Honestly, though, I personally don’t consider much. On the last trip, I went on I packed the night before and just bought things I needed along the way. However, I feel like other people like to do planning so here we go.

Selecting Your Cycling Trip Itinerary

You can pretty much make any sort of cycling trip you want around Korea. You can use Naver Maps to route a bike trip from one place to another. Naver gives you the route and then off you go on your adventure. However, here are two ideas to get you started.

Gangwondo between Inje and Sokcho

Seoul to Busan Cycling Trip

The most famous 5-7 day ride in South Korea is Seoul to Busan. The length of time depends on your commitment and your fitness level. The 633-kilometer ride has a dedicated bike trail that runs through the country’s mountainous center to the southeast Korean coast. If you track your trip you can even get a medal from the South Korean government. Everyone thinks you are cool for doing this.

Incheon to Sokcho

You can ride coast to coast in 3-5 days from Incheon to Sokcho. The length of time depends on your commitment and your fitness level. This cycling trip is a hybrid ride that combines trail cycling with road cycling. This trip includes some epic mountain climbs that vary depending on your route. Not many people do this.

Make Your Own Adventure

When researching cycling cross-country in South Korea online in English it might seem like Seoul to Busan is the only extensive cycling trip possible. However, you have plenty of options and you can usually start your cycling trips from wherever you want. For example, I will just leave my house and go ride somewhere. Just get out Naver Maps and route yourself somewhere.

Below you will see two examples of random trips using Naver Maps cycling route option.

Looks like Pyeongtaek to Mokpo could be an interesting trip. It’s very much a choose-your-own-adventure situation.
Obviously, you aren’t cycling to a school, this is just an example of picking a random location to create a route.

What Bike I Ride

The best bike choice for cycling trips in Korea is one that meets your comfort requirements and price range. I personally do my cross-country cycling on a 195,000-won multi-use bike I bought from the corner bike store five years ago. Factory gears, breaks, etc. Nothing fancy at all. It works just fine but obviously isn’t fast or sexy. However, I do start every trip with a fresh set of tires.

My bike and gear in action.

Road Conditions

You can experience pretty much everything on a long-haul cycling trip in Korea. Don’t expect perfect riding every moment of the trip. Sometimes things get hectic and the roads or paths get messy. You may be on perfect bike paths one moment and riding in the streets the next. Expect the unexpected.

The lines painted on the roads can be a death trap when wet. Watch out for the paint on roads in the rain, it’s squirly at best and your worst nightmare at its worst. Don’t hit your brakes hard while on that rain-drenched paint. Crosswalks can be hectic. Not every bit of paint is a nightmare but when it gets bad, it’s bad.

Weather Conditions

As they infamously say, Korea has four seasons. When you choose to ride will depend on your vacation time and preferences. Nobody can promise what the weather will be like. Just remember that July and August can be Jangma which means it may be both hot AF and cold AF. Most folks might say to do long rides in the spring and fall but I just do them when I have time in whatever weather happens to exist at the time.

Air Quality

Don’t mess around with air quality and wear masks on bad air days. Air quality changes throughout the day so having a solid air quality app with regular updates based on time and locations will be very important. You can find masks at corner marts and pharmacies. If the air is extremely bad just take the day off.

What to Pack

Pack as much or as little as you feel comfortable with. Personally, I’m old and tired so I want to carry as little as possible on my bike. My bags contain:

  • Sun Protection: 1 waterproof sunblock for face 50+, waterproof sunblock for body 50+, cooling U/V protection arm covers, cooling U/V protection neck and face cover Wet neck towel to help regulate body temp. *Sun management may be the most important part of your ride during the hot season*
  • Daily Wear: 3 days of riding gear (including the one outfit I wear on day 1) and 1 day of “city clothes” for grabbing food at night or laundry day. Nothing fancy. (Normal outdoor clothes I get for 10,000 won or less off the street vendors or hardware stores in South Korea.)
  • Physical Health: Kinesiology tape, magnesium oil, anti-inflammatories, allergy meds, ball for working out muscle knots, an emergency kit with bandaids and whatnot
  • Sustenance: 3 bottled waters, 1 energy drink, 6 protein bars, 2 packets of gummies (I replenish daily)
  • Communication: Phone, charger, backup battery
  • Tools: Pocket knife, wheel removal tools, tire pump
  • Toiletries: Small toothbrush and a small toothpaste (hotels and motels have pretty much everything we need or we can get it at the CU mart)
  • Bike Gear: Loud bell, insulated water bottle, water bottle mount, smartphone mount, highly waterproof and quick-release panniers (this is where I spend my money), bike lock, bike rack, bike lights for all the things.

You may notice that I carry almost nothing. No extra tires (and I have gotten a flat once) or sort of extra special gear. This is not for everyone. If I have issues with my bike I grab a ride to the nearest bike shop or ask someone for help. It’s smart to carry your own tire change kits. My bike tires happen to be hell to change and I’d rather not.

With the proximity of most towns in Korea allows me to be this lazy with how I pack for riding. There is almost always help within walking distance. This type of minimalist packing is not for everyone and it means you may lose a whole day dealing with a flat tire. I accept those consequences but you need to figure out your own comfort level.

Places to Stay while Cycling

Since I never know how far I will make it in a day, I don’t book my places to stay ahead of time. This means that I stay where ever I find something available. Sometimes this means I spend more than I want and sometimes it means I stay in a place that isn’t perfect. I deeply love traveling with very little, staying in cheap motels I find along the way and ordering pizza at night.

At 4pm I start checking Naver to figure out where I want to stop for the night. In the countryside, this can be important because you don’t want to get trapped in a longer ride than you want. If it’s the weekend or a busy time of year I’ll call ahead to book a room or book it on Yanolja. I try to always book a spot right off the trail near a Starbucks or Paris Baguette. This means no extra riding and a fast easy, second breakfast in the morning.

If you are a planner you can go ahead and pre-book your stays based on your estimated ride times. Agoda is a great site for booking hotels across South Korea if you don’t have a Korean credit card. If you do have a Korean credit card use Yanolja.

If you don’t mind packing extra, you can carry all your camping gear with you and find places to camp along the trips. You can find both official campsites and wild camping options along many of the trails outside of cities.

Eating While Cycling in Korea

Eating enough calories to carry me through the day tends to be hard for me when cycling. I also don’t like to stop a lot to eat during the day. I just want to ride. Thankfully there tend to be plenty of options for food when riding. Even early morning, westernized breakfast is becoming more common in Korea.

How I Eat During Cycling Trips

What I’m about to share is NOT based on science or any doctor’s advice. This is not advice for you to follow. The meal plan simply demonstrates how a person might eat on a cycling trip in Korea when not carrying their own food. Don’t take this as anything other than a look at how one person solves their calorie issues in a day.

My lazy calorie loading plan looks something like this:

  • Dinner: Pizza, pasta, chicken, or Korean BBQ. I eat about 2/3 of the food at night and put the rest in the fridge to eat cold for breakfast. Many hotels have microwaves but I like cold food. As much Pocari Sweat and water as I can drink.
  • Breakfast: Wake up and eat leftovers for the first breakfast. Leave the house and find a place like Starbucks, Paris Baguette, etc for a second breakfast sandwich and coffee (open around 7 am -9 am depending on location). I need to have two breakfasts to get through my day. As much Pocari Sweat and water as I can drink.
  • Morning Snacks: 1-2 protein bars eaten while on 5-10 minute riding breaks. As much Pocari Sweat and water as I can drink.
  • Lunch: Giant-ass bowl of noodles. I prefer cold noodles like makguksu. No udon or giant, thick noodle.
  • Afternoon Snacks: 1-2 protein bars eaten while on 5-10 minute riding breaks. As much Pocari Sweat and water as I can drink.

When to Pack Your own Food For Cycling Cross-Country in South Korea

If you don’t like Korean food you may want to pack your own meals while you ride since some areas may not have other options. Sometimes your only meal options might be Korean food.

If you are vegan or vegetarian you may want to pack your own food. Although both vegan and vegetarian options continue to become more common in Korea, no guarantees you will find something on a long cycling trip when you need it. Best to pack your own meals.

If you have serious food allergies you may want to pack your own food for cycling trips. Even with Papago it can be difficult to communicate about food allergies when cycling cross-country in South Korea, so you might want to be safe rather than sorry.

Communication Support Help on Cycling Trips

If you find yourself in need of help you can contact 1330 to help you with translation. Or you can use an app like Papapgo which I previously mentioned above.

Getting Stuck and Getting Home

Cargo space-equipped buses may let you put your bike under the bus. On our last trip, we ended up getting ‘trapped’ by flood waters meaning we couldn’t safely exit the town on bikes. In order to overcome this, we put our bikes under a bus and road to a town where it was safe to bike from.

Lisa Peck, Director of SOS Public Health loading up her bike.

We have used this system many times when cycling cross-country around South Korea. Sometimes, this has been how we returned home from our trips. Remember that this only works if there is space for the bikes under the bus (under the bus is not filled with luggage already) and if the bus driver allows it. Once again, you can use 1330 to help with explaining the situation at the bus station.

Join a Cycling in Korea Facebook Group

As previously mentioned, each person approaches biking from different lenses. Asking questions in Facebook groups or talking to others who do cycling cross-country in South Korea may help you feel more prepared. Here are two groups that may have other people who can help you.

Seoul to Busan and Beyond (SBB)

Camp Humphreys Hike & Bike