The best hiking documentaries and adventure films take the outdoor experience and distill it into bite-size pieces. From their vivid imagery and relatable storytelling, we’re able to imagine what it would be like to be there. A well-crafted documentary can easily become an outdoor adventure catalyst.
In constructing this list, I wanted to pick five unique and memorable hiking documentaries. As with all lists, some material will be left out. You won't see footage of Mount Everest or the rock walls El Cap here. However, if you’re interested in big mountains and rock walls, check out our best mountaineering documentaries article.
I’ll include some honorable mentions below, along with a brief section on outdoor movies that are fun to watch as well.
Only The Essential: A Hike From Mexico To Canada On The Pacific Crest Trail
- Year Released: 2014
- Running Time: 40 minutes
- Where to watch: Youtube
This is an intimate look at one of the most famous trails out there. Running for 2,668 miles (4230 km), the Pacific Crest Trail traverses many rugged and unforgiving wilderness environments. Only The Essential manages to expertly cover them without the aid of a camera crew. The result is a gorgeous look at Casey Gannon and Colin Arisman’s 5-month journey.
The music and camera work put the beauty of nature front and center. But, the lack of support crew means you also get a raw look at what goes into completing such a demanding trail. Through unique observations, the documentary manages to humanize even the most extreme challenges.
I think Only the Essential does a fantastic job of bottling the emotional upheaval before, during, and after such a draining experience. It’s an adventure full of personal growth, keen observation, and a slow fall into the rhythmic arms of nature.
Why Do I Hike
- Year Released: 2020
- Running Time: 23 minutes
- Where to Watch: Youtube
Boy, this documentary packs a lot into less than half an hour. Its opening montage features a dreary, rain-at-camp composition and memorable quotes like “a long distance hiker's career is short-lived.” The message is that all is temporary; enjoy what you can when you can.
You immediately feel the pull to enjoy life and find peace with nature. It also hits on nature acting as a spiritual lens through which thousands wish to see their life. The tone is right for outdoor escapism, the adventure lifestyle, and reveling in the beauty of nature.
A unique aspect of this one is how it's broken down. It’s a nonlinear examination of hiking from the aspects of time, community, and mental health. Stunning footage of one of my favorite American Trails (the Colorado Trail), an uplifting soundtrack, and a decent story all make it a fun watch.
Mile. Mile And A Half.
- Year Released: 2013
- Running Time: 1 hr. 27 minutes
- Where to Watch: Youtube
Mile. Mile and a Half is a warm retelling of a hike across the 219-mile John Muir Trail in California. The documentary is visual-heavy, with the beautiful mountains of the Sierra Nevada featured often. What sets this one apart is the narrative hook; the group really gets along. It’s easy to imagine the journey you could have out here with a group of your friends.
Created by artists, photographers, and outdoor enthusiasts, the documentary carries a lighter tone throughout. Challenges are briefly mentioned, but the overall message is forward and positive. If you want an inspiring view of the John Muir Trail with a soundtrack that belongs in the Shins discography, give this one a watch.
The John Muir Trail also overlaps quite a bit with the Pacific Crest Trail, so between documentaries, you may see some familiar mountains, lakes, or basins. You also have the opportunity to ascend Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous U.S.
The Most Beautiful Hike In The World - Crossing Lofoten On Foot
- Year Released: 2021
- Running Time: 53 min
- Where to Watch: Youtube
Admittedly, reading the title, I was a bit skeptical, many pieces of content claim to the “best” or “prettiest” but it’s usually a highly debated opinion. The Lofoten Islands, however, may actually be one of the most beautiful places in the world.
These Norwegian islands look unbelievable, a mountains-meets-ocean environmental clash that gets you hooked quickly and keeps you there. The documentary, which follows a couple on a 14-day journey through Lofoten, also covers decision-making in rugged terrain, which is very important.
Many outdoor documentaries focus on the intimacy of the trail by using gopros, cell phone videos, or handheld devices. This gives an intimate portrait of any particular journey, and while those tools are also used here, it’s the edited drone footage that steals the show. Each grouping of islands is gorgeous, and each vista is more dramatic than the last.
If you like Lord of the Rings or any fully fleshed-out fantasy world, Lofoten will easily capture your imagination. It’s hard to look away.
Figure It Out: On The Hayduke Trail
- Year Released: 2019
- Running Time: 50 min
- Where to watch: Youtube
Some documentaries detail the struggles on established trails where route finding is largely taken care of. Then, there are others where figuring out the route is part of the challenge, like on the Hayduke Trail.
The Hayduke, an 800-mile trail in the U.S., sees few attempts and even fewer completers as it winds through harsh desert landscapes. "Trail" is also a pretty loose term. Hikers have to figure out how to navigate the route's convoluted stretches while dropping into and climbing out of innumerable canyons and desert pockets.
On the Hayduke, there are not a lot of backups or bail-outs. More than any popular long trail, you’re confronted with the idea that a tragic death awaits if you don't handle the harsh conditions correctly. It’s a fascinating tale of dogged perseverance. It also features national geographic-level footage of an unforgiving wilderness few venture into.
I think the Hayduke Trail is a really cool look at the idea of backpacking experiences and unique outdoor adventures. You get the whole package, from the crushing lows to the ethereal highs.
The hiking movies below are based on true stories or memoirs and generally do a great job of retelling the original stories. As with most adventure movies, there are some creative liberties employed, so they aren’t as honest as documentaries.
However, if you want stunning visuals, a good story, and profound nature moments, give the following movies about backpacking a look!
- Wild. Another Pacific Crest Trail Piece, this adventure details the healing journey of hiking a long trail. This is a good story for those in a rut and in need of some uplifting nature moments.
- A Walk in the Woods. Comedy takes center stage in this retelling of Bill Bryson's hilarious book about the Appalachian Trail. The premise? Two wildly out-of-shape middle-aged guys (Robert Redford and Nick Nolte) attempt to hike the famous trail, finding challenge, humor, and understanding along the way.
- Into the Wild. Based on a book that has spurred conversation since its release, Into the Wild, makes for a compelling hiking movie. In the 90s, Chris McCandless gives up a career to live life in the outdoors. He never returned. Through his notes, we’re given a glimpse into what he saw and felt while living in the Alaskan wilderness.
- The Way. This is a poignant hiking adventure for a father who had plans to complete the famed Camino Del Santiago in Europe with his son. His son, unfortunately, died before they could finish their quest along the ancient pilgrimage route. The father decides to honor his son by going back and finishing the route.
What I Love Seeing In Outdoor Content
In documentaries, movies, and TV shows featuring hiking, there are several repeated themes. These come up organically on outdoor adventures. You’ll recognize them as truths when you see them or experience them on your next outdoor adventure!
- The Challenge: At least one person severely underestimates the grit and commitment needed to complete the adventure.
- Highs and Lows: Every outdoor adventure has them. Some moments are good, and some aren’t; dealing with both is often a necessity.
- Outdoor introspection: Nature tends to leach the poetic qualities out of us. Whether it’s quoting John Muir or coming up with sage advice to show appreciation for hiking, these adventures conjure a fair amount of it.
- Humor: Life on the trail leads to many humorous encounters. A good group dynamic can make daunting challenges manageable.
- Nature’s beauty and simplicity: There’s usually an overwhelming turn to simplicity when big outdoor adventures kick off. It’s the reason a lot of hikers do these things. The simplicity of daily life in nature is often discussed over stunning footage of beautiful hiking destinations.
- Rejection of society. The feeling of abandoning society for life on the trail, along with the rough reintegration afterward, is commonly highlighted. The documentaries do this to forward the idea that, on the trail, you're given a blank slate on which to write your own story. Societal rejection is usually paired with the idea of rebirth through nature.
- Understanding: At the end of almost every outdoor adventure film, there is a renewed sense of self and a deep sense of gratitude toward nature.
If you want an extra shot of motivation to get outside, check out these incredible hiking documentaries.
- Only the Essential: A Hike from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail
- Why Do I Hike
- Mile. Mile and a Half (Pacific Crest Trail)
- The Most Beautiful Hike in the World: Crossing Lofoten on Foot
- Figure It Out: On the Hayduke Trail
Full of themes about redemption, beauty, and simplicity, it’s easy to understand why people want to do crazy outdoor adventures. There are also several hiking movies worth checking out. However, if you want raw footage and unfiltered experience, hiking documentaries are the most authentic examples of what it's like out there.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.