Winter is around the corner. The days are short and wet, and many of us are seeking a vicarious mode of making up for the absence of trail time. When your withdrawal symptoms are at their worst, watching the hiking adventures of others can raise your spirits, inspire, and give you the boost you need to make it through the winter.
Whether it’s a film following the daily lives of thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking documentaries of the Appalachian Trail, or a contemplative movie juxtaposing the narratives of several main characters, our list has something to suit your mood.
Yosemite National Park, the Peruvian Andes, Australia, Northern Spain, the Scottish Highlands – they’re all here in our round-up of adventures. Regardless of the film, what these movies have in common is the ability to transport hikers to new and exciting places.
So, bundle up, get a bowl of popcorn and fill up your favorite water bottle – it’s movie time!
Table of Contents
1. Into the Wild
Based on John Krakauer’s novel of the same name, Into the Wild recounts the story of Christopher McCandless – aka ‘Alexander Supertramp’ – a young man who leaves behind his conventional suburban life to hitchhike across America. Like his literary heroes, he heads to the ‘last frontier’, Alaska, in search of an unspecified – but ostensibly spiritual – something.
Featuring a cracking soundtrack by Eddie Vedder, the frontman of Pearl Jam, this is one of those movies that inspires as much as warns you.
McCandless had an indomitable human spirit. In 1991, he got caught in a sandstorm in the Mojave Desert and abandoned his car. He donated his entire savings to charity, then worked on a farm, hitchhiked, and lived in a caravan.
However, McCandless still hadn’t found what he was looking for. He wanted complete isolation, to toil the land and live alone. As the movie shows us, this isn’t as romantic as the idea itself. The Alaskan wilderness is cold and hard, and people, not places, provide happiness.
McCandless survived 113 days in an abandoned school bus but didn’t make it through the winter.
Strong, tragic, hopeful, resilient – Wild is a classic hiking movie. Starring Reese Witherspoon, this film is based on Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir and the true story of her experience hiking from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail.
As is the case with many inspiring thru-hiking stories, Strayed’s is borne from turmoil. After suffering the loss of her mother, a broken marriage, and surviving heroin addiction, she decides to fill up a backpack – much too big for her – and walk.
This film is beautifully shot, and the way the narrative moves through time and space is well executed. At one moment we are high on a mountain pass surrounded by natural beauty, though when Witherspoon closes her eyes, we’re back to the squalor of the past.
The movie is pensive and meditative, oscillating between contemplative voiceovers and genial dialogue in the company of other hikers. The film presents climactic moments that cut wounds but are somehow hopeful.
3. A Walk in the Woods
This is one of the most popular hiking pictures out there and with good reason. Family-friendly and outright hilarious, this is comedy gold – a hiking film that will surely catch you off guard.
A Walk in the Woods is based on the true story of Bill Bryson’s thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. After living in England for 20 years, Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) moves back to the United States and decides to walk 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine with his oldest pal, Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte). The plot twist? They both have no experience!
Bryson’s memoir of the hike is known for its lucid, satirical, and humorous style of writing, and all of these elements, along with philosophical and poignant musings, are well captured in the film, too. Boiling hot days, humidity, interesting characters, small towns, and incredible landscapes, this hiking movie is a comedy classic.
4. The Way
Outdoor adventures are not always marked by incredible summit feats or near-death experiences. The Way is the story of a father, Tom (Martin Sheen), who travels from America to Spain to collect the body of his deceased son, Daniel (Emilio Estevez), who died while attempting to thru-hike the Camino de Santiago.
Tom is a well-to-do optometrist who lives a conventional life. Daniel, on the other hand, does not want to be bogged down by the modern way of life. As you can imagine, the two don’t get along too well.
However, unbeknownst to Tom, a life-changing adventure awaits him in Spain. Rather than returning home right away, he embarks on the Camino de Santiago, carrying Daniel’s ashes with him along the way.
Beautiful, sad, and poignant, The Way is a must-watch hiking movie of self-discovery.
The Australian outback is notorious for its wildlife: lizards, poisonous snakes, kangaroos, crocodiles . . . then, throw in sweltering heat and no rain, and you can understand the seriousness of this landscape.
It is, however, a gem of the natural world: beautiful scenery, vast and wide, desolate, remote – wild. But, to walk across the outback, alone, for 1,700 miles?
Only Robyn Davidson, author of the book, would do it.
Tracks is based on the true story of when Davidson walked across the Australian desert with four camels and her dog. Starring Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver, it is a harrowing, yet beautiful, adaptation of Davidson’s memoir.
6. Appalachian Impressions
2,173 miles. Six months. 14 states. Alone, on foot. All captured.
Appalachian Impressions is a television program that follows filmmaker and main character Mark Flagler on his journey from Georgia to Maine. Have you ever wondered what type of people walk the entire Appalachian Trail? What about the landscape?
This is one of those hiking documentaries that does more than recount a journey. It tells the story of the people and the land, the hardships and triumphs of self-sufficiency – of survival. Through spring, summer and autumn, watch as the trail and stories unfold, state by state.
Appalachian Impressions is an award-winning documentary. Since 2004, more than 1 million US households have watched the program.
The Scottish Highlands are wild: green, wet and dazzling, empty straths and glens, derelict cottages, sheep, stags, and hares . . . but the weather? Well, the only predictable thing in Scotland is the unpredictability of its weather; but, such is why its nature is so green.
Edie is the story of 83-year-old Edith Moore (Sheila Hancock). After losing her husband and slowly being forced by her daughter to move into a retirement home, Edie’s life flashes before her – regrets, memories, things she did and did not do. Her father had wanted to hike Mount Suilven with her nearly 30 years ago. However, Edie’s abusive husband didn’t let her go.
Now, alone and nearing the end of her life, Edie’s next trek will not be into the yard of a retirement home, but to the Scottish Highlands, up Mount Suilven. This is one of our favorite hiking films and is full of beautiful shots.
8. Only the Essential
Nature is transformative. It has the power to rejuvenate your senses, break you down, and build you back up again – this time, much stronger.
Two friends and filmmakers, Colin Arisman and Luke Kantola, met at mile 109 on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013 during their first thru-hike. Two years later, they embarked on another 5-month journey, thru-hiking 2,668 miles across some of the most beautiful landscapes in the American West.
Only the Essential is really what it sounds like – the bare minimum to be happy in a rapidly changing world: camaraderie, nature, laughter, and love.
Meru isn’t on your typical list of hiking documentaries, but we can promise you that it’s got all the elements that make a good hiking movie. In fact, it’s even more palm-sweating . . .
Following their failed ascent of Meru in 2008 via the Shark’s Fin, a 4,000 ft wall, Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, and Renan Ozturk returned in 2011 to give it another go.
On their first attempt, Ozturk suffered near-fatal injuries that put him out for five months. A few days later, Chin got swept in a horrific avalanche. Somehow, he survived – unscathed. Anker, meanwhile, is still mourning the loss of his climbing partner.
The film’s narrative oscillates between both ascents and provides a gripping, harsh, and moving account of their successful attempt to summit Meru. If you love hiking and adventure, this is a must-watch.
10. 127 Hours
Imagine having your arm wedged between two boulders, with no one around you for miles, and not being able to get out. What would you do?
In this psychological thriller based on rock climber Aron Ralston’s memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place (2004), we follow Ralston’s true survival story. Starring James Franco, this film recounts the 5 days when Ralston was wedged between a boulder in Blue John Canyon.
From climbing to the fall, the psychological journey – to cut, or not to cut the arm? – to eventually being rescued and resuscitated, this is an epic story – and one, we might add, that you surely don’t want to live yourself!
11. Touching the Void
The Peruvian Andes are immense and are rivaled in terms of size, inaccessibility, and ferocity by only a few mountain ranges in the world. Some might say this film is much more serious than the others on our list.
Based on Joe Simpson’s best-selling book (1988), which has sold more than a million copies and been translated into 20 languages, Touching the Void recounts the near-fatal true story of two legendary mountaineers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, as they climbed Siula Grande, a 6,344-meter peak in the Peruvian Andes.
If you want sweaty palms and to sit on the edge of your seat for a whole movie, then watch this. Ice axes, massive peaks, crampons, ropes snapping – yeah . . . it’s epic!
Bonus Movie: Mile. Mile and a Half!
We haven’t watched this one just yet, but we’ve heard only good things. In this Kickstarter-funded documentary that made it onto Netflix, five friends (all artists) take on the 210-mile John Muir Trail, recording in words, sounds, and images all of the wonders they encounter along the way.
If you’ve seen it, let us know your thoughts!
Best Hiking Movies: Enjoy!
From Reese Witherspoon’s attempt to walk the entire Pacific Crest Trail to Mia Wasikowska’s adventure through the Australian desert, these adventure movies will not only inspire your next hiking journey, but also force you to think more deeply about why you are walking.
If you liked our post or have any questions, holla in the comments box below. And please feel free to share our list of best hiking movies with your friends.