If you are not able to venture out into the wild at the moment, this list of the best hiking movies will allow you to vicariously experience some of the best trails in the world. See here for the best movies on the Camino de Santiago.
The screenplay is adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of her thousand-mile long trek into the wilderness. Read Wild a Journey from Lost to Found book review here, a great read.
Her story is about her determination to complete a larger portion of the legendary Pacific Crest Trail while battling heroin addiction and other personal demons. On top of being a riveting and audacious story about Strayed’s soul-searching, it is also a great practical guide for those who are about to go on a long-distance thru-hike adventure for the first time.
It is filled with valuable hiking tips, so be sure to take notes while you watch it. You will learn about the perils of overstuffing your backpack and wearing hiking boots that are too tight. And if the Pacific Crest Trail is already on your bucket list, you definitely need to watch Wild. This narrative film will prepare you for this epic outdoor adventure better than most PCT documentary movies.
The movie was filmed on the PCT, and one could argue that the trail itself is a character in the movie. Reese Witherspoon, who portrayed Cheryl Strayed in the movie, stated that this is by far the hardest movie she ever made in her life.
The movie is based on the true story of the hiker and recluse Aron Ralston (played by James Franco).
Being the solitary man that he is, Ralston went to explore Utah’s Canyonlands National Park alone without telling anybody about his plan. This goes against all hiking and outdoor safety guidelines, and Ralston ended up paying a huge price for his mistake.
Not to give away too much of the plot, let’s just say that Ralston had to make a great sacrifice in order to extricate himself from a grisly trap. Still, this is not just a movie about what you shouldn’t do when you go on a hike. It’s an intense and dazzling rumination on what lengths people will go to in order to survive.
Unlike most films on our list of best hiking movies, The Way is neither a documentary nor is it based on a true story.
But it is a must-watch movie for soul-searching hikers. Many movies have been made about the ancient pilgrimage of Camino de Santiago, but this one is always the first to come to mind. It’s a family movie both on-screen and behind the scenes, since it stars Martin Sheen and is directed by his son, Emilio Estevez.
Sheen plays a grieving father, Tom, who travels to the French side of the Pyrenees mountain range to claim the body of his estranged son, who died while walking the Camino de Santiago. In a heartfelt combination of grief and homage to his son, he goes on to complete the pilgrimage instead of his son. Tom reluctantly falls in with three other hikers along the way, each being on a different personal mission.
The same way the Camino is not an ordinary trek, this is not your average “inspirational” film. Unlike most movies where the main characters search for spiritual growth, it doesn’t explicitly tell us what any of the protagonists find on the Camino. But it makes it clear that each of them undergoes a great internal transformation.
While the movie honors and celebrates one of the world’s greatest religious pilgrimages, it should appeal to everyone who is searching for meaning.
Appalachian Impressions Documentary
Appalachian Impressions is arguably one of the best documentaries of all time, on top of being one of the best hiking movies.
If you plan on hiking the 2,200-mile long Appalachian Trail, be sure to watch it.
This engaging documentary film covers everything about the illustrious thru-hike trail—from what you can expect on the AT as the weather drastically changes to what kind of hiking shoes you need to wear.
The director Mark Flagler has done a great job of capturing both the grand and subtle glories hikers can find along the famous trail. Even if you are not a fan of outdoor adventures, his film won’t leave you unimpressed.
A Walk in the Woods – My Favorite for the Best Hiking Movie
The movie depicts the travelogue of Bill Bryson (portrayed by Robert Redford), a man who decided to walk the entire Appalachian Trail on a whim.
As they endure the many hardships of the Appalachian Trail, Bill and his out-of-shape pal Katz, learn to face their own mortality with grit and humor.
Even though it’s one of the funniest movies on the list, the movie is chock-full of hiker wisdom. It serves as a cautionary tale for people who often like to bite off more than they can chew.
Intentionally or not, a Walk in the Woods teaches rookie hikers why it’s important to be well trained in steep ascents and significant research before taking on a long and difficult footpath.
As It Happens
There are many documentaries about some of the world’s longest and hardest trails, but very few capture the challenges and beauties of a thru-hike like this film does.
As It Happens is a free documentary on YouTube that follows two friends, Ian Mangiardi and Andy Laub, who decide to trek across the PCT.
They walk the entire Pacific Crest Trail, from Mexico to Canada. Stretching over 2,650 miles, it is likely the most diverse trail in the world. As such, the grueling footpath forces them to test the limits of their endurance.
On their journey, Laub and Mangiardi are hit with the largest snowstorm the Sierras have ever seen. In addition to seemingly never-ending challenges brought upon by extreme weather, the two friends face the presence of countless scary creatures of the desert, such as rattlesnakes.
While the PCT teaches them that nature can often be a cruel teacher, it also blesses them with profound moments of transcendence and grace.
The impressively lyrical camerawork makes As It Happens one of the best hiking documentaries of all time. Both in moments of peril and glory, the viewers get to feel intensely close to the action.
And if that’s not enough to make you check out this amateur documentary, do know that you can watch the whole movie for free on YouTube.
Mile… Mile and a Half
This feature-length hiking documentary tells the story of five friends who leave their daily lives behind to take on the John Muir Trail.
Their 229-mile journey from Yosemite National Park to Mount Whitney took place during a time of record-breaking snowfall in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
The group of five friends set out to capture both the human experience and the natural beauty of hiking. Not only did they manage to achieve their goal, but they made one of the most epic hiking films in the world. It is both entertaining and highly motivating.
Unlike many thru-hiking movies, Mile… Mile and a Half is not a “Look how intense we are!” pean to outdoor escapades. Instead, it focuses on affirming the old saying, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.”
In 1977, she went on a 1,700-mile adventure across the deserts of West Australia with her canine companion and four camels.
Even though it was supposed to be a journey of solitude, she allowed one man to occasionally check in with her at various points of her journey. This was National Geographic’s photographer Rick Smolan.
The cinematography of the movie is outstanding. It immerses the viewer in rich but unforgiving Antipodean landscapes. And, on top of being one of the most beautifully shot hiking movies, Tracks is a great exploration of the reasons why some people decide to journey alone into the unknown.
If you decide to watch this movie, be sure to check out the original photos of the actual walk as well. They are an incredible example of what adventure photo-journalism looked like before Instagram.
I’ll Push You
Very few movies have managed to capture the grittiness of love and sacrifice like I’ll Push You.
The film follows two lifelong friends, Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck, as they make their pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago Cathedral. Their Camino is further complicated by the fact that Justin uses a wheelchair.
The film explores Justin’s rare neurological disease in addition to the true meaning of friendship. It is an intimate portrayal of hope and faith. The movie also does a spectacular job of showcasing the power of community—a famous feature of the Camino.
Even if you watch the Way and still remain skeptical about the magic of the Camino, I’ll Push You will compel you to undertake this ancient pilgrimage. Inspiring and hopeful, it’s among the best documentaries about the Camino, if not the best.
The Way Back
The Way Back is among the most unique hiking movies in the world because its protagonists don’t hike because of their love for outdoor adventures, but because it’s their only way to escape from a remote Siberian labor camp.
In order to break free, Janusz, a Polish POW, and his companions have to hike across a few mountain ranges and hundreds of miles of wilderness. The film showcases the indomitable human spirit, as well as how harsh and cold nature can be.
Into the Wild
Lone wolf hikers can learn a lot from the life story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who decided to trek all the way to the remote mountain ranges of Alaska in order to get away from society.
Along his journey, McCandless met many interesting characters. They fed him, sheltered him, mentored him, gave him clothes, but none of them managed to dissuade him from his mission.
During his life, McCandless went to great lengths to renounce civilization. He got rid of all of his possessions, gave all of his money to charity, and changed his name to Alexander Supertramp. Despite his best efforts, he did not manage to disappear from the maps of memory.
Even though there is very little actually hiking in the movie, Into the Wild undoubtedly deserves a place on our list of the best hiking movies. People who like to go on months-long outdoor adventures to get away from others can learn a lot from the reflective and regretful story of Christopher McCandless.
Honorable Mention: Meru
While it hasn’t made the shortlist as one of the Best Hiking Movies, Meru is definitely worth a watch. This movie documents the first successful climb of the Shark’s Fin route in the Himalayas.
I love hiking. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.