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Backpacking & Hiking Movies:
Best And Worst

By Diane Spicer

Snow covered mountain rangeThe mountains are calling... and you have a front row seat!

Backpacking and Hiking
Movie Reviews

Backpacking and hiking movies are a great source of inspiration.

And they can be a font of knowledge before you set off into the wild unknown, showing you at a glance what conditions will be like.

To be honest, I don't have a lot of time to watch movies. So I carefully screen them before investing my precious time.

After all, I'd rather be hiking.

Wouldn't you?

But when the weather is uncooperative or you're just in the mood for some hiking related entertainment, a backpacking movie or hiking video might be just the ticket (pardon the poor pun).

Tell It On the Mountain:
Tales from the Pacific Crest Trail

Weird timing, that’s all I can say.

The day I sat down to watch this hiking movie and “met” a guy named Scott Williamson who held the speed record for a PCT thru hike (65 days, 9 hours, 58 minutes with an average of 40.6 miles of hiking per day) is the day that record was reported as shattered in my local newspaper (Seattle Times).

The big news? Josh Garret self-reported an average of (brace yourself) 45 miles a day for 60 days.

Just in case you missed it, let me repeat myself.  

Forty five miles.  

A day.

For 2 months straight.

But there’s even more weirdness to discuss here.  

“Speed” in front of the word “hiker” is too discordant for my brain to wrap itself around.

  • Since when is setting a speed record for hiking a long trail a good thing? Doesn't life go too fast on its own?

So please continue reading in light of my admitted bias. I am not, and have no desire to be, a hurried thru hiker on an American long trail.

Why hike 2600+ miles next summer?

Which brings me to the question I often ponder about the PCT, and which was directly addressed by this hiking movie: Why do human beings thru hike?

Name one other species known to cover huge distances over several weeks or months.

OK, I can name more than one: whales, birds, butterflies, caribou…

And you can probably expand the list.

So are the thru hikers highlighted in this movie compelled by an innate instinct to head north?

Are they migrating?

Tell It On the Mountain: Tales from the Pacific Crest Trail” doesn’t offer this as a possibility to answer the question “Why hike 2600+ miles next summer?”

But it does give other credible answers:

  • to get away from everyday worries and cares,
  • to push the body as far as it can be pushed,
  • to spend unbroken amounts of quality time with a significant other,
  • to carve out time for introspection,
  • to appreciate Mother Nature’s handiwork,
  • to meet other determined hikers (and trail angels), and
  • to blow off some steam after being cooped up at a J.O.B. or educational institution.

Two competing voices as I watched

And while those answers do make sense to me, I still don’t get it.

While watching this hiking movie unfolding before my eyes, there were 2 competing voices in my head.

Voice #1 said things like:

  • Wow, great scenery,
  • lots of freedom,
  • plenty of opportunities to interact with the fickle weather gods,
  • wildlife encounters (albeit sometimes a bit scary, like rattlesnakes and scorpions),
  • strong muscles,
  • pop quizzes on hiking skills (the stream crossings & deep sun cups)."

What’s not to love about hiking movies like this?

Meanwhile, Voice #2 piped up:

  • Did you see how trashed their feet were?
  • Did you notice how much weight/strength they lost?
  • Do you think it’s fun to worry about where your next water source is when it’s over 100F?

And on and on and on until I gave in and appeased Voice #2 by reminding it that I’m not a thru hiker so stop worrying already!

No surprise when Voice #2 resonated deeply with the words of the oldest hiker (paraphrased):

“Savor each unique day. What’s the rush?”

Pure disbelief

So you can imagine my disbelief when one of the featured hikers (Scott, the ex-record holder mentioned above) revealed himself to be a “yoyo” hiker.

Yup, just like it sounds.

After reaching the Canadian border, he rested for less than an hour (I wonder if he even took off his boots to wiggle his toes) and then headed back down the PCT.

He was determined to reach the Mexican border before weather or complete physical collapse stopped him.

Let's do the math here. 2663 miles X 2 without a break = are you kidding??

At that point, I thought to myself “C’mon, buddy. You’ve wrapped yourself in a thought bubble. You’re not experiencing the achingly beautiful wilds you’re rushing through, you’re playing time games.”

As for watching him charge through a forest fire?

  • Judge the sanity of that for yourself.
  • For me, it was truly one of those “you’ve got to see it to believe it” moments in the movie.
  • And not in a good way.

What was enjoyable
in this hiking movie?

OK, time to balance things out.

I appreciate hiking movies in general, but this one in particular for providing the opportunity to follow several hikers as they tackled lofty passes, physical pain and other mental and physical unforeseen challenges.

For the 122 minutes I was watching “Tell It”, I was a thru hiker. The high spirits everyone started off with were contagious.

  • I loved the exuberant “This is gonna be GREAT!” feeling at the start of the adventure.

The movie depicts northbound (NOBO) thruhikers:

  • The stark beauty of the desert, followed by the shady relief of the stream laced forests, culminating in the fantastic mountain passes was brought into (literally) sharp focus for me.

The Sierras are calling to me now, after seeing their mind-blowing gorgeousness!

  • In fact, I went back and looked at the views several times, making notes for future adventures.
  • Tip: That's one way to do reconnaissance for an upcoming backpacking trip. Compare the footage with your topographical maps to calculate distance, elevation gain, and energy expenditure.

I also loved seeing familiar territory captured in all its wild beauty and quirky weather.

  • I live in Washington State, and hike large segments of the PCT each season.
  • But seeing it through new eyes made me appreciate it all the more. 

One trail, infinite possibilities

This movie drove home for me the “one trail, infinite hikes” principle that I love about hiking.

While every pair of boots in this movie traveled over the same dirt/mud/snow/water/rock, every mind-body-spirit hiked a unique PCT hike.

You don't often see this principle highlighted in hiking movies.

Giving the thruhikers their own video cameras and asking them to record their emotions and concerns was brilliant!

  • The hikers freely shared their daily musings via video recordings as they battled heat, thunder storms, high water, deep post holes, diarrhea, and the disappointment of injury on the trail.
  • A few of them also captured the sweetness and solitude of trail time.
  • And underlined this hiking truth: You need to hike your own hike, no matter who you are/ are not with on the trail.

But even in light of all those wonderful things I can say about this movie, I still don’t get it! Why do people thruhike?

Specifically, why hike through sections of the PCT with little payoff and large discomfort?

  • Why not just section hike the parts you’re drawn to?
  • Also called "cherry picking the best".

For me, that would be the high mountain passes.

For others, it might be the stark beauty of the desert, or the rolling foothills. [In fairness, one section hiker was highlighted in the movie.]

And I can’t comprehend the monumental effort it took for some of the hikers to rearrange their lives for 5 months of uninterrupted hiking freedom.

  • Relationships were risked, homes were sold, and jobs were tossed aside.

Was it worth it? Yes, to them it truly was worth the sacrifice.

For me, the rewards of completing a long trail hike do not outweigh the rewards of the hike itself.

I know that bragging rights, a deep sense of satisfaction, and a check mark on your bucket list might tip the balance toward the PCT for you.

And if that describes you, I’m cheering you on. Go for it!

Is it worth the 2 hour time investment?

So would I recommend that you invest 2 hours in this hiking movie before you set off?

Yes, absolutely.

  • The director does a wonderful job of peeking inside the heads of thru hikers.
  • The scenery will whet your appetite for PCT hiking, with special emphasis on the lonesome sections of the High Sierras.
  • Never seen the volcanoes in Washington State? The PCT takes you right through their living rooms!

And if you’ve got a hankering to test your mettle, push yourself mentally, and see how tough your feet are, take notes on “Tell It” prior to setting out on your own PCT adventure.

Just don’t forget that a lot of the fiddly bits of hiking the PCT were alluded to but essentially left out of the movie.

Like what?

Like these:

  • the massive, detailed gear and food preparations including mailing your own supplies and hoping the local post office is open when you arrive,
  • the logistics of getting off -and then back on- the trail at regular intervals to recharge and resupply,
  • the social pressures working against solitude seekers: the requirement of a trail nickname, the crowded southern terminus area, the requests to hike with folks you don't know well.

Other considerations:

  • the hazards of hiking near populated areas for solo female hikers,
  • the effect of wide temperature swings on the human body,
  • the uneven quality & poor markings on the trail itself.

Do you have these PCT skills?

This movie was able to call out some trail skills that are a pre-requisite for safe long trail hiking.

In my mind, no one should head off into PCT-land unless they can:

a) find an obscure route across rock or snow,

b) deal calmly with foot issues such as blisters and infected toes, sketchy stream crossing, huge temperature fluctuations, poor footing on steep slopes, and

c) face the relentlessness of carrying a pack and wearing dirty socks in wet boots while making blood donations to swarms of mosquitoes for days on end.  

If you can claim all these as hiking skills you possess, I look forward to reading about your PCT adventures soon. Be sure to post a report here.

Now go grab this movie!

Tell It On The Mountain

Thanks to Shaun Carrigan for the opportunity to view his work. He did a fantastic job of portraying the motivations and rewards of long trail hiking. It’s clear that he loves hiking, and I hope he has more hiking movies in the works!

And if you can’t clear your schedule to hike the entire PCT, pull out a map and plan some section hiking or trail maintenance next summer. You might bump into me ;)


Trail sign on huge tree trunk

More hiking movies
you might like

There are other movies that depict the realities of the hiking trail for your consideration.

Let's group them into a few categories, to make it easier to select the ones you'd like to watch.

Let it roll, bro

If you're wondering how life would be for weeks on end walking a long trail with your buddy, here's a way to find some answers:

Thruhiker point of view movies

Grim survival movies

Introspection & self examination

Environmental awareness

Which hiking movies
do you recommend?

I'll be sure to give you credit for your useful tips on the best hiking movies. Send them here.

Thanks in advance!

And pass the popcorn...

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