When 32-year-old Robby Huang, a freelance videographer and Zumba instructor in Indianapolis, showed his brother the pilot for a planned YouTube series chronicling his backpacking trips, Huang’s brother said, “Great, but are you sure people are going to want to watch you just out walking?” Four years later, Adventure Archives has 38,000 subscribers who tune in for hourlong videos of Huang and his cousins Bryan and Andrew Lin walking, driving to trailheads, consulting maps, hanging hammocks, cooking, eating, and now and again waxing romantic about nature and solitude—all in high-def 4K resolution with a kind of spa-jazz soundtrack.
Adventure Archives is part of a social-media-era version of outdoor programming you might call normcore bushcraft—regular people broadcasting their decidedly un-extreme outdoorsy exploits. And millions of people are watching, further proof that YouTube has done more to stretch the definition of entertainment than the Roman Colosseum and televised spelling bees. At the heart of the niche are a few bona fide Internet celebs with legions of followers. Seven million subscribe to the Brave Wilderness channel, on which a parade of ornery and venomous animals bite and sting a walking Steve Irwin parody calling himself Coyote Peterson. Nearly five million subscribers Zen out to the silent, anonymous Australian hero of Primitive Technology, who makes huts and stone tools and has earned gushy tributes from the likes of The New York Times for doing something few YouTube hosts seem capable of—shutting the hell up.
Channels like these are a guilty pleasure akin to watching public-access shows on deep cable. Who doesn’t want to see some charismatic jackass get stung by 3,000 bees? This is more or less why YouTube was invented. But during one exceptionally long binge session, I become inexplicably fascinated by woodsy auteurs like Huang and company, ordinary folk intimately documenting their soft adventures. Why do 7,000 people want to watch MartyUpNorth eat pasta out of a pouch during his overnight in Banff? Who has the free time to join Clint and Melody Parker (the State Parkers, an A-plus squad name) repeatedly pausing to adjust and discuss their trekking poles on their way up West Texas’s Guadalupe Peak?
“What you have to remember is that YouTube has a multimillion–dollar audience that just watches people play video games,” explains Thomas Sinard, Adventure Archives’ 24-year-old cocreator and an occasional tagalong hiker. “If people will watch that,” adds Huang, “somebody will watch us hike.” Adventure Archives viewers skew male, ages 18 to 34, says Sinard, and commenters consistently describe the episodes as cathartic and relaxing. “I luv your films so much,” reads one characteristic response. “They’re like therapy sessions.”
Digital catharsis doesn’t come easy, though: the Adventure Archives crew, so busy setting up shots and lugging around 30 pounds of film gear, covers all of four miles a day. Still, I resist the layup critique of such videos’ postmodern absurdity (a wilderness experience for the couch bound, undermined by the very technology used to capture it) if only because, hey, it’s hard to throw stones at earnest people who just want to take you hiking.
I hold my tongue, because five videos deep into the Adventure Archives oeuvre, I am met by a breathtaking shot of a lakeside Yellowstone campsite where I once enjoyed a profoundly memorable wolf sighting. The sun glints over the crest of a hillside shaggy with lodgepoles; in the foreground, the team savors a campfire dinner, and I can almost smell the wood smoke. My cynicism dissolves in a rush of calming endorphins. I think I’ll watch just one more.