In the wake of COVID-19, this year’s thru-hiking season has essentially been canceled, dashing the hopes of many who have spent months and years prepping for their trips. (Not to mention disrupting the plans of those of us who were excited to spend the spring and summer backpacking but have now taken to lacing up our boots only to walk around the neighborhood and setting up tents in our backyards.)
Luckily, there’s an entire ecosystem of thru-hikers who have documented their previous trips through video blogs, uploading them to YouTube as they go or after their feats, either in installments or as mini documentaries. When I started researching this story, I couldn’t fathom how I was going to get through 40-plus hours of watching people navigating dreamy landscapes while I was confined to my house, but I found myself thoroughly entertained and, dare I say, inspired by the virtual adventures I witnessed.
Whether you’re a nature lover looking for a virtual escape, a future thru-hiker using this time to gather some trail intel for 2021, or just tired of watching reruns of Parks and Recreation for the sixth time, this list, pulled from the annals of thru-hiking posted to YouTube, has enough run time and variety to get you through the rest of the pandemic. And if you’re like me, it might even motivate you to take a very long walk when it’s safe to do so again.
Second Chance Hiker
Hike: Pacific Crest Trail, U.S.
Total Run Time: 21 hours and 30 minutes
Watch If: You want an inspirational, feel-good story and have burned through your collection of Lifetime movies
Synopsis: Cory McDonald hardly fits the thru-hiker stereotype. When he set foot on the PCT in January 2019, the former Florida day trader weighed almost 400 pounds. Determined to halve his body size, McDonald committed to finishing the trail despite his health and legions of internet trolls. The trip got off to a bumpy start. The first four days, he only made it a little more than seven miles total (most thru-hikers average 20 miles a day). But nothing seemed to shake McDonald’s spirit, including a helicopter rescue and a nearly hike-ending back injury; he remained relentlessly upbeat and endearing through it all. Almost eight months later (including the time he spent recuperating from his injury), McDonald celebrated with his new love, a German woman nicknamed Little Bee who he met and partnered up with on the trail, at the PCT’s northern terminus at the Canadian border, 100 pounds lighter and immeasurably happier.
Hike: Great Divide Trail, Canada
Total Run Time: 1 hour and 5 minutes
Watch If: You’re inspired by beautiful views and empty spaces more than someone’s personal journey
Synopsis: America’s triple crown gets all the hype, but hiding away across our northern border is a trek that’s arguably more scenic than them all. The Great Divide Trail winds 700 miles through the Canadian Rockies along the Continental Divide, through wildflower-filled meadows and across glaciated peaks. In 2017, Dan Durston and his wife, Tara, became the first people to yo-yo it (hike the trail all the way through, then turn around and head all the way back), logging more than 1,400 miles in about five months. Their video series of the journey is mostly just footage of the couple walking through stunning scenery set to upbeat music, a calming combination that made me temporarily forget about the pandemic. That doesn’t mean Dan and Tara didn’t encounter hardships: you’ll watch them posthole through waist-deep snow, avoid moose and grizzlies, and combat thick swarms of mosquitoes.
Darwin on the Trail
Hike: TGO Challenge, Scotland
Total Run Time: 33 minutes
Watch If: You’re looking for advice and a practical look at trail life, with a backdrop of the Scottish Highlands
Synopsis: “Darwin” is best known for his hikes of the PCT and AT and his ultralight-gear reviews, but his trek across Scotland is by far this vlogger’s most unique adventure. The TGO Challenge is an annual event (named for Scottish magazine The Great Outdoors, which organizes it) that invites experienced hikers to travel from the east to west coasts of Scotland on foot, creating their own route through a combination of roads, trails, and bushwacking. On a 13-day journey in the summer of 2019, Darwin and a group of friends crossed the famed Highlands over rolling hills and farmland, through quaint towns, and up Ben Nevis, the tallest peak in the UK. Offering minimal commentary, this video is somewhat of a departure from Darwin’s normal approach but still features his signature fun and inventive style, with creative camera angles and rousing background music. As a bonus, watch his Q and A about the trip for gear and route recommendations.
A Stray Life
Hike: Te Araroa Trail, New Zealand
Total Run Time: 1 hour
Watch If: You want to tour the most beautiful parts of one of the world’s most beautiful countries—without the 16-hour flight
Synopsis: You’d be hard-pressed to find a more diverse thru-hike than the Te Araroa, which takes trekkers the entire 1,800-mile length of New Zealand through the country’s best natural scenery. In his three-month-long journey, American Danny Strayer goes from sloughing it through the sand of tropical beaches to climbing volcanoes to traversing high passes in the Southern Alps. The views only get more amazing as the series goes on. Strayer’s videos are nothing fancy (he shot the entire trip on an iPhone) and essentially act as a visual trail diary, but the backdrops don’t require much commentary. He doesn’t just show the good; you’ll hear him talk about aching feet and boredom, endless river crossings, and escaping freezing rain and snow. In that way, he manages to capture both sides of New Zealand’s landscape: the beauty and the wildness.
Trail: Camino de Santiago, France and Spain
Total Run Time: 3 hours
Watch If: You want to see a hardened thru-hiker out of her element
Synopsis: The affable Alabaman known as “Dixie” is no stranger to hardship: she’s completed the AT, the CDT, and the PCT. So walking Camino Frances, one of the seven routes of the well-known Camino de Santiago, was more for fun than the challenge. For this video, she traded ridgelines for idyllic castles, quick water-bottle baths for nightly hot showers, and lumpy oatmeal for a daily pastry and cup of coffee. Still, Dixie’s sharp eye for production and her snappy sense of humor made this by far the most entertaining of the trail videos I watched. She manages to make the mundanities of being on trail—from roadside cows to a slug crawling over an orange peel—interesting, her narration peppered with southern slang. For Dixie (who had never before left the U.S.) and her 19-year-old sister, Montana (who had barely left Alabama), the experience was also a grand cultural adventure, and watching the sisters laugh their way through language barriers and confusing light switches was a happy flashback to my first time abroad. As Montana says, she’s “in it for the wine,” and the series acts as a fruity glass of red: it goes down smooth, provides a bit of a buzz that helps you temporarily forget the state of the world, and makes it easier to sleep at night.
Fight for Together
Trail: Appalachian Trail, U.S.
Total Run Time: 1 hour
Watch If: Your kids are complaining about how hard life is in quarantine
Synopsis: The eight-member Crawford family, with kids ranging in age from 2 to 16, dealt with some challenges that went beyond the norm of what other thru-hikers experience, including having child protective services called on them. The family decided to embark on the journey after 16 years of dreaming, finally deciding to take the leap before their oldest finished high school. In the end, the fact that the entire clan managed to make it to the terminus of the 2,200-mile slog at Maine's Mount Katahdin is remarkable. You could watch all 137 individual episodes of their trip, but I’d opt for the hourlong YouTube documentary, which stitches the best bits together and improves the production value with drone shots and virtual trail maps.
Trail: Continental Divide Trail, U.S.
Total Run Time: 7 hours and 15 minutes
Watch If: You want to feel like you’re viewing an action movie instead of just a guy walking for hours on end
Synopsis: “Famous” frames his 3,000-mile journey from Mexico to Canada like an epic video game. His 31-part series begins and ends with stats about his “mission,” while dramatic rock music sets the tone for sweeping Rocky Mountain vistas. Famous starts off fairly reserved, with most of his commentary simply narrating his trek. But as time goes on, he begins to open up a bit more to the camera, revealing his backstory (he quit his job and sold his house in Detroit to pursue his dream of living out west), his sense of humor (dad jokes are plentiful), and the emotional toll of the trail. By the finale, I found myself rooting for him to finish the trek as much as I cheered for John Wick to get revenge for his dog. Overall, this is the embodiment of a classic thru-hiking vlog: minimal frills, dramatic views, and plenty of improvisation.
Trail: Great Himalaya Trail, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet
Total Run Time: TBD (as it’s still ongoing); 2 to 10 minutes for each release
Watch If: You’re the type of masochist who prefers a series that’s released over time rather than binge-watching the entire thing at once
Synopsis: The 2,800-mile Great Himalaya Trail makes the other treks on this list look like a stroll in the woods. The most challenging stretch, the High Route section across Nepal, winds 869 miles through its namesake mountain range, reaching elevations of over 20,000 feet, with an average change of about 5,200 feet a day. There are whole sections with no markers, requiring GPS and a good map to navigate, and completing the trek involves mountaineering skills in addition to regular thru-hiking chops. Relative to other routes, very few people attempt this, and even fewer vlog about it. One of the only complete recordings out there is from a British trekker named Dave Brophy, who is still releasing daily videos documenting his five-month experience on the Nepalese portion of the trail in 2019 (as of publication, 75 of 154 are available). His format is simple: a raw, no-frills record of what he was thinking and feeling each day. So far there’s plenty of drama to keep things exciting beyond the views, including Brophy losing the trail amid waist-deep snow and a helicopter rescue from a remote Himalayan valley.