Cliffhangers: 10 Best Hiking & Outdoor Movies

by Hailey Hudson

best outdoor movies
Source: National Geographic/Jimmy Chin / Mongrel Media

What’s the next best thing to experiencing the great outdoors for yourself? Easy — experiencing it through stunning cinematography, killer acting, and inspiring stories on your TV screen.

Lucky for us, there are plenty of fabulous hiking- and outdoors-themed movies out there. From Mount Everest to the Appalachian Trail to the Camino de Santiago, people are always doing amazing, emotional, or otherwise interesting things in the outdoors, and movie directors are always documenting those feats.

We’ve compiled a list of great films you can watch to inspire you to get outside and do something awesome in nature. When it’s too cold and rainy to head outside, grab some popcorn and watch one of our favorite 10 movies about hiking and the great outdoors.

Free Solo

Free Solo

When filmmakers are too terrified to watch the action through their camera lens while the star of the film flirts with death, you know you’re in for an exciting movie.

In Free Solo, a breathtakingly adventurous 2018 documentary, climber Alex Honnold scales El Capitan in the first-ever free solo climb. No ropes, no safety harness, just one man and 3,000 feet of vertical rock — it’s the perfect recipe for a nail-biting, triumphantly emotional biopic.

In addition to chronicling Honnold’s attempt to climb El Cap, the film highlights the relationship between Honnold and his girlfriend, who’s understandably torn between worry and pride. The emotional dynamic between the two adds to the film’s intriguing story, as you find yourself rooting for Honnold’s success while feeling a portion of the fear his loved one’s have for his safety.

With stunning cinematography and an instantly likable protagonist, this movie keeps viewers on the edge of their seats from start to finish.

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A Walk in the Woods

Walk in the Woods

Based on the bestselling memoir by Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods tells the story of a retired travel writer who decides to hike the Appalachian Trail. Starring Robert Bedford and Nick Nolte as the childhood friends who hit the trail, the movie traces their path to adventure as Bryson rediscovers the heart of America after spending decades overseas. 

Fans of the book appreciated the humor that the author included, and the movie doesn’t disappoint in the laugh-out-loud department. It’s a lighthearted and entertaining film that’s free from drama and nail-biting moments — great when you need to just relax on the couch for a couple of hours.

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Into the Wild

Into The Wild

The 2007 adventure film Into the Wild follows college graduate Christopher McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch, as he leaves his family and wealth behind to strike out for the Alaskan wilderness. The two-time Oscar-nominated movie is an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book of the same name. The movie could easily be tragic, but instead, it comes off charming and inspiring.

The movie’s primary message is something that all outdoorsmen know, even if they can’t put it into words: outside, anything can happen. In nature, everything is different. And when you’re on a journey, you might find yourself even if you didn’t think that’s what you were looking for.

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127 Hours

127 Hours

Based on a true story, 127 Hours tells the tale of Aron Ralston (played by James Franco), a mountaineer who is exploring Utah’s canyons when a boulder falls on his arm and traps him. No one knows where he is, and Ralston decides to amputate his own arm so he can attempt to get out of the canyon. Ralston documented his experience in his book Between a Rock and a Hard Place, and the filmmakers drew heavily on the book as they brought his story to life.

After its release in 2010, the movie earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. It might sound like a depressing movie, but it’s not. Instead, it sends the powerful message that there is no force on earth more powerful than the will to live. Ralston embodies this message, and he’s both a character and a person that you can root for and admire.

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The Way

The Way

When doctor Tom Avery’s adult son is killed on the Camino de Santiago, Avery decides to walk the Camino himself carrying his son’s ashes. Along the way, Avery — played by Martin Sheen — meets an eclectic group of fellow pilgrims and they undertake the remainder of the journey together. By the end of the movie, each character emerges from their journey personally transformed.

The Way was directed by Emilio Estevez, Martin Sheen’s son, and was filmed entirely along the actual Camino de Santiago in Spain and France. It’s a story about family, journeys, and how the two connect.

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Based on a true story, Wild follows a woman named Cheryl Strayed who turns to the outdoors when seeking solace after a string of tough events. With nowhere else to turn, she decides to thru-hike the challenging Pacific Crest Trail on her own.

Reese Witherspoon is the star and sole character of this film, as it focuses primarily on Strayed and her journey to find herself on along the trail. Wild showcases a scrappy character who isn’t sure where she’s going, but is determined to get there anyway.

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Another great movie based on a true story, Everest tells the tale of the 1996 Everest Disaster — the deadliest day in Mount Everest climbing history before the catastrophic avalanches in 2014 and 2015. While recounting the harrowing story, the movie vividly displays the dangers of Mount Everest while exploring why people risk their lives to bag the world’s highest peak. 

Released in 2015, Everest features a star-studded cast with Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, and Keira Knightley. The movie feels somewhat like a documentary, with some of the most terrifying moments not coming off as thrilling as they could. The main takeaway from the movie, however, rings true — it takes sacrifice, risk, and determination to reach your dreams.

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The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition

The Endurance

Narrated by Liam Neeson, The Endurance (2001) documents Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica in 1914. Shackleton and his men set off on their ship Endurance ready to explore, but the ship gets caught in ice and the crew becomes stranded in the most inhospitable environment on the planet. Miraculously, they survive over 600 days and eventually are rescued.

The Endurance is a good film to watch together as a family. Human spirit and the will to survive at its finest are on display in this film. It also serves as a powerful message of leadership, with Shackleton taking control of his crew through the harrowing experience. 

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Mile… Mile & A Half

Mile Mile & A Half

Inspired by John Muir’s advice to “wander a whole summer if you can,” five friends took an entire month out of their lives to hike the John Muir Trail. The 2011 documentary Mile… Mile & a Half follows the journey of these artists and explorers across 211 miles from Yosemite to Mount Whitney, an epic adventure that spans 25 days. 

This documentary is all about overused cliche that life’s about the journey, not necessarily the destination. It’s also fun to see their group grow as they meet fellow adventurers on the trail, highlighting the unique camaraderie you find on the trail.

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180° South

180 South

180° South is a documentary discussing a trip that Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins took to Patagonia in 1968. In the film, climber Jeff Johnson retraces the same trip. Johnson is entranced with the tale of the original journey and with Chouinard, a famous rock climber who made his own gear. The shots of Johnson taking the same steps as his heroes are breathtakingly beautiful.

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Hungry for More Adventure Stories?

Check out our list of the 21 best non-fiction adventure books.

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