Sometimes we all need a bit of vicarious adventure, and the documentaries in this list will not disappoint. From whitewater paddling to long-distance hiking to traveling around the world, we’ve got it all in this collection of documentaries that are sure to inspire you to get outside and do something amazing or just appreciate the natural beauty of the world.
1. Under an Arctic Sky
Available on Netflix or on YouTube for $3.99
This documentary follows six surfers as they seek out new waves in the remote seas near Iceland. Adventure photographer Chris Burkard and filmmaker Ben Weiland document the surfers as they charter a boat out of Isafjordur, right as the largest storm in 25 years is poised to make landfall.
They know the storm will bring a killer swell, but it ultimately proves too dangerous and forces them back to shore, where they continue their quest for the perfect wave via car. Surfing in Icelandic seas in the dead of winter might not sound like fun to most people, but these guys thrive on the adrenaline of the hunt for the best wave in the world.
Burkard and Weiland make an incredible documentary team, and the footage of these wild exploits is unparalleled.
2. Only the Essential: Pacific Crest Trail Documentary
This incredible documentary follows Casey Gannon and Colin Arisman as they hike 2,668 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail. Their thru-hike spans five months and three states as they trek from Mexico to Canada. The video footage is entirely taken by the hikers themselves, giving you an up-close and personal look at what it takes to hike this gnarly trail.
Only the Essential won several awards at film festivals across the country. If you need some motivation to get up and get moving, this is the ticket.
3. High Sierra – A Journey on the John Muir Trail
Another hiking documentary, this film covers a group of students who trek the entire 220 miles of the John Muir Trail. The trail takes the four boys up and over the tallest mountain range in the lower 48, and the film documents the emotional and physical challenges that such a trail involves.
The students also interview Yosemite Park Ranger Shelton Johnson, who gives a poignant reflection of the trail.
4. Into the Great Solitude
This hour-long vintage documentary covers Robert Perkins’ 72-day solo canoe trip in the Canadian Arctic. Perkins fights rough seas, black flies, and other physical hardships while also reflecting on his inner demons and his tumultuous relationship with his father.
5. Broken Down: My True Story of Getting Lost in the Wilderness
This documentary is somewhat off the wall: filmmaker Gabriel attempts to drive out to a remote backpacking spot in Northern California, only for his truck to break down. He manages to get a tow out of the backcountry, but then a series of unfortunate events unfold, and he is left hiking miles and miles with no sign of his truck.
It’s a combination of reality TV and YouTube documentary!
6. The Last Descent
This documentary takes us along on a year-long adventure with a team of whitewater paddlers. In the face of impending dams and hydroelectric projects, the group sets out to get in one last descent on some of the most beautiful and dangerous rivers in the world: the Marsyangdi River in Nepal, the White Nile River in Uganda, and the Brahmaputra River in India.
The paddlers lament the prospect of the dams and hope to draw attention to the destruction of indigenous cultures that would result from damming these rivers as well as the indelible alternation of such incredible rivers and landscapes.
This film is equal parts environmentalism and adventure and is sure to inspire you.
7. Beyond Ability
Survivor-esque reality TV meets marathon running in this documentary about 50-year-old Mark Wheeler, who completed the Fuego Y Agua Survival Run in Nicaragua in 2015. Two days later, he completed another equally difficult race to earn himself the title of completing the “Devil’s Double.” This race has an outrageous attrition rate, with only 5% of participants actually finishing it.
Mark is part of that elite group, and this documentary shows his trials and tribulations. You almost can’t help but feel lazy just watching this guy!
8. 200 Days – A Trip Around the World Travel Film
This husband and wife travel duo went on an incredible, wanderlust-inspiring trip around the world, hitting 17 countries in 200 days. Their beautiful footage makes me want to pack my bags immediately! This documentary is more of a montage of all the amazing things they did and places they went, but if you are looking for some quick travel inspo, this is the film for you.
9. The Terrifying Art of Free Solo Slacklining – Untethered
This documentary takes a look at an arguably insane group of guys who take the camp pastime of slacklining to another level: extremely high and with no safety harness. If they fall and don’t catch the line, they die. My hands are sweating throughout this whole film, but these are some incredible athletes who are taking their sport to the next level in some supremely beautiful locations.
10. Zion – Rock of Refuge
The incredible hikes and big wall climbs in Zion National Park are relatively well-known, but there’s a new sport making a splash: canyoneering. This documentary delves into the sport and highlights Zion as one of the best places in the world for exploring technically tricky slot canyons.
No matter your skill level, there’s a canyoneering adventure available for you – from guided walking tours up The Narrows to extreme canyoneering adventures that require tons of specialized gear and know-how. The potential for dangerous flash flooding adds a little spice to this relatively new sport.
11. Himalayan Motorcycle Adventure
This nearly two-hour documentary follows a group of motorcycle riders as they adventure into the deep northern reaches of India. Two Indian riders guide two Australians and a German as the crew explores the Ladakh area and the Himalayas. Despite distressingly narrow roads and occasional tight squeezes with buses, the group successfully navigates around rural and city areas, capturing incredible footage.
12. The Limbless Mountaineer
After a harrowing mountaineering disaster 14 years ago, Jamie lost his hands and feet to frostbite. In the years since his injury, Jamie has set ever-increasing goals for himself – from the basics like walking and running to then rock climbing, snowboarding, and more.
He is definitely not letting the fact that he doesn’t have hands or feet slow him down, as he sets his sights on climbing the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. This incredible story of perseverance and overcoming extreme hardship will motivate you out of any slump to pursue your goals.
13. Walking Home
This film combines two parts of a documentary about the Appalachian Trail. It begins with a father and son team as they embark on their thru-hike of the AP from Georgia to Maine, and grows to encompass several Maine hikers as they all strive to complete the 2,200-mile trail.
Throughout the two-hour film, the hikers test their endurance, experience self-discovery and self-doubt, and have one of the most epic adventures of their lives as they pound out 5 million steps along the oldest mountain range in the world.
14. Chasing Bubbles
Alex Rust, a thoroughly inexperienced sailor, decides at the age of 25 to leave the midwest and attempt to circumnavigate the globe with his buddies in a 39-foot sailboat. Shenanigans predictably ensue, and this beautifully edited video documents the most ballsy sailor as he processes the death of his father and pursues meaning in his life.
Alex gave up a life as a stock trader in Chicago to chase this beautiful crazy dream.
Now It’s Time to Test YOUR Comfort Zone!
There’s no doubt that outdoor adventure nourishes the soul and stimulates the brain, whether you are walking in a park or attempting to sail around the world with no experience. Sometimes watching the exploits of others is a powerful catalyst to get yourself outdoors and push the edges of your comfort zone.
The videos on this list are chosen for their inspirational potential and beautiful footage, and we hope that you have enjoyed this wide selection!
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Cat is originally from Seattle, WA but has traveled around the US and Canada full-time in a self-converted school bus with her boyfriend Aaron since April of 2018. She enjoys rock climbing, paddleboarding, hiking, and generally being outdoors!