A Soundtrack for the Emotional Roller Coaster of Thru-Hiking

Music is a thing for me. It stirs my emotions and motivates me when I’m feeling lazy. Who hasn’t heard a song on the radio that feels like it was written about your life? Who doesn’t have an easier time exercising to a good thumping beat? Just as important as finding the right gear is crafting a good playlist.

My last great adventure was hiking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Leading up to that trip I was obsessed with this song:

It’s easy to visualize yourself climbing endless stairs, gaining 4,800 feet in elevation, and pulling yourself up the cables at the top with this tune playing as the soundtrack to the scene in your mind.  It’s easy to get in Sierra Nevada-hiking shape on a boring treadmill with these lyrics in your ear:

“I’m gonna place my bet on every step I take
Go tell everyone under the sun
I’m on my way

And if I hit rock bottom
I’m gonna smile and dance with every step I take
Go tell everyone under the sun
I’m on my way”


getting my game face on at Half Dome

It’s a bit harder to visualize one song that can encompass all the feels that are going to be had while on the AT. Instead, here are the best songs I can think of for the variety of emotions and situations I will inevitably be overcome by (applicable to non-trail life as well):

AT Thru-Hike: The Soundtrack


For when it’s warm and sunny outside and you remember you don’t have to spend the day indoors at your desk. For when the incline looked horrible from a distance, but is actually not so bad. For spectacular sunsets. For panoramic views and Instagram-able photos. For Trail Angels and new friends. For s’mores (or, more likely, nips of bourbon) by the campfire. For when friends come meet you along the way. For every new peak you ascend.

“I turn the music up, I got my records on
I shut the world outside until the lights come on
Maybe the streets alight, maybe the trees are gone
I feel my heart start beating to my favourite song

And all the kids they dance, all the kids all night
Until Monday morning feels another life
I turn the music up
I’m on a roll this time
And heaven is in sight”


For when it’s rained all day. And it rained all day yesterday and it looks like it’s going to rain all day tomorrow. For when your hands and feet are numb in your sleeping bag. For when you’re hungry, and you hate all of the food you have with you. For when you have to hike an extra mile for water. For when you’re already exhausted and lonely (and it’s probably raining again) that last tiny little thing happens that sends you over the edge. For when every step hurts and you just want to go home.

“I’ve been trying to fix my pride
But that shit’s broken, that shit’s broken
Lie (lie, lie), lie, l-lie, I try to hide
But now you know it
That I’m at an all time
Low, low, low, low, low, low, low, low, low”


For when you happen upon Trail Magic in the middle of the woods. For the first time you see a bear, moose, wild pony or porcupine. For when the last 7 miles have been full-on in the green tunnel, but you come around a bend to wide open vista. For when you meet up with friends you last saw a state ago. For when you come up to the 1,000-mile marker or realize you just walked through an entire state. For when you see what you are capable of.

“I kinda feel like I feel like I saw the light
You got me way up a thousand miles
Can we stay right here in this atmosphere
Like we’re flying in outer space

Don’t look down
Up this high, we’ll never hit the ground
Don’t look down
See that sky?
We’re gonna reach it now”


For when your pack straps keep blowing into your face. For when you zip your rain jacket or sleeping bag into the zipper and can’t get it out for the life of you. For when the mountains never end. For when you get off trail and have to back-track half a mile. For when your gear tears or breaks, or your water filter clogs. For when you’ve hiked 20 miles, it’s getting dark, your headlamp batteries are dying, and you can’t find the shelter. For when you set up your stove and don’t have enough fuel to cook. For when you are frustrated and dirty and all you want is a hot shower.

“I bleed it out digging deeper
Just to throw it away
I bleed it out

I’ve opened up these scars
I’ll make you face this
I’ve pulled myself so far
I’ll make you face this now!”


For when you miss a birthday, anniversary, Fourth of July BBQ, or beach weekend with your friends. For when you haven’t encountered anyone else on the trail for a day and a half. For when you’re alone in a shelter at night. For when you wonder what this time away will do to the romantic relationship you left behind. For when it feels like you’re the last person on Earth, and you can’t remember why you’ve willingly left everyone who knows and cares for you. For when you feel like life is going on without you.

“Be my friend, hold me
Wrap me up, unfold me
I am small, and needy
Warm me up, and breathe me

Ouch, I have lost myself again
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found,
Yeah I think that I might break
Lost myself again, and I feel unsafe”


For the first morning you wake up without having been afraid the night before. For hiking in the dark. For when it starts to feel routine and easier. For when you tell someone you’re a thru-hiker, and you actually believe it. For when something breaks or tangles or just doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, and you don’t get anxious. For when you’re comfortable, really comfortable, hiking your own hike, even if it means leaving people behind. For when you know you’re going to make it to Katahdin.

“Oh, it’s just me, myself and I
Solo ride until I die
Cause I got me for life

Oh I don’t need a hand to hold
Even when the night is cold
I got that fire in my soul”


For late at night when you don’t know what’s rustling outside your tent. For a sudden summer thunderstorm and you’re stranded on a ridge. For when it’s obvious that nature is far more powerful than you are. For people who make you uncomfortable. For when you feel small and powerless. For your first few steps and coming to terms with the long road that lies ahead of you. For having only yourself and your shaky confidence to rely on.

“And every demon wants his pound of flesh
But I like to keep some things to myself
I like to keep my issues strong
It’s always darkest before the dawn

Shake it out, shake it out,
Shake it out, shake it out”


For when the day is sunny and mild. For when you feel great and you’re just trekking. For mornings when you find you can’t stop smiling simply because you’re outside with a warm cup of coffee in your hands. For clean laundry and hot showers. For all-you-can-eat buffets. For flat, lush, easy miles. For having no reason to know or care what day of the week it is. For feeling like this is what life is all about.

“I said, I wanna touch the earth
I wanna break it in my hands
I wanna grow something wild and unruly
I wanna sleep on the hard ground
In the comfort of your arms
On a pillow of blue bonnets
In a blanket made of stars
Oh, it sounds good to me”


And lastly, for when you just need a confidence boost and a reminder that you made the right decision. (Apologies in advance — cheese factor is high with this one.)

“If you’re lost out where the lights are blinding
Caught in all, the stars are hiding
That’s when something wild calls you home, home
If you face the fear that keeps you frozen
Chase the sky into the ocean
That’s when something wild calls you home, home”

What are your favorite motivational songs? Have recommendations for my AT playlist? Drop me a comment! 

More to come, and happy hiking….



*The title image, taken by adietel, is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Comments 5

  • J. Ford : Dec 9th

    Sure it’s a cliche, but on days when you’ve hit your stride and then realize you still have a long way to go.
    Running on Empty – Jackson Browne

    • Shani : Dec 12th

      Great recommendation!

  • Jessica C Cheatha : Dec 19th

    Do you happen to have your entire playlist set up on Youtube, and if so, would you mind sharing the link? Thanks in advance!

  • Jessica Cheatham : Dec 19th

    Do you happen to have your entire playlist set up on Youtube, and if so, would you mind sharing the link? Thanks in advance!

  • elizabeth : Apr 19th

    this list makes me so happy and i cannot wait to listen to them all in exactly these moments. also, i always knew we were much the same, many of these are my go-tos in the same worlds. xoxox SO PROUD OF YOU


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