Making a Thru-Hiking Documentary – Behind the Scenes
When I’m old, dying in my warm bed, thinking about my life complete so soon, when all that remains is a flash flood of moments and images of people I loved and vignettes of adventures, at least I’ll have this to remember.
I wrote these words before my Appalachian Trail thru-hike and before I ventured into 2,000-plus miles, camera in hand, trying to make… something.
Completing a thru-hike is hard. Making a quality film is hard. Making a quality film while thru-hiking? Damn near impossible. It’s imperative to remember that near is the operative word here because it is possible.
The miles re-walked back to your camera to get that perfect walk-away footage, your incessant need to keep your equipment dry, falling out of a beautiful moment to try and capture a shot, the fact that your camera gear is one more thing you must remember not to lose, and of course the extra weight… oh, the extra weight.
When all that’s said and done and you look back at those images sealed in time, a gift your past you has given a now old, once-was hiker warm in their bed, you realize that it was all so very worth it.
For research, both on filming the AT and simply hiking it, I watched dozens of thru-hiking documentaries. I flew through them—they were riveting. Each had an inherent personal feel to it, like I was right there with this piece of hiker trash, traipsing through the wilderness alongside them, a fly clinging to their abhorrent, pungent aroma.
It seemed there were two types of documentary. One was a quality piece of art made by either a filmmaker only doing part of the trail or by a filmmaker following a thru-hiker around. The other was a true thru-hike documentary made by a hiker with a cell phone capturing witty and heartfelt selfie footage.
I wondered why I never came across a quality thru-hike documentary made by that rare hiker/filmmaker hybrid. The answer, I’d soon find out, was because it was damn near impossible. And it was exactly what I was setting out to do. I’ll let the audience decide whether or not I was successful in my endeavor. For all those even considering making their own cinematic adventure, here’s how I made my Appalachian Trail documentary series… PACK & SOUL.
So what do I need? The first challenge was the acquisition of equipment. The good news is that we’ve come a long, long way in lightweight, affordable, quality cameras. The bad news is that there are almost too many options for lightweight, affordable, quality cameras.
Sifting through all of them is a strenuous and tedious chore, especially if you’re like me. I was working on a true thru-hiker’s budget and simply could not “get got” by anything less than a perfect bargain.
For my money, a mirrorless camera was the way to go. Each brand has its own line of mirrorless beasts, and every year they compete with one another to produce something even more stunning than their competitor. Here’s my final list of camera gear:
- Camera: Sony a6400 w/ kit lens 16-50mm – $847
- Extra Lens: 7artisans photoelectric 35mm f/1.2 Lens – $145
- Sound: Rode VideoMicro – $59
- Batteries: (5) – 1 Sony (came with camera) / 2 Neewer / 2 Wasabi – $55
- SD Cards: (4) SanDisk Extreme Pro: (3) 64GB, (1) 128GB – $89
- SD Memory Card Holder: Honsky – $10
- External Charger: Anker Powercore 20100 mAh – $45
- Camera Bag: Eagle Creek Wayfinder Waistpack – $40
- Camera Strap Clip: Peak Design Capture – $69
- ND Lens Filter: Gobe 40.5mm ND2-400 (2Peak) – $37
- Camera Adaptor: SmallRig Left Side Cold Shoe Adapter Relocation Plate – $20
- Camera Wrist Strap: OP/Tech USA – $9
- Screen Protector: (Generic Brand) – $14
- Tripod: (Plastic + IPhone adaptor) – $20
- Cleaner: Lens Air Bulb – $6
- Weatherproofing: Rain Sleeve Cover – $7
- Weatherproofing: Little Silica Gel Packets for Moisture – Free
Grand Total: $1,472
Remember, this included hours upon hours of research to arrive at the best combo of price, quality, and weight. Still want to make a quality thru-hiking documentary? Let’s continue.
What the heck is this documentary going to look like? I spent a considerable amount of time deliberating this obvious but often overlooked aspect. I could do anything. I could make myself the star or leave myself out completely. I could focus on nature or my fellow hikers. I could tell the story chronologically or make it Pulp Fiction Part Two. I could even make it a cartoon and voiceover the whole thing if I wanted.
After months of consideration, I knew full well that the vast majority (if not all) of the shots I’d get would happen spontaneously. However, I decided to write out a script of possible events with the feelings I wanted to convey at certain points. Some of them even ended up in the final cut.
How do you… you know… actually do it? After speaking with countless documentary filmmakers for their advice, I ultimately decided to film absolutely everything, including before I left for my hike and after I came back. I’d work out the true flow of the footage in post-production.
I was on a mission to get every shot I could, but it was imperative for me to be a hiker first. I wasn’t going to sacrifice my thru-hike experience for footage. In fact, I actually believed that a “hiker-first mentality” would eventually lead to more organic and interesting interactions and results.
This was never clearer than when I met a lady who experienced tragedy on the trail the prior year. As she opened herself up and allowed vulnerability to seep through every pore, there was simply no way I could pick up my camera and betray her trust by filming her. On top of that, I was honored to be fully present with her. It was exactly what thru-hikes are made of. I couldn’t betray my own experience either.
Turns out, remaining completely engrossed in the moment, then filming myself talking about that interaction later on, made for a captivating part of the series. It reiterated what I already knew: stay true to yourself and to others. Don’t sell out for a shot. The trail will provide.
I’ll be honest. For the first few weeks on trail, in terms of filmmaking, I sucked. I was an infant learning how to walk. I was terribly shy asking people if I could film them. I missed interesting happenings and filmed mundanity. I had no clear vision of what I wanted or how to make it happen.
Looking back, however, this is exactly what needed to occur. The filmmaking was mirroring my experiences on trail. The discomfort and disorientation at the start of a thru-hike are palpable. Everyone on trail, even experienced hikers, are new recruits finding their footing. And even after a few weeks, we’re still only teenagers whose voices are cracking and growing hair and acne in weird places. We may look like adults, but we certainly are not.
So what did I do as a filmmaker? The same thing I did as a hiker: persevere. You don’t have to worry about getting to Maine, you just have to worry about that next step right in front of you. Adages galore. You come up with a plethora of trail advice perfectly transferable to “real life,” use it.
As I continued on, the filming made more sense. I felt more comfortable asking hikers for their stories. I leaned into the uncertainty of the day and what shots it would bring.
Even the technical aspects started to work better. I knew how long my batteries would last and how much space my SD cards would hold. I figured out a way to dump footage onto a computer, load it to an online platform, then safely delete the footage from my SD cards to get as many shots as my smelly little heart desired. I learned the intimacies of my camera, getting out of her everything I desired.
Filming in nature is tough. Lighting shifts and the wilderness produces sounds that don’t care about the 1st AD yelling “quiet on set.” There’s no “back to one.” Everything simply happens, and you either get the shot or you don’t. And from that I learned one very important technique, just keep it rolling.
On and on I traversed, and better and better the footage looked. I was getting stronger in every way. Dare I say it was even getting easy. And then, at 1,500 miles in, something occurred to me. I needed to slow down.
I thought about my favorite parts of the trail and the best footage I had, and they always coincided with a moment of pause. One of the best parts of filming a thru-hike is it allows you to take a breath.
Every thru-hiker knows that feeling of being in the zone, charging forward, head down, lost in your thoughts, mile after mile after mile. On the AT, I called it “Maine Brain.” Ten or 12 hours can pass without admiring a single view, having a real conversation with a fellow human, or even enjoying where you are at that very moment. In “real life,” it’s like driving somewhere on autopilot without remembering the trip.
This mode is an absolute necessity for the completion of a thru-hike, but I would not let it dominate the experience. When I was filming, I was admiring. So I vowed that for the last 700 miles, any time I felt like it, I’d stop, film, and enjoy.
Finally, Katahdin was in sight and everything shifted. Reflections became a daily occurrence. A pensive awareness of my mortal trail-life overflowed my being. I kept thinking about how I had just started getting good at this. My body was a machine. My filmmaking abilities were sharpened to a point. And suddenly, it was almost over.
Struggling to hold onto any semblance of that glorious existence is cumbersome. The goal from the very beginning was to get to Maine. Now, every step I took brought me not only closer to my goal, but closer to the end of my magical journey. And once again, the mirror presented itself shiny and clear. The footage was resembling the experience.
Long, drawn-out shots of nostalgia replaced the anxious staccato footage of the start. I was reciting Shakespeare and filming the foliage shift to the glorious shades of fall. And just like a rushed dream, my girlfriend met me at Baxter State Park, I proposed to her, we summited Katahdin together, then drove from Maine back home to Los Angeles. It was over.
Great, I have hours and hours of precious footage. Now what? Terrified that I’d somehow accidentally delete the footage, I immediately uploaded everything to an online platform and backed it up on an external drive. Then, I sat on it for weeks. The behemoth that lay in front of me was somehow more terrifying than the trail itself.
What if I messed it up? What if I look back on my experience and it wasn’t how I remembered it? Up until that point, everything had worked out. I had done exactly what I had set out to do. What if I ruined it?
One morning, I went for a run on Venice Beach, let the cool crisp air hit me in the face, and remembered one of those trail adages: If you’re too busy staring at that daunting mountain way down trail, you’ll trip on the little twigs right in front of you. So I jumped in the ocean, took a shower, then sat at my computer and went through each and every clip for a week straight.
It was beautiful. Reliving all of those moments I’d let escape my mind was a godsend. Every morsel of post-trail blues dissipated and was replaced with satisfaction and contentment. For the next full year, I sculpted PACK & SOUL.
It turned out that the footage from each specific part of the trail brought with it a distinct feeling. There were pure and genuine ebbs and flows in conflict and emotion. I had every intention of making a 90-minute film. However, it took the outside eyes of my brother/producer to point out that these natural breaks made for a perfect seven-episode, 30-minute-per-episode structure. I fought it hard. But I soon realized, once again, how the trail is always right, and I succumbed.
An entire year passed, and I was still editing. From accumulating releases from everyone I filmed to sound/color/music to whittling away at shots I thought were perfect only for audiences to think they were subpar, the entire experience was every bit as difficult as the thru-hike.
Thank God I had two of my brothers to help me, and even still, this was an absolute beast to manage. But somehow, just as I sauntered into Baxter State Park after 2,193 miles over four-and-a-half months, my Appalachian Trail documentary was suddenly and definitively summited.
Finding a Home for Your Baby
How do I find a platform for a dream I’ve had since I was ten years old? Most every documentary about the Appalachian Trail is on YouTube. This is, of course, the most accessible avenue for content. It’s where I watched the vast majority of hiking documentaries before I left.
I was hoping, however, that I could distinguish mine from the others. In my grandiose dreams, PACK & SOUL would be the quintessential Appalachian Trail documentary. So in searching for a home, I wanted it to have the best mix of accessibility to viewers and the ability to be compensated for the unbelievable amount of effort I put in. The compensation would not solely be mine, however. I feel I owe a debt to the AT and her community. I believe it is crucial to give back to the trail with the funds made on the film.
The series can be watched on Vimeo On Demand, where viewers can pay a small fee to rent or buy the content. And with each purchase, a portion of the profits is given back to trail organizations and conservation efforts. Documentary+ is a free service that hosts absolutely breathtaking documentaries. I’m honored that PACK & SOUL will soon be available on their platform as well.
I truly hope people become inspired when watching the series, just like I’ve been by others’ work. I hope we’re able to contribute thousands of dollars to trail organizations for the next generation of hikers. I hope past and current hikers watch this and smile as they’re reminded of their own experiences.
But if nothing else comes from PACK & SOUL, if it never turns into the quintessential Appalachian Trail documentary, at the very least I can die warm and content in my bed, remembering the adventure of a lifetime, through the footage that mirrored it so perfectly.
If you want to make a documentary about your thru-hike, all you have to do is take the first step, then another, then five million more. And remember, if you can’t carry it in your pack or in your soul, you don’t need it.
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Sounds about right to Me Brother , Great job ?
I haven’t seen Pack and Soul yet, but you deserve congrats for your efforts, regardless of how it turns out. Others have attempted to do what you’ve done and have succeeded in varying degrees (spoiler: I was the first filmmaker to walk the trail with a movie camera – in 1984). I’ve always said there’s room for plenty of documentaries on the AT, as long as they’re of high quality. I still believe that. I carried 16mm film equipment the length of the Appalachian Trail, then spent the next eight years editing and trying to raise the money ($24,000 in 1992 dollars) to complete North to Katahdin on the Appalachian Trail. The award-winning film was released in 1992, a few years after Lynne Whelden completed Five Million Steps (which by the way was shot in super 8 film. Whelden started work on his film a couple of years AFTER I did, and he finished before. He didn’t carry his camera for over 2,000 miles, so his was a different experience, but a very worthwhile one. Best of luck to you. I look forward to watching Pack and Soul.
Terrific Nick. Can’t wait to watch it.
Love to see your video but for some reason it doesn´t accept my credit card nor paypal. Would be a good piece to look at before my two week through hike through the Alps this summer. I want to document that hike with camera and drone