Thru-Hiking’s Socialist Ethos

The year 1875 was an eventful one. It was the year in which Karl Marx, the father of communism, brought to prominence the old saying “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” It was also a year in which John Muir found himself embedded among the Sequoias of Yosemite doing some of the most important natural surveys of his career.

But the convergence of socialist ideas and the land on which thru-hikers tread is not merely a coincidence of time. There are cultural ties to be found between the socialist movement and the hardcore hiking movement, a marriage that feels important to understand today.

The basics

Lake at Muir Pass, PCT

To understand the link here, I think it’s important to first understand some basic tenets of socialism:

  1. The prioritization of people and the public good over corporate profit,
  2. A commitment to the above quote from Marx; i.e., the responsibility of those with to lift those without until true equality exists, and
  3. The right of workers to own their own labor.

While John Muir was not an avowed socialist, he nevertheless found himself defending that first principle in 1897. That year, Muir saw his friendship with Gifford Pinchot (whose namesake forest PCT hikers traverse in Washington) end bitterly over a public lands dispute. Pinchot believed that outdoor conservation efforts should focus on managing natural resources for long-term commercial use, while Muir saw them as an inherent end that should be preserved for their own sake and the public’s. Prioritizing the ecological, spiritual, and community value of the natural world over the profit to be milked from it was a lifelong project of Muir’s, a battle still being fought worldwide today.

But John Muir, for all his accomplishments, was just one man. So what does socialism have to do specifically with the world of thru-hiking?

Where values meet action

It comes down to the place where values meet action on the need/have axis. The thru-hiking community is a unique amalgamation of people from every walk of life, and the approaches to completing a thru-hike are as varied as the hikers themselves. But at the core of the community is a sensibility that seems to run counter to our national culture of cold, utilitarian Protestantism. It is one, fundamentally, of taking care of one’s fellow hikers on trail, no matter what.

Ask any past thru-hiker about the people they met along the way, and you’ll be flooded with stories of community and care that have little to do with friendship or utility. Thru-hikers are taken care of by other thru-hikers and trail angels simply because they are human beings, not because they’ve passed a means test or even achieved anything in particular. My own journey was littered with experiences of PCTers sharing food, fuel, and even gear with others who had less or none.

To wit: Three days from Vermillion Valley Ranch, a group I was with teamed up to feed, give medicine to, and share trekking poles with another hiker we’d just met who’d fallen in a creek and lost most of what he had. He was no friend of ours; he met no requirement for our resources other than that he had less and we had more. It was never even a question: we helped. Another hiker I met gave two of his three liters of water to a struggling dude who had misread the water report and was going to be without a drop for the next 18 miles of desert otherwise. So it goes.

A radical vision of caring

trees in burned forest

It’d be easy to write off my designation, I know–since when do basic human kindness and self-sacrifice equal socialism? But these incidents are a microcosm of the thru-hiking community as a whole, one which is predicated on communal living, communal success, and communal care.

From where does this radical vision of caring come? (And make no mistake–in our world, it is radical.) Is it because on trail the fact that we live in a difficult and dangerous world becomes that much more apparent? Is it that thru-hiking is neither a race nor a competition, so there’s nothing to incentivize leaving a fellow hiker behind? Is it that the outdoor community, from thru-hikers to whitewater raft guides, is naturally predisposed to a more gentle and thoughtful way of living?

Whatever the reason, the ideals of common contribution to the common good are alive and well on America’s thru-hiking trails. The Pacific Crest Trail itself is maintained by the good graces of volunteers and donors, many of whom are former thru-hikers themselves. They’ve claimed stewardship–not ownership–over these important public lands to ensure their long-term viability, Muir-style. Adherents to Leave No Trace principles abound on America’s trails, too, a sign that hikers have committed themselves to long-term preservation of the wilderness rather than single-use exploitation of it. It is telling that the PCT permit doesn’t cost a cent; in theory, this unique and gorgeous bit of Americana is open to absolutely everyone.

No escape from politics

There are undoubtedly breaks in the chain that connect socialism and the great outdoors, the cultural shift toward ultra-expensive ultra-light gear being just one signifier that capitalism is alive and well in the hardcore hiking community. (It is easier, as the saying goes, to envision the end of the world than it is to envision the end of capitalism.) Many people will balk at the claim strictly on principle; thru-hiking, they might well maintain, should be an escape from politics rather than a conduit for understanding politics.

But it was no less a politician than Teddy Roosevelt who once said of the purpose of National Parks system, “It is the preservation of the scenery of the forests and the wilderness game for the people as a whole, instead of leaving the enjoyment thereof to be confined to the very rich.” Roosevelt, a trust-buster and champion outdoorsman, understood well what consequences could be wrought by unchecked capital’s meddling in public land. For thru-hikers and regular humans alike, there is no escape from politics.

A drastic rethinking


Pictured: a rodent seizing the means of production

As a closing thought, I’d like to skip back to tenet no. 3 above: the right of workers to own their own labor and engage in fair work practices. I met a half-dozen Germans along my thru-hike, and each told me the same thing when talk of jobs inevitably arose. To a person, they’d negotiated six-month sabbaticals with their employers, with a guaranteed return to their jobs when they finished the trail.

(Fittingly, it was the German Naturfreunde who set the international standard for the collision of socialist ideas and an appreciation for nature, with thousands of workers and socialists taking to the woods to preserve and drink in all they saw, starting in 1933. Scions of nature and the protection of workers like Curt Grottewitz rose to prominence in this same era.)

Mein Gott–can you imagine such a thing being common practice in America? This idea that you are not infinitely replaceable, that you are worth more than your paycheck, and that taking half a year to produce nothing other than a more complete sense of self is worthwhile is an alien one on these shores. A drastic rethinking of why that is, and how it might be changed if socialism were less of a dirty word, would benefit us all.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 21

  • Jake : Mar 30th

    Chuck, this is an excellent piece! Thanks for having the courage to write about socialism and its truly compassionate nature. The term has been so slandered in America that it can be tough to discuss without being shouted down as anti-American or some other nonsense. But you nail it on the head: our culture’s obsession with milking every penny out of our beautiful country is at direct odds with the spirit of Muir and other great conservationists that made the National Scenic Trails possible. The culture of caring that thrives among thru-hikers is proof that there are other options for America — we do not need to be bound so viciously to the cutthroat capitalist existence that destroys so many lives and so much of this wonderful land. As you mention, many think that the trail is the place to escape politics, but the act of thru-hiking is in a way political by nature — bucking the system to spend half a year in the wilderness hardly conforms to what we are “supposed” to do as human capital. Anyway, rambling a bit here, but again thanks for writing this, comrade.

    • Chuck McKeever : Mar 30th


      Thanks for your kind words! I agree wholeheartedly with everything you’ve said here, and it’s great to hear from a fellow hiker who’s willing to see this as an integral part of trail life.


  • Darrell : Apr 7th

    I for one would appreciate you keeping your political beliefs to yourself. As a long distance hiker, thru-hiker, trail angel and follower of Jesus Christ, all of the positive characteristics you depicted and espoused of Socialism are present in true Followers of Jesus , without the natural human corruption. As a follower of Christ, I am not religious, religion is a man made concept, but show me where Socialism has worked; Cuba? Venezuela? I refer you to “Animal Farm”. Unfortunately, too often false Christians undermine and corrupt the Scriptures and Gospels to serve their own selves.

    • Nicole : Apr 7th

      Eh, would a “HYOH” fit here?

    • M-Bomb : Apr 8th

      Your point being…? That when people are helpful and take care of each other because of Jesus, it’s good; but when people are helpful and take care of each other because of a general sense of community and human equality, it’s bad?

      I don’t think the author presumed at any point to compare the thru-hiking community to any modern state-sanctioned Socialism, but highlighted that the communal and generally unselfish nature of thru-hiking and trail communities reflects the ethos of socialist ideals.

  • Lynn : Apr 9th

    And there you have it, the most nonsensical thing I have ever wasted my time reading.

    • Chuck McKeever : Apr 9th

      Have a blessed day, Lynn! And thanks for reading.

    • Jake : May 23rd

      This. A thousand times, this.

  • Kate : Apr 9th

    Chuck, ‘socialism’ when volunteered is simply compassion and human. It’s helping others, sharing.
    Not when forced through regulation and law. Two different things. You don’t own your work or your earnings when forced to share chunks of it.

  • Jay Odenbaugh : Apr 9th

    Chuck, Nice essay. You might find G. A. Cohen’s book “Why Socialism?” fun to read. The first chapter defends socialism through thinking about the ethics of camping. Your essay reminded me of his argument.

    • Chuck McKeever : Apr 9th


      Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll be sure to check that out.

  • Michael Sweet : Apr 9th

    Kudos. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Donna Guzman : Apr 10th

    Love the article! I’m printing it for reference.

    • Chuck McKeever : Apr 11th


  • Gray Barrett : Apr 11th


    Thanks for writing this. I really liked the links you drew, and in a world in which the outdoors are more and more often thrown under the bus at the expense of politics, we need to be more explicit in drawing these connections. Also your caption on the squirrel picture was great.
    I wrote a post about Norway’s trail and hut system that I think you’ll enjoy, entitled “Common Ground.” I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    In solidarity

    • Chuck McKeever : Apr 11th


      I’d love to read it! Would you mind shooting me the link?

  • Whorfin : May 22nd

    Thru-hiking is the quintessential example of entrepreneurial behavior. The hiker makes the decision to make a serious personal investment in time, money, and effort with the speculation that the personal benefit will be worthwhile. Society as a whole is not improved by the individual’s choice to thru-hike, only the thru-hiker. The thru-hiker does all his/her own hiking; no one is there to do it for him. The thru-hiker pitches his own camp, makes his own meals with food that he has carried on his own. He repairs his own gear, he acquires his own supplies. Most importantly, the thru-hiker makes his own decisions for his benefit, not the benefit of society as a whole.

    Such are the traits of the capitalist entrepreneur: Self-reliance, self-confidence, hard work, and a willingness to bear the consequences of his actions in order to achieve his personal goals.

  • Whorfin : May 22nd

    Looking at your reasoning, though, it leaves much to be desired as a compelling argument that thru-hiking is a Socialist activity.

    Helping those in need along the way is an example of human compassion and generosity, not political affiliation. In fact, if you were to interview SAR volunteers and Sheriff’s Posses across the country, you will find precious few who participate as an expression of their Socialist ideals. I have equal confidence in the results of a similar polling of trail maintenance volunteers and trail angels. People help other people because it feels good to do the right thing, not out of some political motivation. Compassion and generosity decidedly are not the sole provenance of the Socialist, and to imply such is the height of arrogance.

    Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of a number of National Parks did not, nor was it intended to, stop the extraction of natural resources from public land. The areas he had designated were already public land and, as such, were subject to Federal approval of any proposed use. The National Parks designations were to set aside truly exemplary environments for the enjoyment of future generations, period. But make no mistake, as a businessman and former rancher, Roosevelt saw the value of the natural resources this country had and their importance to propelling the American economy.

  • Whorfin : May 22nd

    I would submit that the negotiated six-month sabbaticals are indicative of just how unimportant the employee is to German industry. I have never hired anyone whose contribution to the organization I could do without for six months; not one in three decades. I valued the people I worked with, especially my direct reports. Each individual’s contribution was as necessary as it was unique to them, and could not be easily replicated by someone else. The Germans you met, though, seem like they were not so valued. To allow an employee to leave for six months tells me one of two things is the case: either the employee’s contribution was so common that it could be done by anyone (and a replacement hired and fired in a six-month window, a heinous practice), or that the contribution was so negligible that it wouldn’t be missed for half a year. Which company values the employee more, the one that won’t miss him for six months or the one that actually wants him around?

    A corollary thought: isn’t taking off work for six months a violation Marx’s maxim? In other words, for selfish reasons, the worker decided to not produce according to his ability and thus reduced that would otherwise be deliverable to those according to their need. Very anti-Socialist behavior, this thru-hiking is turning out to be.

  • Whorfin : May 22nd

    Let’s take a look of what a thru-hike would be like under a Socialist system. There are a plethora of Socialist models out there, probably as a result of Socialism’s two hundred year history of abject failure where ever it’s been implemented. I’ll use the Democratic Socialism model because it seems to be the most benign.

    First, the prospective thru-hiker would have to apply for the privilege of making the hike (not producing according to his ability, and all). Then, in order to control the effect on the communally owned property, the thru-hiker would be grouped with a number of other thru-hikers, let’s say ten, just to keep the math easy. That ten would be allowed to choose their gear from a limited selection of options, but there are a few options available to maintain the illusion of self-determination. However, some hikers will select more expensive gear and others less so. To ensure democratic equality (as is necessary in Socialist theory) each hiker is charged the same, so if you spent more than average, you got a rebate, if less, an invoice. At the trail head the group is assembled and packs weighed. Items are shuffled from one hiker to the other to ensure equal pack weights across the group (there’s that equal outcome principle of Socialism at work again). But that’s not all. Two more “hikers” are added to your group. They’re not really hikers, and they’re not actually going to do any hiking, but the body politic has decided that these “hikers” are a part of your group out of need to share the benefits of thru-hiking to more citizens. (These two hikers are analogous to the near 15% chronically unemployed supported by European Democratic Socialist economies.) Now your group gets to start the hike (carrying two “hikers” on litters, I suppose, since they don’t hike), but the group can only go as far in one day or as fast as the slowest hiker in the group. Equal outcomes again. Lastly, if one of the group wants to quit, the whole group has to quit or put that now-former-hiker on a litter as well.

    Thru-hiking doesn’t seem so “thru-hiking” when one applies actual Socialist principles to thru-hiking. Perhaps thru-hiking isn’t the expression of Socialist ideals we would be led to believe.

  • Jake : May 23rd

    Chuck –

    I am so excited about our future thru-hike together, I am greatly looking forward to you physically carrying me the entire way. As you have the “means” and I am completely unwilling to expend the effort to develop any means of my own. Please understand that as part of a government controlled socialist system – you have absolutely NO choice in this matter. You will be feeding me and housing me for the entire trip, and at the end, I will be taking every single thing you own, and re-distributing it to other people I know, as I see fit. I may leave you enough to eat at the end, or not. We will see.


What Do You Think?