If there’s one thing that we’ve learned over our limited time on this big, round, rotating marble, it’s that, in the grand scheme of things, we’re all a very small variable in the equation of life. Whether we’re speaking in relative or general terms, the world is, for the most part, outside of our understanding. Each and every day, we’re struck by an obligatory curiosity — one that drives us to push past the point of comfort to garner knowledge that was once beyond our comprehension. While most will spend their lives waning under the weight of monotony, there are those who continuously battle, strive, and ascend past the point of known human capability: the adventurers.
In this segment, we’re going to pay our respects to the boundary-breakers of the world — the leaders who will continue to traverse the great unknown, scale the spires of the world, and step outside of the realm of obscurity. From the golden sands of Australia, the snow-covered peaks of Chile, and the barren, beautiful wastelands of the great white north, all the way to the provincial expanses of middle America, we’re going to outline a handful of our favorite outdoor documentaries of all time. So if you’re one of the few who is looking to satiate your neverending wanderlust, search no further — let’s dive headfirst into the most inspiring pieces of modern film that will give you a new lease on life.
180 Degrees South
Following in the footsteps of ones favorite adventurer is never an easy process, but for the photographer, writer, and world-renowned adventurer Jeff Johnson, a propensity for travel would turn into his greatest motivator. In 180 Degrees South, Johnson follows in the footsteps of his childhood heroes, Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins, as he gains passage to Chile’s impeccable wildlands via ship, resulting in exhilarating visuals, an understanding of the isolationist’s pursuit of wanderlust, and the introspective nature of travel. Along the way, he faces a handful of hardships — but amidst these moments, he’s taught that everyone, everything, and everywhere, has its own story to tell. The film is more than just a traveler’s documentary — it’s a revelatory journey that’s chock full of quiet disposition, external and internal reflection, and a humanist approach that reminds us how beautiful this world really is.
Location(s): California, Chile
Director: Chris Malloy
Release Date: 2010
Patagonia’s Fishpeople is an ostentatious missive that illustrates, in superb detail, the connection between a soul and the sea. If anything, it rigorously achieves its initial mission — bringing light to six different personalities, characters, and idealists who are in some way, shape, or form connected to their lives among the various waterways of the world. From the glistening sands of Hawaii and California, all the way to Australia’s golden shores, director Keith Malloy focuses his dramatic storytelling technique on a group of understated individuals — all of whom have a story to tell. From surfers like Dave Rastovich and Matahi Drollet, all the way to their ocean-faring contemporaries, freediver Kimi Werner, underprivileged youth director Eddie Donnellan, and renowned photographer, Ray Collins, Fishpeople focuses on the humanist aspect of a life at sea. The ocean is a humbling place, and for Malloy’s various protagonists, there’s certain solidarity in that fact — relieving them of their daily stresses, washing away their insecurities, and supplying them with an outlet that pays no heed to the whimsical nature of mankind.
Location(s): Australia, California, Hawaii
Director: Keith Malloy
Release Date: 2017
The Fourth Phase
Travis Rice is widely recognized as one of the world’s greatest snowboarders, and his highly praised 2011 documentary, The Art Of Flight, gave viewers around the globe an insider’s perspective of what a cinematic adventure sports biopic could achieve. In his most recent film, The Fourth Phase, Rice takes a far more profound approach than his last endeavor, joining Pat Moore, Cam FitzPatrick, and Ben Ferguson to slay the slopes in some of the world’s most intensive locations. Instead of focusing on a vast array of aerial maneuvers, daunting downhill descents, and robotic precision (of which, there are more than a few examples), Rice and Co. delve deeper into the ritualistic climate change that not only affects the snowboarding world but the Earth’s ecosystem, as a whole. As the title suggests, the documentary’s primary mission is the understanding of the four phases of water: the solid state, the liquid state, and the vapor state — with the figurative “fourth” phase left to be discovered.
Location(s): Alaska, Japan, Russia, Wyoming
Director: Jon Klaczkiewicz
Release Date: 2016
Following outdoor adventuring’s explosion in popularity (as well as the sports associated with it), free-climber Alex Honnold has catapulted into the limelight as one of the premier climbers of our generation. His most recent biopic, Free Solo, gives viewers a rare glimpse into the world of a professional adventurer, rock climber, and all-around adrenaline junkie, as he vies to become the world’s first to the summit of California’s famed El Capitan, without the use of lead lines or top ropes. Free Solo isn’t quite a documentary about climbing — instead, it’s a character analysis of Honnold — his quirks, his dimensional complexities, his adulated views of the world around him, and his undeniable enthusiasm that bewitches, mesmerizes, and motivates those within his circle. Throughout the film, we’re introduced to the most important people in Honnold’s life, each with their own understanding of the individual that they’ve come to know, and each with their own fears and dismissals surrounding his life on the rock face.
Director: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Release Date: 2018
The Great Alone
Alaska’s harsh climate, intimidating winters, and deadly wilderness are all adverse characteristics of the lawless land, and The Great Alone, a documentary outlining the inspirational comeback story of one the world’s greatest Iditarod champions, Lance Mackey, dives into them headfirst. The film follows the four-time Iditarod winner on a journey of self-discovery, outlining a failed relationship with his father, Dick Mackey, who was a co-founder of the Iditarod Anchorage-to-Nome endurance test in 1973, and his inability to cope with the dynasty that the head of the family left in his wake. Aside from the various trials and tribulations that Mackey must confront throughout the film, it’s also a story of perseverance — fighting everything from mid-race health issues, mental incapacity, and even cancer, to overcome all the odds set before him. As Mackey races toward his fifth Iditarod victory, director Greg Kohs captures so much more than a sledding biopic — instead, he illustrates the beauty in the struggle, the growth associated with strife, and what it means to carry on a burgeoning legacy for the sake of legitimacy.
Director: Greg Kohs
Release Date: 2015
Mountain might be one of the most expansive documentary projects to have ever been devised, gathering over 2,000 hours of footage from 22 different countries to create a beautiful, awe-inspiring portrait of the world’s most dangerous ascents. But where there’s a danger, there’s also a victory — something that the introspective nature of Jennifer Peedom’s mesmerizing documentary captures wholeheartedly. If not one of the most visually ambitious projects of the last decade, Mountain surely revels in its ability to portray the quandary of mankind as we attempt to scale the atmospheric peaks of the world’s tallest mountains, from the simplicities of achievement and understanding, all the way to the macro-perspective, showing larger details that are often unseen by the naked eye. From here, the documentary shows more of Peedom’s artful mastery, relegating our understanding of the individuals seeking the “siren song of the summit,” to that of sheer size — defining our understanding of success, virtue, and triumph through the scope of panoramic scale. Mountain serves as a reminder that no matter how large we think we are, we pale in comparison to the Earth’s most mesmerizing ranges.
Location(s): Antarctica, Austria, Nepal, New Zealand
Director: Jennifer Peedom
Release Date: 2017
North Of The Sun
What is it about the cold, desolate retreats of the world that spur us to action? Perhaps it’s the fear of the unknown, the lack of understanding associated with the bleak, frozen wilds, or the connection that we strive to share with the world around us — uninhabited, untouched, and unkempt. North Of The Sun addresses these notions in the best way that it knows how, following two friends, Inge Wegge and Jørn Ranum, as they head to one of Norway’s most isolated stretches of oceanfront land — an arctic island (in an undisclosed location), somewhere in the great white north. In one of the coldest climates on Earth, the protagonists learn to live throughout the winter, utilizing expired food caches and shore-strewn materials to survive, building their own driftwood cabin for shelter, and surfing their days away in the land’s frozen waters. North Of The Sun tells a story of survival, friendship, understanding, and perseverance — but, perhaps the most astounding principle of the film lies in the discovery of some of the greatest waves to ever be documented in the wild north.
Director: Inge Wegge, Jørn Nyseth Ranum
Release Date: 2012
Unbranded might seem like a departure from the action/adventure selections on our list, and while that might be true, it captured our attention due to its undeniably unique story, content, and visuals. As one of the most visually astounding documentaries of the past decade, the film follows four aspirational “cowboys” as they traverse from Mexico to Canada, with more than 16 wild mustangs in tow. After graduating from college, four friends set out to foster a sense of adventure, growth, and understanding revolving around America’s wild frontiers — a 3,000-mile journey taking place over 158 days, that quickly brings to light differentiating personalities, conflict, and emotion. While the film dawdles in certain aspects, it’s the inevitable takeaway that serves to keep viewers intrigued — that no matter where you are, or who you’re with, the intensity of the world’s wild, untamed persona helps to create an unbreakable bond that can’t be easily tarnished.
Location(s): Arizona, Montana
Director: Phillip Baribeau
Release Date: 2016
Under An Arctic Sky
In the same vein as North Of The Sun, professional photographer Chris Burkard’s Under an Arctic Sky redefines the audience’s understanding of the great white north. The film follows six surfers — Sam Hammer, Heidar Logi, Elli Thor Magnusson, Ingo Olsen, Timmy Reyes, and Justin Quintal — on a journey to the distant reaches of Iceland, one of the world’s most diverse locales, in search of the best cold-water waves that the region has to offer. Confronted with the worst storm season in the past two decades, the group navigates, overlands, and surfs its way toward a greater understanding of the frozen landmass. If the divisive plotline of the film isn’t enough to satiate you, Burkard’s exceptional vision will, bringing us some of the most immaculate visuals of any outdoor documentary to date, and coupling it with an interesting, immersive plot that’s completely scripted by Mother Nature, herself. Under an Arctic Sky is more than just a good looking adventure documentary — it relies on the understanding of nature’s most intriguing cycles, quirks, and characteristics, and explores the uncomfortable notion of coexistence with, and submission to, powers greater than ourselves.
Director: Chris Burkard
Release Date: 2017
Yosemite Valley has quickly become one of the most sought after destinations for rock climbing on the planet, but if you think that the vast majority of the area’s most competitive lines weren’t being scaled decades ago, you’re in for a surprise. While the most recent documentary outlining the area’s staunch rockclimbing history might be a tad bit sensationalized, Valley Uprising brings to light the very real personalities, ideals, and anachronistic views that were a trademark of the climbing world in the early days of Yosemite. Here, you’ll find dramatic disputes between the pioneering climbers of the valley, from debacles over previously completed routes, warring climbing factions, and the deterioration of the once reputable “dirtbag” persona that climbers once adopted, all the way to the dissipation of the area’s most iconic climbing groups due to differing personalities, characteristics, and goals. While Valley Uprising certainly clings to the cusp of rock climbing’s most unsavory traits, the production value, historical relevance, and interesting documentation of the sport’s most rebellious era offer viewers a rare look into the lives, stories, and qualms that helped to define an era.
Director: Peter Mortimer, Nick Rosen
Release Date: 2014
The 12 Most Inspiring Adventurers Of All Time
Now that you’ve taken the time to add a few more binge-worthy outdoor documentaries to your list, head over to our guide on the most inspiring adventurers of all time to get some insight regarding the individuals who have dedicated their lives to exploration.