Ten outdoor documentaries to watch

from Pinterest

After my recent trip out to Wyoming, I re-watched a favorite documentary of mine on PBS after eight hours+ at my day job and then some side work, too.

After such a full day, a documentary viewing was a nice way to relax and remind myself why I work.  It is not for the employee engagement surveys. 😉

From Dilbert. Where else?

I chuckled as I was rewatching the documentary.  The very overlook and even the actual outcropping where I took some sunset photos was recognized.

As I was watching the documentary last night, it occurred to me others may enjoy some of these documentaries as well.

It should be noted I play loose with the outdoor documentary definition. Some are about the ecosystem itself; others are about some history within the defined ecosystem. Some of these documentaries are about travel. And some of these documentaries combine all these aspects into one delightful viewing.

As of this writing, all these documentaries may be streamed. Some even for free.

There are other excellent ones out there, too. But these are a few I’ve enjoyed for various reasons. Maybe you will, too?


  • The Sagebrush Sea is an area of over 500,000 square miles extending across the western United States. The PBS documentary by the same name looks into this diverse ecosystem that is teeming with wildlife and vast spaces. The other nickname for this area is “The Big Empty” for a reason!  It is wildness in the truest sense. As with The Great Plains, this area is threatened by energy exploration and growth.  Splendid cinematography along with a presentation that adroitly sums up the issues being faced by this ecosystem.  Available for streaming on PBS Nature

In Wyoming’s Red Desert

Sunset over Soapstone Prairie Open Space

  • Speaking of The High Plains, the Dances with Wolves overview by History Buffs is an interesting overview of not only the movie itself but the history of the area, a quick discourse on the environment and wildlife in The Great Plains, the grievances of the Sioux, and the current controversy over DAPL.  Perhaps the most nuanced, concise, and well-researched overview of all these facets is by a British YouTuber!   As an aside, the History Buffs YouTube channel is excellent for anyone who enjoys movies, history, and the discussion of said movies from a historical viewpoint.  Available for streaming on YouTube. 

Horses in the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota.

  • Remains of the River reminds me of many of the more engaging thru-hiking accounts. Meaning lush scenery, memorable stories, and funny moments.  But rather than hiking a well-known trail, Remains of the River is an account of hiking and paddling the 1700 mile Colorado River from headwaters in the Wind River Range until where it peters out at the Gulf of California. A bit like River by Colin Fletcher from an earlier time and medium. But the documentary goes beyond a thru-paddle narrative and encompasses the political, environmental, and historical conflicts found along this endangered river. Available for streaming on YouTube and Vimeo.

from Ruple Point, Dinosaur National Monument.

Sachuest Point in Rhode Island. Sorry, no deep water boat travels for me at this point!

  • Unbranded is a remarkable documentary.  A unique 3000-mile journey, on horseback, taking in portions of the Arizona Trail, the CDT, and self-made routes.  The journey has the expected gorgeous scenery but also portrays how emotionally daunting such a journey can become.   This journey was done with Mustangs and also highlights the issues and history surrounding these iconic Western animals. Available for streaming on iTunes and Amazon.

Still from Unbranded

  • 180° South is about recreating a road trip done by two climbing bums in the 1960s. The name of these climbing bums? Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins. Also known as the founders of Patagonia and North Face. Two gentlemen who pioneered climbing routes and forever changed the retail outdoor market.  The makers of this film go on an intriguing adventure in their own right. And cover a little bit of history of the climbing and outdoors, too. My favorite part of this documentary just may be Yvon Chouinard’s quote towards the end of the documentary: “If you compromise the process [of planning an expedition], you’re an asshole when you start out and you’re an asshole when you get back.
    Indeed. Available on Amazon, Netflix,  and iTunes,


  • The Great Unknown is an engrossing account of multi-winning Iditarod and Yukon Quest dog musher Lance Mackey. Nicknamed the “Comeback Kid” for not only his wins but also for overcoming the many personal issues he has faced over the years. A great documentary. Just watch it.  Available for streaming on Netflix. 

  • Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl is a documentary of one of the worse ecological disasters in modern history.  Certainly not an easy watch, but much like Cadillac Desert,  all persons who love the American West should heed the lessons told. When hubris meets natural and financial disasters, a tale is told that cuts deeps. The personal accounts of the survivors of The Dust Bowl are emotionally gripping more than seven decades after the events take place. The Dust Bowl also shows the parallels for today that we are repeating with our modern hubris.   Next to The Civil War, The Dust Bowl may very well be Ken Burns’ best documentary. But at a relatively short four hours, more easily watched. Available for streaming on Amazon

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mike B
Mike B
6 years ago

The Barkley Marathon was a surprisingly entertaining movie, my favorite of the ones on the list that I have seen. My favorite outdoor movie is Touching the Void. Not a documentary but a true story told by the men who lived it. I thought it was completely mesmerizing and completely unbelievable, except it really happened. Just don’t watch it with a loved one before you head out to climb a mountain.

David C
David C
6 years ago

Mile, Mile and a Half is a good little documentary of the JMT. It’s one of my favorites that I’ve watched several times. The people, the quirky music, the camaraderie; it’s a great doc.
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Mile-Mile-and-a-Half/dp/B00FJVCP2Q/
iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/mile…-mile-a-half/id699937922
Vudu: https://www.vudu.com/movies/#!overview/468836/MileMile-and-A-Half

6 years ago

You should check out some of Werner Herzog’s documentaries if you haven’t already. Grizzly man is the most explicitly outdoorsy but he has a new one about volcanoes that’s great too.

Jeremy Werlin
Jeremy Werlin
6 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags


Jeremy Werlin
Jeremy Werlin
6 years ago

I’ve got to get my .02 in here: Journey On the Wild Coast. Makes most other thru hikes look soft. Seriously. I watched it on Amazon, but it does not seem to be currently available. Just take my word on this one.