10 Awesome Outdoor Documentaries to Watch Now

Cozy up on your down days and watch other people get rad.


Sometimes I find myself perversely wishing I’d get sick enough to sit in bed all day, watch movies, drink tea, and not feel one bit guilty about being a sloth. Of course, whenever I get that sick, I deeply regret any previous romanticization and am eager to be back biking, running, climbing—anything but being bed-bound.

But that nagging little feeling, which usually hits at the beginning of a busy week, means there’s something to be said for letting yourself just chill for an afternoon, even if you could be fixing your bike, or doing some yoga, or planning your next adventure.

No matter what has you waylaid—be it bad weather, injury, illness, or the all-too-common need to just take a break—spend your laidback day (week? We won’t judge) with these classic outdoor documentaries. From impossible climbs deep in the Himalaya to sailing around the world with a teenager, these films take you to the ends of the world with the most compelling, accomplished adventurers out there. There are dozens of amazing outdoor films out there, and these ten are just scratching the surface.

Valley Uprising (2014)

Available to stream on Netflix, Valley Uprising tells the story of the founding fathers of rock climbing, including Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, Lynn Hill, and John Long. Back in the days when “dirtbag” was more closely related to “outlaw” and many of Yosemite’s stunning rock walls had yet to be climbed, these climbers pioneered not only the sport but the culture around it—from van life to environmental engagement. The film traces the history of climbing in Yosemite from the early days to prolific and influential modern climbers like Alex Honnold and the late Dean Potter.

El Mar, Mi Alma (2012)

‘El Mar, Mi Alma’ trailer from Rebel Waltz Films on Vimeo.

Shot on 16mm film, this gorgeous documentary about surfing and the coastal life of Chile is a must-see. Best explained as a visual poem, the film is meditative and keenly focused on capturing the mood, beauty, and emotion of the ocean and our many relationships with it, from surfing and fishing to stewardship. A call to environmental awareness and action flows through the film, an undercurrent of political engagement which feels welcome and necessary.

Meru (2015)

The most-talked-about climbing film in recent years, Meru follows Conrad Anker, Renan Ozturk, and Jimmy Chin on an improbable mission to climb the Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru, arguably the most technical ascent in the Himalaya. When they set out to film, it had never been climbed (but you’ll have to watch the film to see if they checked it off the list). Anker, Chin, and Ozturk comprise an accomplished team both with respect to their climbing and their filmmaking, and Meru couldn’t have been made by any other group—their extensive experience, grit, perseverance, and good humor made the expedition possible and the film absolutely gripping.

Maidentrip (2013)

Maidentrip follows 14-year-old Laura Dekker’s quest to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe. The fascinating film isn’t what you’d expect. It’s primarily shot by Dekker herself, in video-blog fashion, and Dekker isn’t in it for the attention. In fact, the teenager actively frustrates attempts to document her journey, including cringe-worthy scenes where she shuts out journalists and documentarians attempting to tell her story for her. She has little interest in setting any speed records: she takes two years to make her journey, taking detours whenever it strikes her fancy, and, after completing her feat, she stays on her boat with nothing but more adventure on her mind.

Chasing Ice (2012)

Chasing Ice is worth it just for the glacier porn, including the largest calving event ever caught on film. It’s also a tragic story. It follows environmental photographer James Balog’s project to shoot timelapses over the course of three years of some of the world’s largest glaciers. He wanted proof of how quickly our planet’s ice is disappearing, and he captures just that. It’s an educational and damning look at global weirding from the perspective of the most threatened landscapes on our planet. For filmmakers and photographers, this film provides a fascinating behind-the-lens look at the lengths photographers and filmmakers like Balog go to for the sake of their craft.

The Man Who Skied Down Everest (1975)

This Oscar-winning film follows Japanese alpinist Yuichiro Miura on a 1970 expedition to climb and ski Everest. The journey is a fraught one: six members of his team die and during his ski he takes a 1,300-foot fall that’s just barely stopped by his parachute. It’s fascinating to see how big mountain skiing and alpine climbing have changed over the course of the last half-century, and the narration—pulled from Miura’s journal during the expedition—is personal and compelling.

180° South (2010)

One of the best-known outdoor documentaries, 180° South follows photographer Jeff Johnson as he traces Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and North Face founder Doug Tompkins’ legendary road trip—which included plenty of surfing, climbing, and skiing—to Patagonia. The film culminates with an attempt to climb the Chilean volcano Corcovado with Chouinard and Tompkins and provides insight into the experiences that led both men to become steadfast warriors in the fight for sustainable living and environmental protections.

McConkey

Whether you’re a die-hard Shane McConkey fan or have never heard of the guy, this film is a must-see. Tracing the fast and bright arc of McConkey’s life, the documentary takes an unflinching look at the man who shaped modern freeskiing. Equally weighing his troubled relationship with his father and his penchant for high-risk situations with his unparalleled bravery, skill, and sense of humor, McConkey is a raucous, passionate tribute to the man who launched a thousand naked laps.

The Great Alone

This award-winning film documents the comeback of Lance Mackey, champion sled dog racer. Taking place in the wild and unforgiving Alaskan wilderness, The Great Alone addresses not just Mackey’s prowess as an expedition leader and endurance athlete, but the family history, personal trauma, and unique culture that shaped him into one of the greatest sled dog racers of all time.

The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young

The Barkley isn’t your average ultramarathon. It’s supposed to be impossible, from the sign-up process to the completion of the course. The vast majority of competitors never finish, getting lost is basically required, and the race’s alleged distance—100 miles—is well-known to be a serious under-reportage of the true distance. It was dreamed up by Lazarus Lake (Gary Cantell) and Raw Dog (Karl Henn) as a mocking homage to the brief escape from prison of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin and a group of other convicts in 1977, and the course—which changes every year—always traverses a tunnel underneath the prison. You might never understand the madness, but this hilarious documentary is a good start.

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Photo from Meru

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Showing 16 comments
  • Rusty
    Reply

    if you have Netflix check out Peninsula Mitre, subtitled in English and Losing Sight of Shore

  • GOOG
    Reply

    Inspired to Ride was on Netflix last time I checked.

    • Patrick
      Reply

      I just watched losing sight of shore after this list inspired an adventure / athletic sport doc… I really liked it, gorgeous too, and I think a really cutting edge depiction of effective group and personal dynamics. Really made me want to dig deep..

  • Steve Threndyle
    Reply

    There’s an amazing film about K2 that’s on Netflix (actually there are a couple) that features stills and video from the Vittoria Sella Italian expedition in the early 1900s, and it’s remarkably crisp. I’ll also put a plug in for Dog Days of Winter, a killer doc on the history of freestyle skiing; with some excellent Dick Barrymore footage from back in the day.

    • riley morton
      Reply

      Its called K2: Siren of the Himalaya – and agreed, it is a great film.

  • Kevin
    Reply

    I watched the BARKLEY. thru Amazon Prime. See it and you will not be disappointed.

  • Jeff Fujita
    Reply

    Four docs inspired me to ask my wife to go ahead with me to ditch the southern California rat race. Within two months of watching Mile…Mile and a Half, 180 Degrees South, and the Long Way ‘Round/Long Way Down series, I had quit our my job, bought a used Airstream and Tundra, and drove out of neighborhood for the last time in exchange for a life on the road. Great docs can indeed provide inspiration to change one’s life.

  • Laura
    Reply

    I agree Peninsula Mitre is excellent, made better by lack of surfing, so more focus on the story, culture, and place – a truly wild place with culture embeded

    • Rusty
      Reply

      Laura. Didn’t even think about how the lack of surf porn made for a better story. It had some amazing scenery.

  • Matt
    Reply

    Gonna throw a plug in there for Damnation. Sure maybe it’s not an outdoor documentary in the sense of the others on this list, but I challenge you to find a more impassioned, more beautifully shot plea for the defense of our environment. And if you do find that film, please share it because I want to see it.

  • Ory
    Reply

    Mt. Saint Elias and Vertical Frontier

  • Lexi Robertson
    Reply

    I have heard so many positive comments about Valley Uprising. Thanks for the reminder, I can’t wait to watch it!

  • Rory Shepherd
    Reply

    I would also highly recommend Everest 1998 IMAXdocumentary best climbing documentary I’ve seen

  • Christian C
    Reply

    A little old hat now but ‘A Thin White Line’ is excellent https://vimeo.com/84178875

    Racing on foot and by mountain bike on the Iditarod trail in winter.

  • Bill
    Reply

    Great article. I’ve watched four of these so far, Meru being my favorite.

  • Tash
    Reply

    Going to watch Chasing Ice this weekend. There’s a new one coming out called Chasing Coral – about coral bleaching etc, out on Netflix 14th July. Not sure if it’s related, but it’s getting great reviews.

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