Life

‘Alone In The Woods, In Front Of A Microphone’: The Curious World Of Thru-Hiking Podcasts

If you ever find yourself in Gardners, Pennsylvania, make sure to stop over at the Pine Grove Furnace State Park store. They sell Hershey’s ice cream, a local treat, and they sell it fast. That’s because most of the store’s clientele are thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, and they’re often hungry for comfort, connections, and the occasional chocolate chip cookie dough when they reach the trail’s midpoint in Gardners.

The Appalachian Trail (AT) was the brainchild of Benton MacKaye, a Harvard School of Forestry graduate who first envisioned a long walking route along the east coast in 1921. The 2,000+ mile trail was finally completed in 1937, and in the years since it has been completed by over 15,000 people, otherwise known as thru-hikers. That number is likely to see a major boost next season, thanks to the film adaptation of Bill Bryson’s 1998 book, A Walk in the Woods starring Robert Redford.

Along with Reese Witherspoon’s 2014 film Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir of the same name, the long hiking trails of the United States have been getting a lot of exposure. Walking through a forest — with stops at sweeping lookout points and surprising intrusions by the animal kingdom — is undoubtedly cinematic, but it’s the emotional subtext that made Wild or A Walk in the Woods Hollywood-worthy. Some use the trail to escape loss, like Wild‘s Strayed; others use it to contend with old age, as Bryson did in Woods. Thru-hikers are people who want some time to work through their thoughts; The AT’s 2,200 miles or the 2,663 miles of Wild‘s Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) offers exactly that.

The walking itself isn’t the only time consuming part of thru-hiking. These excursions require five to eight months’ worth of prep. As a by-product of the need for long-term planning, the utility of learning from others, and the loneliness of the trail, thru-hikers form large, intricate communities of support. They give each other trail names, a form of identify based entirely on what one does or says on the trail, and tell each other stories about where they came from and where they might go next (both literally and metaphorically).

In general, people hike the PCT or AT to change their lives. That’s why Strayed’s book (and its subsequent film adaptation) resonated with so many, why Bryson’s written account exploded in 1998, and why several free, no-budget podcasts have taken the iTunes and Google Play stores by storm.

In short, the content coming off of the trail is about a hell of a lot more than hiking.

The podcasts are particularly fascinating, because there is no book deal at the end of the rainbow, no movie forthcoming. And yet, while the these podcasts began as efforts to keep in touch with a small, loyal crew of friends and family members or to reconnect with the trail after the walking was through, they have, almost inexplicably found a large audience. Unlike company-produced shows offering gear reviews and news updates, the thru-hiking podcasts’ only ambition is to help deliver the “trail life” vibe into the real lives of their listeners, and they’ve proven pretty damn successful at it.

Sounds of the Trail and Trailside Radio aren’t quite real time, but they’re close. Produced by editor-in-chief “Gizmo,” AT thru-hiker “Kimchi,” and PCT correspondents “Saina” and “Par 3,” Sounds is by far the largest operation of its kind, regaling its audience with stories from America’s biggest thru-hikes. Trailside — a one-man show run by “Ratatouille” on the PCT — has been similarly successful. Both podcasts have smashed through the 100K downloads mark.

With the official close of the thru-hiking season approaching, we reached out to both programs (and a few others). We asked these podcasters why they decided to share their adventures, how things were going, and what the coming off-season might hold.

“That’s just what talking about the trail does to people.”

One of the more popular, ongoing podcasts about thru-hiking is The Pox & Puss Podcast, a self-described “not-so-serious exploration of the Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker experience.” Since 2012, the irreverent (and explicit) program’s titular showrunners have reveled in their previous hiking experiences, interviewed others about their own stories, and bantered about whatever semi-related topics might come to mind during a recording session.

Or as “Puss In Boots” explains it, sometimes “Four Loko has something to do with it.”

“We’re not professionals,” says “Pox Holiday.” “I don’t think anybody would want to listen to us for an hour straight. We ramble. We wind up talking junk about our friends.”

A cursory search for podcasts having anything to do with the AT on iTunes quickly reveals Pox & Puss as a top hit. For while the pair of friends generally stick to their chosen subject, they do so without the gear reviews and self-help style mantras that characterize most other outdoor programs. It’s more about the stories, storytelling, and the oddities therein that have come to define life on the trails. After all, thru-hikers are a rather garrulous bunch.

“I don’t think you will meet a thru-hiker who will say, ‘I don’t really like to talk about my time on the trail.’ It’s so chock-full of stories that people just want to tell,” says Puss. “That’s the nature of telling your tales about being on the AT… I think that’s just what talking about the trail does to people.”

She adds, “this is a great outlet for them. Even people who have never been interviewed, or are kind of weary about being on a podcast… You end up having a nearly professional-sounding interview with somebody who was scared sh*tless at the end of a mic.”

With 54 complete episodes and a few occasional interludes, Pox & Puss is still going strong three years on. Though as Pox points out, they “both have full-time jobs.” Neither he nor Puss has recently managed to thru-hike the AT or any other long-distance trail, so their show relies entirely on interviews with current hikers for up-to-date reports from the trails. Yet as fresh as these narrative injections may be, it’s still not quite as “live” as the two newest entries on the iTunes “Outdoor” category.

“I came home and it wasn’t as great as being on the trail.”

As anyone who has thru-hiked or attempted to thru-hike the AT, the PCT or any other long-distance trail can tell you, deciding to do so shouldn’t be taken lightly. Sure, there are many stereotypical motivations for wanting to drop everything for five to eight months and go for a really long walk. Yet the act itself still requires a great deal of forethought and planning. So why would anyone who makes the decision to carry their life on their back for half a year think that making a podcast about it would be a good idea? While out on the trail?

For Trailside‘s Ratatouille, it all began with a simple request from his family and friends: keep a blog so that they would know where he was and how he was doing.

“Then I had the idea that an easier way to do a blog would be to do an audio blog. Instead of having to type out my thoughts and my experiences on my cellphone at the end of each day, I could actually dictate my thoughts and experiences as I hiked,” he says, before adding: “Then it occurred to me that if I brought a high quality audio recorder out onto the trail, knowing I would meet all kinds of amazing people, I could interview them and collect their stories… Add a theme song, make it as professional as possible, and put it out as a podcast.”

“By then,” he realized, “I was taking on something more ambitious than your average trail blog, but I was inspired by the idea and just ran with it.”

The native Minnesotan found himself intrigued by this slippery slope of ideas, but also a bit overwhelmed. He was about to attempt his first thru-hike ever, after all, and his testing ground was the 2,663-mile PCT that runs from Campo, California to Manning Park, British Columbia. The preparations necessary to undertake such a physically-demanding feat were mounting fast, and now he had to figure out how to make a podcast, too.

“I have friend in Portland who is a professional field recordist, so I asked him about the gear he uses and he gave me some advice,” explains Ratatouille. “I was also lucky enough to get some advice from a guy named Durand Trench, who worked on a movie called Mile… Mile & a Half. He gave me information on what equipment he used.”

Gizmo, on the other hand, wasn’t getting ready to take on a long-distance hike. Sounds of the Trail started because the full-time engineer was unable to escape her busy work schedule for the 2015 thru-hiking season. This made her even more nostalgic for her experience along the PCT the previous year.

“I came home and it wasn’t as great as being on the trail,” she says. “When I was hiking the PCT, I wanted to do something while I was out there. I briefly looked into podcasts as a medium, but they seemed like way too much work to do from the trail, so I just kept a blog instead. I guess the idea was still percolating a year later.”

She decided to reach out to fellow thru-hiker and friend Kimchi, whom she had met on the PCT. When the podcast idea resurfaced, Gizmo decided to give her friend a call. After all, Kimchi herself was getting ready to hike the AT on the east coast.

“I’m totally into projects while I’m hiking. They keep me going,” Kimchi explains. “So when Gizmo called me asking whether or not I wanted to take another one on, I said yes. She said, ‘You’re really good at relating to people. I loved watching you talk to people on the trail. I’ve been thinking of doing a podcast.’ I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s make a podcast.'”

As for making a podcast, neither had any experience with the medium. Unlike Trailside‘s Ratatouille, however, Gizmo knew she would have the benefit of being “back at home with the computer.” So she and Kimchi took advantage of the remaining winter months and taught themselves how to podcast.

“Turns out, it’s much easier to talk to people when you have a specific topic.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to listen many podcasts,” says Katie Levine, head of podcast production for Nerdist Industries. If the name rings a bell, that’s because she occasionally pops up on the The Nerdist with host Chris Hardwick. Levine name-dropped Sounds and Trailside over the summer when, despite her busy schedule, the avid hiker couldn’t help but click when she found them on iTunes.

Levine knew that while producing a podcast might seem as easy as recording some audio and posting it online, a lot of extra work happens behind the scenes. Ideas for episodes must be had, discussed and selected, recordings and interviews must be made, audio files must be edited and compressed, finished shows must be published, updates must be advertised, and listeners must be interacted with online. Easier to do when, like Levine, one does all of this from the comfort of Los Angeles. For the makers of Sounds and Trailside, it’s not that simple.

“I come up with episode themes or topics that we might want to talk about, and I email or text these out to everyone I’m working with,” says Gizmo. “Once I receive the audio, I edit it, cut it together and make a podcast.”

“Sometimes certain topics just sort of come up by themselves,” she adds, noting that the otherwise demanding work of putting together a podcast with correspondents who are most often without cellphone service is much easier when everyone has a clear idea of what they’re doing.

“Turns out, it’s much easier to talk to people when you have a specific topic. You always get other things along with it. No matter what you’re asking about, you get more information about their experience. That’s what fleshes out the episodes.”

Out in the field, things are slightly more complicated for Kimchi, a professional photographer who carries a film camera and film with her at all times. The additional tools needed for reporting Sounds aren’t much, especially since she does it all with her iPhone. Regardless, it’s still one more thing to consider while carrying everything else in her backpack.

“I don’t like to use mics. They’re too heavy, and would probably get wrecked in my bag. It’s one more thing I don’t f*cking need to deal with. I’ve already broken two cameras this year,” she says. “But the phone works great, which really excited and surprised me. I just use Dropbox to send the audio to Gizmo as soon as I get to town or within range of a cell tower.”

Trailside operates differently since its author, Ratatouille, is doing it all by himself. He briefly considered outside help, especially when several friends offered to lend him extra sets of hands and ears, but the self-described perfectionist “wanted to make sure it was done the way I wanted it to be done.”

“I do the recording with a very lightweight Sony audio recorder that weighs seven ounces, including the batteries it runs on. I transfer the files with a micro SD card to my smartphone. Then I do all of the editing, compression and EQ on my smartphone using a multitrack audio editing app,” he says, adding that “the real challenge has been making the time to do it” since it has been “very time consuming.”

Like Sounds, Trailside follows a regular routine for hiking and podcasting. Ratatouille originally wanted to “spend six days a week hiking on the trail and recording material, with the goal of getting about 10 minutes of usable material a day.” Things didn’t go as planned, however, as he quickly found out that it takes “most of a day to edit an episode,” resulting in a hike-less day of work that doesn’t really “count as a day off.”

“So I found myself needing to take a real day off at the end of the week, just to decompress, and taking a second day off — whether consecutively or not — to do my editing,” he explains. Despite this, he says that he wouldn’t change a thing about the current arrangement because he “really enjoys the work.”

“It’s something I’ve become really passionate about. It’s something that I want to continue doing in my life — continuing this podcast, exploring different possible forms of journalism that I might do in the future.”

“It sounds like it’d be just like watching paint dry.”

“A lot of other podcasters will say, ‘Whatever you put out there is usually what you wind up getting back.’ We’re sarcastic, so we’ll have some sarcastic folks and we welcome that,” says Pox of the Pox & Puss audience, which is never shy about sharing its thoughts with the podcasters. As one popular three-star review notes, “it is clearly marked explicit, so no surprises.”

Three years of foul-mouthed trail talk have garnered Pox and Puss a sizable audience, especially since their irreverence guarantees listeners a few surprises with each new episode. But as Puss points out, “there are other outdoor podcasts.”

There’s a bonsai tree podcast,” she notes. “There’s a guy who talks about bonsai trees. I mean, maybe it’s highly entertaining, but it sounds like it’d be just like watching paint dry, but listening to paint dry. I mean, bonsai trees. Seriously?”

This begs the question: who would want to listen to a podcast about thru-hiking? On the one hand, while a novel endeavor, there are only so many topics that these people can talk about while they are out in the wilderness. Wouldn’t they eventually get bored? Wouldn’t the audience?

“Listening to a trail podcast doesn’t appeal to me while I’m hiking,” Ratatouille laughs. “But when winter time comes and I’m stuck in the city, working 40 hours a week and yearning for the trail, I look forward to listening to every episode.”

Such is the cloth that Sounds and Trailside‘s audiences are cut from. They’re people who found the programs on iTunes after the hiking season had already begun, and since it was too late to join the trail community on either coastline, they decided to live vicariously through the podcasts. Others are like Gizmo, who started Sounds because her work schedule wouldn’t allow for a thru-hile. Most, however, have never attempted a long-distance hike before.

“A lot of our listeners are not current or past thru-hikers. Just people who don’t know much about thru-hiking,” says Gizmo. “They heard about it either through the call out on The Nerdist, or our being featured on the iTunes ‘New and Noteworthy’ page, which was a huge boost. Or people who’ve stumbled across us and found it engaging enough to stick around.”

Both Levine’s mentions on The Nerdist and iTunes’ own promotions have helped rocket Sounds and Trailside well beyond the coveted 100,000 downloads mark. Yet these highly successful receptions were never at the forefront of their minds. They were just trying to create something about a topic they know and love, like Gizmo and Kimchi, or keep in touch with loved ones, like Ratatouille.

“I honestly didn’t even think that much about what kind of audience it might build,” says the latter. “But when I first started getting a lot of listeners, I was actually a little intimidated and it started to make me nervous. Not so much with the interviews, because that started to flow naturally, but when I would do my introductions and my segues and my monologues, knowing that there were more people listening than I had expected, gave me almost a form of stage fright. I’d be sitting all alone in the woods in front of a microphone, but I would get nervous.”

Against all odds, both have also garnered a rather wonderful — if not seemingly improbable — distinction: celebrity status out on the trail. For it turns out that, whether by fellow thru-hikers or trailhead visitors, these podcasters have been called out and celebrated for their work by people in real time.

“Sometimes when I’m walking on the trail, people will say, ‘Oh you’re Kimchi! I heard you on Sounds of the Trail,'” explains the bewildered photographer. “It’s crazy. I don’t understand.”

“I was talking with a John Muir Trail hiker, and another hiker who had overheard our conversation came walking over and said, ‘Excuse me, but are you Ratatouille?’ She had recognized me from my voice,” says the Trailside host. Then again, his friends and interviewees have also run into the same thing: “They shared the experience of having a hiker they didn’t know come up to them and say they recognized them from being interviewed on my podcast.”

So even if, like Puss’s concise review of the podcast about bonsai trees, many would think listening to hikers talk about hiking is no different than hearing paint dry, the numbers don’t lie. Pox & Puss remains very popular in its own right, and Sounds and Trailside have exploded among thru-hikers and laypersons alike.

As Gizmo puts it, “we seem to have found a niche for ourselves.” The next question to ask, then, is whether or not this niche is a sustainable one.

“I’m still struggling with podcast life balance.”

When asked about the longevity of Pox & Puss, the hosts didn’t give a clear yes or no answer. Instead, they exclaimed, “an episode’s going to come out when it comes out.” In other words, the podcast definitely isn’t showing any signs of stopping anytime soon, so the two friends have every intention of continuing business as usual.

This also seems to be the case for the folks at Sounds of the Trail and Trailside Radio. It’s difficult not to plan ahead and dream big when what started as a passion project enjoys phenomenal success.

“I made a commitment to myself when I started this hike that I would not make any post-hike commitments until I was done, but I do plan on continuing Trailside,” says Ratatouille. “During the off-season, I want to reduce the frequency and focus more on interviewing hikers who have done other trails and had other adventures this year. From there I’ll see where it goes.”

Both Gizmo and Kimchi over at Sounds seem to think along these same lines, though they’re hoping to expand their already complex operation into an even larger program. The ideas are grandiose, but considering what they’ve accomplished thus far, nothing seems impossible.

“Mentally, we’re all totally committed through the end of thru-hiking season. Then we’re going to evaluate how we want to carry on in the off-season,” explains an understandably tired Gizmo. “From my end, it’s been incredibly time consuming. I’m still struggling with podcast life balance.”

Her partner in crime, however, is much more positive. That’s because Kimchi envisions getting more help, adding more locations and diversifying their output. The project-happy photographer, seemingly incapable of standing still, is already looking forward to her next adventure.

“It’d be great if we had correspondents who were hiking the North Country Trail or the Hayduke Trail in Utah,” she says. “I’d like to do some stuff with section hikers. I think it would be really fun to do a couple of episodes with people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing. See what their ideas of it are, and then talk to them once they’ve completed that hike.”

Though it may seem like the two heads behind Sounds are of different minds, rest assured there’s plenty of overlap in their Venn diagram. For like Trailside‘s Ratatouille, Pox & Puss‘s Pox and Puss, and just about every other person crazy enough to attempt a complete thru-hike of these monstrously-long trails, the creators are filled with a desire to see the world and undertake new adventures. Besides, now that their work is becoming more and more famous throughout the long-distance hiking community, there’s no way they could just up and leave their burgeoning audience behind. These stories from the trail means just as much to the strangers listening in as it does to the people who are podcasting.

“I’m very grateful that Gizmo asked me to help her with it, and it’s been really fun. I guess I want to see where we can take it,” says Kimchi. “We’re not getting paid to do it, that’s for sure. It’s a labor of love.”

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