‘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.