Is YouTube Good for Long-Distance Trails?

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In the world of long-distance hiking, it’s become as predictable as snow in the Sierra or the riot of wildflowers in rolling Virginia pastures in April: Each season, a new crop of aspiring thru-hikers blossoms in the fertile fields of YouTube, with dreams of documenting their hike for the world and, in more than a few cases, building their brand to “monetize” their hiking hobby.

Imagine… an attractive young woman (who knows it)…

Hey, guys, it’s SugarShorts and today I’m going to talk about my spreadsheet, which lays out exactly how many miles I’ll hike each day on my Appalachian Trail hike, where you can meet me to take me out to dinner or bunk at your house, and the amount of income I’ll be hauling in from my Patreon account by the time I reach Damascus…

Envision … a brawny thirtysomething guy with a cloud of facial hair and at least one hiking-themed tattoo above the shoulders…

I’m MountainCrusher and I’m going to show off all the AWESOME gear I bought at REI last weekend, and give you my gear recommendations, even though it’s November and I won’t take my first step on a long trail for another 16 weeks. So if any  manufacturers would like to sponsor me…

Picture… an exhausted-looking middle-aged guy, filming from a cheap hotel 34.6 miles from where he started…

Well, it’s been a great ride, my tramily, but I’m ending my thru-hike. It looked so much more fun on other hikers’ videos! Nobody’s ever out of breath, they don’t talk about sleet, chafe, boredom, or the fact that if you snore like a grizzly that’s swallowed a chain saw in a shelter somebody might pee in your boots…

dixie appalachian trail wanderlust

Screenshot from Dixie’s first day on the Appalachian Trail, 2015. Courtesy Homemade Wanderlust.

Of course, there are many actual YouTubers who have documented their journeys, really used the gear they review, hosted Q&A sessions for Patreon supporters, and inspired countless people, if not to hike 2,000 miles, then at least to get off the couch and go for a walk. A rare few—Dixie (Jessica Mills), with 209,000 subscribers, and Darwin, with 197,000, are the best known—have made money, even a living, from their beloved hobby.

“I don’t consider myself talented,” says Darwin, who doesn’t use his real name with regard to his hiking videos. “I got lucky. Dixie got lucky. We were in the right place at the right time. But my goal is to create and to inspire somebody else.”

YouTube is here to stay and it will continue to influence the trail and trail culture for the foreseeable future. But is that influence good, bad, ugly—or some of each?

Same Message, Different Media

“On the whole, we think (YouTube) is fantastic. It’s more of a good thing than a bad thing,” says Jordan Bowman, communications manager for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “It’s allowing more and more people to find ways to get outside and share their love of the outdoors. And a lot of people say, ‘It’s kind of my escape. I’m stuck in a cubicle all day. I’m not able to hike the trail, but (YouTube) allows me to live vicariously through people who can.’ ”

But not everybody loves the fact that so many hikes are now essentially televised.

“I think initially cell phones, social media, YouTube, they all had a good purpose,” says Glenn “Scoutmaster” Justis, who documented his 2018 Appalachian Trail thru-hike on the video channel, collecting several thousand subscribers. “But what happens is, over time, it becomes more of a detriment than anything else.”

glen justis appalachian trail

Glen Justis, aka Scoutmaster, on the Appalachian Trail in 2018. Courtesy Glen Justis.

Bowman acknowledges that the increasing popularity of social-media portrayals of the AT, whether on YouTube, Instagram, or Facebook, may be drawing more people to the trail, and that overuse and crowding is a concern.

“But we were seeing that all the time, even before YouTube,” he says. “Back when (Bill Bryson’s) A Walk in the Woods was published, a large influx of people came to the trail, even though they were reading about all the horrible things happening.”

miss janet 2017 appalachian trail

Janet Hensley, aka Miss Janet, along the Appalachian Trail in 2017. Courtesy Janet Hensley.

Janet Hensley, aka Miss Janet, one of the most recognizable trail angels on the Appalachian Trail, agrees that social media and YouTube are just new media presenting the same messages.

“It’s always been the case, even when people started doing online journals. Wingfoot (who published the first comprehensive AT guide in 1991) was one of the very first ones,” she says.

Rose-Colored Videos

Some critics worry that popularizing long trails and thru-hiking through mass media (a single YouTube video can reach far more people than most bestselling books; Dixie’s most popular video has more than 1.2 million views) lures in people who aren’t prepared for the difficult task of hiking thousands of miles.

“The failure rate is so high that a good portion of people should have never tried it in the first place,” Justis says. “So you really don’t need to be out there saying how wonderful it is, so people watching you think, ‘I can do that!’ ”

And that’s just the audience. Many eager YouTubers themselves announce their intention to thru-hike with great fanfare and post months of preparatory videos, seeking to build an audience, only to flame out quickly once the sole hits the tread.

paul magnanti canyon de chelly photo by josh zapin

Paul Magnanti, aka Mags, in Canyon de Chelly. Photo by Josh Zapin.

YouTubers conveying an inaccurate or incomplete picture of thru-hiking is one area where both critics and promoters of the medium agree there is a problem.

Paul “Mags” Magnanti, who completed a Triple Crown in 2006 and now operates a guiding service in Moab, UT, recently co-created a cartoon panel and interview published on The Trek featuring MACHO, the “Most Accomplished Cyber Hiker of All Time,” which mocks gear reviewers who don’t actually hike.

“I won’t mention any names, but what got me was a top-ten list of best packs of the year. I thought, ‘How can a person really test ten packs, even by June or September?’” he says. “It’s essentially marketing copy, it’s clickbait. So people review gear, then people start sharing it, and the next thing you know they are ‘experts.’ Then they get free gear.”

Distortions of Reality

darwin on the trail photo by preston bailey

Darwin on the trail. Photo by Preston Bailey.

Just as Facebook often serves as what Dixie calls “a highlight reel” for people’s lives, many YouTube hikers seem inclined to show only the fun and interesting side of long-distance hiking.

“No one,” Bowman observes, “focuses on the day they almost quit because the chafing was so bad.”

“Some people overromanticize the idea of a thru-hike,” says Darwin, who is now working on a documentary about the Arizona Trail. “People want it to look like a reality show, but some days are just boring. It’s not always amazing; most of the time it’s the opposite. I spend a lot of days just looking at my feet.”

Dixie, who completed her Triple Crown in 2018 and will soon embark on a walk of Spain’s Camino de Santiago with a younger sister, wholeheartedly agrees.

“I really try to include the good and the bad,” she says. “I don’t want people to think it’s just a walk in the park, then get out there and be extremely disappointed that it’s not all sunshine and roses.”

And even well-intentioned hikers are prone to a certain amount of exaggeration or, more charitably, selective memory, Hensley notes.

“When you ask hikers how many miles they are doing, they’ll say 20 or 25 a day, but they don’t talk about the 10s, 12s, 14s. It’s a little thing, but it’s misleading,” she says. “Then people watch five videos and they all say they are doing 20-miles-plus a day, they think that’s normal. I meet people who are quitting the first week because they can’t handle the 20-mile days and I say, ‘What are you thinking?’ ”

Yes, the Most Popular “YouTube Hikers” Are Unrepresentative

Hensley, who meets hundreds of AT hikers every year, labels YouTube hikers “2 percenters.” “The other 98 percent aren’t represented very well… Not many people want to watch a fat old guy who only does 12 miles a day, or a mom with a surly teen instead of a cute kid.”

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Dixie at the Southern Terminal of the Continental Divide Trail, 2018. Courtesy Homemade Wanderlust.

And just as in the movies, appearances can matter a great deal on YouTube. Many aspiring YouTube thru-hikers who gain an audience before they’ve ever taken a step on trail just happen to be young women who match certain conventional societal ideas about attractiveness.

“People who get offended by that, or try to pretend they are not aware of that, are playing dumb,” says Dixie, whose audience skews toward middle-aged men. A video accompanied by a thumbnail of her face always get more views than one featuring a nature scene, she says. “But I don’t put a thumbnail of me in a bikini, because I don’t want that audience. Do I think it helps? Sure. But I don’t think it’s a prerequisite. Darwin is an attractive fellow, he’s not a girl, yet he’s still managed to be successful.”

Constantly filming, curating, and editing a hike for YouTube or Instagram also can have the effect of distracting hikers from their own, actual experience; according to one recent survey, nearly 40 percent of millennials say they hike only to get an “Instagram payoff.”

“I see more and more people nowadays making a movie, but losing a sense of the trail. The social media, the phones, it takes over and your focus changes. It’s no longer about the trail, but about what makes a good vlog (video blog) or the number of subscribers,” Justis says.

The Lure of Fame

A growing phenomenon, in the era of Dixie and Darwin, is the potential lure of not just “fame” (“As if I’m so famous,” Dixie says with a laugh), but also money. Many YouTubers encourage fans to support them through Patreon, while others actively seek sponsors, and creators can seek to have their videos “monetized” by the platform, hosting ads.

But the reality is, making money—any money—on YouTube hiking videos is an extreme rarity.

“If you think you’re going to hike the trail to make money, you are not really going to enjoy the hike,” Dixie says. “You have to like it, even the misery of it. You cannot suffer for six months doing something like that for backpacker culture “fame.”

“Something that bothers me is people going in with the wrong intention, the intention that ‘I’m going to create this thing, make money, and be famous,’ ” Darwin says. “That’s just a goofy pipe dream.”

The ATC doesn’t have an official position on hikers who make money documenting their AT hikes. The trail is subject to National Park Service rules, which don’t specifically ban such fundraising. However, according to the NPS, any “activities” that “take place at least in part on lands managed” by the NPS, “use park resources,” and “result in compensation, monetary gain, benefit, or profit” are prohibited unless the person has been granted a Commercial Use Authorization.

Amanda Bess raised more than $14,500 for charity during her 2018 AT hike. Photo from Amanda Bess’ YouTube channel.

Occasionally, a successful YouTube hiker uses her (relative) celebrity to support a charity, as when Amanda “PeeWee” Bess raised more than $14,500 during her 2018 AT hike for two charities in her home state, A Kid Again and the Kentucky Association of Children’s Advocacy Centers. Despite building a base of more than 8,000 subscribers, Bess also bucked current trends and conventional wisdom by not attempting to monetize or perpetuate her channel. She hasn’t posted anything since a final video of her summiting Katahdin on Sept. 6, 2018.

A Cautionary Tale

Many aspiring YouTube thru-hikers who imagine the potential for riches and fame may never consider the downside of putting oneself so squarely in the public eye.

In the months leading up to the 2019 hiking season, a hiker named Michele Rosa, aka Artemis, began posting written pieces on various platforms, including WhiteBlaze.net and The Trek, plus videos on YouTube, emphasizing a positive, if occasionally pugnacious and brash, message of empowerment, particularly for older women hikers.

“The nerves are real because even though I have a tremendous amount of people rooting for me,” the US Army veteran wrote in a blog post (since removed) on the Trek Feb. 9, the night before her departure, “I have a collection of haters willing me to fail because I am overweight and do not carry an ultralight pack. The unnatural hatred is my rocket fuel for my inevitable success.”

Not long into her hike, her upbeat, down-to-earth demeanor had drawn thousands of subscribers and she began taking donations through Patreon.

“I watched her first couple of videos and thought, ‘She’s got a hell of a story,’ ” says Justis.

A blog post on The Trek by Michele Rosa, aka Artemis. thetrek.co.

But soon hikers began claiming that Artemis was “yellow blazing”—accepting rides to skip parts of the trail—and accusing her of raising money on false pretenses. (Full disclosure: The author of this piece donated a small amount of money to her Patreon account.) Justis began to comment on Artemis’ videos, asking her to come clean. She blocked him, initiating a brief, private flame war. Justis and his wife then posted a video (since taken down) detailing their concerns. Rosa posted a response (without naming her critics), but shortly thereafter left the trail and removed all traces of herself from YouTube, WhiteBlaze, and elsewhere.

“She was taking money from people and lying about what she was doing,” says Justis, a former criminal prosecutor who did not try to monetize his AT videos. “I think she thought, ‘I’ll be the Dixie for overweight ladies, I’m going to do it.’ That’s great, but if you’re taking money from people, you’ve got to actually do it. I think she realized she didn’t much like hiking, but she was out there with all this social media, and didn’t know what to do.”

Rosa did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story. But in one recent Instagram post she vowed to return and finish her hike.

“I don’t regret leaving the trail,” she wrote. “My hike to reach home stays the purpose, not prove someone wrong who wanted to hijack my hike.”

Hensley found the criticism and piling on of Artemis unfair.

“She had a great following and a great attitude, doing more to encourage women to hike the AT than anyone I know,” she says. “Then she was crucified for taking money. But that’s none of anybody else’s business, unless you claim you’re trying to break a record or saying ‘Pay me a dollar a mile.’ She didn’t make those promises.”

Beware the Money

But when there’s money involved, even a faint whiff of impropriety can bring down a savage rebuke online. Artemis’ story echoed the 2016-17 controversy surrounding paraplegic hiker Stacey “Ironwill” Kozel, who, with the help of high-tech leg prostheses, claimed to have hiked the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails. Prominent on social media, she received considerable attention from the media and garnered paid speaking gigs and a rumored book offer. But upon closer scrutiny by the hiking community, it became clear that Kozel had not hiked either trail.

Stacey “Ironwill” Kozel in Harpers Ferry, 2016. thetrek.co

“I doubt that Stacey has reaped much financial gain from her false claims,” former AT FKT-holder Jennifer Pharr Davis wrote later on The Trek. But, Pharr noted, “The payments she has received are most likely negated by her tarnished social image.”

Dixie and Darwin have each endured criticism for “making money on the trail,” but both stumbled into their careers as YouTube hiker personalities. Dixie started filming her first hike, the AT in 2015, on the advice of a friend who wanted to get more experience editing, and didn’t start making money until more than two years later. Darwin started his channel to stave off post-trail depression after his truncated 2015 AT thru-hike and wasn’t aware that he could make money from his channel until he’d been creating videos for a year.

The top dogs of the YouTube thru-hiking world both say authenticity is the key to their success, and warn hikers against putting desires for money or fame before the trail experience.

“The trail provides and it will do amazing things if you listen to it and follow its advice,” Darwin says. “But if you are inauthentic, it can also punish you in unexpected ways.”

The Act of Publicizing Thru-Hikes Is Here to Stay

dixie jessica mills appalachian trail homemade wanderlust

Dixie in Virginia during her 2015 AT thru-hike. Courtesy Homemade Wanderlust.

YouTube, firmly ensconced in the thru-hiking world, isn’t going away. Its influence has been positive in many ways, educating and exciting people about long trails, providing vicarious experiences for those who can’t hike themselves, and inspiring thousands to get outside.

“When I started, I hoped that maybe I would help somebody else get out there. Seeing a scared, scrawny little girl getting out and doing it, maybe they would realize they could do it, too,” Dixie says.  “I didn’t say, ‘I’m an expert,’ and I still don’t. I said, ‘I’m about to screw up a lot of stuff and y’all are free to watch me!’ ”

But as with any media, YouTube videos should not be taken as an accurate representation of the real world or a complete guide for how to hike a long trail.

“I would never propose you use one guidebook or one medium to prepare for hikes,” says the ATC’s Bowman. “YouTube is one piece. But also look at AWOL’s Guide, the Thru-Hiker’s Companion, look at our website… Look at all different aspects, but just make sure you prepare yourself. It’s not going to be all butterflies and rainbows.”

And in the end, just as when nobody vlogged or even blogged their hike, the only way to truly know what thru-hiking is like is to step out on the trail.

“We have people who have done seemingly all of their research and prep through YouTube videos,” Jack Haskel, trail information manager at the Pacific Crest Trail Association, recently told a Sierra Club writer. “Watching a video is not the same as building a personal experience,”

 



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