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The Greatest Outdoors Films of All Time

From the call of the wild to finding the thrill of adventure in remote corners of the world, movies that showcase the power and allure of the natural world offer a chance to experience new places and maybe even inspire an adventure or two. 

In this list of the top films about the outdoors, you’ll find a range of movies that explore the human-nature connection in vastly different settings and circumstances, divided into fictional stories, films based on real stories, and documentaries. 

Although they span decades and genres, what these films share is their ability to take us to forests, deserts, oceans, rivers, and mountains where we can experience the wonder of nature—whether that’s through themes or visuals.  

So, grab some popcorn, and get ready to spark your sense of adventure as we count down the top outdoor films of all time. (And make sure you leave a comment if we missed your favorite.)

The Greatest Outdoor Films: Fictional

The Grey (2011)

This adventure drama is basically a survivalist (played by Liam Neeson) vs. a pack of wolves and, symbolically, more about man facing his mortality. Set entirely in the remote Alaskan wilderness, The Grey gehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujrBaHS8UTgts high points for stunning cinematography, as it depicts the harsh realities and dangers of being in unforgiving natural environments. The film also gets into some real outdoor skills like building shelters, finding water sources, treating hypothermia, making fire, and dressing wounds without too much detail, and it has an incredible final scene.

Vertical Limit (2000)

Image by Columbia

The film stars Chris O’Donnell as a professional rock climber who must lead a rescue mission to save his sister Annie and her team, who are stranded on K2. While it wasn’t based on a true story, the film strived for technical accuracy by having the actors train extensively with climbing experts to perform many of their own stunts. The climbing sequences were filmed on location in New Zealand, utilizing majestic alpine settings to stand in for the Himalayas. These realistic scenes show the cast battling the real-life dangers of climbing at extreme high altitudes, such as sheer ice faces, avalanches, and oxygen deprivation.

The River Wild (1994)

Part thriller, part river-rafting movie, the original The River Wild brought home the excitement of whitewater rafting to a new audience. The movie revolves around a couple working on their marriage who go on a rafting trip, only to run into three men wanted by police for a recent robbery. Meryl Streep, Kevin Bacon, and David Strathairn lead the cast. The movie has stood the test of time long enough that a remake was released in 2023. However, it’s hard to beat the original that brings viewers to awesome filming locations and rivers in Oregon, Montana, Colorado, and Utah.

The Hunted (2003)

Image by Paramount

The Hunted, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio del Toro, is a far cry from a great movie, but it is a heck of a lot of fun. It’s basically the plot of Rambo if Rambo became an environmentalist. It’s about a trained assassin, del Toro, who goes from killing other soldiers in war to hunters in the forests of Oregon. To catch such a highly trained killer takes the person who trained him: Jones. The movie is full of absurd yet plausible survival training. 

Twister (1996)

In the age of action-packed thrillers, Twister took audiences on a wild ride with storm chasers. They manage to also cram in some light science, a love story, comedy, and more as the plot chases tornadoes around Oklahoma and the surrounding area. The movie has big-name actors, including Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and more. Twister comes to a climax with a fictional look inside a tornado, and the ride to get there is 100% worth it.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Image by Samuel Goldwyn Films

Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty follows Walter Mitty on the adventure of a lifetime. After years of dedicated work at Life magazine as a negative assets manager, Mitty is compelled to leave the tedium and disappointment of his daily life behind. The adventure brings him to Greenland, Iceland, the Himalayas, and beyond. As Mitty discovers his potential, viewers are treated to the visual splendors of these remote outdoor places. The movie is funny, poignant, and inspiring. It’ll make you want to book plane tickets to—anywhere, really—because, as viewers learn alongside Walter Mitty, there’s no time like the present. 

The Bear (1988)

No, we’re not talking about the show focused on a stressful kitchen in Chicago. This movie stars two real-life bears. The plot centers around an orphaned grizzly cub that an adult Kodiak bear essentially adopts. Hunters follow the two bears, and while there’s not a lot of dialogue in the movie, it makes for a compelling story about wildlife and how animals adapt to extreme situations. Fun fact: The adult bear has enough acting credits to warrant its own Wikipedia page. The animal has acted alongside greats like Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, John Candy, and Dan Aykroyd. 

Camp Rock (2008)

Image by Sudden Motion

Filmed in Ontario, Canada, this Disney Channel Original Movie (DCOM) is the story of a diva rock star and a small-town songwriter meeting at a well-known and loved summer camp for musicians. Throughout the summer, kids do a variety of performances, as well as some traditional summer camp activities. And of course, it wouldn’t be a DCOM without a little bit of over-the-top teen drama. Plus, who doesn’t want to watch Joe Jonas try to play guitar on a lake?

Jaws (1975)

Almost 50 years later, Jaws keeps beachgoers weary about going into the ocean. The movie is about a small New England beach town terrorized by a massive great white shark. Most of the filming took place on location in Martha’s Vineyard. The film is now a Steven Spielberg classic. Decades later, the few notes that make up the shark’s theme song can trigger anxiety with visions of the shark’s fin moving in for a kill. Plus, the movie gave us the iconic line: “I think we’re going to need a bigger boat.” What’s not to like?

The Hunter (2011)

Image by Madman Entertainment

Although there are a bunch of movies titled The Hunter, we’re talking about the 2011 Australian thriller starring Willam Dafoe. The movie follows a mercenary turned hunter hired by a shady corporation to find an extinct Tasmanian tiger supposedly roaming a wild forest in Tasmania. Although the hunt is what drives the plot, what makes the movie an enjoyable watch is Dafoe’s character’s competency as an outdoorsman and the empathy he develops for nature, as well as the beautiful shots of the Australian wilderness. 

The Call of the Wild (2020)

The classic book waited over a century to finally become a feature film. The story tells the adventure of Buck, a dog taken from an affluent home in California to the Yukon Territory. Through the animal’s journey, he goes from a pet to a more primitive return to the wild. The Jack London book, released in 1903, focused on the gold rush in the area. A century later, we have Harrison Ford as one of the pivotal characters in the story. One of the best parts of this legendary outdoor story is the PG rating, which means the whole family can enjoy it.

The Revenant (2015)

Image by Regency Enterprises

The Revenant is a survival film that starts with a grizzly bear mauling. The 2.5-hour-long movie received multiple awards, including the Academy Award for Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie tells the story of fur traders in the early 1800s making their way across the Dakotas. However, filming locations were mostly in Alberta, Canada, with a few scenes shot in British Columbia, Montana, and Argentina. The Revenant does a great job of capturing true survival at a time when wilderness was truly wild and no one was coming to rescue you.

The Avatar Film Series (2009, ongoing)

This epic science-fiction film series began in 2009, when the characters began colonizing Pandora for unobtanium. The mining colony on Pandora threatens to harm the local Nav’i tribe. The story begins in 2154, after Earth has been depleted of its natural resources. Humans travel to Pandora using human-Nav’i avatars, since the planet is inhospitable to humans. The second film in the series came out just last year, and there are at least three more coming out in the next decade. 

Harry and the Hendersons (1987)

Image by Universal

A heartwarming family film about Bigfoot in the forests of Oregon, Harry and the Hendersons is mostly about the Henderson family exploring the forests of the Pacific Northwest near their home as they try to locate “Harry” after their initial sighting. Viewers are treated to vivid scenes of tall trees, lush greenery, cascading rivers, and mountain vistas. The film, which spawned a sitcom that ran for a few years, also shows an appreciation for camping and spending time in nature. The Hendersons go on camping trips and teach Harry about roasting marshmallows and other forest activities. It’s a nostalgic nod to long days and nights with family in the wild.  

Indiana Jones (series 1981-2023)

From the jungles of South America to the deserts of the Middle East, the Indy series immerses the viewer in breathtaking landscapes. The films see the greatest fictional archeologist ever exploring ruins, jungles, and uncharted territories to discover ancient secrets. Maybe it’s a stretch to call these “outdoor films,” but for our money, the swashbuckling adventures, emphasis on world travel, and immersion in far-flung natural settings makes the Indiana Jones series (definitely Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, at least) perfect entertainment for those who dream of having their own adventures in the great outdoors.

FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)

Image by FAI Films

Before there was Avatar, there was FernGully. The children’s movie focuses on a lumberjack who gets shrunk to fairy size by a pixie in the woods. Much like Avatar, he learns about the fairies’ way of life and the importance of protecting the outdoors and a sacred tree. The movie has a long list of voice actors, including Christian Slater, Tim Curry, and Robin Williams as a zany and fun-loving bat. Captain Planet was also on air then, making these two cartoons a foundation for a generation of people worried about the environment.

The Star Wars Franchise (1977, ongoing)

The great outdoors are a huge part of the Star Wars franchise and though the stories take place in space, many of the scenes outside take place in stunning outdoor locations. Star Wars tells the stories of the rise and fall of the greatest Jedis in the galaxy, but the locations—from the sweeping deserts of Tunisia to a variety of U.S. National Parks—show off the beauty of this planet.

Dirty Dancing (1987)

Image by Vestron Pictures

There’s just something special about those memories of your summer vacations and time spent out at camp. Dirty Dancing has a little something for everyone: nostalgia, beautifully shot scenes in the great outdoors, and some rather iconic songs. Filmed in North Carolina and Virginia, the film follows Baby on a summer vacation in the Catskills with her family. While the way Baby learns to dance may be a bit unconventional to most (balancing on logs and doing lifts in the water), it does kind of make you want to do the same with someone you love. You can even stay at the Mountain Lake Lodge in Virginia where they filmed the lift scene that we’ve all been trying to recreate for years.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Wes Anderson is well known for his movie style, mainly how he portrays characters and dialogue. Moonrise Kingdom, which takes place at a summer camp on a New England island, continues Anderson’s methodology. The movie focuses on the budding romance between two kids on the island, one who is there for a wilderness scout camp. As is common in his movies, Anderson features some familiar faces, including Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, and Jason Schwartzman. He also adds Bruce Willis and Edward Norton to this movie.

Cast Away (2000)

Image by 20th Century Fox

Filmed on a tropical island in Fiji, Cast Away tells the story of a regular man whose life gets turned upside-down when he takes an unintended and much-too-long stay on said tropical island. Tom Hanks won a Golden Globe in 2001 for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama for his performance as Chuck Noland, who survives not only a plane crash but also four lonely years on a deserted island with a volleyball, which he names Wilson, as his sole companion. Noland is forced to learn critical survival skills as a castaway, and his transformational journey is both touching and memorable.

The Greatest Outdoor Films: Based on Real Stories

127 Hours (2010)

Directed by Danny Boyle and based on the true story of Aron Ralston (played by James Franco), who became trapped in a remote canyon in Utah after a boulder pinned his arm. With little hope of rescue and facing imminent death, Ralston must summon all his courage, determination, and resourcefulness to survive. 127 Hours focuses on Ralston’s resilience and will as he finds himself at the mercy of the unforgiving desert landscape. The breathtaking cinematography immerses viewers in the vast and awe-inspiring wilderness, showcasing both its beauty and its dangers.  

A River Runs Through It (1992)

Image by Columbia

Featuring some incredible cinematic shots of the wilds of Montana, this film stars Brad Pitt and Craig Sheffer (as well as Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his first big-screen role) as brothers, and it helped position fly fishing as a semi-spiritual experience. Set in the early 20th century, this quiet, slow-moving film is based on a semi-autobiographical novella by Norman Maclean, and watching it feels like reading a good book. It’s the perfect vibe for a lazy weekend afternoon, unless you can make plans to actually go fly fishing. 

Lost City of Z (2016)

In James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, viewers follow along as British explorer Col. Percy Fawcett searches the Amazon for a lost city. Based on a true story from the early 1900s, the movie demonstrates the dedication—even obsession—that Fawcett has for uncovering the City of Z, the so-called “ultimate piece of the human puzzle.” Charlie Hunnam convincingly plays Fawcett, who returns to the wilds of the Amazon time and time again in search of the lost city. He faces unthinkable dangers deep in the jungle, but the promise of the ultimate discovery continues to lure him in until the mysterious end.

Everest (2015)

Image by Universal

In this harrowing tale of survivalism, mountaineer Rob Hall is part of an expedition to summit Mount Everest in May 1996. Director Baltasar Kormákur tells a compelling story based on true events, with actors Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, and John Hawkes, among others, delivering an emotional and gripping portrayal of what it’s like on the planet’s tallest peak when things go seriously wrong. Filmed in part in Nepal and at Everest Base Camp, the movie takes viewers into the heart of a mountaineer’s journey to the top of the world—a place from which many thrill seekers never return.

Gorillas in the Mist (1988)

Based on a memoir with the same name, Gorillas in the Mist tells the true story of primatologist Dian Fossey (played by Sigourney Weaver) and her work studying gorillas in Africa. Much of the filming took place in Rwanda and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), where Fossey had established the Karisoke Research Center to study mountain gorillas. The remote jungle locations where Weaver and the film crew had to trek to access gorilla habitats added to the sense of authenticity. Filmmakers strived for high accuracy by relying on Fossey’s own diaries and interviews with those who knew her, as well as mixed footage of real gorillas and advanced costumes (at least for the time) to create believable gorilla interactions.

Alive (1993)

Image by Paramount Pictures

Based on the 1974 book by the same name, Alive is the biographical drama of the survival of the Uruguayan rugby team. On their flight to Chile for an upcoming match, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 experiences turbulence and crashes into the Andes Mountains. Miraculously, there are survivors, but they are in the middle of a tundra with extremely limited resources. The boys make a number of attempts to seek help and get out, but not without a number of setbacks. They eventually find help and the survivors are brought home to their loved ones.

Into the Wild (2007)

Christopher McCandless is a divisive person when it comes to the outdoors. In some circles, his channeling of Jack Kerouac and Edward Abbey with a disdain for society and obsession with the West makes him a hero. To others, he was misguided and ill-prepared for the dangers of the wilderness, especially an Alaskan winter. Actor Sean Penn wrote and directed the film adaptation of McCandless’ life, with Emile Hirsch playing the lead. The movie finds a balance with McCandless as both a hero and, at times, misguided. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder also wrote some great music for the film.

Never Cry Wolf (1983)

Image by Walt Disney Pictures

Based on author Farley Mowat’s fictionalized account of his real-life experiences observing wolves, the film tells the story of a government biologist sent to the isolated sub-Arctic wilderness to study wolf populations. He hopes to disprove the popular belief that wolves are simple killers. (Spoiler alert: He does.) The film stars Charles Martin Smith and some incredible vistas of Canada’s northern territories, and it appeals to wildlife enthusiasts, as it offers insights into natural wolf behavior and ways of living sustainably with wildlife. 

Adrift (2018)

Based on the book that tells a true story of survival, Adrift focuses on staying alive when all else is lost. The movie stars Shailene Woodley, whose character is on a sailing trip with her boyfriend when a powerful storm tears their ship apart. She awakens in the cabin to find herself alone with the boat in shambles. What follows is her fight to survive. The solitude of floating alone through the ocean makes this movie a compelling and powerful story.

Cool Runnings (1983)

Image by Walt Disney Pictures

When a Jamaican sprinter doesn’t qualify for the 1988 Summer Olympics, he teams up with disgraced former Olympian Irving Blitzer to form the first-ever Jamaican bobsled team for the 1988 Winter Olympics. Blitzer helps the team train, but they struggle to adapt to the cool weather of Calgary.

A Walk in the Woods (2015)

Based on a book that has inspired countless people to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT), A Walk in the Woods didn’t do great in theaters. However, fans of the AT and long hikes were still excited to see this one. The film did pack some legendary actors, including Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, and Emma Thompson. The story is based on the first-hand account of author Bill Bryson’s planned hike from Georgia to Maine. The movie does an excellent job of capturing how challenging this 2,000-plus mile trek is. Plus, it’s a good reminder that buying the right gear can sometimes be worth it.

Wild (2014)

Image Searchlight Pictures

Whereas A Walk in the Woods was lighthearted, Wild was heavy. The movie adapts Cheryl Strayed’s book about her journey on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Strayed’s struggle with depression and drug use fuels her to start the adventure with the goal of hiking 1,100 miles of the trail. Strayed’s journey on the PCT begins in the Mojave Desert in southern California and leads her to Oregon. For an inexperienced hiker, the trail is a massive undertaking. The movie and the lead actor, Reese Witherspoon, were both nominated for multiple awards. The film stands as a motivator to get outdoors when things get tough.  

The Greatest Outdoor Films: Documentaries

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

With heartfelt storytelling and expertly captured underwater footage, in this film, you’ll feel like you’re diving along with the film’s protagonist, Craig Foster, into the curious, mesmerizing marine world of the octopus. Through its narrative, My Octopus Teacher invites viewers to reflect on their own connection to nature, emphasizing the profound interdependence between humans and the environment. The documentary leaves a lasting impact on viewers about how we can better preserve the fragile beauty that surrounds us.

The Rescue (2021)

Image by Cavalry Media

The Rescue documents the intense true story of the 2018 rescue operation to save 12 boys from a flooded cave in Thailand. Although you may know that everyone was rescued after spending 18 days stranded inside of the cave, the details of exactly how they were rescued and how close they were to drowning is just insane. Although the Thai government had international help and seemingly infinite resources, it all came down to the few people in the world with the skills and psychological wherewithal to SCUBA dive in dark and confined spaces. 

The Dawn Wall (2017)

This documentary focuses on Tommy Caldwell’s attempt to create a new route on Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan. The process is painstaking, as it’s one of the most difficult routes ever created. The movie is partly a biography of Caldwell, who has solidified his name as one of the most well-known climbers in the world. Besides being a testament to what humans can achieve, The Dawn Wall is almost like a buddy comedy as the relationship builds between Caldwell and climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson.

14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible (2021)

Image by Maekersuite Media

At over 8,000 meters, mountainous “death zones” exist where oxygen levels lower to only one-third of what the normal volume is. The attempts for climbers to bag each of the world’s 8,000ers had generally been measured in years, but this film tells the story of climber Nims Purja and his mission to climb all 14 in just seven months. In the film, Nims and his team of elite Sherpas battle treacherous conditions, avalanches, blizzards, and the deadly effects of high altitude. With no supplemental oxygen and pushing the limits of endurance, their goal seemed impossible. However, through teamwork, perseverance, and unrelenting determination, they manage to successfully summit each peak one by one, often having to make dangerous emergency evacuations of team members. 

Virunga (2014)

Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth, and it’s home to the last remaining mountain gorillas. With a mix of great storytelling and dedicated reporting, Virunga shows how the rangers persevere in their conservation efforts despite immense challenges. With a tagline of “Conservation is War,” it’s no surprise that things get intense, and filmmakers find themselves involved in a pretty intense situation. Virunga offers incredible views of the region’s natural landscape, wildlife, and complex political challenges. 

The Deepest Breath (2023)

Image by Netflix

Freediving is incredibly dangerous, and Alessia Zecchini is one of the most decorated free divers in the world. The Deepest Breath documents Zecchini’s training and preparation as she aims to set a new world record. We see her undergo rigorous physical training to expand her lung capacity and build strength and tolerance for depth. Cameras capture the intensity and risk as Zecchini heads to the Philippines and descends over 100 meters into the dark water, powered only by a single breath.  

180° South (2010)

In this film (also called 180 Degrees South: Conquerors of the Useless) Jeff Johnson retraces the legendary 1968 journey of his heroes Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) and Doug Tompkins (founder of The North Face) to the southern end of South America. Throughout his own journey, Johnson experiences the raw and stunning beauty of the South American landscape, from its forests to its rivers and mountains, and encounters the effects of industrialization and the environmental degradation that it brings. Interweaved with Johnson’s adventure, the film includes interviews with Chouinard and Tompkins, who discuss their own paths, deep connections with the natural world, and dedication to conservation. They reflect on the concept of “conquerors of the useless”—the idea that the greatest personal fulfillment comes not from exploiting the land for material gain but from adventures that leave no trace and efforts to protect the natural world. 

Valley Uprising (2014)

Image by Netflix

The film Valley Uprising tells the story of how Yosemite Valley became the mecca of the climbing world. It shows the history of climbing culture by telling how it evolved from an uptight pragmatic task to the adventurous dirt-bagging lifestyle of today. The movie connects the dots of misfits through the years, from the godfathers of climbing Royal Robbins and Warren Harding to the best climbers of today, like Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell.  

March of the Penguins (2005)

“In the harshest place on Earth, love finds a way.” So says Morgan Freeman, the narrator of March of the Penguins, a heartwarming documentary for the whole family directed by Luc Jacquet. The film documents the annual trek of emperor penguins to their breeding grounds, where they find mates, lay their eggs, and tend their newborn chicks—which is no small feat. Filmed on location in the southernmost place on the planet, Antarctica, March of the Penguins captures the struggles and the beauty of life, while also showcasing the awe-inspiring power of Mother Nature.  

Grizzly Man (2005)

Image by Lionsgate

Directed and narrated by filmmaker Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man might be one of the strangest and most engaging films you’ll ever watch. It tells the story of Timothy Treadwell as he lives among grizzly bears in Alaska’s Katmai National Park until the fateful night that he’s eaten by one of the bears. His life was an inevitable disaster, but Treadwell lived it anyway. It’s certainly a cautionary tale about why you shouldn’t anthropomorphize animals, but it also explains what drove Treadwell to live like he did—how he “crossed an invisible border” separating man from bears. 

Free Solo (2018)

If you want a climbing documentary to keep you on the edge of your seat, Free Solo is the way to go. Fellow climber and documentary filmmaker Jimmy Chin captured Alex Honnold’s free solo climb of a route in Yosemite. Free Solo, which takes its name from a term that describes climbing without ropes, is sometimes a terrifying movie to watch, knowing that one fall would be catastrophic. The documentary does a great job of balancing the suspense with the quirkiness of Alex Honnold. Similar to Dawn Wall, the movie brought climbing to a broader audience than ever before.

Did your favorite outdoor film make the list? If not, let us know in the comments below which ones we missed. 

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  1. Jeff Greene

    Great list! I’d add three classic action movies and an overlooked one that hinge heavily on survival in the outdoors are 1) Red Dawn, as the kids escape into the mountains and fend for themselves, 2) Rambo, evading the military in the woods, 3) Predator, playing cat and mouse in the rain forest, and 4) Southern Comfort–Powers Booth running from crazy Cajuns through the Bayou, avoiding various traps and snares, with a soundtrack by Ry Cooder

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