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Hike, Party, Repeat: HIGHLANDER Backpacking Festival Brings Music, Workshops, and More to the Trail

The HIGHLANDER Adventure is a 5-day backpacking event that moves from checkpoint to checkpoint, providing all of the food, drink, and entertainment along the way.

(Photo/Highlander Adventure Festival)
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The words “backpacking” and “festival” don’t often appear together in the same phrase. Festivals are loud, crowded places full of energy, entertainment, food, drink, and merch. Backpacking, by comparison, is a tranquil pursuit. It’s usually done to escape crowds, and you carry all your supplies on your back.

HIGHLANDER Adventure Festival mashes the two together, though. It’s a true “backpacking festival.” Participants hike from campsite to campsite as a group, set up tents, attend presentations, watch live music, get massages, do yoga, and hit the trail again the next morning.

It’s a very Euro-style event. Others, like the Love Trails Festival in the U.K., Atjan Wild Islands in the Faroe Islands, and Garmin Mountain Festival in Spain are similar. Like those, HIGHLANDER Adventure originated in Europe and has an almost cult following. Since 2017, it has spread to three continents.

But where HIGHLANDER Adventure Festival stands out from those others is the actual journey it provides. Over up to 5 days, the festival travels as far as 100 miles along spectacular backcountry trails. There is a physical beginning, middle, and end to the adventure. And everything is provided for attendees along the way — from essentials to entertainment.

“What we’ve learned in the past seven years is that it’s not easy for people to understand the concept of HIGHLANDER,” Aljosa Vojnovic, the global head of marketing at HIGHLANDER told GearJunkie. “Hiking is at the base of HIGHLANDER. But [people] are not there just because of hiking. They are there because of the community.”

This will be the third year the HIGHLANDER Adventure Festival will host a U.S. event. It will be held in June in California’s San Bernardino National Forest, at Big Bear Lake. And this year, Vojnovic says they anticipate over 300 participants.

HIGHLANDER Festival: ‘Nothing of the Sort in the World’

HIGHLANDER Adventure Festival Backpacking
(Photo/Highlander Adventure Festival)

The idea behind the HIGHLANDER Adventure Festival was to make multiday hiking accessible, simple, and fun. It started small in 2017 in Croatia. But with the global pandemic and explosion in outdoor recreation that followed, the business boomed. It spread to other countries in the Balkan region first, then after partnering with Spartan Race, the event came to the U.S. in 2022.

Now, it’s held annually in 30 countries around the world.

HIGHLANDER Adventure Festival provides food, water, safety, campgrounds, a map, and a GPX route for attendees. On the first day, it gets everyone organized early in the morning. Then, the hikers set out, and the entire festival crew follows along. Vojnovik noted that it’s a massive logistical operation.

“We work a lot,” he said with a chuckle.

What to Expect at Big Bear Lake

HIGHLANDER Adventure Festival Backpacking
(Photo/Highlander Adventure Festival)

When hikers reach a camping checkpoint, they set up shelter and create a veritable tent city. They then embark on an evening of eating backpacking meals (last year Right On Trek sponsored the event), drinking beverages, socializing, and enjoying the scenic surroundings. There are workshops at the campsites, book readings, and live music for entertainment.

This year Nic “Darwin” Rakestraw (aka @darwin_onthetrail), a hiking influencer who completed the AT, PCT, and CDT, will be there to speak.

Last year Jesse Cody with HikeTheGoodHike NGO gave a presentation discussing his struggles with depression and suicide and how hiking helped him overcome it. Vojnovic said it brought some people to tears and fired everyone up to hit the trail again.

“Inspirational stories are perfect,” Vojnovik said. “We like to throw in something like that, that can motivate people for the next few days of hiking.”

Festivalgoers are by no means obligated to attend the presentations, though. If they want to just hang out under the stars, listen to music, and mingle with others, that’s a perfect way to spend the after-hours, too. Vojnovik said he’s always amazed at the connections people make during HIGHLANDER.

Beyond music and speakers, attendees can get massages (which will be paid separately). And at the U.S. event, yoga classes will be held every morning before people hit the dusty trail.

“The vibe that’s created at these events is something special,” Vojnovik said. “There’s nothing of that sort in the world.”

Five Festival Formats

HIGHLANDER Adventure Festival Backpacking
(Photo/Highlander Adventure Festival)

The 2024 Big Bear Lake HIGHLANDER Adventure Festival will cover up to 100 miles in 5 days. However, participants don’t have to commit to the full distance or length of time. The organizers offer five different event tiers with different pricing and different distances.

There is the Ursa Major format, which is the full 5 days and 100 miles. Then there is the Hercules (the OG format of the event and the most popular), which covers 60 miles in 5 days. Then Pegasus is 30 miles in three days, Orion is 20 miles in 2 days, and Lyra is 15 in a single day.

This year’s trail will wind through the San Bernardino National Forest, linking up with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in spots. The HIGHLANDER organizers do their best to map out routes that will be challenging but not overly taxing for attendees.

Responsible Stewardship & Sustainability

HIGHLANDER Adventure Festival Backpacking
(Photo/Highlander Adventure Festival)

Sustainability and stewardship have become pillars of the HIGHLANDER Adventure Festival, according to Vojnovic. Having so many people tromping through a wilderness and setting up hundreds of tents every evening significantly impacts the environment. So, HIGHLANDER tries to leave an area in even better condition than when it arrived.

It accomplishes this in multiple ways. First, all attendees are required to carry their garbage with them. It’s a reminder of how much waste a single person produces and a way to train people to pack out their own trash.

HIGHLANDER Adventure Festival Backpacking
(Photo/Highlander Adventure Festival)

Benny Braden, CEO of Responsible Stewardship, and Jesse Cody of Hike the Good Hike NGO will also appear at this year’s HIGHLANDER in Big Bear Lake. In 2022, Braden challenged HIGHLANDER hikers to not only carry their own garbage but also collect as much as they could along the trail.

“We were really surprised. Participants of the event gathered around 700 pounds of trash in those five days,” Vojnovik said. The following year, they collected 800 pounds.

Campsite from above
(Photo/Highlander Adventure Festival)

Now, every year the HIGHLANDER Festival offers awards at the finish line for the person who picked up the most trash.

“That really helps show people that we are not there to damage anything,” Vojnovik said. “Rather we are actually making a positive impact on the places where we are hosting the events.

Sign Up, Get Out, Go HIGHLANDER

Hikers at the base of a ski resort in summer
(Photo/Highlander Adventure Festival)

The U.S. event at Big Bear Lake is from June 18 to 22 this year. Enroll on the HIGHLANDER Website any time between now and then.

The standard Hercules 5-day 60-mile format is $650 per person, which includes food, water, injury insurance, transportation to the start, luggage storage, a camping gas cartridge, HIGHLANDER kit, pin, patch, certificate, educational and entertainment activities, infrastructure, and merino wool buff.

Attendees can also sign up as a group for $1,950. That covers three people plus a fourth person for free.

Or, take your HIGHLANDER adventure abroad. The brand holds extensive events in Europe, Asia, and Central America. Vojnovik said the Croatia HIGHLANDER Festival this year will have 750 attendees. It’s their flagship event on home turf.

“It’s a real freaking festival — I can promise you that,” he said.

Sunrise at McAfee Knob

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