Top of the Trail

BACKPACKER's head hiker Jonathan Dorn sheds light on success in the magazine and on the trail

A lot of people ask us what it's like to work at BACKPACKER, but I'm a bad person to ask: They keep the bloggers in wi-fi-enabled cages two vertical miles below sea level, where we're fed an all-caffeine diet via surface IV in order to facilitate maximum snark.

But BACKPACKER editor-in-chief Jon Dorn knows a thing or two about letting your passions fuel both your life and work. In a recent Q&A with the Magazine Publishers of America, he dropped a few of his key secrets for running an NMA-award-winning magazine, getting the most out of life, and taking a chance on perks over pay. A sampling:

You’ve been at Backpacker since 1997. How’d you get there? Coming out of college, I went straight to grad school at Harvard and got a Ph.D. in American studies. It took me two years of working in academia afterwards (and freelancing on the side) to decide that teaching college history was a bit too musty. Backpacker  was one of the magazines I was writing for, and they offered me a job as an assistant equipment editor making $27,000. My wife had just given birth, so it was tight, but I traveled to three different countries that first year. The salary may have been tiny, but the perks were huge.

Is there any way to explain the allure of hiking to someone who thinks walking to the subway is a workout? When I was a vegetarian, I craved big, greasy double-bacon cheeseburgers. It represented everything I wasn’t getting in my diet—fat, salt, texture, flavor. Hiking is a cheeseburger to the subway’s tofu. Out on the trail, you get fresh air, quiet, leafy scenery, physical and mental space—the polar opposite of the city experience. But it’s more than mere escape; it’s also an opportunity to reengage with nature in a way you haven’t since you were a kid.

How often do you hit the trails yourself? Weekly. My whole staff is constantly testing gear, mapping trips and shooting video. I’m off to Alaska for a two-week trip in mid-July. We’re taking a bush plane into a mountain range that might see only two or three parties a year.

(Read the whole Q&A here.)

Alaska, eh? Not bad, Dorn, but you should've been a blogger. My view of the Earth's core tops a forgotten Alaskan mountain chain vista any day...

—Ted Alvarez

Jonathan Dorn: Member Q&A (Magazine Publishers of America)