Kentucky backpacker/ YouTuber John Kelley travels the path of faith
By Steve Barrett
Creative Content Writer, Hilltop Packs LLC
John Kelley, 48, of Kentucky is living proof that there is a strong connection between spiritual faith and exploring the wonders of nature.
The happily married father of two young children has been serving through ministry for decades and has developed a massive passion for hiking and backpacking, so much so that he created a popular YouTube channel and a livestreaming podcast focusing on his love for the outdoors.
John, who grew up in upstate New York and had previously lived in northern Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin, moved to Nicholasville, Kentucky in 2007 and has lived here since. He began hiking in 2015 and has never looked back.
At an earlier age, neither Christianity nor hiking were important to him; however, he never expected that both would become so vital to him in the years ahead.
“When I was 19, I considered myself an atheist, and I had no real belief in anything spiritual,” he said. “It was actually experiencing the outdoors that forced me to change my thinking about whether God was real or not … seeing nature made me believe there had to be more. That is really what led me to my faith.”
John added that had it not been for the outdoors, he likely would not have found his calling.
“I love creation,” he said. “I tell the people in my church today to please don’t get me wrong, I truly love church services, but my sanctuary is out in the woods, with a pack on my back while hiking for miles. That is my church.”
John said it was one particular day in Grundy, Virginia, when he was on a mountain, sitting on a bench, and God showed him how beautiful and wondrous nature can be.
“I looked out and saw a sunrise with a sky filled with beautiful purple and orange hues, and the fog was lifting out of the mountains, and a deer ran out in front of me, and I was like, ‘Oh, come on. I get it now,’" he said. “That’s where my faith truly comes from… that moment of incredible clarity.”
He began working as a minister in 1996, serving as a youth pastor for years then getting very involved into worship for over a decade. From there, he went into discipleship, where his role became working with, teaching and helping people.
Then COVID happened. And everything changed.
“The moment the pandemic struck, suddenly we couldn’t meet in person anymore, so going and spending time with people was no longer an option, and having Sunday morning services was not a possibility,” he said. “So, my role had to shift a little bit. Because of the work I had been doing in making videos for my YouTube channel, I spearheaded online church services that we started doing.
“When we started, I would record the services, then edit and polish them up later, which ended up being 70 to 80 hours of work each week,” he continued. “So, we decided to start livestreaming services. I had to learn all of the nuances of livestreaming – using cameras and other equipment that I had never used before. It was a lot of work, but it was worth it.”
John said following the changes created by COVID, the church gave him a new job title, Minister of Engagement.
“Anything that engages people in person or online, I am in charge of,” he said.
The marriage between John’s faith and his passion for the outdoors intensified years when he and a friend, who were both ministers in Wisconsin before John moved to Kentucky, met up a while later for lunch. John told his friend his plans to start a church, and his friend hit him with some surprising news of his own.
“He said, ‘Oh, that’s awesome, I’m so happy for you! Oh, by the way, I’m planning to walk around the globe.’ And I didn’t expect that,” he said with a laugh. “His original plan was to literally hike around the world over a two- or three-year span, to raise awareness of the serious need for clean water in Africa. He started doing that, and out of that came a non-profit called Active Water, which he became very committed to.
“He left the global trek plan to commit his life to Active Water, which later joined forces with a company called Life Water, that builds wells for villages all over the world,” he continued. “He then asked me to go on an adventure with him - climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (a dormant volcano in Tanzania that is considered to be the highest mountain in Africa).”
John admitted that his first reaction to this request was not exactly a positive one.
“I originally thought It was the dumbest thing I ever heard in my life. I had been on one hike in my life and that was just to impress a girl, and it was a disaster, a 3-mile hike that turned into a 12-mile hike with no water because I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “Obviously, hiking wasn’t my thing at that point in my life. But I talked to my preacher and my wife about it, and they both encouraged me to go. And I thought that if the people in my life who I cared about were encouraging me to go, then maybe I should do it.
“So I committed to do it, especially when I found out it was a fundraiser to build water wells in Africa,” he added.
Before John decided to take on this adventure, he started hiking, and his first hike was a 3.7-mile, moderate hike through Red River Gorge in Kentucky.
“It was supposed to be an easier hike, but more than 6 miles later, after getting lost several times, we were walking back to the car with our feet dragging,” he said. “You’d think that after that first rough experience I would give it up, but something inside of me made want to do it again, and by the middle of 2016 I was hiking about 40 to 45 miles each week and loving every second of it.”
John would partake in numerous hikes over the years, including most of the Red River Gorge trails and sections of the Appalachian Trail. He has made it a goal to hike in at least five different states each year.
Since finding his passion for the outdoors, he estimates that he has trekked a few thousand total miles, including the dizzying heights of 19,341 feet in elevation at Mount Kilimanjaro.
Another memorable adventure was the Picture Rocks Trail in Michigan in May 2021, which he said was breathtaking.
“We hiked along Lake Superior and were overwhelmed by the beauty, the scenery, the crystal clear water,” he recalled. “I went with a big group, and it was an incredible experience.”
As for his YouTube channel, John said the initiative began while he was embarking on a hike to raise money for Life Water.
“Friends, family members and people from the church had been donating money for the cause, so I wanted to use a Go Pro and film some videos of my hike and put them on YouTube so the supporters could see what I was up to,” he said. “After that, I thought the channel was just going to go away … however, (fellow backpacker) Dan Becker had seen the videos and left positive comments, which led to a Facebook conversation where he encouraged me to continue the channel. He really pushed me, gave me great advice.”
His channel’s title started out as JK Is Hiking, but he eventually simplified the title to his name. The channel, which started in 2018, currently has roughly 14,000 subscribers. John also has a strong presence on Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok.
He and friend Jeremiah Stringer also co-host the Backpacking Podcast, a family-friendly podcast that is livestreamed every Monday night at 8 p.m. on YouTube. A new audio podcast is also distributed every Wednesday.
“The podcast is a lot of fun,” John said. “We love to interact live, we love talking to other hikers and backpackers and engage in numerous topics of conversation, such as sharing our worst stories of pooping in the woods. There’s never a dull moment.”
John said a lot of what can be found on his YouTube channel is aimed to beginning hikers.
“There are gear reviews, backpacking tips, ways to improve trips, and so much more,” he said. “I feel that people who watch the videos can identify with me, and one topic that I like to address is that if you’re overweight, it doesn’t mean you can’t backpack. Just go out and do it.”
He also encourages all hikers and backpackers to find their own niche.
“You don’t have be a long trail hiker,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with going out two miles, camping out, building a fire, eating a little food and sleeping outside, and then going home in the morning. That’s still backpacking. You can do 2,000 miles or 2 miles. Don’t let anyone define you.
It’s all about just getting out there and exploring for yourself,” he added. “I truly believe that over 99 percent of all people would truly benefit physically, mentally, emotionally and/or spiritually just getting outside.”
John also emphasizes the importance of research – not just how hikers can protect themselves but also protect the land.
“We have this awesome blessing known as the outdoors. We are able to get out there and be in it and enjoy it, but we also have to make sure we take care of it so that it will still be there for future generations,” he said. “If I loan something to someone, I expect it to be returned to me in great condition. That’s how we should treat nature and the outdoors. The woods don’t belong to us.”
He added that he believes everyone should give hiking a chance, even if it’s just once.
“You only get this one life, so why not experience what’s out there, what God created? It makes no sense to spend your life confined to within four walls. The world is so much bigger and more beautiful than any building built by man.
“And besides,” he said, with a warm smile, “Jesus was a hiker who traveled all over, and He didn’t even have good shoes. I believe He wants us, all of us, out there and experience His creation for ourselves.”