When we can’t actually get away from work or school to travel and explore, we satisfy our wanderlust with the adventures of others. I, for one, love reading outdoor adventure books. If it takes place on a river or mountain, perfect. If it’s a true story or memoir, even better. Continue reading for, what I believe, to be the best outdoor adventure books.
And why not forward this post to your adventure buddies? Choose a book and start an outdoor adventure book club!
11 Must-Read Outdoor Adventure Books
By: Joe Simpson
This book is a rollercoaster of emotions. It’s a lot of ‘no way Joe survives this’ and ‘he is definitely about to die‘ until you remember Joe is the one who wrote the book, so clearly he does survive. But oh my goodness I don’t think I’ve read a better survival story. Joe and his climbing partner are mountain climbing in South America, attempting a first ascent.
On the descent, Joe is injured and from there on it’s just disaster-miracle-disaster-miracle until he somehow survives. If you have high blood pressure, maybe don’t read this book. But if you love to be kept up at night on the edge of your seat, you’ll love this book.
By Cheryl Stayed
In Wild, Cheryl’s life has just about hit rock bottom. She is grieving the death of her mother, her marriage has just ended, and she was dangerously close to a heroin addition. Then, with no experience and very little guidance, she makes the impulsive decision to hike 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone. If you don’t know anything about camping, this book will give you some confidence that it’s never too late to fall in love with hiking. If you do know camping, you’ll appreciate Cheryl’s descriptions of pain and perseverance on the trail. What’s beautiful about Wild is that it goes beyond just another trip report. In the book, Cheryl tackles her demons throughout the hike and overcomes many of the barriers that had existed in her mind.
By Jon Krakauer
It’s likely you’ve already seen the movie Into the Wild, but I’d still urge you to read the book. If you haven’t read or seen it and you have no idea what it’s about, here is a quick summary. Into the Wild is the story of Chris McCandless.
Fed up with the commercialism and lack of authenticity in society, he donates all of his possessions, abandons his family and hitchhikes his way to Alaska. Both the movie and book are emotionally moving, however the book provides more context. Plus, Jon Krakauer draws a parallel between the reckless decisions both he and Chris made in their young lives, and how luck worked out in one person’s favour, but not the other. This novel set the standard for outdoor adventure books – it’s a true classic.
By Adam Weymouth
While I was reading this book, I was always trying to convince people it was more interesting that it appeared. “Mikaela, you’re reading a book about salmon?!?” On the surface it’s a story about paddling the Yukon River (Adam is in a canoe, there are rapids) but the story goes so much deeper than that.
This is the journey of the Chinook Salmon and the communities along the Yukon River whose lives have been forever altered by the salmon’s near disappearance. The story goes into the history of salmon farming throughout the world; it reveals some (alarming!) information about the salmon we find in the grocery store. Meanwhile it’s all set in wild and vast Alaska. It’s seriously worth the read.
By Blair Braverman
This book will surprise you in many ways. Blair Braverman is a tough girl obsessed with the North. She has lived in Norway and Alaska, working with sled dogs and guiding on glaciers. You’ll be fascinated by her descriptions of attending dog sledding school, panic when she gets trapped in snow, fear for her as she navigates empty tundra at night. And yet, while the story is exciting in nature, there is so much more to the book than sled dogs and chilly environments. The novel also confronts the fear of living in extreme environments, sexism in adventure guiding, owning your story and your own body, among other topics. Also Blair is a total badass and it’s an entertaining read. As far as outdoor books go, this one is a total knock-out.
By Adam Shoalts
In this book, Adam Shoalts sets out the paddle an unnamed river in the Hudson Bay Lowlands that has no record of ever being paddled. Without a map, anything can lie beyond the river bend (say, a 20 ft. waterfall…) and I can only imagine the courage it takes to paddle not knowing what you’re in for. I’d recommend this book to anyone who loves canoeing, but even if you don’t you may find it sparks a desire in you to go paddling (or never get in a boat again).
By Jon Krakauer
Here is another book by Jon Kraukauer (who also wrote Into The Wild), and this is the epitome of outdoor adventure books. Into Thin Air is an exhilarating and heartbreaking account of the Mount Everest disaster. John, a writer for Outside Magazine, joins an Everest Expedition led by one of the world’s most celebrated climbers, Rob Hall.
On the summit day, a huge storm hits and those who did not abide by the 2:00pm turnaround time get caught in it. Over the next day, eight people die, including Rob Hall. Jon does extensive research to support the personal account of what happened and he interviews survivors after the fact. Honestly, it isn’t one of my favourites (I’d recommend Touching the Void over this one), but it’s celebrated enough to command a spot on this list.
By Adam Shoalts
I was so excited to read this book. I really liked Adam’s other book (Alone Against the North, featured above) and I also love the arctic. So, no surprise I loved this book. In Beyond the Trees, Adam recounts his nearly 4000 km journey across Canada’s unforgiving arctic.
It’s a race against time; he must reach his destination before winter sets in, so he cannot rest or make mistakes. On his journey he battles gale winds, paddles up river and has a handful of close wildlife encounters. It isn’t thrilling the way Touching the Void is (he doesn’t have any close calls), but instead of thrills the reader will get a deep look into a landscape untouched by modern development. I found the book to read kind of like an elaborate love letter to the wilderness. Plus, Adam is so damn funny in his prose. I love it.
By Bill Bryson
I love the way Bill Bryson writes. In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson and his recovering alcoholic friend set out to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. Neither are experienced hikers, so you can imagine the blunders encountered along the way.
This book is very different to all the others on the list because it isn’t about an impressive expedition or an insane survival story. In fact, the walk itself is pretty mundane. But then again, Bill Bryson wrote an entire (best selling) book on home furniture, so Bill can make literally anything an amusing book to read. Honestly, this book will have you laughing out loud, thinking of your own hiking memories and continuously turning the pages.
By Eric Viesturs
This story takes you to the peaks of the world’s tallest mountains. Eric Viesturs was the sixth person to ever each of the 14 8,000 meter-plus mountains and in this memoir he details everything from his early obsession with the mountains to the logistics of mountaineering and finally, the incredible feat that is climbing the tallest mountains in the world.
This is one of those “he did an impressive thing so let’s have him write a book about it”. I wasn’t taken on an emotional rollercoaster; there were no long nights where I couldn’t put the book down. That said, it was interesting learning about what goes into an expedition and how your mindset changes as you navigate an obsession.
By Alex Honnold with David Roberts
Alex Honnold is a legend in the climbing community, and the outdoor adventure world overall. In this book, we get to see the world through Honnold’s eyes and the thoughts he had while alone on a sheer rock face.
In total honesty, I didn’t like this book (part of it is because it Alex Honnold didn’t write it himself). If you want to learn more about Alex and his climbing, I would recommend watching the documentary Free Solo instead. That said, it’s a largely celebrated book so who am I to say it doesn’t below on this list?
By James Campbell
In Braving It, James Campbell and his daughter make three trips to the Alaska wilderness, each progressively more difficult. The first visit is a summer trip to help a friend construct a cabin, the second a visit to the constructed cabin in the winter, and the third a canoe trip.
While the book will have you longing for a trip to the Alaskan backcountry, I think the real story is about the connection between fathers and daughters. The worrying from both sides, the acknowledgment that not all feelings need to be said to be shared. It’s made me even more eager to plan a camping trip with my dad.
Currently Reading: River of Fire: Conflict and Survival on the Seal River
By Hap Wilson
Hap Wilson is the father of modern canoeing, having paddled over 60,000 km, completed 250 expeditions and created the first canoe guide books for many of the most popular rivers we paddle now. He’s a bit of an idol of mine (insert #fangirl swoon here).
In River of Fire, Hap recounts his experience paddling the Seal River during an enormous and dangerous forest fire (one of the worst the Boreal Forest has ever seen). This was during a time when you didn’t have satellite phones to call for help. I’m sure this will be an exciting, nail-biting read!
What’s your favourite outdoor adventure book?
This is an evolving list. Comment below your favourite outdoor adventure books and I’ll do my best to give it a read and add it to the list!