The following (subjective!) roundup of some topnotch adventure books can’t hope to capture all of the category’s contradictions and color. But these 11 books attempt to put the emphasis on inspiration and wonderment rather than the whole “look at me!” approach.
Tracks by Robyn Davidson
In 1977, 27-year-old Robyn Davidson struck off from Alice Springs on a nine-month, 1,700-mile footslog through the Outback to Western Australia’s Indian Ocean coast. Her full-time companions were several camels and dogs. Though there was also a National Geographic photographer, Rick Smolan—whom she agreed to let document the trek in exchange for the magazine’s funding—who periodically checked in along her remote route. Adapted into a decent film in 2014, Tracks(Opens in a new window) remains an engrossing read, with insights into Aboriginal culture, the austere beauty of the Australian interior, and the kind of hardcore fortitude and self-reliance required for such a journey.
Read It: By a desert campfire. Also read it if you’ve got a latent desire to be a dromedary wrangler. (And heads-up: You’ll probably develop that desire regardless by the end of the book.)
The Cloud Forest by Peter Matthiessen
More than a few of Matthiessen’s books could comfortably sit here, not least his widely read Himalayan epic, The Snow Leopard, plus the high-seas, shark-chasing voyage of Blue Meridian. But The Cloud Forest(Opens in a new window), which chronicles the writer’s explorations of South America, describes some particularly heart-in-your-throat exploits, especially a running of the Urubamba River’s gnarly, whirlpool-ridden Pongo de Mainique rapids in a flimsy raft.
Read It: Readying yourself for a bucket-list getaway to the Amazon, the Peruvian Andes, or Patagonia.
The Adventure Gap by James Edward Mills
The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors(Opens in a new window) is both a first-rate climbing saga and an essential sociological survey of inclusivity and representation in outdoor recreation. Mills (who helms The Joy Trip Project(Opens in a new window)) served as team journalist on the NOLS-sponsored Expedition Denali, the first attempt on North America’s loftiest peak by an all-African-American group of mountaineers. (The undertaking also inspired the documentary An American Ascent.) Chronicling the climb, The Adventure Gap also delves into the relationship between minorities and the natural world and spotlights other standout Black adventurers and explorers.
Read It: At whatever you choose to call Base Camp, mulling a summit attempt of either the literal or metaphorical kind.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Famed, controversial Southwestern author Ed Abbey had a complicated relationship with Desert Solitaire(Opens in a new window), for much the same reason Peter Matthiessen viewed The Snow Leopard’s iconic status a bit ambivalently: Both writers felt these stone-cold classic works overshadowed their canon—especially their fiction—while unfairly pegging them as “nature” (or “travel”) writers, first and foremost. Yet Desert Solitaire unquestionably contains some of Abbey’s most splendid and poignant prose, and remains one of the great love letters to a landscape: in this case, the slickrock country of southeastern Utah’s Colorado Plateau. Much of the book—which takes the liberty of condensing Abbey’s multiple posts as a park ranger in Arches National Park, plus other regional adventuring, into a single season—sees the “desert rat” tooling around on patrol or lounging at his trailer, but there’s genuine action sprinkled throughout: most memorably, perhaps, Abbey’s descent into the “Maze” section of Canyonlands National Park.
Read It: When feeling sort of cranky about the state of the world, but also still hopelessly in love with its primal splendor. And, certainly, when touring the Southeast Utah outback—and surveying the busyness of Arches or Zion these days.
In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall
Adventure for adventure’s sake is one thing, but probing one’s physical limits and fear thresholds in the wilds is just part of the job for many field researchers. Jane Goodall’s definitely a case in point. In the Shadow of Man(Opens in a new window) documents the early years of her groundbreaking study of chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park—research that’s still going strong—and constitutes high adventure both in terms of fieldwork and scientific inquiry that transformed the way we view our closest relatives, and our own kind.
Read It: And then start dropping the names of such stone-cold Gombe chimp legends as Flo, Fifi, and David Greybeard at parties. Anybody knowing whom you’re talking about is (a) cool and (b) possibly a solid candidate for a life-partner.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, his firsthand account of the 1996 Mount Everest climbing disaster, is another logical choice for this list, given its enormous popularity and reckoning with the questionable realities of modern-day alpinism on the world’s loftiest peak. That said, Into the Wild(Opens in a new window)—which focuses on the life-path of Christopher McCandless, whose philosophical convictions and nomadic predilections led him to a fateful stay in the Alaskan bush—continues to speak intimately to droves of readers around the world themselves uncertain about their place in modern society and tugged by the lure of a wildland existence.
Read It: When reassessing everything in your life, but maybe also when contemplating the whole “finding-yourself” routine and its various pitfalls and complications.
Grizzly Years by Doug Peacock
A longtime buddy of Ed Abbey’s (and famously the model for Hayduke in Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang novel), Peacock remains among the foremost advocates for North American wilderness and one of those genuine adventurers who’s unfailingly humble and self-deprecating. Grizzly Years(Opens in a new window) ranges over the years and across the American West (mainly the Northern Rockies and the Yellowstone Plateau) as Peacock relates how big backcountry—and the lordly, cantankerous, much-diminished grizzly bear—gave him solace and purpose following his service as a Green Beret medic in Vietnam. An honest-to-goodness national treasure, Peacock’s written a number of other much-recommended books (most recently Was It Worth It?) and recently appeared in a powerful short film on grizzlies and climate change, The Beast of Our Time(Opens in a new window).
Read It: Huddled in a tent in the Yellowstone or Glacier backcountry, or when you wish you were.
The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Childs
This remarkable book—written by Osprey ambassador Craig Childs(Opens in a new window)—is an exploration of where water lies, and how it moves, in the depths of the American Southwest. Its lyrical chapters read more like extended meditations, but they’re actually chock-full of some pretty darn intense adventuring: Childs slogging upstream into a black cave gushing out a waterfall, or tempting fate to experience up-close how a canyonland flash flood does its violent work. In short, The Secret Knowledge of Water(Opens in a new window) is a must-read.
Read It: When you need a reminder that the actual, nuts-and-bolts processes of Planet Earth come shrouded in sacred mystery. And, more pragmatically: before backpacking in the Great American Desert, so you remember that flash floods are no friggin’ joke.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
At this point, Wild(Opens in a new window) has probably displaced Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods as the best-known ode to thru-hiking one of the U.S.’s National Scenic Trails. It’s also right up there among the defining memoirs of all time. Of course, Strayed’s solo odyssey on the Pacific Crest Trail is only part of the book’s focus: It’s also an artfully evoked journey through grief, addiction, and self-discovery.
Read It: On a long-distance footpath, duh. (Or, OK, on a figurative long-distance footpath through the wilds of your own mind and memory.)
Travels by William Bartram
Between 1773 and 1778, the botanist and naturalist William Bartram forayed through the American Southeast, collecting plants alongside observations of landscape, fauna, and indigenous cultures such as the Creek, the Seminole, and the Cherokee. His published account not only represented a big-time contribution to 18th-century scientific knowledge, but also a legit literary account of backcountry exploration that became hugely popular in Europe (and famously inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan). Besides vivid evocations of pine savannas, bottomland swamps and other wild Southeastern ecosystems—and some overall pretty thoughtful considerations of American Indian peoples—Bartram’s Travels(Opens in a new window) offers plenty of thrills, not least run-ins with gators, black bears, red wolves, and venomous serpents.
Read It: Planning your next swamp slog.
Honouring High Places by Junko Tabei & Helen Y. Wolfe
Junko Tabei was an ambitious Japanese climber who counted among her many accomplishments being the first woman to scale all Seven Summits as well as Mount Everest. Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Taberi(Opens in a new window) compiles a selection of her writings in English translation. Tabei—who continued her high-elevation exploits even after being diagnosed with the cancer that would take her life in 2016—pens engagingly about her mountaineering feats while also dispensing plenty of inspiring encouragement re: answering adventure’s siren call.
Read It: In between spreadsheeting out a schedule of dream expeditions that runs deep into your golden years.