The Ultimate List of Non-Fiction Outdoor Adventure Books
As an outdoor writer, I eat, sleep, and breathe all things adventure (shocking, I know). You can typically find me curled up with a good adventure novel when I’m not out and about exploring. I’ve spent years book worming about to bring you a list of the most heart-pumping, adrenaline-inducing, eye-opening adventure reads out there. My complete list of the best non-fiction outdoor adventure books has something for nearly every interest.
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How I Organized this List
The hardest part about creating a list of stellar adventure books had nothing to do with actually reading the material. In fact, I’ve read so many adventure books, I just had to break it down into categories. But how? I chose to stick with general themes in the literature. All of these books are non-fiction unless I note otherwise.
These books are written by folks who have accomplished some unthinkable milestones in the outdoors.
Unbound: A Story of Snow and Self-Discovery by Steph Jagger
Steph Jagger woke up one day and realized she needed to change. She decided to take a year off of her regular life and attempt seven million vertical feet of skiing. Her journey takes her beyond the slopes, where she learned to connect with her true self. Sometimes it takes a wake-up call to realize that you’re living the life everyone else thinks is best.
No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts
Ed Viesturs is hands down, a world-class mountaineer. He was the first man from the United States to submit all of the 8,000m peaks without supplemental oxygen. His perseverance and wisdom in the mountains hold so much truth. He taught me that the summit is only the halfway point.
Walking the Himalaya by Levison Wood
Levinson Wood completes these fantastic walks across some of the world’s most contested landscapes. I always joke that if I was born a man, I would have his job. His book about his journey across the Himalaya left me aw-struck, mostly because I want to walk across the length of Nepal someday. This book left me wanting more, but it’s a great read if you love mountains.
Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild by Craig Childs
So confession time: I’m a bit obsessed with Craig Childs. He’s on this list quite a bit, and that’s because his imagery is top-notch. This book doesn’t focus on human feats, but rather that of an animal kind. Animal Dialogues is a collection of short stories about various animal species and the characteristics that make them so inspiring.
I’ve read countless books about life in the high alpine. These mountain marvels will fix your need to get that thin air and climb high.
Higher Love: Skiing the Seven Summits by Kit DesLauriers
DesLauriers decided she was going to be the first female to ski the Seven Summits. Although I don’t agree with her choice of the high point of the Austrailian Plate (Carstenz Pyramid or Puncak Jaya would have been my choice), I still admire her courage with this book. She speaks about societal pressures, personal pressure and the need to perform. I don’t care what critics said, she still skied Everest and damn does she have a story to tell.
Annapurna: A Woman’s Place by Arlene Blum
After I returned from Nepal, I picked up Arlene Blum’s masterpiece about the trials and tribulations of being the first team of women to summit an 8,000m peak. What an eye-opener. I love the visuals accompanied with the book and she’s got it right: A woman’s place is on top!
Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek across 1,700 Miles of Australian Outback by Robyn Davidson
This could also be filed under “Amazing feats” but Davidson took a pack of camels (that she trained) and her pup across some of the harshest landscapes on earth. Her insight into the conflict between the aboriginal people and the white Australian settlers was beautifully done. Sure, it takes a while for the story to get rolling, I almost put the book down, but I’m sure glad that I didn’t.
The Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman
If you’ve ever traveled like a backpacker you’ll have an appreciation for the Lunatic Express. Hoffman decided to take the most dangerous modes of public transportation around the world, just to see what it’s like. Having also spent far too much time on a rusty bucket Indonesian ferry, I can certainly relate. His personal issues cloud the story a bit, but I suppose when your ass spends that much time going numb on a hard seat life will eventually bubble up.
Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler
I’ve honestly never been too interested in Antarctica, it largely seemed like a desolate place and I hate the cold. Then I read Terra Incognita. Antarctica is a weird place, not ruled by man, but also frequently visited. She had some incredible opportunities to jump around to different stations, spend time with various nations and really embed herself in this icy desert.
Stories from the Dirt by John Long
If you haven’t read anything by John Long, you really should pick up Stories from the Dirt. I got this as a Christmas gift from my brother and it was wholly entertaining. Mr. Long is a well-traveled adventure junkie with a dirtbag climber upbringing. His stories about his career are hilarious, hair-raising and utterly crazy. This book hits some of the highlights and I’m definitely interested in reading more of his work.
If you spend any time outside, you better educate yourself on the cultures of the native people. I’ve spent the better part of a year reading anything I can get my hands on related to Native American culture here in the US. Believe me, it’s hard to come by, but well-worth the investigation.
The House of Rain by Craig Childs
Curious about the Ancient Puebloans (commonly known as the Anasazi, but that’s actually an offensive term). Childs follows ancient routes across this highly nomadic civilization. Here he uncovers a story of a vast civilization that I can guarantee is left out of every state-issued history book.
Dispossessing the Wilderness by Mark David Spence
Love our national parks? Read Dispossessing the Wilderness. You may change your opinion about our park system. This academic read goes into intense detail about the formation of our national parks. Spoiler alert, there was a lot of forced relocation of native people. Is this an easy read? No. But is it an important part of our history that should be understood, taught, and learned from? Absolutely.
Diné Bahane’ The Navajo Creation Story by Paul G Zolbrod
I’m really not a fan of religious texts, I find them to be too preachy. Too much right vs wrong and black and white. However, when a contact recommended I read Diné Bahane’ I figured I would put my preconceived notions aside and give it a read. It’s a surprisingly easy read with plenty of incredible lessons. Being from Colorado, I liked all of the references for places that I’m familiar with. It felt real, tangible and raw. I’ve come to see the wilderness in a new light, and the parallels between the Navajo tradition on why animals look and act the way they do, and the scientific thought behind it is pretty freakin sweet.
Stories of Survival
Sometimes, life goes haywire. There is a lot ot be learned from the will to survive.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
Alright, so Shackleton may have been pretty sexist, likely racist, and a little “conquering.” However, that doesn’t make this INSANE survival tale any less impressive. His team got stuck in the ice and survived for nearly a year in Antartica. The story of their rescue and survival is one that needs to be read to be believed.
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
Arguably a classic, I’m really unsure how anyone could have survived the fall that these two fateful climbers encountered. This powerful survival story is gory and cringe-inducing, leaving you wondering if you should be in the high-alpine at all.
The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Childs
Although this book doesn’t focus so much on a specific survival story, it could help you in a pinch. Childs dives deep into the world of water in North America’s deserts. Where it’s found, how it’s been used over the years and surprising stories about good old H-two-O. Well worth a read for any desert enthusiast.
Classic Adventure Reads
New to the genre? Check out these adventure classics.
Unbroken by Laura Hillendbrand
Although this story focuses on World War II, there is still a strong element of outdoor survival. For me, this book recognizes adventure in a different way. In fact, I started reading more from the non-fiction adventure genre from this captivating read. It’s the newest addition to the classic adventure reads, but it’s here to stay.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is one of my favorite all-time authors. His ability to tell even the most complex story in a relatable, human way is unmatched. A Walk in the Woods takes an honest look at thru-hiking through the lens of a less-seasoned explorer. Be prepared to laugh, cringe and maybe even cry a little.
Into Thin Air by John Krakauer
Into Thin Air had a profound impact on my life. It put mountains on my radar at age ten. I wanted to be a doctor in the Himalaya and help climbers and the Sherpa people. Little did I know that was an insane amount of work (I later switched career objectives at age 19) but my love of the mountains never faltered. This book, describing the harrowing Everest tragedy of 1996, is an incredible story.
Want to level up outside? Here are a few of my favorite reference books
Freedom of the Hills
Now in its eighth edition, this is the standard for all things mountain. I reference this book constantly, picking it up when I need a refresher and learning all I can before diving into something new. A must-have for anyone looking to mountaineer.
Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales
Gonzales describes ways in which we can learn about survival from the accidents, skills, and accounts of others. I haven’t quite finished this one yet, but so far I’ve enjoyed learning from different perspectives.
The Lady Dirtbag’s Guide to Freedom
Shameless plug but #sorrynotsorry. If you’re a woman and you want the real-deal on backpacking, hiking and more, definitely check out my eBook. It’s filled with awesome tips and tricks for the modern outdoor woman as well as some embarrassing stories from me and my co-author.
Total Let Downs
All that Glitters: A Climber’s Journey Through Addiction and Depression: Margot Talbot
I really wanted to like this book. It seemed to be directly up my ally with a mix of emotion, life experience and the outdoors. Unfortunately, I was insanely disappointed. There is very little focus on the outdoors, maybe the last fifth of the book. I suppose if you want to read someone’s tale of overcoming a bad upbringing and addiction, then you would like this read. But if you’re looking for the outdoor adventure and thrills? Don’t look here.
Walking the Amazon by Ed Stafford
Another book I truly wanted to love. It took Stafford three years to complete this journey, but all I found was a lot of complaining. And I mean A LOT. I suppose if I had to live in the Amazonian bush I may complain too, but the lack of character development, coupled with his obsession of making sure that you knew he didn’t “cheat” for whatever rules he set forth on himself really ruined the read.
Wild by Nature: From Siberia to Australia by Sarah Marquis
This book came highly recommended by a few people. However, I hated it. Out of three up here, this was my least favorite. Marquis constantly complained about how she was chased, scolded, robbed and so on all until she reached Australia. It came off as ultra-racist. As if she took on this expedition with zero regards for local customs and cultures. No wonder she was chased out of villages, she didn’t even know how to say hello. It made me roll my eyes more than once. My advice? Instead of creating a pity party, why don’t you educate yourself on socio-economics, cultures, customs and current issues before decided to travel somewhere?
Phew! That was quite the list of outdoor books. Got a fav that isn’t listed here? Go ahead and drop it in the comments below. I’m always looking for new and exciting outdoor adventure reads.
Like to listen to adventure? Check out my list of amazing outdoor podcasts.