Like many people afflicted with perpetual wanderlust, I spend a good chunk of my days daydreaming of far-off lands — often from the seat of my desk. What’s best for that these days is usually adventure books.
While I periodically enjoy the opportunity to dip into my savings, take time off from work, and embark upon new journeys, I’m often limited to the adventures I can find between the pages of a book. And, while every story takes its reader on a one-of-a-kind journey, I’ve found that books written explicitly about adventure are the ones I can truly lose myself in.
That said, I’ve noticed that when discussions of the genre arise, it’s the same titles that get repeated. It’s not that there aren’t other great stories out there; it’s just that in our busy lives, we often turn to the books we’ve heard about through peer recommendations — the “Waldens” and “Wilds” of the literary world. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of suggestions based on your interest in more popular titles. If you see a book you recognize, take a moment to read about a similar story that might also catch your interest. After all, if there’s one thing that needs adding to, it’s your book list…
Note that in order to keep things brief, I’ve limited myself solely to works of nonfiction, excluding such classic titles as “Around the World in 80 Days” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
If you liked “Wild,” then you might like “Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube”
Blair Braverman differs from Cheryl Strayed in that, before the events of her enlightening memoir, she actually had quite a bit of experience with the outdoors. In fact, by the age of 19, she’d already left her California home, learned to drive sled dogs in Norway, and worked as a tour guide on a glacier in Alaska. Nevertheless, “Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube,” like Strayed’s “Wild,” brilliantly charts her journey to face her fears and find herself in the wilderness.
Determined to live her life as a “tough girl” who confronts danger head-on, Braverman learns to develop the resilience needed to survive in the icy landscapes of northern Norway, a journey she chronicles in her debut Arctic memoir. Like “Wild,” the book effortlessly weaves between adventure narrative, explanatory reporting, and thoughtful reflection on identity. Those who enjoyed Strayed’s visceral detail will cling to the vivid prose of Braverman’s recounting. If “Wild,” with its famous cover image of Strayed’s beaten hiking boot, maintains a permanent space on your bookshelf, it’s time to carve out a spot next to it.
If you liked “Into Thin Air,” then you might like “Buried in the Sky”
In 2008, a group of climbers reached the summit of K2, the second-highest mountain in the world. Unfortunately, at about the time they were celebrating their colossal achievement, an avalanche occurred 400 meters below at a famously dangerous couloir nicknamed “the Bottleneck.” The icefall destroyed the climbers’ series of ropes set for their descent, leaving them virtually stranded. Over the horrifying next two days, 11 of them would perish.
“Buried in the Sky” is to K2 what Jon Krakauer’s legendary “Into Thin Air” is to Everest: a doggedly reported and richly detailed account of one of the worst tragedies to befall climbers on the mountain. There are some differences, to be sure. For instance, Amanda Padoan and Peter Zuckerman, who wrote “Buried in the Sky,” were not actually on the mountain at the time of the disaster; their reporting was done after the fact. But the scenes are just as vivid, and the writing just as illuminating.
Furthermore, K2 is not Everest — or should I say, Everest is not K2. Despite its slightly shorter frame, “the savage mountain” is aptly named, presenting a far more perilous climb to those who wish to stand at its summit. These days, with the explosion of sophisticated guiding companies, anyone with decent physical strength and a hefty paycheck can attempt the world’s tallest mountain (which has killed over 300 people, yet hosted over 8,000 summits), while only serious mountaineers ever try K2 — a mountain that kills roughly one climber for every four that summit. In other words, if you thought the stakes were high in Krakauer’s book, just wait until you hear about the dangers awaiting the explorers in “Buried in the Sky.”
Finally, while “Into Thin Air” did highlight the Sherpas who make a living by assisting climbers to the summit, “Buried in the Sky” goes deeper into their struggles, turning those brave climbers into protagonists and following them from their home villages in Nepal to the summit of one of the world’s most dangerous peaks. If you pick up Zuckerman and Padoan’s book, not only will you be treated to an exhilarating tale of survival, but you’ll also learn more about the people who make this type of climbing possible for those in the Western world.
If you liked “Into the Wild,” then you might like “Eiger Dreams”
“Into the Wild” is Jon Krakauer’s most well-known work. Whether you read it in high school English or saw the movie starring Emile Hirsch, you’re probably familiar with the story of Christopher McCandless, the well-to-do young man who dropped everything, hitchhiked to Alaska, and walked alone into the wilderness — only to be found dead four months later. Krakauer’s brilliant reporting won him acclaim for the book’s compelling narrative style and eloquent exploration of humanity and identity. But, to stop at his cornerstone work would be a disservice to the wonder that is Jon Krakauer.
Originally a fisherman and a carpenter, Krakauer got his start as a writer reporting for magazines such as Outside, National Geographic, and Smithsonian. And while he eventually graduated to book-length projects, there’s a lot to be explored in his magazine work, the genre in which he masterfully honed his craft. In this collection, subtitled “Ventures Among Men and Mountains,” you’ll find engaging articles and essays revolving around the world’s mountains and the brave few who explore them. You’ll learn about the towering peaks of Denali, K2, and Everest; the pilots who shuttle climbers from Talkeetna, Alaska, to the base of North America’s tallest mountain; the nagging cabin fever that results from spending weeks waiting out a storm in a tent; the eccentric adventures of the Burgess brothers, the climbing community’s resident “bad boys”; and the American mathematician who channeled his love of angles and precision to become the “father of modern bouldering.” You might not eat up everything Krakauer has to offer, but you’re bound to find at least a few stories in there that will keep those pages turning.
If you liked “A Walk in the Woods,” then you might like “On Trails”
To say that Bill Bryson’s 1998 story about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail brought fame to the 2,200-mile (3,500-kilometer) footpath would be an understatement. Following its release, the number of thru-hike attempts skyrocketed 60 percent in two years — and for good reason. Bryson’s book is equal parts humor, adventure, and self-discovery, following him and his grizzly counterpart, Stephen Katz, as they attempt the grueling hike. Along the way, not only do we learn about longest hiking-only trail in the world, but we get to know and love Bryson, Katz, the eccentric cast of characters they meet along the way, and, of course, the bears they inevitably encounter.
One of the aspects of the book that captivated so many readers was the very idea of the Appalachian Trail. This insanely long nature path cuts through our very backyards, and not only are we free to travel it at our leisure, but we’re almost guaranteed to enjoy a sense of spiritual enlightenment, or at least self-discovery, along the way.
This was the thought that struck Robert Moor while he was thru-hiking the AT, and he pushed it even further, beginning to consider the very nature of trails themselves — where they come from, why they’re there, and what drives us to follow them. For the next seven years, he traveled around the world in pursuit of answers, exploring all types of trails, from long-lost Cherokee footpaths to ant trails to interstate systems to the internet. The result is “On Trails,” an unparalleled exploration that weaves together adventure, history, science, and philosophy. If you’ve ever considered attempting a life-changing thru-hike like the AT, or if you’ve ever enjoyed the natural solitude of a quick walk through the woods, you’ll love “On Trails.”
If you liked “Walden” or “Desert Solitaire,” then you might like “Wind, Sand and Stars”
Even if we didn’t exactly read them cover to cover, we all probably remember seeing “Walden” or “Desert Solitaire” on a syllabus at some point during our schooling. Though they deal with starkly different settings (the former takes place in the woodlands of Massachusetts, while the latter is set in the deserts of the Colorado Plateau), both stories chronicle their author’s time spent in the outdoors. Henry David Thoreau and Edward Abbey each saw the connections between philosophy, humanity, and the natural world, and their works reflect the slow-burn of understanding they developed from immersing themselves in the wilderness.
Enter Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, an author you probably recognize from his beautifully tender novella, “The Little Prince.”
“Wind, Sand and Stars,” for which he was awarded the U.S. National Book Award for nonfiction, is his aviation memoir, providing an exhilarating perspective about what the world looks like from above. Keep in mind that Saint-Exupéry became a pilot at 26 and went on to fly in both the Spanish Civil War and WWII, which means that he was flying before the modern wonders of commercial aviation created an orderly highway system within the atmosphere. For him and the other pilots you’ll meet within the pages of “Wind, Sand and Stars,” the sky was rugged, unclaimed land, and their planes were delicate vessels by which they could carefully explore it. In short, at the time, aviation was the height of adventure.
While the stories you’ll consume in this book offer plenty of excitement (in particular, a harrowing account of Saint-Exupéry’s crash and near-death experience in the Sahara), “Wind, Sand and Stars,” like “Walden” and “Desert Solitaire,” transcends the basic adventure narrative. Saint-Exupéry was a philosopher above all else, and — suspended among the stars — he spent many hours developing a unique perspective of the world below him. He says from the start of the book that his main interest is not the sky and the earth he flies over, but the people who inhabit it. As the book progresses, he transitions from vivid ruminations about flight to insightful observations about humanity based on his time spent in warzones. Named one of the best adventure books of all time by National Geographic, “Wind, Sand and Stars” deserves a spot on any explorer’s reading list.
Interested in films as well? Check out these adventure movie recommendations!
Header image by Paul Aparicio