This isn’t necessarily one of those “Best Adventure Books Ever Written” lists—just a list of a few books I have read and loved over the years, because every once in a while I get a message from someone asking for some book recommendations, and I think, “hey, that would make a good blog post.” So here are a few of my favorites—climbing, adventure travel, whitewater, surfing, fishing, . To see what I’m currently reading, you can follow me on Goodreads here.
Full disclosure: if you click on the title of any of these books, the affiliate link will take you to Amazon, where you can buy the book. If I did everything correctly, I believe Amazon will give me a few cents of your book purchase, which is kind of nice. (But not as nice as if you click on this link to buy a really expensive stove, in which case Amazon will give me a few dollars.)
The Hard Way by Mark Jenkins
A few years ago, I wrote Mark Jenkins a fanboy email to tell him he was a hero of mine and that he was, to me, one of the true masters of adventure writing. The Hard Way is 23 classic Jenkins stories and essays from Outside, GQ, and other magazines, from high-altitude climbing to hitchhiking. This book, and plenty of Jenkins’ other work, provided and continues to provide inspiration for my own ramblings.
The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko
Kevin Fedarko, a writer who arrived in the Grand Canyon via Columbia, Oxford, Time Magazine, and finally as a groover boat captain, weaves together the history of the Grand Canyon, the history of the Glen Canyon Dam, and the story of one of the biggest floods in Grand Canyon history and the three men who rode the wave on a wooden dory boat to set a speed record for the 277-mile stretch of river in the canyon.
Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl
The beauty of Kon-Tiki is both Heyerdahl’s matter-of-fact telling of the story, and the dream itself: floating 4,300 miles from Peru to Polynesia on a handmade raft to attempt prove Heyerdahl’s belief that the Polynesian islands were settled. I didn’t read this book until I was well into my 30s and still slap my forehead that it took me that long.
Miles from Nowhere by Barbara Savage
I read this book in 2010 while on my own bike tour across America, which I think says at least something about how good it is—that I still felt like reading about biking even after I’d ridden a couple thousand miles. Another book that’s great because of both the writing and the scale of the adventure it captures: Savage and her husband’s two-year, round-the-world bike odyssey.
Psychovertical by Andy Kirkpatrick
Kirkpatrick alternates the palm-sweat-inducing story of his solo climb of The Reticent Wall on El Capitan with the story of how he became a climber, and then a climbing writer, despite growing up poor in a flat city in England and battling severe dyslexia. Don’t take my word for it—it won the Boardman Tasker Prize in 2008.
The Only Kayak by Kim Heacox
One of the most slept-on outdoor books of our generation, in my opinion. Heacox tells the story of his coming of age in Alaska, and Alaska’s story heading into the 21st century, with lines that have stuck with me for years after reading it. As you might guess, there’s some kayaking in the book, but it’s not necessarily about kayaking.
El Capitan by Daniel Duane
My brother somehow had a copy of this book back in 2002, when I was just starting to get into the outdoors, and I stayed up half the night flipping through the photos and reading Duane’s prose about climbing. This was the first book that caught my interest in climbing, ever—and that never got me up El Cap, but it did eventually get me climbing plenty of other things for a solid decade.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
I’m not breaking any new ground telling anyone to read Hemingway, or to read The Old Man and the Sea for that matter, but add me to the list of people who say this book is a must-read, even if you don’t fish, even if you don’t like books. Hell, it’s only 93 pages long. And it won Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize, so there’s that.
Solo Faces by James Salter
A climber friend who reads voraciously gave me this a couple years ago, when I hadn’t read fiction for years, and I totally underestimated it. Salter, who has won no shortage of awards for his books, uses Hemingway-esque spare prose to tell the story of his protagonist, an American climber in Chamonix.
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
I knew nothing about this book when my friend Mick gave it to me years ago. Everything I knew about Patagonia had to do with the climbing I’d read about, and this book had none, just Chatwin spinning tales of his wandering about the strangeness of Patagonia, chopped up into almost 100 different sections of varying length.
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan
I picked this book up after two recommendations from friends within two weeks, and was similarly blown away. There’s no big literary tension pulling you along in this one, just Finnegan’s wondrous writing about surfing. I’ve spent less than a dozen hours trying to stand up on a surfboard, and nothing Finnegan writes makes me think I should try more, but damn if his memoir doesn’t make you appreciate the sport. In the words of my friend Alex, “I guess that’s what you get when you spend your career at the New Yorker.”
Paddling My Own Canoe by Audrey Sutherland
A title that doesn’t appear on many “best adventure books” lists, Audrey Sutherland’s story is that of a single mother of four living in Hawaii who made time to create her own expeditions on the wild and remote north shore of Molokai, the fifth-largest Hawaiian island—in the 1950s and 1960s. Nothing like a single mother in her late 30s taking a pair of fins, packing her stuff in a cooler and towing it behind her as she swims along a wild ocean coast to make you wonder what you’re doing with your life.
Also: if you’re looking more for a book about planning big adventures of your own, check out Alastair Humphreys’ Grand Adventures.