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Adventure Book List from the Experts


Following on from my recent post about the books you must read if you are interested in delving into the world of expeditions and adventures, I asked some adventurers who are experts in their niche to suggest their five favourite books on their particular interest. I have read most of them and can vouch for their choices. The ones that I have not yet read are already on my Amazon wishlist!

Cycling Books

Jack Thurston hosts the very popular Bike Show podcast and is the author of the lovely Lost Lanes book.

“The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out”. If ever there were a literary genre to prove Voltaire’s maxim it’s the cycling travelogue. In an ocean of mediocrity, here are five cycle touring books that more than make the grade. In no particular order of merit:

  1. Around the World on a Wheel, John Foster Fraser: A genuinely impressive journey around the world in the 1890s retold with keen observation and leavened by wry Victorian self-deprecation.  Available for free as an ebook.
  2. Full Tilt, Dervla Murphy: A 1963 ride from Ireland to India is travel writing in the best sense, with all emphasis on the places and people along the way, and none on the distances covered. Getting into a few serious scrapes, Murphy turns out to be hard as nails.
  3. Into the Remote Places, Ian Hibell: The adventure cyclists’ adventure cyclist, worth reading just for his account of crossing the Darien Gap on his pan-American ride in the early 1970s, probably the hardest and most daring journey ever undertaken by bicycle.
  4. French Revolutions, Tim Moore: British comic writer and occasional cyclist confronts imminent arrival of middle age by attempting to ride the entire course of the Tour de France.
  5. Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Richard and Nicholas Crane: Two cousins ride racing bikes into the Gobi Desert. What can go wrong?

Walking Books

Andrew Forsthoefel walked across the USA and produced a wonderful radio programme about it. (Read my interview with Andrew here).

  1. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard: With the eyes of a true pilgrim – a curious, yearning seeker – Dillard sees revelation in nature, and communicates her findings with exquisite beauty.
  2. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee: Part spiritual exposition, part manifesto on art and culture and education, part love letter to the poor of the 19030s American Deep South, this book dives into the everyday lives of sharecroppers and explores the evolution of the narrator and his complicated position within the story.
  3. Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey: Using mere words, Abbey somehow conjures the same intensity of emotion conjured by the desert.
  4. Coming into the Country, by John McPhee: Based on interviews with a wide range of Alaskans and on various first-person adventures, this book is a window into the mystifying wilderness of the far north.
  5. The Old Ways, by Robert Macfarlane: This book is a philosophical foray into the various mental and environmental realms of walking, seen through historical, literary, and personal lenses.

Leon McCarron has walked across Mongolia, China and the Empty Quarter desert. His desert film is wonderful (though mostly due to his heroic and handsome sidekick).

  1. Clear Waters Rising – Nicholas Crane: A wonderfully British adventure – Nick Crane sets off across Europe on foot, following mountains all the way, and carrying little more than an umbrella by way of kit
  2.  Of Walking in Ice – Werner Herzog: I only recently got hold of this – it’s out of print – but if you imagine a Werner Herzog film put to text (about him walking across the Alps in Winter to visit a dying mentor) then you can imagine what’s going on. Mental and brilliant.
  3. Wanderlust – a history of Walking – Rebecca Solnit: A bit heavy going at times (for those of us not used to academic texts) but mostly it is an enjoyable and ridiculously well research compendium of walking
  4. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien: I read this when I was a kid, and it’s responsible for my initial desires to walk long distances. Dissapointingly I’ve yet to do a trip with a horde of dwarves or elves….
  5. A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh Fermor: I didn’t want to put this in (it seemed far too obvious – I wanted to put in the slightly obscure journals of Lewis and Clark as they crossed America) but any walking list without Fermor is incomplete – probably the most poetic and wanderlust-enducing book ever written about walking.

Ocean Books

Roz Savage is the first woman to row solo across three oceans. She has written two books about her experiences.

  1. Sailing alone around the world – Joshua Slocum – he may be spinning a few fine salty yarns, but who cares if they’re true – it’s a great read!
  2.  Two years before the mast – Richard Henry Dana – a fascinating glimpse into history, not only of sailing, but of the wild new frontier of 1840s California.
  3.  Adrift – Steven Callahan – the ultimate survival story, which always made me feel better. No matter how badly my day at sea was going, it was always better than his!
  4.  A pearl in a storm – Tori Murden McClure – a real all-rounder, with adventure, failure and success, introspection and insights.
  5.  Dark waters – Jason Lewis – made me laugh out loud at some of their misadventures, plus some fascinating musings on serious matters like the environment and the nature of language and consciousness.

Sarah Outen is over half-way through a gruelling global expedition from London2London: Via the World in which she is attempting to loop the planet using human power. She typed this list from somewhere far, far away so apologises for her brevity! The books she has chosen are a mix of sailing, rowing, science and survival. They are all adventures, and all taught her and inspired her in some way.

  1. The Kontiki – Thor Heyerdahl
  2. Tasman Trespasser – Colin Quincy
  3. Sailing alone around the world – Joshua Slocum
  4. Survive the Savage  Sea – Dougal Robertson
  5. Taking on the world – Ellen MacArthur…
    And the poems of John Masefield are a great reflection of the life  of and the moods of the ocean.

Polar Books

Alex Hibbert is a world-record holding polar expedition leader and photographer. Only twenty-seven years old, he has spent over 315 days in the Arctic, 165 of them travelling unsupported and has crossed the second largest icecap on Earth four times.

  1. Polar Obsession – Paul Nicklen: the Polar Regions are overwhelmingly visual places and so it is right and proper that I include a photo book from one of the best.
  2. Polar Attack – Richard Weber and Misha Malakhov: a wonderfully honest and matter-of fact-account of one of the all-time great polar journeys.
  3. The Worst Journey in the World – Cherry Apsley-Garrard: to some perhaps a bit heavy, but a gripping account of survival under horrific conditions in the infancy of polar travel.
  4. The Horizontal Everest – Jerry Kobalenko: a perfect reminder of two things – that the Poles are a tiny, tiny part of the Polar Regions and also about the value of experience and full ‘immersion’ in the environment.
  5. Give Me My Father’s Body – Kenn Harper: a harrowing account of one the most shameful episodes in early polar exploration – a must-read for those who want a deep knowledge and it is written by the ex-husband of an Eskimo lady I spent much time with last winter.

Mountaineering Books

Beginning with a project to clean-up Everest Base Camp in the 1980s, Paul Deegan  has been involved with many expeditions and treks to the Greater Ranges including the Pamirs, the Himalaya, the Andes, East Africa and Alaska. Magazines and newspapers have published several hundred of Paul’s stories, and his first book was recognised by the United States’ National Outdoor Book Awards.

  1. The Great Climbing Adventure – John Barry: Tall tales from expeditions to the Greater Ranges, as well as ascents much closer to home. If this book doesn’t make you yearn to climb a mountain, nothing will.
  2. Everest: The West Ridge – Thomas Hornbein: The inside story of the first ascent of one of Everest’s mammoth ridges, achieved by a team within a team who defied the odds and set aside the expectations of a nation.
  3. The Loneliest Mountain – Lincoln Hall: An expedition to the highest mountain in Antarctica’s Admiralty Range, which demonstrated that lower-cost adventures to the continent are possible. This generously-illustrated book includes a set of practical appendices.
  4. My Vertical World – Jerzy Kukuczka: The second person to climb all fourteen 8000 metre peaks did so either by establishing new routes or by making first winter ascents on all but one of the mountains. At times the struggle to climb outside of the Iron Curtain was greater than the physical climbing.
  5. Above The Clouds – Anatoli Boukreev: The moving journal entries of one of the world’s foremost high altitude mountaineers also provide an insight into life as a Russian climber in the post-Soviet era.

Desert Books

Ripley Davenport is best known for his camel assisted and man-hauling expeditions after many years drifting across some of the world’s isolated deserts entirely on foot.

  1. Wind, Sand, and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupery: His graceful musings on an existence lived to its full, united with his recitation of various mishaps he and others endured while flying mail over the Sahara and the Andes mountains, makes Wind, Sand, and Stars an adventure book no person should be without.
    “Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.”
  2. Arabian Sands – Wilfred Thesiger: Explorer Wilfred Thesiger, a pragmatic gentleman, ventured into the untamed deserts of the Middle East looking to escape the oppression of society. Most will know that he became the first man to cross the Rub’ al Khali, the most deadly terrain on terra firma, aka “The Empty Quarter”, one of the world’s largest sand deserts. Thesiger set out to traverse this huge vastness intending to produce a detailed map of the expanse during his expedition. He was triumphant in crossing the immense anonymous of the Empty Quarter not once, but twice, between 1946 and 1949. An absolute collectable for any desert aficionado.
    “For years the Empty Quarter had represented to me the final, unattainable challenge which the desert offered…To others my journey would have little importance. It would produce nothing except a rather inaccurate map which no one was ever likely to use. It was a personal experience, and the reward had been a drink of clean, nearly tasteless water. I was content with that.”
  3. Skeletons on the Zahara – Dean King. Dean King’s re-evaluation of the 1815 wreck of the ‘Commerce’ off the coast of Africa and the shocking hardships faced by her crew as they struggled to survive in the scorched and desolate Sahara Desert is, in my opinion, one of the greatest survival stories of all time. I’d recommend that the reader keeps a tall cool glass of water at the ready; you’ll never appreciate it more.
  4. The Race for Timbuktu; In Search of Africa’s City of Gold – Frank Kryza. The hunt for Timbuktu of legend, Africa’s mythological golden metropolis, was a magnet for adventurers and fortune seekers like moths to a swinging light bulb, and frequently at their own peril. Frank Kryza gives comprehensive insights of the key expeditions in search of Timbuktu, with hidden references to the extraordinary expedition of René Caillié, along with the horrendous hardships faced by the brave souls who suffered. A riveting read that sheds light on authentic desert adventure and exploration.
  5.  My Life as an Explorer – Sven Hedin. In this animated blend of adventure and academia, Swedish geographer, topographer, explorer and travel writer Sven Hedin recounts his exploration of much of the unexplored regions of central Asia at the end of the 19th century. The thing I love about this book is that it includes Hedin’s own illustrations and hand drawn maps, which are an exceptional formation of: the Pamir mountains, the Taklamakan desert, Tibet, the Silk Road and the Himalayas.
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  1. A great blog on a great list!

  2. Great collection there Alastair! Thanks for putting it together!



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