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Adventure Reading 101

These are the Books you Must Read
 

Expedition and travel books were my first opening into the world which gradually became my passion, my obsession and – eventually – my career.

I’d like to help you prise open the door yourself and glimpse inside. Be careful! Open with care! It’s a Pandora’s Box, particularly if you combine your reading with an open atlas and an attitude of “I wonder if I could try something like this myself..?”

But whether you read these books to help motivate you to get out into the world on adventures of your own, or whether you just want the vicarious joy of enjoying a good book, you will have your reward, so long – of course –  as all you want is a penguin’s egg… (a quote from one of the books below.)

So this is not a comprehensive list of all the good travel and adventure books that have been written – there is no Newby, Theroux, Bryson, Slocum or Tilman here. There’s not even any Rum Doodle. Rather it is an ‘Adventure 101’: an essential starting point for anyone interested in learning about the world of adventure, expeditions and non-fiction travel writing.

In the politest voice I can muster, I order you to read all of these books. And, if you enjoy reading travel books, could I politely ask you to take a look at my own books too?

I have also written a post of excellent adventure films that you should watch.

Expedition Literature

(an introduction to trips that are difficult, ground-breaking, insane, lethal, or a bit of all that)

Polar

  • The Worst Journey in the World – Cherry Apsley Garrard
  • South: the Endurance Expedition – Ernest Shackleton
  • Mawson’s Will – Lennard Bikkel
  • Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know – Ranulph Fiennes

Mountains

  • Annapurna – Maurice Herzog
  • Kiss or Kill – Mark Twight
  • Touching the Void – Joe Simpson
  • No Picnic on Mount Kenya – Felice Benuzzi
  • The Ascent of Rum Doodle – W.E. Bowman

Jungle / Walking

  • Walking the Amazon – Ed Stafford
  • Mad White Giant – Benedict Allen

Desert

  • Arabian Sands – Wilfred Thesiger
  • A Winter in Arabia – Freya Stark
  • Tracks – Robyn Davidson

Ocean

  • A Voyage For Madmen – Peter Nichols
  • A Fighting Chance – John Ridgway and Chay Blyth
  • Crossing the Ditch – James Castrission (neither the toughest ocean row ever, nor the greatest literature, but I absolutely loved this book, especially all the lead-up chapters that explain how ‘normal’ people end up doing stuff that is very not normal!)
  • The Kon-Tiki Expedition – Thor Heyerdahl

Paddling

  • Paddling North – Audrey Sutherland
  • Running the Amazon – Joe Kane

Space

  • Carrying The Fire – Michael Collins
  • Moondust – Andrew Smith

 Adventure and Travel Literature

(includes either cool trips or wonderfully-told tales)

  • As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning – Laurie Lee
  • Wild – Cheryl Strayed
  • Travels With Charley – John Steinbeck
  • The Way of the World – Nicolas Bouvier
  • Wind, Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  • The Places in Between – Rory Stewart
  • Jupiter’s Travels – Ted Simon
  • The Expedition – Jason Lewis
  • Barbarian Days – William Finnegan
  • Feet in the Clouds – Richard Askwith
  • I haven’t mentioned any cycling books. This is a tricky topic for me to comment on, having written about cycling adventure myself. I think the genre is generally poorly represented in book form. There are some good books; there are some awful ones. As I know many of the authors involved I’m going to abstain from suggesting anything in this genre. I won’t even recommend my own books… I will only suggest that you do read a few cycle touring books because cycling still trumps any other travel experiences I have ever had. And cycle touring is a brilliant starting point into the world of expeditions – a way of leveraging yourself towards bigger projects than you may otherwise initially not have any access to.

I have sporadically written other blog posts with lists of adventure books to read. So there is plenty more material for you to get stuck into:

What have I missed?

What outrages have I committed by omitting your favourite book?

Please do let me know in the comments below!

Alastair Humphreys Books

Thank you to the many people who have kindly “bought me a coffee” for just £2.50 as encouragement to keep this blog going.

“Yes, I too would like to donate a couple of pounds to this site..!”



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Comments

  1. Not a fan of Redmond O’Hanlon? His Into The Heart Of Borneo is my favourite ‘jungle’ book – proper adventure stuff.

    I’d also recommend Winterdance, one man’s experience of the insane Iditarod dog-sled race. Just amazing stuff.

    Added quite a few of your recommendations to my reading list, though. Cheers!

    Reply
  2. Alison French Posted

    Brian WIlson’s ‘Blazing Paddles’ a Scottish coastal odyssey. Read this before the Talisker Storm Adventure!

    Reply
  3. Jennine Posted

    Hi Al,
    In a previous post you say that “almost all books about long bicycle journeys are very boring” and here your feelings about books about cycle journeys seem ambivalent too. Why is it do you think, that there are so few good books about bike journeys?

    Reply
    • Hi Jennine,

      As someone who is currently writing a book about cycling (around Britain), I have been puzzling over this question for a while – in a desperate attempt to avoid it myself!

      My suggestion is that it could be a combination of several things:

      1) The inherent unsuitability of the activity of cycling as a story. Among other things, when you’re on a bike, you can’t talk to anyone (assuming you are alone). This doesn’t necessarily mean that an interesting story *can’t* develop, but it does take away a large dollop of story interest: human interaction. This can confuse cyclist-authors, who think that if they spend all their time writing about the interesting bits – i.e. when they are NOT cycling – they are somehow cheating the reader of a proper cycling book.

      The cyclist-author has to realise that (in the main) interesting travel books don’t focus on the *means* of travel, but on the human interactions that happen along the way (even if those interaction happen entirely in the traveller’s head – battling personal demons and so forth). I don’t remember Laurie Lee banging on about how one foot kept on being put in front of another. No: I remember the drunken inn escapades in Spain.

      2) Being vague about your readers. Are you writing a book for cyclists? For adventurers? For people who love to read about new places? For normal people who know what a bike is and want to get into adventuring? Unless you sort out this confusion early, the book will end up appealing to nobody, or to people only in parts.

      This is an affliction that can hit any author, though, so what is special about cycle-authors?

      3) The rarity of a cyclist who is also a good author. There is no reason those two sets of people should overlap. Walkers who are also good authors is a much more likely combination. Also the simple fact that cycling as a serious book-worthy hobby is relatively new compared to many other travel-based activities (war, exploration and colonialism as hobbies are as old as Herodotus and older).

      Hopefully, as more and more people do interesting bike trips, more and more good books will come out, as the set of good cyclist-authors increases.

      These are only my personal thoughts, as I battle through the second re-write of my book, having already faced the challenge of pulling the essential dramatic story out of a very long repetitive journey. But there are some brilliant cycling travel books already out there (cf Al’s – no, really, I’m not just saying that!), so it’s not like it’s impossible to write a good bike book – but, like the writing of any good book, it is an extraordinarily difficult conjuring trick.

      All the best,
      David

      Reply
    • Alastair Posted

      Hi Jennine,
      I think there are two types of cycle-touring tale. Books about cycle-touring, and books about journeys. Both have their merits. I think authors need to be clear about which one they are writing. And readers need to gravitate to the one that they prefer.
      My books have very little about sprocket choice or navigation. Some people like that, some people complain about that.
      Cycling journeys are also very repetitive. It’s hard for the books not to become likewise. Hence my odd choice of story-telling technique in ‘There Are Other Rivers’ and the way that I skim over quite big chunks of the world in my cycling books.
      Hope this helps!

      Reply
      • Jennine Posted

        Hi Al
        Thanks.. It’s interesting. I agree that there’s definitely a journeys vs touring typology difference. I wonder whether another reason there are so many un-amazing books about journeys by bike is simply numerical. Bike journeys are perhaps more often done, and therefore more often written about, and therefore there is just bound to be a lot of average writings. Is cycling really more repetitive than other modes of transport? But anyway – I haven’t read enough cycle books to be a fair critic! Mostly I don’t make it beyond the x many km, x many countries tag line….

        Reply
  4. A Night on the Ground a Day in the Open by Doug Robinson – book covering his many adventures (climbing, skiing, trekking) in the Sierra and elsewhere. A worthwhile read – even for a non-climber.

    Reply
  5. Love this collection and will add them to my must-read list, which unfortunately seems to be getting longer by the minute!

    Reply
  6. Richard Posted

    Webb Chiles ‘Open Boat Across the Pacific’ and ‘The Ocean Waits’
    both great reads about solo sailing adventures which are also an easy read if you don’t happen to be a sailor.

    Reply
  7. The Vogel family cycled the entire Pan-American highway over the course of three years and wrote a book about it. I believe that she has four books out about cycling with a young family. They are familyonbikes

    Reply
  8. Charlotte Posted

    Patrick Leigh Fermor! All of them!
    The “Hook of Holland to Istanbul” trilogy: A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and The Broken Road. And also his other writings: A Time to Keep Silence, Mani and Roumeli are all worthwhile. I spent a happy 2 weeks plodding the first leg of the Hook of Holland to Rhine Gorge in his footsteps.

    Reply
  9. Thesiger is am absolute hero of mine. His philosophy of “People are more important to me than places.” really opened my eyes to so many more possibilities when travelling around.

    Reply
  10. Surely ‘Born to Run’ and perhaps even ‘Feet In the Clouds’ should get a mention – running is adventuring too!

    Reply
  11. Space: Riding Rockets (Mike Mullane) has to be one of the funniest, most human (and accessible) space books I’ve read.

    Reply
  12. Steve Faulkner Posted

    I would add “Touching my Father’s Soul”
    http://www.amazon.com/Touching-My-Fathers-Soul-Sherpas/dp/0062516884

    A powerful telling of the 1996 disaster on Everest by Tenzing Norgay’s son. I found it to be a much more personal and powerful version of the events than “Into Thin Air”

    Reply
  13. I’ve read a lot of your book lists and never seen mention of
    ‘Voyageur: Across the Rocky Mountains in a Birchbark Canoe’ written by Robert Twigger.

    It is an AMAZING book (perhaps slightly slow at the very start) and I’m sure contributed a lot of inspiration to all of my travels. A fantastic author aided by an awesome journey.

    Reply
  14. Wonderful list. I do like the books where people get themselves in to unbelievably crazy situations and by some force of will survive to tell the tale. Andy Kirkpatricks Cold Wars is a good example, as is Fiva by Gordon Stainforth. Walter Bonatti is superb to read and shows that its not just the surviving but the carrying on when all seems lost that really sets people apart. I enjoyed Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane especially the chapter about Rannoch Moor. You see all these adventures I can have too and that is the real story I guess.

    Reply
  15. Great choice on Antoine de Saint-Exupery! “The marvel of marvels was that there on the rounded back of the planet, between this magnetic sheet and those stars, a human consciousness was present in which as in a mirror that rain could be reflected.” One of my favorite passages in the book.

    Reply
  16. Great idea to assemble a brief collection of books that you would recommend to read – as I have read most of your books I am sure that your recommendations are very valuable for further readings.

    I am certainly not as deep into these books as you are, but I enjoyed “Alone around the world” by Naomi James quite a lot. Having a fable for water this was probably the first adventure book I have read.

    Reply
  17. Raf Lehmann Posted

    I can’t recommend William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways enough.

    Reply
  18. Robert Bough Posted

    There are some excellent cycle touring books around:

    The Wind in my Wheels by Josie Dew, her first and I think best book,a collection of cycling tales with a real feel good vibe.

    Johnny Ginger’s Last Ride by Tom Fremantle, the author cycles from England to Australia.

    One Man and his Bike by Mike Carter, a superb, highly entertaining book about the author’s ride around the coast of Britain.

    Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy, the authors first of her many travel books, cycling from Dublin to Delhi.

    Cycling in Europe by Nick Crane, a description of a number of cycle tours in 16 European countries. certainly inspired me into cycling abroad in the late 80s.

    The Longest Climb, by Dominic Faulkner, half cycling, half mountaineering, 5 adventurers travel from the Dead Sea to the summit of Everest.

    I recommend all the above.

    Reply
  19. Apsley Cherry-Garrard,
    The Worst Journey in the World

    Reply
  20. Andrew Posted

    You might enjoy “an astronaut’s guide to life on earth” by chris hadfield.

    Story about one man’s passion and dedication to a goal. I found it useful prioritising things in my life too.

    Reply
  21. Thanks for the list Al. I enjoyed the discussion about good and bad bike books. Certainly food for thought for those of us currently on bicycle journeys.

    Reply
  22. Todd Phillips Posted

    This book about cycling has it all: intrigue, murder, long distance cycling, history, and everything in between.

    THE LOST CYCLIST: THE EPIC TALE OF AN AMERICAN ADVENTURER AND HIS MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE by David Herlihy

    Reply
  23. All good selections. I would add Beryl Markham’s African flying adventure ‘West with the Night’, Farley Mowat’s sailing travel adventure ‘The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float’ and my husband David Beaupre’s two sailing travel adventures: ‘Quest and Crew’ and ‘Quest on the Thorny Path’.

    Reply
  24. Peta Bartlett Posted

    1000 Hour Day – Chris Bray. Absolutely brilliant polar exploration adventure.
    On The Trail of Genghis Khan – Tim Cope. This is a pretty epic horseback adventure story but well worth the read.

    Reply
  25. Simon Posted

    I’m not seeing Erik Weihenmayer (http://www.touchthetop.com/), his book Touch the Top of the World is fantastic!

    Reply
  26. John Sabbs Posted

    Has anyone read “At Home in the Bushes” by Thompson Crowley? It’s a great book about tramping around the north-east coast of Britain with guitar and bicycle. Hilarious! I’d really recommend it!

    Reply
  27. It is difficult to find good cycling books but the one that got me started on touring is Miles from Nowhere by Barbara Savage. On my tour I read Als’ books (twice) and Rob Lilwell’s – Cycling home from Siberia. Any list on cycling has to include all of those.

    Reply
  28. Journey into Cyprus (Colin Thubron)
    Old Calabria (Norman Douglas)
    Voices of the Old Sea (Norman Lewis)
    One’s Company (Peter Fleming)
    Labels (Evelyn Waugh)
    In Patagonia (Bruce Chatwin)

    Reply
  29. Swahili for the Broken Hearted by Peter Moore. A hilarious tale of over landing Africa.

    Reply
  30. Brian Carruthers Posted

    Bill Tiltman’s sea/mountain expedition books are fascinating.

    Reply

 
 

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