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11 Travel Books for Bums

Sea kayaking in Wales

Here’s a book list for all the bums out there. For the vagabonds and hoboes. For the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles – exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centrelight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

These are the travel books I read and re-read. I fold down corners and scribble notes. They remind me that, above everything else, the things that make me happiest in life are big skies, sunsets, sleeping on beaches, the potential of the open road, and the random exciting strangers you meet along that road.

Travels With Charley – John Steinbeck

Steinbeck travels round America with his dog, Charley.
“When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going. This to the practical bum is not difficult.”

Also in this book is a paragraph I often think I’d like to have on my gravestone:
“For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.”

Walden, or Life in the Woods – Henry David Thoreau

Over-read, over-worshipped and quite boring in parts. But the essence of it resonates loudly: a simple life, in tune with nature and with few possessions, is often a happy and rewarding one. “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life…” and “The prospect of what is euphemistically termed “settling down”, like mud to the bottom of a pond, might perhaps be faced when it became inevitable, but not yet awhile.”
I also like his assertion that “What old people say you cannot do – try – and find that you can.” [A good extra piece about Thoreau here.]

Roughing It – Mark Twain

Huckleberry Finn should feature in any list like this, but it’s so obvious that instead I’ve picked this lesser-known gem from Twain. You can read the book online here.

“It is a record of several years of variegated vagabondizing, and its object is rather to help the resting reader while away an idle hour than afflict him with metaphysics, or goad him with science.”

On the Road – Jack Kerouac

I first read this book in San Francisco where I was bewitched by a hippy girl with long dreadlocks and shining eyes. I also had to pause a few weeks to watch a crunch football match on TV. It ended badly (the football match): Leeds were relegated. But hey, “I felt like a million dollars; I was adventuring in the crazy American night”. And I had discovered an author who, although mad and quite annoying at times, really managed to capture the zinging love for life of all good wandering souls, the mad ones I plagiarised in the opening paragraph. “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” And what more do we yearn for but “a fast car, a coast to reach, and a woman at the end of the road”?

Dharma Bums – Jack Kerouac

Kerouac gets two mentions in this piece as I conceived the idea for it whilst reading Dharma Bums in a drab business-hotel on an overnight stay to give a lecture. The grim irony was not lost on me. Kerouac’s fictional hero heads into the wild for a simple life and to find himself. I’m not struck on the religiose Buddhist side to the book but I love the young man heading up Matterhorn mountain, discovering the thrill of sleeping on mountains, drinking from ice cold creeks and turning his back on “middle class non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness”.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning – Laurie Lee

I don’t know how often I have eulogised this book. I do know that it’s my favourite piece of travel writing. Young man + violin, busking and walking his way across Spain. Cheap wine, dark-eyed girls, and sleeping under the stars. The life of a happy vagabond. “it was for this I had come: to look out on a world for which I had no words; to start at the beginning, speechless and without plan, in a place that still held no memories for me.”

A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh Fermor

Travelling on foot, sleeping in hayricks and castles “like a tramp, a pilgrim, or a wandering scholar”, Paddy Fermor’s walk across Europe inspired me to try to combine wandering with also using my brain and retaining my curiosity. He was expelled from school and I have long-loved a phrase from his school report that makes for a wonderful epitaph to work towards: “he is a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness”.

The Happiest Man in the World – Poppa Neutrino

So bonkers was Poppa’s life that I felt sure I was reading a work of fiction until I checked him out on Google. Anyone who sails the Atlantic Ocean on a raft made of junk and also manages an obituary in the New York Times is clearly a fascinating person. From that piece: “A lifelong wanderer, he developed a philosophy that emphasized freedom, joy, creativity and antimaterialism, a creed expressed in the rafts he built from discarded materials.”

The Gentle Art of Tramping – Stephen Graham

The post I wrote about this book on my own blog clearly struck a chord – it was my most viewed post of the year. Dating back to 1927 it is a fabulous How-To guide to becoming a wanderer, a vagrant, a hobo.A brilliant addition to any vagabond’s library. A couple of snippets for you:

  • The less you carry the more you will see, the less you spend the more you will experience.
  • In tramping you are not earning a living, but earning a happiness.

Hopping Freight Trains in America – Duffy Littlejohn

I’ve always dreamed of hopping onto a freight train in America, rumbling thousands of miles from coast to coast, reading Kerouac and Huck Finn, hiding from cartoonish guards and learning the ropes from vagabonds.
This is a how-to book for dreamers. I don’t suppose now I actually will hop a train: the post-9/11 world makes it even harder than ever. So I suppose I’ll have to live with this stinging rebuke, “Sure, you can pay Amtrak to haul you across the country with a bunch of blue-haired old ladies. Or you can grow some balls and hop a train.”

The Way of the World – Nicolas Bouvier

The tale of two young Swiss men who take to the road, driving east to Afghanistan in the 1950s. They fund their search for new experiences by writing articles and painting. A beautifully written book. “Traveling outgrows it motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you – or unmaking you.” “We denied ourselves every luxury except one, that of being slow.”
The book’s epigraph is an apt conclusion for this entire list of books,
“I shall be gone and live, or stay and die.”

What have I missed out? Please recommend and other great books in the comments below…

This post originally appeared on the howies blog

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  1. Baba Blacksheep Posted

    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig.

  2. Unfortunately, I have not read a single one from your list Al. But here is my list, not in any particular order. Please see if you have read any of these 😉

    1. Reinventure: How Travel Adventure Can Change Your Life by Carol Patterson
    2. The Last Stand: A Journey Through the Ancient Cliff-Face Forest of the Niagara Escarpment by Peter E. Kelly
    3. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America Along the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
    4. Stones (SC) Into Schools: Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Greg Mortenson
    5. Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations…One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson
    6. To the End of the Earth: Our Epic Journey to the North Pole and the Legend of Peary and Henson by Tom Avery
    7. K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain by Ed Viesturs
    8. The Lost Girls by Jennifer Baggett
    9. Following Marco Polo’s Silk Road Brian Lawrenson
    10. Thunder & Sunshine by Alastair Humphreys

    • Hi Saul,
      Thanks for your list.
      I’ve read 3 and 5…
      5’s a bit discredited now!
      6 shouldn’t make it onto any list before Cherry Apsley Garrard or Mawson’s Will or even Ranulph Fiennes: all polar greats
      10. Haven’t read it since I placed the final full stop at the end. But thank you very much for including it!
      I’m intrigued by 8 – never heard of it, so I will go look it up…

      • Al,

        That book is co-authored by 3 young women who decided one fine morning to say goodbye to their respective jobs in NYC and start a journey that spanned over 3 years. I did not particularly like it, but my wife did. I think it is a nice and east read, specially appealing to women. I liked it because it is touristy in nature rather than an adventure and the destinations and feelings are shared by 3 women.

      • # 5 is unnecessarily discredited for his work is there to see and check out for ourselves. He is accused of concocting events that raise suspense in his stories, but again all non-fiction writers are guilty of doing that.

        • I agree that #5 has done lots of great things. Perhaps he is guilty of unnecessarily exaggerating his achievements? A problem oh-too-common in the expedition world!

  3. Walt Whitman – Leaves of Grass. I take this with me loads of places. His poems describe my thoughts in ways I never could. I take this one mangled book of his with me whenever I travel.

  4. I don’t think that Thoreau could be over-read – every time I pack to go anywhere my battered copy of Walden is the first thing in the bag. It would be more battered but I keep giving away my copy and having to buy another.

    If you are feeling divorced from the rat race, Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf is a good book and when you are ready to return then Galway Kinnell’s When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone is the only poem you need.

  5. sorry not to know it in english, but I would put “le pelerinage aux sources” from Lanza Del Vasto.

    1936, Lanza del Vasto go to India by foot. It’s a human and spiritual adventure, . He reach the common point between all the religions, and become Ghandi’s disciple.

    this trip was part of Lanza del Vasto decision to become himself a non-violent adept.

    ths description look a bit too much spiritual, but the travelling part of it is amazing. description of another culture and depth of the words.

    I went to Tanzania for 3 month, and unfortunatly i have no amazon kindley, so it was the only book i took with me.

    also, I would have chosen a hundred years of solitude from garcia marquez. because you never can get enough of it.
    The same one from thoreau.

    I could ad any book about tales and legends from the world. Because you can read it again and again and share it with the person who are around you at that time, from any generation!

    thanks !

  6. Tony Magrass Posted

    Not a book, but Alone Across Australia is a must-see DVD by Jon Muir

  7. Alastair Humphreys Posted

    I love that film!

  8. Alastair Humphreys Posted


  9. Just a quick question Al and you may have already written along this line. Do you carry a book (or books) with you during your travels?

    Honestly speaking, I like reading, but never took to reading during my adventures. For one, it adds to your load that you are carrying 🙂

  10. Rob Bough Posted

    Clear Waters Rising – Nick Crane
    Johnny Ginger’s last ride – Tom Fremantle
    Full Tilt – Dervla Murphy
    Wind in my Wheels – Josie Dew

    All books I can read over and over again and inspire me to get off my backside and out walking or cycling.

  11. How funny – catching up with blog posts after a month away, during which I picked up, and then loved, a copy of ‘Travels with Charley’. Plenty of notes and wry smiles during the reading of that! I’d add Eric Newby’s ‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’ and Wilfrid Thesiger’s ‘Arabian Sands’. Two very different sorts of books, but both of which fired up that faraway look you get when you think about escaping the mundane.

  12. Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities.

  13. My favourite hobo books are;

    Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

    The Autobiography of a Supertramp by W.H. Davies

    Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Armor

    Moods of Future Joys/ Thunder and Sunshine by yourself

    The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto ‘ Che’ Guevara

    As I Walked One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee


    Cycling Home From Siberia by Rob Lilwall

    Definately going to look for Travels with Charley

  14. Hamish Posted

    Not exactly hobo, but I just read Peter Nichols “Voyage for Madmen”, an account of the first solo non-stop around the world yacht race in 1968-69. Really well written, very suspenseful. Loved it.

  15. I love the Dharma Bums, there’s one scene in it where the hero has picked up a lift from a trucker near the Mexico border and the trucker realises how free this hobo is, only a page and a half long but sublimely written.

    Are you familiar with the tv series “Road Dreams” by Elliot Bristow at all Alastair?

  16. I just finished reading Tristan Gooley’s Natural Explorer and liked the premise its based on and the knowledge contained therein. If I remember correctly, I had heard about it first from this website.

    It takes some time to deliver the books published in the UK.

  17. What an awesome list, and the mentions that follow. Only wish I was a better reader… Jon Krakauer worth a mention?

  18. Al,

    Patrick mentions Eliot Bristow’s Road Dreams series which used to air late at night on C4 – it is now on DVD and is highly recommended – see


  19. Thanks for this great list and other reader’s suggestions. I want to add a children’s book that has stuck with me since childhood. “Dominic” by William Steig (author of Shrek) is the story of a dog who is itching for adventure so he packs a knapsack and takes to the road to have some adventures or micro-adventures. I read this in 2nd grade, long before On the Road but it probably had the same effect making me the “bum” I am today. Give this to a homebound kid and you may change his life.

  20. Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. He is aN adventurer like you are and gives a lot of insight into living a life on the road.

  21. Dave Chester fan Posted

    An oldy but a goodie – vagabonding by Ed Buryn(old school vagabonding legend) Re hobo book’s Riding the rails by Michael Mathers which is a photo journo look at hobo life and One more train to ride by Clifford Williams has interviews with hobos from different generation’s.All of em are well worth buying imo.

  22. Brennig Posted

    Dharma Bums isn’t fictional, Kerouac just has a habit of giving fictional names. Japhy is actually Gary Snyder, arguably the best literary nature advocate of the 20th century, either him or Leopold. His poetry is great, especially when he talks about the West Coast America, but it can be difficult to understand his references to Oriental mythology.

  23. Lindsay Posted

    I’m new to this whole lifestyle and haven’t heard of many of these titles! As an avid reader I’m happy to add some more books to my TBR pile.

    Anyone read Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon?



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