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Top 50 Adventure Books of All Time

Active/Outdoors — By Josh Steinitz on January 21, 2009 at 10:55 am

In no particular order, I propose my favorite reading list for inveterate travelers and adventure enthusiasts, regardless of whether that enthusiasm has its outlet by way of an armchair or an airplane. A few might be a bit “misclassified,”, but heck, it’s my list:

  1. The Snow Leopard – Peter Mathiessen’s seminal work about a journey of (re)discovery to the remotest Himalayan region of Nepal
  2. Wind, Sand and Stars – an ode to the golden years of flying and adventure by the author of The Little Prince
  3. The Long Walk – an epic tale of escape from a Russian prison camp followed by a 2,000 mile walk to freedom (so unbelievable that some have questioned its authenticity)
  4. Three Cups of Tea – everyone’s favorite book about a climber discovering his true calling by building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan
  5. No Picnic on Mount Kenya – Italian POW’s reinvigorate their own humanity through adventure
  6. A Soldier of the Great War – sure it’s fiction, but this story set in the Italian Alps of World War I can’t help but ignite the adventurous spirit within all of us
  7. Seven Years in Tibet – the book is better than the movie (duh)
  8. The Climb – get the perspective of one of the real heroes of the 1996 Everest disaster, the late Anatoli Bourkreev
  9. Into the Wild – while the movie was good, the book was better still. Krakauer weaves in his own personal dramas to add perspective
  10. The Worst Journey in the World – this polar adventure fulfills the definition of “epic” in every sense of the word
  11. Alive – a study in survival and the will to live, this story of a rugby team marooned in the Andes is a classic
  12. Touching the Void – Joe Simpson’s harrowing account of surviving a mountaineering disaster, it dramatizes the agonizing choices faced when living on the edge
  13. Desert Solitaire – Abbey’s musings and cranky assaults on the march of “civilization” into the wilderness are profound
  14. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush – a classic account of a Brit on a grand field trip in Central Asia
  15. Roughing It – Twain’s original portrait of the American frontier
  16. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage – Lansing’s classic remains inspirational today, and is still instructive for aspiring “leaders of men”
  17. Out of Africa – the definitive book on the African colonial experience
  18. Minus 148 Degrees – Denali in winter, in a storm: who knew human beings could survive this cold?
  19. Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica – the culture and environment of Antarctica laid bare by the wry Sara Wheeler
  20. Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown – Paul Theroux’s Africa reunion tour, from Cairo to Cape Town
  21. Jaguars Ripped My Flesh – Tim Cahill is the bard of travel writing, and his short stories keep you chuckling
  22. Arctic Dreams – Barry Lopez takes his eco-sensibility to the far north
  23. The Log from the Sea of Cortez – Steinbeck’s voyage of discovery is part natural history and part travelogue
  24. Coming into the Country – McPhee isn’t for everyone, but this book is
  25. Green Hills of Africa – what list is complete without Hemingway?
  26. Sound of Mountain Water – Stegner is the definitive American author on the West
  27. Heart of Darkness – fear and loathing of the unknown in deepest Africa
  28. On the Road – the bible for a generation of those who travel for the journey itself
  29. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water – a warning call to all who strive to tame the American West
  30. A Farewell To Arms – see #25
  31. In a Sunburned Country – Bill Bryson’s jaunty portrait of the “lucky country” Down Under
  32. Blue Highways: A Journey into America – not all of America is covered by strip malls. At least not yet
  33. Off the Deep End: Travels in Forgotten Frontiers – Tony Perrottet takes us to the places far away from the headlines
  34. Full Circle – Michael Palin + travel = awesome
  35. Eric Shipton: Everest & Beyond – stories from an original explorer and mountaineer, when blank spots still remained on the map
  36. A House in Bali – cultural immersion and music make for a wonderful cocktail
  37. Siberian Dawn: A Journey Across the New Russia – a hard-edged look at the country emerging from the Cold War
  38. Let My People Go Surfing – the manifesto of Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s “dirtbag entrepreneur”
  39. The Shadow of Kilimanjaro – Rick Ridgeway walks across Kenya
  40. Travels with Charley in Search of America – a man, a dog, and his truck…on the road across America
  41. Tintin and the Picaros – the curtain closes on the best comic adventurer-sleuth of all time
  42. Great Plains – exploring the open prairie, literally and metaphorically
  43. Pillars of Hercules – around the Mediterranean with Theroux, the hyper-articulate cynic
  44. The Places In Between – just your average walk across Afghanistan in the middle of a war
  45. A River Runs Through It – the currents of life, set in Montana
  46. We Die Alone – a Norwegian soldier escapes the Nazis in the far north: it will leave you jaw-dropped
  47. Ultimate High: My Everest Odyssey – while not on any English prof’s list, Goran Kropp’s story is an inspiration
  48. In Patagonia – inscrutable, and vintage Chatwin
  49. The Call of the Wild – we still hear the call, and now we need it more than ever
  50. A Sand County Almanac – Aldo Leopold’s conservationist musings are just as relevant and meaningful today

Bonus Category: Top 5 Coffee Table Books

  1. Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape – Galen Rowell definitively launched the genre of adventure photographer
  2. Wide Angle: National Geographic Greatest Places – stunning images from the photo experts
  3. Earth from Above – a unique perspective on the planet
  4. National Geographic Atlas of the World – every traveler worth their salt should have it. ’nuff said
  5. The Travel Book: A Journey Through Every Country in the World – Lonely Planet takes you on a grand tour

What do you think?

Tags: adventure travel books, travel literature

    49 Comments

  • I have to add the popular ‘Eat, Pray Love’

  • Heinrich Harrer’s “White Spider” – classic account of the first ascent of Eiger’s North Face (plus accounts of the unsuccessful attempts that preceeded it.

  • roger says:

    I like the double dose of Hemingway, but I gotta say I’m a Sun Also Rises kind of guy…! From a humor standpoint, some older Chuck Klosterman is awesome (see: Killing Yourself to Live). Otherwise, a VERY GOOD list that will keep me busy for a while.

    Josh, feel free to drop a few off ;)

  • Claire Walter says:

    A lot of my faves are already here, so I scanned my bookshelves for others I’ve loved.

    “Clouds from Both Sides” by Julie Tullis & Arlene Blum – First part autobiographical; end biographical after Tullis died coming down from K2. There was also a film called “A Mother’s Mountain” documenting the return of Tullis’s husband and two children to Pakistan to visit the mountan where she died.

    “Seven Summits” by Dick Bass, Frank Wells and Rick Ridgeway – The first to ascend the highest mountains on all seven continents. Wells (then president of Warner Bros.) and Bass (oilman, rancher and creator of Snowbird Ski Resort) were businessmen, and Bass for a time had the honors of being the oldest person to summit Everest.

    “Monkey Dancing” by Daniel Blick – After his wife left him for a woman and his brother died of cancer, Glick took his two children (aged 9 and 13 when they started) on an epic voyage around the world.

    “Learning to Breathe” – Award-winning and supremely talented photojournalist Alison Wright was all but mortally wounded when a logging truck slammed into a bus on which she was traveling in Laos. Her journey of her return from the literal brink of death is, well, breathtaking.

    “My Life of Adventure” by Norman Vaughan – Not great literature, but a great story. Vaughan dropped out of Harvard to run dogsleds on Admiral Byrd’s polar expedition. Byrd named an Antarctic mountain after him, and never having been a climber, he climbed it at the age of 89. In the interim, he built and rebuilt his life several times before he died on Dec 23, 2005, just a few days before or after his 100th birthday, he had also represented the U.S. in dog sledding at the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid, made a solo dogsled run to a Greenland ice sheet to recover a top secret Norden Bomb Sight from a downed American bomber in 1942 and took Pope John Paul II dogsledding in 1981.

    Claire @ http://travel-babel.blogspot.com

  • Claire Walter says:

    Ooops. Typo alert. “Monkey Dancing” is by Daniel Glick. Sorry.

  • Nicole Lerner says:

    There’s always J. Maarten Troost’s “The Sex Lives of Cannibals” and “Getting Stoned with Savages” – both highly amusing reads about his adventures in Kiribati and Vanuatu.

  • Tyler says:

    These are fantastic choices!
    One of my favorites is The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo…talk about an amazing journey!

  • Great list! It must have been tough whittling the list down to 50. I’m sure you are going to have many people adding to your choices and I’m one of them.

    Maybe it’s because of my love of the southwest but two I would add are “Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons” by John Wesley Powell and “Through the Grand Canyon” by Ellsworth Kolb. These two books document two of the great early explorations in the American West which helped to fill in one of the last blank spots on US maps.

  • Jasper says:

    This is an awesome list, I’d like to add 2 more for the motorcycle traveler (Phil already mentioned Jupiters Travels: Four Years Around the World on a Triumph) so here’s a book which I’m sure inspired that book – One Man Caravan – an epic journey that included Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Sumatra, Malaysia, Siam, Indonesia, China and Japan IN 1932 on a single cylinder Douglas!

    And a trip inspired by Jupiters Travels, Ewan McGregors – Long Way Round: Chasing Shadows Across the World

    thanks.

  • Lucy Parker says:

    In all honesty, I’m a little unclear what this list is supposed to cover, meaning what is “adventure”? Hemingway’s “adventures” don’t really qualify as such, and Tintin? Seriously? Plus, are all these people men or is just my quick glance? Finally, Heart of Darkness, apart from being one of the worst books of all time, has almost nothing to do with adventure and everything to do with insanity and bad writing.

  • Anyone read Lost Trails, Lost Cities: An Explorer’s Narrative by Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett? Or any of the books re Fawcett’s travels in the Amazon?… Cf. http://home.earthlink.net/~larryorcutt/fawcett.html

  • Chris Cooney says:

    I would add The Places in Between by Rory Stewart. Interesting cultural tour across Afganistan. The details of his encounters while walking across are fascinating and insightful.

  • Dilshad Shahid says:

    This one of my favourites: “Adventures in Arabia: Among the Bedouins, Druses, Whirling Dervishes, and Yezidee Devil Worshipers” by William B. Seabrook. Also “Turkish Reflections: A Biography of a Place” by Mary Lee Settle. Finally, a golden oldie: “Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes” by Robert Louis Stevenson.

  • Graham Master Flash says:

    Right now I’m reading “Dishwasher” by Pete Jordan—you get a nice tour of America via its many kitchens. And if you’re wanting some women adventurers, check out “The Oblivion Seekers” by Isabelle Eberhardt, who was a pretty rad lady

  • Hanuman says:

    Danziger’s Travels. Nick Danziger. Account of a 1980′s, 18-month journey through southern Turkey, the Iran of the Ayatollahs, illegally through Afghanistan and from Pakistan into the closed western province of China. The trip is better than the writing, but the story is great.

    In Trouble Again. Redmond O’Hanlon’s best and funniest book about a journey between the Orinoco and Amazon. His books on journeys into Borneo, the North Sea and the Congo are also worth reading, but are a cut below.

    The Farm on the River of Emeralds. Moritz Thomsen. Harrowing account of an attempt to build a farm in the jungles of Ecuador. Brutal, honest and fascinating.

  • Tal Zamir says:

    Good list – I agree with many of the choices, and now have more to check out the next time I head to the library.

    One suggestion: Robert Young Pelton’s The World’s Most Dangerous Places. I always enjoyed reading the country profiles, and how generally to stay alive when out of your element. Plus, two journalist friends of mine who have just returned from Iraq (embedded with army units), say it’s a must-read for journalists working abroad and, unfortunately, at home.

  • Ezra Fitz says:

    Good to see Mathiessen at the top. I’d vote for his “Blue Meridian” as well.

    Thor Heyerdahl’s “Kon Tiki” is a must-add.

    Also, Salman Rushdie’s “The Jaguar Smile.” Jacques Cousteau’s “Shark: Splendid Savage of the Sea.” And anything by Alma Guillermoprieto.

  • Carl Kruse says:

    Great list!

    What about:

    “Treasure Island”
    “The Hobbit”
    “Two Years Before The Mast”
    “Blue Highways”
    “Motoring with Mohammed: Journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea”

  • Stephen Hughes says:

    I whole-heartedly second “Blue Highways”. And Least Heat Moon has an exceptional ear for dialect.
    A must-read: “West with the Night” by the first woman bush pilot, Beryl Markham.
    Got to add some Rockwell Kent. Perhaps “N by E”. And something by Tristan Jones, maybe “The Incredible Journey”.
    Going back a bit in time, “Bartram’s Travels”, the chronicle of Bartram’s naturalist explorations from the Carolinas to Florida in the early 19th Century.
    From about the same time: “Travels of Ali Bey : in Morocco, Tripoli, Cyprus, Egypt, Arabia, Syria, and Turkey, between the years 1803 and 1807″ by the Spanish spy, Arabist, and adventurer Domingo Francisco Jordi Badía i Leblich, better known by his alter-identity Ali Bey.
    And going much further back: “The Travels of Ibn Battuta”, a 14th-Century native of Tangiers who traveled from Morocco to China and back, a journey that is a lot longer than Marco Polo’s and lasted 23 years.

  • Stephen Hughes says:

    Carl Kruse’s suggestion of “Two Years before the Mast” is also excellent!

  • Jenny says:

    While I am thrilled to see “Into the Wild” on both this list and the Top 10 Adventure Movies, Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” is his original adventure book that certainly qualifies to be on this list. I’d also like to add John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley: In Search of America”.

  • Sandip says:

    I feel – “Kon tiki” by Thor Heyerdahl is missing….!

  • matt says:

    umm…”Two years before the mast” was written by Richard Henry Dana…and yes that is an absolute must read

  • Jurgen Thor says:

    A great list of many travel & adventure tales to inspire the masses and keep us reading.
    I would also like to add ‘Innocents Abroad’ by Mark Twain, ‘Travels’ by Marco Polo and ‘Education of a Wandering Man’ by Louis L’Amour.

  • Jason Hilliard says:

    Nice list, although I’d have to add 2 books to this magificent list to make it truly complete. The first is A Walk Across American by Peter Jenkins. A “true” adventure that didn’t cross 14,000-foot peaks or unchartered jungles, but did test the limits of human endurance and expose 1 mans emotions regarding his fascination with our country and his taste for freedom. Book #2? Winter, Rick Bass. A short work, written from the heart in almost a journal form. Bass is an underestimated and underappreciated author who’s descriptions of life in Northern Montana make me want to drop what I’m doing, but a VW van and spend a winter there myself.

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  • Dave Langley says:

    As others have said, a good list, but I would add two other books, LOST TOMB OF THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR by Ben Hammott – (Back cover text) Treasure, Tombs, Secret Codes and Hidden Clues, a Brutal Murder, the Knights Templar and 2000 year old Relics, are all parts of a Mystery to be solved. It could be the premise for a new archaeological thriller. Except that it is real.

    What begins as a treasure hunt and a bit of fun and adventure, leads an Englishman to the tiny French village of Rennes-le-Château, where he unlocked a mysterious puzzle set up by a priest 100 years ago.

    Abbé Bérenger Saunière (1852-1917) became mysteriously and fabulously rich after finding a hidden parchment in his Church of Mary Magdalene.

    As many believe, the mysterious priest had embedded clues in his church decoration leading to a treasure or a secret, & the source of his wealth. When Ben Hammott enters the church he soon spots something that everyone else has somehow missed – a key that deciphers some of the embedded clues.

    Painstakingly deciphering and following the clues, Ben is led to a discovery of 2000-year-old artefacts, a treasure of gold, and a Knights Templar Tomb containing a shrouded body!

    I found it to be a very exciting and informative read and in places very humorous. I give it 10/10 – availble here – http://www.benhammott.com

    The second book i would add is, SHIP OF GOLD by Gary Kinder – An extraordinary account of the search for Lost Treasure under the sea. A bit technical at times, but a very interesting read. I give it 8/10 – available from Amazon.com

    As I don’t have a website od my own I put Hammott’s website address so those reading this can find out about his book and discoveries.

  • Dave, great calls. Ship of Gold is another compelling one, as is Shadow Divers about the search for a German U-boat…

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  • ollie says:

    Nunaga- can’t remember the author’s name but this is a must read! Nunaga- nuff said

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  • Daniela Kilt says:

    I would add “Talus” to the list. It is an action/adventure novel with protagonists travelling to different locations like Madagascar, Paris, Sicily, Oxford…

  • Hey, Great blog you have here. I found this post really interesting. Thanks

  • Clay Ellis says:

    Another classic: “Sailing Alone Around The World” by Joshua Slocum

  • Dave Langley says:

    Hi,
    Just want to add another book I have just finished reading, it was an Xmas prezzy.
    It is BEGINNINGS – Book 1 of the TOMB, the TEMPLE, the TREASURE by Ben Hammott.
    It’s an archaeological thriller and really hooks you from page 1.
    Read some preview chapters here: http://www.benhammott.com/beginnings-chapters.html

    Here is the Back Cover Tex from his website:

    A hunt for a treasure becomes a Quest for the truth

    960BC Solomon’s Temple is completed.

    70AD Fall of Jerusalem and the Temple Treasure is Lost

    1119AD The Knights Templar tunnel under the Temple Mount. Nine years later they find what they have been searching for and return to France. They become the richest and most powerful order the world has known.

    1446 Sir William St Clair builds Rosslyn Chapel.

    1891 A penniless priest of the small French village of Rennes-le-Château, discovers a parchment hidden in his church – it turns him into a man of great wealth.

    1952 The Copper Scroll is discovered in a cave in Qumran. It is a Treasure map believed to have been written around the time Jerusalem fell.

    All are connected Part of a Secret buried for centuries.
    A secret many have been searching for without success.
    Ancient Families, Secret Orders, innocents wronged. All have suffered. All seek revenge. The Secret will give it to them. They just have to find something that went missing over 2000 years ago.

    Present day Ben Hammott enters the hidden catacombs beneath Rosslyn Chapel. He discovers a secret hidden for centuries. They are coming to claim it.

  • doyle says:

    #50:Sand County Almanac– my all time favorite book!
    #1: The Snow Leopard–my favorite travel book!

  • doyle says:

    West with the Night should be top 10!

  • camilla says:

    Anyone ready ‘ the Talisman ‘ by Stephen King?

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