The only thing as exciting as living your own outdoor adventure is reading about one. If you’ve been itching for true stories of wilderness experience and survival, then check out our list of the 10 best non-fiction outdoor adventure books. From perilous mountains and dense jungles to polar landscapes and the open ocean, there’s something here to please every reader. While hardly an exhaustive list, these books represent some of the best-known and most popular in the adventure genre. Enjoy, and hope that your next nature outing proves much safer and less dramatic than these tales.
1. The Worst Journey in the World (1922) by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Considered the definitive polar adventure story, The Worst Journey in the World chronicles the experiences of a young Apsley Cherry-Garrard as he embarks on an expedition to the South Pole with Robert Falcon Scott to collect penguin eggs. Enduring temperatures as frigid as 70 degrees below zero, the expedition trudges through constant darkness toward its goal, fighting to survive some of the harshest conditions imaginable. Unfortunately, the journey ends on a deeply tragic note. Despite the gripping events described here, a big part of what makes this book a classic of the genre is the wit, feeling and story-telling prowess of its author.
2. Annapurna (1952) by Maurice Herzog
Titled after a particularly high and treacherous Himalayan mountain, Annapurna documents the efforts of the author and his climbing partner, Louis Lachenal, to scale the previously untried 26,493-foot peak in 1950. The book describes how Herzog and others had to first map out a route up the mountain using crude maps and trust that their mountaineering skills and luck would be enough to get them to the top—alive. While the expedition was successful, it was nevertheless a harrowing experience. Frostbite and snow blindness nearly killed Herzog and Lachenal during the descent; Herzog lost most of his fingers, and both men lost all of their toes.
3. Into Thin Air (1996) by Jon Krakauer
A haunting tale of tragedy and regret, Into Thin Air details a 1996 expedition to the summit of Mount Everest that was ultimately doomed by the hubris of its leaders. By the expedition’s end, eight climbers lay dead, the victims of a wicked storm and bad judgment calls. Jon Krakauer, a journalist on the expedition, recounts the events as they unfolded that May and analyzes the mistakes, including his own, that resulted in such a tragic loss of life. In the end, the book shows readers that, in spite of its commercialization in recent years, mountaineering on Everest is not an activity to be taken lightly.
4. K2, The Savage Mountain (1954) by Charles Houston
The perils of hiking up Everest not riveting enough? Try K2, The Savage Mountain, the story of eight mountaineers who dared to ascend a more dangerous peak. The adventure begins with a treacherous journey through a remote area of Pakistan just to reach the mountain, the climbers relying on primitive modes of transportation that threaten to end their lives at every turn. Upon arriving at K2’s base, they scramble to establish a series of camps up the mountainside. After being storm bound at 25,500 feet for a week with little food, water or sleep, one climber becomes deathly ill and must be carried back to base if he is to survive. Enduring fierce winds, blinding snow, limited oxygen, sheer cliffs, avalanches, frostbite and a near-fatal fall off the side of the mountain, the climbers struggle with great determination to save one of their own—and, ultimately, themselves. The book also details the materials and cost of outfitting such an expedition in case you feel inspired to take on a similar challenge.
5. Running the Amazon (1990) by Joe Kane
In 1985, a rag-tag team of adventurers assembled in the Andes mountains to do what no one had ever done before: travel the entire length of the Amazon river. The group began with 11 people. After six months and 4,200 miles of navigating the world’s longest river—mostly by kayak—only four remained. Running the Amazon is a personal, first-hand account of the perils the expedition faced during its journey: killer rapids, treacherous jungle, financial hardship, internal strife, multiple defections, extreme weather and terrifying encounters with Amazonian drug lords. Good luck putting this one down.
6. Adrift (1986) by Stephen Callahan
If you thought survival on the high seas was a tale for the 1800s, think again. Adrift is the first-hand account of Steven Callahan, who found himself hopelessly lost at sea in 1982 after his homemade sailboat capsized in a storm. Armed only with an emergency kit, a handful of supplies and a sea survival guide, Callahan drifted for 1,800 miles and 76 days across open ocean before finding rescue. This riveting tale stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 36 weeks.
7. Touching the Void (1988) by Joe Simpson
What would you do if you fell off a frozen mountain ledge, broke your leg and disappeared into a crevasse during a blizzard? Joe Simpson spent three days crawling, with severe frostbite, over mountainous terrain to reach his base camp after his friend, Simon Yates, was forced to abandon him in the Andes. A compelling story of friendship and survival, Touching the Void will have you on the edge of your seat.
8. Alive (1974) by Piers Paul Reed
A gripping, bare-knuckled story of survival, Alive recounts the struggles of a Uraguayan rugby team whose plane crash-landed in the Andes mountains in October of 1972. The survivors endure a grueling 10 weeks of frigid temperatures and no food, resorting to cannibalism to stay alive. Desperate to secure rescue for their dwindling numbers, two young men leave the group and undertake a dangerous hike through the mountains to look for help, ultimately finding it. Out of the original 45 passengers, 16 return to civilization, having beaten impossible odds. This gut-wrenching tale inspired a film, which was released in 1993.
9. Into the Wild (1996) by Jon Krakauer
Another modern adventure classic by author Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild explores the experiences and motivations of a young college graduate, Chris McCandless, who abandoned his charmed life for a lone existence in the Alaskan wilderness. With no supplies and scant survival knowledge, McCandless disappeared into the trees only to meet with disaster. Drawing from McCandless’ personal writings, as well his own passion for the outdoors, the author retraces the young man’s steps and examines the forces that may have compelled him to forsake all for nature. The book was made into a film in 2007.
10. Ordeal by Hunger (1992) by George R. Stewart
If you’re looking for an adventure story with some historical significance, check out this account of the infamous Donner party, which endured unimaginably extreme conditions as it sought to blaze a new trail across the American West to California in 1847. Weaving together historical research and diary excerpts of the survivors, Ordeal by Hungerdescribes the lengths the 87 pioneers reached in their efforts to stay alive—including cannibalism. Detailing a harrowing journey through scalding desert and frigid mountains, this book gives an electric account of the indomitable American spirit.
Did your favorite non-fiction adventure story not make our list? Tell us about it in the comments section below!
Looking for books to help you have your own outdoor adventure? Check out these titles:
Camping and Wilderness Survival: The Ultimate Outdoors Book by Paul Tawrell
“Ultimate” is not an exaggeration. This camping how-to book contains 31 chapters of survival tips and techniques, from starting a fire and building a shelter to finding food and purifying water.
Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills by Ronald C. Eng
Often called the bible of mountaineering, this manual has been the definitive guide to climbing the craggy peaks for decades. It covers everything you need to know about mountaineering: techniques, equipment, physical conditioning, first aid, rescue, ice climbing and expedition planning.
SAS Survival Handbook by John Wiseman
Want to know how to survive a volcanic eruption or nuclear fallout? This book teaches all the skills you need: crossing dangerous areas, tracking small game, signaling by Morse code, navigating by the heavenly bodies and surviving extremes in climate.