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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Prof. Hike: The Backpacker's Reading List

Seven great books and the outdoor places to enjoy them

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

End your day right with a headlamp and a good book. (Jason Stevenson)
End your day right with a headlamp and a good book. (Jason Stevenson)

Literature and the outdoors enjoy a long history together. Sometimes its nature inspiring a story, like Annie Dillard’s Walden-like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Or a book can be a stepping-stone for more adventure, as Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild does for many who read it.

Ultralighters might frown at the extravagant weight of a book. But after dinner is eaten, the campfire embers turn gray, and a warm sleeping bag beckons—reading a book by headlamp is a sublime way to spend the last half hour of the day (if you can stay awake that long). Nowadays you don’t even need to bring a paperback (slipped into a zipper-lock bag for protection against rain). Amazon offers a free Kindle app for downloading and reading books on every kind of smartphone.

I pack a book (an old-fashioned paperback) on every backpacking trip I go. Once, when I forgot reading material on a five-day hike in Montana, I drifted off sleep reading the microscopic labels on a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint liquid soap. Now I never forget a proper book.

Of course, recommending good reads is a tricky topic. Even harder is matching titles and authors to the season, trail, landscape, or region where you are hiking. After all, paging through Cold Mountain, a Civil War-era novel by Charles Frazier set in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge while hiking in the Cascades is like bringing a mandolin to a grunge concert. The perfect trail demands the perfect book.

I won’t claim to be as accurate Amazon’s book recommendation algorithm, but here are my picks for all types of trails, seasons, and moods.

South: The story of Shackleton's 1914-1917 expedition
By Sir Ernest Shackleton

((Best For: Winter camping))
Short days and interminable nights mean more hours lying prone inside a tent. You might still feel cold and damp, but you won’t complain as much after reading about this miraculous polar adventure told in the famous explorer’s understated English style.

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
By Bill Bryson

((Best For: Leading inexperienced hikers))
No matter how slow, clumsy, or dangerous your current hiking partners might be—they will never be as bad as Bill Bryson’s high school buddy, Stephen Katz, who threw most of his gear over a cliff to lighten his load. Unfortunately, this tale of hiking the Appalachian Trail is all most Americans know about long-distance backpacking. All you can do is laugh.

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water
By Marc Reisner

((Best For: Desert hiking))
If you’re worried about where your next water source might be, read this book. It provides a surprisingly gripping account of the water wars in the West that continue to threaten rivers and wilderness areas. Reisner’s book won’t help you find more water, but it will explain where it went. Like how the Sierra Nevada’s lush Owens Valley was drained by a 233-mile aqueduct to fill the swimming pools of Los Angeles.

A Walk Across America
By Peter Jenkins
The Walk West: A Walk Across America 2
By Peter and Barbara Jenkins

((Best for: Dropping off the grid))
Before there was Chris McCandless, there was Peter Jenkins. Both had long hair, scraggly beards, and showered irregularly. And both acted on their wanderlust. In 1973 Jenkins put on a backpack and walked the Appalachian spine from upstate New York to New Orleans. A few years later he continued to the Pacific coast of Oregon. Jenkins’ books, along with Colin Fletcher’s Complete Walker (first published 1968) and Backpacker magazine (first published 1973) inspired the backpacking boom in the 1970s.

On the Rez
By Ian Frazier

((Best For: Getting outside your comfort zone)) Set mostly on the Pine Ridge reservation of South Dakota, this book explains Ohio-raised Frazier’s unlikely kinship with Le War Lance, an Oglala Sioux man he meets by chance on a Manhattan street. While the reservation stories of he relates are sometimes painful to read, Frazier can switch from grim to hilarious within a single sentence, and takes you along for the ride.

Travels with Charley: In Search of America
By John Steinbeck

((Best for: Road trips))
Five years after Kerouac’s On the Road, John Steinbeck published this travelogue about his 1960 journey through the United States with a standard poodle named Charley. Starting in New York (a good place to begin when writing a travel book), Steinbeck drove his camper truck through New England, the upper Midwest, Montana’s Yellowstone, and the Redwood forests of California before finishing his trip in racially-tense New Orleans. Entertaining, moralistic, and both hopeful and dismayed about the fate of his country, Steinbeck makes you want to get on the road, too.

Young Men and Fire
By Norman Maclean

((Best For: Mid-summer hiking))
Reading this book between May and September will encourage you to glance back over your shoulder for columns of smoke rising into the sky. MacLean, who wrote A River Runs Through It, meticulously describes the cascade of errors and events that led to the death of 13 smokejumpers in Montana’s 1949 Mann Gulch fire. Think of it as The Perfect Storm set in a national forest. And if you’re reading it on a smartphone, download the MP3 of James Keelaghan’s haunting song about the fire, “Cold Missouri Waters.”

Which books and authors are your favorite on-trail reads? List them in a comment below, or send your suggestions to
—Jason Stevenson

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Reader Rating: -


Star Star Star Star Star
Sep 08, 2013

I once balled my eyes out when someone read The Giving Tree to me while sitting on a stump in Yosemite. Cried like a baby. I think that even a sad book about nature can have the biggest positive impact while on the trail.

Oct 24, 2012

A Walk in the Woods.. really? I dont understand the popularity of this book. Written by an arrogant non-hiker who hikes only half the trail (but acts like he became an expert) and insults everyone he comes in contact with. I found the author to be an irritating ass, and the second part of the book is pure filler.

Apr 29, 2012

I read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy while on camping trips. It was amazing.

Oct 01, 2011

"Enchanted Vagabond" and its sequel "Quest for the Lost City" by Dana and Ginger Lamb. Don't read the book jackets, just dive right in. Husband and wife ditch everything and head out. Courageous, scary, thoughtful, fascinating, and rewarding, and with a true twist at the end that nobody could see coming.

Rachel Z
Jun 02, 2011

I read Edward Abbey's "Desert Solitaire" while on a month-long trip in the canyons of Southern Utah. It was positively a magic way to read an awesome book, and the paperback is pretty small and light.

My BF and I also read New Yorker magazines aloud to each other while stuck in our tent in a blizzard, but that's not quite the same I guess.

Jun 02, 2011

It might seem strange, but sailing books are great hiking reads. They're similar to backpacking stories in that gear choices and navigation are paramount, and they tend to be very contemplative.

Twice now I have read two books side-by-side: Bernard Moitessier's The Long Way, and Robin Knox-Johnston's A World of My Own. Both are autobiographical accounts of the same 1967 race in which the two men vied to be the first to circumnavigate the globe solo and non-stop. The lonely Brit sailed in a rickety boat he'd built as a young man, and the mystic Frenchman sailed in a fast boat he'd designed himself. They approach the race in two completely different ways -- they remind me of the differences between a bombproof-backpacking Colin Fletcher type and a fast-and-light Ray Jardine type -- and there is much to be appreciated about each.

Jun 02, 2011

Indian Creek Chronicles by Peter Fromm is a great addition for either the winter camping group or dropping off the grid group.

Steve C.
May 31, 2011

Ah yes, the Psalms are awesome, but best when committed to memory! Looking up at the stars at night, walking through a lush meadow or sitting by a quiet steam on a sunny afternoon, the Psalms remind me of why we are here.

May 31, 2011

One cannot go wrong with the Book of Psalms. Reading the writers thoughts as they contemplate God while watching the earth, sky, wind, wildlife and water. And even the Psalms of David as he lived in the wilderness and lived off the land.

May 30, 2011

Anyone hiking the Continental Divide should bring along "The Backbone of the World," by Frank Clifford. It's the only book he wrote (unfortunately), and it's a beauty -- distinct, thoughtful chapters about the people and places along the trail. If you're lucky, like me, you might end up hunkered down in your tent in Glacier during a rainstorm, reading about Two Medicine, just over the hill.

May 28, 2011

I usually take one book for 'improving my mind' and two books for entertainment. (I read fairly quickly).

For example: in the 'mind improvement' category - Colin Fletcher’s The Complete Walker. - This book was mentioned earlier, but I thought I'd mention it again, as by my estimation it is the best technical hiking book ever written.
For entertainment I'll take a classic, a mystery by Rex Stout, or Dasheil Hammett, and then balance that out with a newer author in the fantasy genre, such as one of Patricia Briggs Mercy Thompson books, or a Jim Butcher Dresden Files book.

Right now though, I'm trying out an e-reader. A JetBook Lite by Ectaco. The main reason I chose this reader over the others - besides it's low cost ($80 at and it's expandable memory (built in memory and SD card slot) is because it runs on AA batteries. So along with the addition of lightweight solar charger that I built last year, and my rechargeable batteries I'm assured that I won't run out of juice.
So now I have an entire library to take with me - currently I have about 500 books on it, and I've barely even touched the 2 gig SD card I'm using.

- Thought I might sound like a shill, so..
Disclaimer: except for owning an e-reader built by them, I have absolutely no connection to Ectaco, or to Newegg who I bought it from.

May 28, 2011

Ditto the Patrick McManus, and in winter. Nothing like tears of laughter and belly laughs to raise the core temp. The first 5 books he has seem to have more funny stories. The latter books are scattered, humorous, just not always belly laughs.
And careful driving to/from wilderness while some reads, great way to have a wreck.

May 27, 2011

A Fine and Pleasant Misery by Patrick F. McManus is the ultimate in outdoor humor - I take it (or one of his books) on every adventure.

Old Rambler
May 27, 2011

Don't forget the standbys by Thoreau, good for paddling or hiking in New England. And don't forget Fletcher's classic "The Man Who Walked Through Time--another one for the canyons.
By the way, John Krakauer, not Annie Dillard, wrote Into the Wild (as well as Into Thin Air, another one for a winter hike.) Dillard is best known for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, considered a great book by many, but one I always found unreadable.

Pete H
May 27, 2011

Another great winter read is "The year-long day: One Man's Arctic," by A.E. Maxwell. It's a page burner, which makes you appreciative of a warm fire on a ice cold night. This may be a harder book to find, but worth the effort.

May 27, 2011

24 years on the trail and only a handful of times have I taken a book, and even then I don't think I cracked it for more than a moment. Maybe I have been reading the wrong books. Some of these seemed pretty interesting, but this means now adding both the weight of the book, the weight of my reading glasses, and the weight of finishing at least one book.

May 27, 2011

My favorite, many times read, is "The High Adventure of Eric Ryback", an account of the 18-yr old's hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. My 1973 signed copy is a personal treasure.

May 27, 2011

I was going to say the same thing! Read Desert Solitaire while hiking Arches!

Wayfarer AT '06
May 27, 2011

You must consider, LOSING THE GARDEN, by Laura Waterman. It is a memoir of her life as wife and climbing/hiking partner of Guy Waterman, one of the most influential hikers and climbers of all time. On Feb. 6, 2000, Guy Waterman, who was 67, climbed up his favorite trail in New Hampshire during a blizzard and deliberately froze to death.
After reading the book you will immediately want to share it with someone close to you... and then you will rush them to finish so you can discuss the issues brought out in the book. A book that you will want to read and reread!

-John Mac
May 26, 2011

Anything by Edward Abbey - better read while in the canyons of the southwest, but any backpacker or outdoor enthusiast can relate


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