11 Classic Outdoor Memoirs to Inspire Your Next Adventure
Travel postponed? Live vicariously through these adventurous sagas instead.
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With the world temporarily slowing down and vacations delayed, it’s high time to plan your next big move. And what better way than by taking a tip from those who have lived really, really big adventures? Ranging from the peaks of the Himalaya to the open ocean, these 11 classic and modern-classic memoirs will take you all over the earth.
Ed Abbey’s classic love letter to the desert is as relevant now as it was in 1968, at the peak of the environmental movement’s first wave. The ideas of wild national parks, conservation over exploitation, and personal freedom call just as strongly to modern explorers and conservationists. The descriptions of the desert are enough to spark post-quarantine travel plans: “There is still too much to see and marvel at, the world very much alive in the bright light and wind, exultant with the fever of spring, the delight of morning,” Abbey wrote of Arches National Park, where I first read this book while sleeping in the back of a dusty Volkswagen. Desert Solitaire nearly always makes this kind of list, but all it takes is one read and you’ll know why. —Kristin Smith
Turns out park rangers have a lot of ridiculous stories. Find some of the funniest in this collection of anecdotes by a 19-year Glacier National Park ranger, from tourists who ask “does this lake go all the way to the bottom?” to unfortunate encounters with bear spray. Luckily you can’t read in public right now, so no well-meaning strangers will try to administer aid when you start laughing so hard you can’t breathe. —KS
Don’t read it because it topped Obama’s 2016 summer reading list and was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner in biography, read it because it perfectly captures dedicating your life to the pursuit of a freedom through adventure. In this case, it’s surfing, but even if you’ve lived landlocked your entire life, as I have, you’ll find yourself inspired by the dedication to craft, to athletic prowess, to an unquenchable thirst for exploration.—Shannon Davis
Starlight and Storm
I was at a bar in Salt Lake City one winter night, a little deep in the cups, ranting about how serious and boring most adventure writing is, especially stories about climbing: Enough “there I was hanging by a finger nail yet somehow I persevered” man versus nature machismo! My friend, colleague, and occasional mentor Mark Jenkins (a frequent contributor to BACKPACKER) said “You need to read Startlight and Storm.” This book, published in 1954 and written by pioneering French alpinist Gaston Rebuffat is as much about natural beauty, camaraderie, and the joy of movement as it is about hard-won summits. Gaston’s view that climbing was a harmonious communion with mountains, not a battle, was profound at the time—and still is today. —SD
A Walk Across America
“I started out searching for myself and my country, and found both,” Peter Jenkins wrote of his hike from New York to the Gulf of Mexico in the 1970s. Disillusioned with conventional society and with no love for the land of his birth, he nonetheless set out with Cooper, his dog, to find his way south. Over months of walking, his outlook slowly shifted through the kindness of strangers and the beauty of the land he walked through, and he found a new appreciation for his country, its people, and his own life. —KS
Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei
Junko Tabei and Helen Y. Rolfe, translated by Yumiko Hiraki and Rieko Holtved
The memoirs of the first woman to summit Everest and complete the Seven Summits, Honouring High Places mixes joyful descriptions of alpine landscapes around the globe with a frank look at Tabei’s personal challenges. Balancing her roles as a professional climber and a parent while pushing for environmental awareness among mountaineers and bringing more women into the outdoors, she still never lost her love for the mountains. —KS
Helen Thayer was 50 years old when she became the first woman to reach the magnetic north pole on foot, proving that age is no limit to adventure. Alone but for her husky Charlie, she faced polar bears, storms, and supply setbacks, but persevered through to success. Her flowing prose draws you right onto the ice with her, and the accompanying pictures will have you ready to head for cold country yourself. —KS
Touching My Father’s Soul
Jamling Norgay with Broughton Coburn
Jamling Tenzing Norgay, the son of Tenzing Norgay, weaves together his father’s story, Sherpa culture, and his own experiences as an expedition leader and then a rescuer in the 1996 Everest tragedy. The 1996 narrative pulls you straight in to the action, while the insight into his father’s historic climb and their family connection to Everest provides a depth that many Everest stories are missing. —KS
With his signature blend of natural and human history, philosophy, and prose that often shades closer to poetry, Lopez tells the story of his life through the places that have shaped it most. Woven throughout is an urgent reminder that though these places feel timeless, their survival in a changing world is far from guaranteed. In climate change, like in everything else, humanity is indelibly linked to the natural world in which we live.
Welcome to the Goddamn Icecube
Fascinated by the northernmost reaches of the globe after her first trip to Norway, Blair Braverman returned to the Arctic as soon as she could, learning to drive sled dogs and finding work as a glacier guide in Alaska. Along the way she struggled against the landscape, her own doubts, and the culture and accompanying threats of what is, in many ways, still regarded as a “man’s world”. Through it all she found her own independence in a landscape that never lost its allure. —KS
Sailing Alone Around the World
Joshua Slocum’s account of his solo voyage around the globe—the first ever completed—became an international bestseller when it was published in 1900 and has remained popular with professional sailors and armchair adventures alike in the 120 years since. Slocum’s understated prose only reinforces the absolute audacity of his voyage. Even more than a story of bravery, though, it is a story of his love for exploring the world’s wildest places, and the untamable sea to which he gave his life. My own copy, suitably water-stained and ever-so-slightly mildewed from being hauled about on sailboats after its purchase in a portside bookstore, holds a place of honor in my personal outdoor library. —KS
Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking, 17 Years of Silence
After witnessing the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1972, John Francis quit cars. For the next 22 years, he walked and sailed around the Americas instead, earning a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. along the way. As if that weren’t enough, he took a vow of silence partway through, speaking only once in 17 years. His book Planetwalker is a memoir of two decades lived in a way that almost no one will ever experience, with drawings made by the author during his journeys. —AR