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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.
((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 firstname.lastname@example.org.