An Adventurer's Bookshelf

General Travel Memoirs and Collections

Have Mother, Will Travel: A Mother and Daughter Discover Themselves, Each Other, and the World (Claire and Mia Fontaine)

My very first backpacking trip began with a three-week stint with my mother (and my first blog entry on this website!).  To prepare myself for what could either end up being the best or worst three weeks of my life, I tore through the pages of this book on one of many rainy afternoons in my Oxford dorm.  I laughed, I cried, and, most of all, I wondered how in the hell I was going to survive those three weeks.  It ended up being an incredible period of my life, and ultimately what hooked me on travel.  All in all, this is the book that started it all.

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism (Thomas Kohnstamm)

Ah the age-old question we all ask ourselves, though for me, I’m undoubtedly sure the answer is yes.  While this book talks primarily about the act of traveling for the purpose of creating a travel guidebook, the basic ethical concerns it raises are the same across the travel writing board.  We all go there looking, to some extend, to exploit the local culture for our own gains (monetary, spiritual, whatever), and in return we get monetarily exploited at every opportunity.  All’s fair in love and travel, but this book does a wonderful jobs at humorously exploring the fraught nature of the travel writer’s presence in the places in which he goes.

A Moveable Feast (Ernest Hemingway)

What kind of travel writer would I be if Hemingway’s iconic novel didn’t have a place on my list.  While, as a literature student in university, I generally developed the pompous opinion that Hemingway was grossly overrated by the annals of history, I must agree this book is art.  While rambling and typically self-gratifying, the contemplative nature of this book gives spectacular insight into the inner, and often unwritten, musings of the traveler.  It’s a funny psychology, but we’ve all been there.  We’ve all dreamt of somewhere and gone only to think incessantly about home. 

In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century (Geert Mak)

Geert Mak’s book should undoubtedly be required reading for any traveler looking at tickets to Europe. Weaving together an active travel narrative with a historical and cultural anthology, perhaps the only of its kind that prioritizes the latter and uses the former only a brief conduit.  It’s a hefty read with a wealth of history between its covers.

And the Monkey Learned Nothing: Dispatches from a Life in Transit (Tom Lutz)

As travel writers, we strive to make sense of that which is happening around us.  To weave a story out of it that flows one segment into the next.  The truth of the matter is, sometimes things just don’t.  They don’t make sense in the context of a larger narrative, and feel out of place shoved forcibly into one.  But moments can be significant if not part of a larger tapestry and no travel narrative I’ve read better captures that than this series of vignettes.  Only a few pages long, each story is ultimately about what it means to be human, regardless of where you are or where you’re from.

Dirtbag Bibles

The Dharma Bums (Jack Kerouac)

Just about everyone was forced to read On the Road in high school, but far better (and less booze-soaked) is his meditation on moving though nature of California’s high Sierras.  Pretentious fans of the indecipherable string of consciousness won’t be disappointed, but peppered in there are some truly profound statements about the fluid relationship between man and nature. 

Orange is Optimism (Kit Whistler and JR Switchgrass)

On the obscure end of these recommendations, this book is part photo book, part vignette series on the five year road ramblings of the Idle Theory Bus team.  I know, I know, vanlife is so overdone right now, but Kit, J.R., and their VW bus Sunshine were some of the first behind the trend.  JR’s colorful photos wonderfully capture a life lived at its fullest and simplest and Kit’s writings are contemplative, thought provoking, and heartbreakingly honest.  You can only order the book from their website.  Plus, you’re supporting fellow freelance travel writers, living the dream come hell or flat tire.

Outdoor Adventure Stories

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why? (Laurence Gonzalez)

 If I could only recommend one book for any avid adventurer to read, it would be this one.  Most survival books on the market talk about actual skills and useful pieces of information, but none delve very deeply into the psychology behind survival.  What makes one person more likely to survive than another?  This is the question Gonzalez sets out to answer as he dissects real scenarios and applies principals of psychology, mathematics, and logic to determining the why rather than the how.  I often find my mind wandering back to his statements and discoveries whenever I am out, particularly in hairy situations.  This book should be a mandatory read for the adventure enthusiast, if for no other reason than to give us insight into our own human shortcomings in the face of survival.

Into the Wild (Jon Krakauer)

Take a look at my home page, and you’ll see, right away, the influence that Chris McCandless had on my life.  Not to be melodramatic, but reading Into the Wild changed my life, my entire ideology and outlook on the reason for living, and I have unabashedly name it as my favorite book for the last six years. Regardless of where you stand on the McCandless debate, this book is one to read.  Krakauer is an expert in speculative journalism and investigation.  The information he manages to collect on such an obscure and mysterious individual still astounds me.  For those afraid of reading something dry, fear not, Krakauer strings this biographical investigation together in such a way that it feel like a story, stitched together with his own experiences.

Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man's Miraculous Survival (Joe Simpson)

There exists no better novel about the battle between man and mountain than Simpson’s harrowing tale of disaster, suffering, and survival on Siula Grande (though perhaps Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna comes close).  Simpson’s writing is beautiful and accessible, vividly painting the landscape and giving incredible insight into the adventurist’s mind, and it is unparalleled in its exploration of the bonds and responsibilities of climbing partnership.  Even for those who aren’t’ climbers and mountaineers, this book is an incredibly read.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Cheryl Strayed)

As much as I don’t want this book to have a place on my list (it feels too mainstream and cliché for my liking), it simply must.  This was the first long-distance hiking memoir I read and, other than Into the Wild, my first dive into the adventure-writing genre, of which I have consumed ravenously ever since.  Strayed’s book makes the genre accessible, and while it is by no means the best long-distance hiking memoir out there, it is a stellar one, one that exposes the human nuances of tragedy and that which drives us to extremes.  Unlike many, hers is not a story started by love of nature or hiking, but one driven out of desperation for change, and to some extent, all humans can relate.

Between a Rock and a White Blaze: Searching for Significance on the Appalachian Trail (Julie Urbanski)

While Wild isn't necessarily the best long distance hiking book I've ever read, Julie Urbanski's book is.  While she has written three separate books about her and her husband's journey on the Triple Crown Trails, this is easily my favorite because it's brutally honest.  Urbanski writes about every aspect of trail life and her own emotional struggle with it: her meltdowns, her bratty tantrums, all of it.  Some might find it insufferable but I found it refreshingly brave.  I've been there.  Anyone who's really tested themselves on the roads knows that travel brings out the absolute worst in you and I dare any traveler to try to state they didn't have moments, whole days even, that they're not proud of.  We're all human and we all break down; what matters is how we get up again, and Urbanski's memoir reminds us of that.

Where the Mountain Casts It’s Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure (Maria Coffey)

The world of mountaineering is littered with tragedy, and those who choose to venture into the alpine landscapes or align themselves with those who do must make peace with the mortality rate of the mountains.  Mountaineering memoirs speak of it frequently, but it always comes from an inside perspective, from those who choose to endanger their own lives.  Rarely do we hear from those who don’t make such a choice but are just a closely impacted by the effects.  Rarely do we hear from the outside fringes, the families, the unspoken victims to mountaineering accidents.  Maria Coffey, girlfriend to late great Joe Tasker, gives voice to the unspoken victims of mountaineering accidents: those left behind.  Through emotionally raw writing, Coffey draws on both personal experience and a wealth of testimonies by mountaineers and their widows to attempt to make sense of what it means to love someone who first and foremost loves mountains.

The Push: A Climber's Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits (Tommy Caldwell)

Climbing memoirs can be a bit of a niche read, often littered with obscure jargon incomprehensible outside those intimate with the sport.  While I am that and much a fan of pretty much any climbing book, Caldwell’s memoir is refreshingly accessible for all readers, and his writing is humorous, honest, and humble, a rare find among the self-gratifying nature of climbing.  Even more rare for someone kidnapped by armed rebels in Kyrgyzstan, who cut off a finger in a home construction project, and still went on to accomplish the single most incredible feat in climbing history. But this book isn’t just about climbing; it’s about life, love, growing into your gangly and awkward self, and pushing onward no matter what.

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North (Blaire Braverman)

 Maybe it’s just because I’ve obsessed with dog mushing since I was a kid, or maybe it has to do with the fact that I too migrated north in search for freedom, but in Blair Braverman’s memoir, I found the ghost of myself.   From her harsh wilderness schooling in the desolate reaches of northern Norway to her isolation on a glacier outside Juneau, AK while running dogs for summer tourists, Braverman is a master storyteller.  Sled dog mushing serves as merely a backdrop for internal struggle, abuse, and coming to terms with the perpetual feeling of alienation, of being an outsider.

The Mountains of My Life (Walter Bonatti) 

Walter Bonatti is one of mountaineering’s greatest: the first solo winter ascent of the Matterhorn, an open bivouac at 8,000 meters on K2, and so many others.  More impressive than his achievements are his writings of them.  This collection is a work of art, pure and simple.  Capturing the intensity of the true alpinism, each story begs to be consumed, all the while contemplating the deepest question no climber has ever truly been able to answer: Why do we climb?

Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Aron Ralston)

Don’t judge a book by its movie and don’t judge an author by his portrayal by James Franco.  The movie 127 hours is a horrendous and damnable adaptation of this spectacular book, in which Aron Ralston tells the harrowing tale of his solo venture into the Utahn slot canyons and the eventual culmination of sawing off his own arm to free himself from beneath a boulder.  If that isn’t grit, I don’t know what is.  While Franco’s character is an arrogant, ignorant guy you have trouble sympathizing with, the real Ralston is unflinching in his honesty and in confronting the reality of his own mistakes that led to that moment.  This book is a compelling read and its author’s self-reflective honesty admirable.

Mountain Skills Books

Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (The Mountaineers)

 This one is a no-brainer.  Considered the Holy Bible of mountaineering books, anyone even vaguely interested in entering the backcountry should be required to read this book.  Covering everything from first aid, to navigation, to self-arresting, this book is a one stop guide to everything mountaineering.  Never plan on being in a situation where you might need to know crevasse rescue techniques?  Fine.  Just skip that chapter, but this book is a great reference tool for anyone’s bookshelf.

Mountaineering Handbook: Modern Tools and techniques that Will Take You to the Top (Craig Connally) 

Typically, one doesn’t read a skills handbook for kicks, and you sure don’t go into it expecting it to be funny.  Maybe that’s why Connally’s book caught me so off-guard as I realized I was actually enjoying reading a skills manual.  Fill with little jokes and little known pro-tips, this skills handbook goes above on beyond the industry standard.  Learn a thing or two, and laugh more than a little at the unexpected one-liners.