The Essential Adventure Library: 50 Non-fiction Adventure Books

by Chris on June 29, 2009 · 112 comments

in Books, Travel & Leisure


Following up on our recent look into the world of fictional adventure literature, we now turn to the true life tales of exploration, adventure, and survival against all odds that have inspired countless readers for generations. Unlike their fictional counterparts, these riveting tales of conquests and ill fated journeys are completely true, and stand as a testament to man’s unquenchable desire to seek out the unknown, often against all odds and in the face of unbelievable hardship.
This is not considered a complete list of all the great tales of true life adventure, so please take advantage of the comments section to share what other true life tales of adventure you recommend to your fellow men.

And now, to continue on in the world of high adventure…

Through the Brazilian Wilderness by Theodore Roosevelt

In this astonishing tale of adventure and survival Roosevelt details his participation in the 1913-1914 Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition, undertaken a year after his failed bid for reelection. The team set out to find the headwaters of the River of Doubt then paddle the river to the Amazon. What was originally intended to be “zoogeographic reconnaissance” soon turned into a tale of survival, with turbulent whitewater and peril around every bend of the river, so much so that it nearly took the life of the “Bull Moose” himself.

South: The Endurance Expedition by Ernest Shackleton


Legendary Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton details his own efforts to cross the Antarctic by sled. Adventure tale turns survival story when Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, becomes trapped in the ice, where it would remain for ten months before the hull finally surrendered to the strength of the ice, forcing the men to set out on foot for a distant whaling station.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer


Photograph courtesy of Olaf Rieck

A chilling account of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster as told by John Krakauer, author of Into the Wild, who witnessed the tragedy unfold firsthand. The onset of a powerful storm just as multiple teams attempt to summit Everest leads to devastating results, and those on the mountain are pushed to the brink of their endurance to make it out alive.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer


The tragic yet inspirational tale of Christopher McCandless, a young college graduate who abandoned a promising future in exchange for a life on the road. Hitchhiking across North America, McCandless eventually reaches his final destination, Alaska, where he aims to survive on his own in the wilderness. Krakauer follows McCandless’s philosophical journey full circle, from rebellious twenty-something who just wants to escape society to man who is fighting for his life and realizes that a life without the company of others is not complete.

“Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, ’cause “the West is the best.” And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the Great White North. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.”

Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery


Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a French pilot better known for his work The Little Prince, was equal parts adventurer and literary giant. His poetic musings on the life well lived, combined with his recounting of various calamities he and others faced while flying the mail over the Sahara and the Andes mountains, makes this one adventure book no man should be without.

“Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.”

The Journals of Lewis and Clark by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark


The report of the first expedition to travel west to the Pacific and return safely, as recorded by the famous expedition leaders. Follow along in this classic account as new species, new peoples, and new worlds are discovered.

Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose


Stephen Ambrose, better known as author of the bestseller turned miniseries Band of Brothers, offers an insightful look into the life and adventures of Meriwether Lewis, co-leader of the Corps of Discovery, also known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Farther Than Any Man: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook by Martin Dugard


Captain Cook is most famous for his multiple voyages throughout the South Pacific in the late 18th century, where he made first European contact with many island civilizations, including the discovery of Hawaii. In this thrilling retelling of his life and adventures, Dugard examines Cook’s unequalled rise from peasant to sea captain, followed by his tyrannical turn and eventual demise.

Death in the Long Grass by Peter Hathaway Capstick


In this, his first book, Capstick shows us why he became a legend in the world of big game hunting. Capstick makes a field of ten foot high grass (and the angry fauna that no doubt reside there) the most terrifying thing on planet earth, but also the most exciting.

“If 12,000 pounds of screaming, screeching, infuriated elephant bearing down on you has somehow rattled your nerves to the point that you miss the six-by-four inch spot on his forehead…then you may as well forget it. The most talented mortuary cosmetician in the world couldn’t rewire you so your own mother would know if you were face up or down.”

The Man Eaters of Tsavo by Colonel Henry Patterson


This is the 1907 account by Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson, who was dispatched to Kenya by the British East Africa Company to build a railway bridge over the Tsavo River. During construction, workers were regularly killed by a pair of man-eating lions later known as the Man Eaters of Tsavo, or as the locals called them, the Ghost and the Darkness. Patterson set out to rid the workers of this threat, and the story is thrilling.

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{ 111 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Walt August 22, 2013 at 10:28 pm

Looking for the title of a book about a man and family who homestead and built a house by a lake in Canada in the 50s or 60s. Sick of city life drove to the end of a road and started hiking til they found a place to build.

102 Carl Sanders August 28, 2013 at 11:30 am

“Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand (published in November 2010) should definitely be on any future list.

103 Jared September 16, 2013 at 10:23 pm

I read the book about Magellan you recommended. 18+ years of age! It was a great book.

104 Leigh October 19, 2013 at 1:34 am

Northern Magic by Dian Steumer is the story of an Ottawa, Canadian family’s around the world adventure on a boat. It’s an amazing story of how a normal family decides to ditch their regular life and travel with their 3 young sons for 2 years. It’s also written by a woman. They encounter storms, pirates and many other trials.

105 Tim Wakefield November 9, 2013 at 4:40 pm

The Jungle is Neutral by F Spencer-Chapman
WW2 The fall of Malaya and an ill fated resistance plan that tests men to the edge of life mentally and physically

106 Joe December 4, 2013 at 5:39 pm

I’ll second the recommendation of “Voyage of the Northern Magic” – great book. There are many sailing memoirs around like this one. Those aside, this list is seriously deficient for the lack of Joshua Slocum’s “Sailing Alone Around the World,” and in general suffers from too much attention to mountaineering and not enough to other adventures. Newly out is “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed, a memoir of a journey on the Pacific Crest Trail.

107 Susan Mattern December 16, 2013 at 6:41 pm

I agree with Carl Sanders. Unbroken is definitely one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Also, Black Hawk Down ranks at the top as well.

108 JoeNadeau January 19, 2014 at 11:08 pm

Between Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor – one of the few books I that transports completely, one of the few to be read again. Also, his Mani, Roumeli, and A Time of Gifts. But Between Woods and the Water is the classic.

109 Kyle February 7, 2014 at 9:11 am

Walt- Its alone in the wilderness, the guys name is Dick Proenneke. it was a WMHT public television show of his own filming’s in the Alaskan wilderness and a book edited by one of his friends after they compiled his writings. Good read, great story, great video also.

110 Joshua February 26, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Looking for a book I read some 20 years ago in high school.
Was set in a Soviet Russia gulag and a political prisoner escapes to return to his family. I remember he was tracked by guards, one of which was killed by a bear and his twisted gun barrel was used by the escapee as a chimney in his winter cave.
I believe in the end he stumbled upon a government settlement, that’s all I can remember unfortunately.
Any help would be greatly appreciated.

111 Steve Youngblood April 10, 2014 at 11:19 am

A different kind of adventure novel, Stephen Hawking’s A brief History of Time. It deals with the furthest journey imaginable, the one to the beginning of the universe. The concepts are tough, but if you are willing to persevere to what he is saying, it is a great new perspective on, well, literally everything.

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