The Essential Adventure Library: 50 Non-fiction Adventure Books

by Chris on June 29, 2009 · 112 comments

in Books, Travel & Leisure

The Four Voyages: Being His Own Log-Book, Letters and Dispatches with Connecting Narratives by Christopher Columbus


What type of man was Christopher Columbus? Eccentric? A madman? The greatest explorer that ever lived? Draw your own conclusions through an examination of the journals of Columbus himself, where he chronicles the build up to the initial 1492 journey and all the expeditions that followed.

“I should not proceed by land to the East, as is customary, but by a Westerly route, in which direction we have hitherto no certain evidence that any one has gone.”

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger


Cultural explorer Wilfred Thesiger went to the wild deserts of the Middle East to seek out respite from the oppression of society. While there he became the first man to cross the Rub’ al Khali, aka “The Empty Quarter.” The Empty Quarter is one of the largest sand deserts in the world. Compromising a large portion of the southern half of the Arabian Peninsula, it is composed of 250,000 square miles of the most deadly terrain on terra firma. Thesiger set out to cross this great expanse and planned to create a map of the region during his journey. He succeeded, crossing the vast unknown of the Empty Quarter not once, but twice, between 1946 and 1949.

“For years the Empty Quarter had represented to me the final, unattainable challenge which the desert offered…To others my journey would have little importance. It would produce nothing except a rather inaccurate map which no one was ever likely to use. It was a personal experience, and the reward had been a drink of clean, nearly tasteless water. I was content with that.”

The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell


A masterful description of the Colorado River as told by the leader of the first expedition to follow the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. A must for whitewater river rats.

High Adventure by Edmund Hillary


Hillary’s own account of he and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay’s 1953 summit of Mount Everest, the first confirmed Everest summit ever.

“My solar plexus was tight with fear as I ploughed on. Halfway up I stopped, exhausted. I could look down 10,000 feet between my legs, and I have never felt more insecure.”

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Journey by Alfred Lansing


The bestselling account of Shackleton’s legendary Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which changed from an ambitious expedition to a brutal struggle for survival against the extremes of Antarctica. Lansing’s extensive research into Shackleton’s journals and interviews with surviving crew members provides thrilling insight into the harrowing ordeal faced by the men of the Endurance.

Jungle: A Harrowing True Story of Survival by Yossi Ghinsberg


Personalities conflict and wills are tested as an unlikely group of backpackers becomes lost in the wild in this modern day tale of survival set against the backdrop of the Amazon rainforest.

Touching the Void by Joe Simpson


When Joe Simpson and his climbing partner Simon Yates set out to climb the treacherous Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, they knew they were undertaking a very dangerous task. When an accident sends Joe crashing into a ravine, Simon assumes his death and is forced to continue on without him. Left alone and critically injured, Simpson proceeds to crawl down the glacier, arriving barely alive at his base camp 3 ½ days later. An astonishing tale of one man’s will to survive.

Into the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick


Hailed as the story that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, this sea story recounts the experiences of the Whaleship Essex, which was attacked and sunk by an irate sperm whale in 1820. Following the attack, some of the crew escape to a local island where they are slowly ravaged by hunger and disease, eventually resorting to cannibalism to survive.

Alive by Piers Paul Read


The dreadful account of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which crashed in the Andes Mountains carrying a Uruguayan Rugby team and friends. Alone for seventy two days with no other resources available, the survivors found themselves forced into eating their own dead to survive.

Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King


Dean King’s reexamination of the 1815 wreck of the Commerce off the coast of Africa and the unbelievable hardships faced by crew as they struggled to survive in the deadly Sahara Desert is one of the greatest survival stories ever told. Keep a tall glass of water next to you while reading, you’ll never appreciate it more.

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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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