The Essential Adventure Library: 50 Non-fiction Adventure Books

by Chris on June 29, 2009 · 112 comments

in Books, Travel & Leisure

Annapurna by Maurice Herzog


Herzog’s account of the first summit of Annapurna, a 26,200 ft mountain in the Himalayas. As expedition leader, Herzog and his team not only had to reach the summit but had to create a climbing route, as the mountain was almost completely uncharted. A classic of the mountaineering genre.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place By Aron Ralston


Ralston’s tale is one of pure determination and the will to survive. While climbing in a Utah canyon, a falling boulder wedged Ralston’s arm between the rock and the canyon wall, effectively trapping him. Surviving for six days on virtually nothing, he eventually cuts off his own arm with a pocket knife and makes his escape, which included repelling down a cliff one-armed and a lengthy hike before he found rescue.

K2: The Savage Mountain by Charles S Houston & Robert H. Bates


K2, the world’s second highest mountain, has rightfully earned the nickname the savage mountain, with approximately one of every four who attempt a summit dying in the process. This is the story of the first Americans to reach the summit of K2 and successfully return, as told by the mountaineers themselves.

The Darkest Jungle: The True Story of the Darien Expedition and America’s Ill-Fated Race to Connect the Seas by Todd Balf


With less than 100 miles separating Atlantic and Pacific in sections of Panama, one would think that finding a route across would be simple enough. As this book shows, however, many dangers awaited the 1854 U.S. Darien Exploring Expedition, which miserably failed in its task, suffering from disorientation, disease and death before turning back.

The Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa’s City of Gold by Frank Kryza


The search for Timbuktu of legend, Africa’s mythical gilded city, drew adventurers and treasure seekers like moths to a flame, and often at their own peril. Here the author gives detailed accounts of the major expeditions in search of Timbuktu, along with the unbearable hardships faced by those who endured them.

Cabeza de Vaca’s Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca


The tale of the Spanish adventurer Cabeza de Vaca, who led an group across the North American continent long before the days of Lewis and Clark. Travelling over a course of eight years, he crossed much of modern day Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before turning south into Mexico.

True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole by Bruce Henderson


A lively account of turn of the century race to reach the North Pole. Frederick Cook had not been back long from allegedly reaching the North Pole when Robert Peary surfaced, claiming to have beaten him there. So who was the conqueror of the North? In an adventurous retelling of the men’s expeditions, Henderson seeks to settle the debate once and for all.

Touching My Father’s Soul: A Sherpa’s Journey to the Top of Everest by Jamling Tenzing Norgay


Another account of the 1996 Everest disaster (see Krakauer’s Into Thin Air) as told by the leader of the IMAX expedition on the mountain at the time, Jamling Tenzing Norgay. Norgay, son of the legendary Tenzing Norgay who first conquered Everest with Hillary, offers his own account of the disaster while simultaneously sharing intimate stories of his father’s legendary climbing career.

A Man On the Moon: Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin


July 20, 1969 will long be hailed as the ultimate testament to mankind’s spirit of exploration. With no more distant lands to explore, man took to the stars, beginning what will be the next stage of exploration and stepping boldly once again into the unknown. Recalling in detail the triumphs and tragedies of the Apollo missions, Chaikin places us right in the command module and rockets us into the heavens alongside the brave men who achieved what most had long considered impossible.

Mawson’s Will: The Greatest Polar Survival Story Ever Written by Lennard Bickel


In 1911 Sir Douglas Mawson, setting out with a small team to chart the Antarctic coastline, had little idea that he was embarking on what would become one of the greatest stories of survival in the history of polar exploration. Following the death of his entire team and the loss of most of his equipment, Mawson is left alone to survive in the frozen wilderness and lives to tell the tale.

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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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