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When it comes to grabbing our attention and captivating our imaginations, nothing can quite compete with a truly great book. Books have the ability to transport us to other places and times, introducing readers to unique destinations, fascinating cultures, and larger-than-life characters both real and imagined.
Of course, books also have the ability to take us on amazing adventures, joining explorers, mountaineers, and travelers on their quest to fill in the blank spots on the map. Adventure books can take us to the North and South Pole, to the summit of Everest, and the deepest depths of the ocean. They can take us across deserts, through jungles, and over snowcapped mountains, while revealing some of the most compelling tales that humans have ever experienced. If you’re looking for just such a tale, these are the greatest adventure books ever written.
Our Top Picks
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Aldred Lansing
Back in 1914, Ernest Shackleton and the crew of his ship the Endurance set sail for the Antarctic in an attempt to traverse the frozen continent for the first time. While en route, the ship became stuck in the pack ice of the Southern Ocean before getting crushed and sinking to the bottom of the sea. What followed was one of the most amazing survival stories of all time, with Shackleton and his men fighting for their lives in one of the harshest, most demanding environments on the planet. It is a classic tale of what the human spirit is capable of enduring when there is no other choice but to press on.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
Krakauer’s iconic book tells the story of the tragic 1996 climbing season on Mt. Everest that left eight people dead and numerous others emotionally and physically scarred by the trauma. On May 10 of that year, several teams of climbers set off for the summit on the world’s highest peaks, only to have an unexpected storm descend upon the mountain. The rapid change in weather caught the mountaineers off guard, sending them into survival mode in a place that is incredibly unforgiving. The book was a best seller and instantly became a classic, fueling the general public’s fascination with Everest, and the men and women who climb it, that remains firmly in place to this day.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Few books capture the feeling of being completely lost and alone in your life, only to find yourself while on a grand adventure, like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. The book, which inspired the Reese Witherspoon movie of the same name, recounts Strayed’s trek along the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile long hiking route that runs from Canada to Mexico, crossing through Washington, Oregon, and California along the way. At the onset of the hike, the author was dealing with grief, anger, and despair and by the end, she feels empowered, strong, and content. This is a book that stresses the journey more than the destination, reminding us all that travel and nature can be incredibly therapeutic and healing.
Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl
This book isn’t just a tale of high adventure on the seas of the South Pacific, but a paradigm-shifting story of how humans may have colonized Polynesia as well. In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, along with five other men, built a raft that was styled after the ones used by the ancient Inca. They then set sail from the coast of Peru and spent three months at sea crossing 4,800 nautical miles before reaching a remote tropical island.
Their voyage proved that it was possible for ancient explorers to have come from South America, rather than Asia as was previously believed. Heyerdahl’s work caused researchers to stop and take notice as they questioned their beliefs on how humans migrated across the planet. When Kon-Tiki was first published it became an immediate smash hit, topping bestseller lists around the world and earning a documentary film about the voyage an Academy Award as well.
Today, the book remains one of the best adventure stories ever written, even as other explorers and anthropologists continue to follow in Heyderdal’s footsteps.
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
In Touching the Void, author Joe Simpsons shares the deeply personal story of what happened to him while climbing a 20,800-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes. On the descent from the summit of that mountain, Simpson shattered his leg, making it extremely painful to move and impossible to put any weight on it. Simpson’s climbing partner attempted to help him down the mountain but later ended up cutting his friend’s rope, sending him plummeting to his death inside a deep crevasse. Simpson didn’t die in that fall however and eventually managed to drag himself back to the surface where he began an agonizing journey down to base camp. Completely alone, without food or any water, he defies the odds to not only survive the ordeal but eventually start climbing mountains again.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
If you like your adventure books with a healthy dose of humor, then Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods should certainly be at the top of your reading list. In the book, Bryson shares his experiences as he and a friend set out to hike the Appalachian Trail. Along the way, they encounter a host of memorable characters while stumbling from one misadventure to the next. But this book is much more than just a retelling of Bryson’s long hike on one of the most iconic trails in the world. The writer also shares a wealth of information about the history of the trail itself, not to mention all of the plants and animals that call the AT home. He even delves into the psyche of the hikers who set out to trek the route’s 2,100+ mile length, many of whom –– like Bryson –– do so in order to learn more about themselves.
The Lost City of Z by David Grann
The Lost City of Z is a tale of two men from different eras who share a similar obsession. The subject of the book is Colonel Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who was instrumental in the early expeditions to map the Amazon Jungle. On one of those expeditions, Fawcett heard a tale about a lost city called Z, which eventually became his obsession. In his dogged pursuit of finding the lost city, he went missing in the rainforest, never to be seen again. In trying to tell Fawcett’s story, author David Grann came to understand that obsession all too well. While researching the book and looking for clues on Fawcett’s last whereabouts, Grann also became obsessed with Z. That obsession nearly cost him as much as Fawcett, but fortunately for us, the writer avoided the explorer’s fate and returned home from the jungle to share both their tales.
The Worst Journey in the World by Aspley Cherry-Geraard
In 1911 British polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott found himself caught up in the race to become the first person to reach the South Pole. Desperately trying to outrun his Norwegian rival Roald Amundsen, he arrived at the finish line only to find the flag of Norway already waiting for him. Defeated and deflated, Scott and his men began the long, cold, and excruciatingly slow journey back to the coast where a ship waited to take them home. Along the way, they suffered numerous setbacks that would eventually result in the death of the entire party. The Worst Journey in the World tells the story of that ill-fated expedition which still resonates with modern explorers to this day and will leave readers wondering about the high costs of exploration, both then and now.
High Adventure: The True Story of the First Ascent of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary
There have been countless books written about Mt. Everest over the years, but only one was written by the first man to reach its summit. Back in 1953, an intrepid beekeeper from New Zealand named Edmund Hillary and a humble Sherpa from the Himalaya by the name of Tenzing Norgay managed to reach the top of the world’s highest peak, ending a quest that had spanned more than three decades. At the time the expedition was hailed as one of the last great firsts in exploration, although it marked the start of the modern age of mountaineering too. Hillary published his account of the climb in 1955, but it remains a fascinating read well into the 21st century.
Our writers spent 3 hours researching the most popular adventure books on the market. Before making their final recommendations, they considered 20 different books overall and read all 9 of the books themselves. This research adds up to recommendations you can trust.