Hiking Literature: Our All-Time Favorite Reads by Fellow Hikers
Looking for the best hiking books?
You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:
- 15 of the best hiking books
- Short stories, poems, memoirs, and hiking guides
- Highlights and what to expect from these books for hikers
Fall is here. The leaves are falling, the air is cold and crisp, and longer evenings welcome the winter. Although we’d love to keep hiking every day, it’s time to give our bodies their much-needed rest.
However, even though we are not on the trail in person doesn’t mean we can’t keep exploring and thinking about our next great adventure. Spending time with a hiking book in hand is the best way to get going.
The breadth of hiking literature is vast. Even long before Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the 14th century, the simple act of walking outside has inspired writers to put pen to paper. As a result, we are blessed today with a rich body of great trail tales, from environmental musings to gut-wrenching personal narratives.
What all these books have in common is the ability to transport us to exotic, extreme, and far-flung locations, and to let us dream.
Whether you’re planning your first trip or thru-hiking one of the world’s classic long trails, our reading list of the best hiking books out there will take you all around the globe on foot – from the comforts of your own home!
Table of Contents
- 1 Hiking Literature: Our All-Time Favorite Reads by Fellow Hikers
- 2 Best Books About Hiking and Backpacking: Our Top 15 Picks
- 2.1 1. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
- 2.2 2. Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart by Carrot Quinn
- 2.3 3. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
- 2.4 4. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
- 2.5 5. The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
- 2.6 6. Ten Million Steps by MJ Eberhart
- 2.7 7. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
- 2.8 8. Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery
- 2.9 9. The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
- 2.10 10. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
- 2.11 11. Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer Pharr Davis
- 2.12 12. The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
- 2.13 13. The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho
- 2.14 14. On Trails by Robert Moor
- 2.15 15. The Farthest Shore by Alex Roddie
- 3 Time to Get the First Book Off the Shelf!
Best Books About Hiking and Backpacking: Our Top 15 Picks
1. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is well known for his lucid, satirical, and humorous style of writing. From the first page of this quintessential hiking book, readers are captivated and feel as though they are walking alongside him.
A Walk in the Woods relays Bryson’s attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, walking 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine with his friend, despite both hardly having any hiking experience.
Through hot, humid days, small towns, and rolling hills, Bryson’s narrative weaves sociological observation, ecology, local history, and dialogue, as well as personal recollections, to portray a varied image of eastern America.
(You may have a few chance encounters with bears and other wild animals, too!)
2. Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart by Carrot Quinn
Screens, screens, screens – they’re everywhere, and it seems that rather than connecting us, they’re keeping us apart. Feeling trapped, numb, and in need of a big change, Carrot Quinn left everything behind in 2013 to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, 2,660 miles from Mexico to Canada.
In her memoir, the narrator, Erin Spencer, feels the challenges of such a trek almost immediately: blisters, dehydration, cold nights and scorching days, loneliness, pain. It doesn’t get easier as she keeps putting one foot in front of the other. However, she finds strength, beauty, and companionship – in herself, an eclectic group of hikers, and the natural world.
Quinn’s prose is natural and deliberate, full of grit and forbearance, and it flows off the page with an air of familiarity. This is one of those hiking books that you will want to read all in one sitting. However, like all long hiking trails, to fully appreciate them you have to stop, look around, and reflect. It is true that thru-hiking will break your heart, but only to help you restore it, too.
3. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
May 10, 1996. 57 sleepless hours. Hallucinations, low oxygen. 5 parties. 40 people. Freezing cold.
Finally, John Krakauer stood on the peak of Mount Everest, 29,028 ft high. But, like every outdoor adventure, the summit is only a small part of the trip – one is never safe until they are off the mountain.
Into Thin Air is a harrowing story of the worst-ever tragedy on Everest. As part of a team led by legendary New Zealander Rob Hall, Krakauer set off to report on the growing popularity of Everest for Outside Magazine. In his tent the morning after summiting, however, there was no glory: eight people died on the descent from the summit.
Although this book doesn’t recount a hike, it explores the human condition and our relationships with risk and the mountains – all applicable to walking. Why do people forego loved ones and security to chase the lonely, isolated peaks of the natural world?
4. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Wild is an inspiring story. Tragic, hopeful, witty, and suspenseful, Cheryl Strayed’s prize-winning hiking memoir recounts her journey of over a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail (from Mexico to Canada) – all alone.
After suffering the loss of her mother, a broken marriage, and surviving heroin addiction, she embarks on this journey with no previous hiking experience.
Her writing is at times pensive and meditative, then soon accelerates to create harsh climatic moments that cut wounds, but are somehow hopeful. As we linearly follow her every trial and tribulation on the trail, her recollections and temporal shifts are effortless.
Wild was turned into a blockbuster movie starring Reese Witherspoon in 2014, but the written personal account best highlights the ups and downs of her time reaching the Bridge of the Gods. This is, in our opinion, a must-read for any hiker or backpacker.
5. The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical novel contains all the elements one would expect from the father of the Beat Generation: rhapsodic prose, squalor, eccentric characters, and whimsical musings.
This journey of self-discovery through the American West is not like ordinary backpacking books. Instead, it is a testament to the post-war counterculture that permeated the 1960s, and an ode to the power of poetry.
Hedonistic wine-fuelled benders in San Francisco, freight-train hopping across the country, headstand mediations in the morning, and running to the summit of Desolation Peak in Washington’s High Sierras are just a few of the highlights.
6. Ten Million Steps by MJ Eberhart
In January 1998, the sixty-year-old doctor MJ Eberhart – aka ‘Nimblewill Nomad’ – set off on foot to walk from the Florida Keys to northern Quebec on what is now known as the Eastern Continental Divide (ECD). At 4,400 miles, this hike is twice as long as the Appalachian Trail!
Ten Million Steps is the author’s own story of hiking through 16 states, crossing an international border, and continuing through two provinces. Recounting the trials and joys of rain-sodden days, blisters, awry dreams, clarity, self-discovery, and friendships, Eberhart’s feat is conveyed with humor and philosophy that will strike a chord with any hiker.
The central message: the magic of the trail can be supple or all too powerful. It can manifest itself in many different guises, but to feel one, one must be willing to keep walking – to be open. ‘Nimblewill Nomad’ most certainly provides his own flair of magic in what is the only written account of hiking the ECD.
7. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Following three works of fiction, Edward Abbey published Desert Solitaire in 1968. It is the author’s first full-length work of nonfiction and is now considered one of the twentieth century’s most important works on environmentalism.
Don’t be surprised to find this on a bookshelf next to Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra, or Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
This book is composed of vignettes inspired by Abbey’s experiences and own adventures working as a park ranger in the 1950s at Arches National Park, outside of Moab, Utah.
His philosophically-charged prose is made vivid by blending a variety of recollections. There are descriptions of the flora and fauna. Anecdotes of river running. Wilderness exploration. National park rescues (pulling a corpse out of the desert!). Geological and human observations. Critical analyses of modern America’s industrialization, tourism, and politics.
However, central to all of his musings are the various personal, social, ecological, and existential tensions that arise from working in one of America’s national parks.
8. Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery
At the age of 67, Emma Gatewood, a great-grandmother, left Ohio to embark on one of America’s great long-distance thru-hikes: the Appalachian Trail. This insightful account dismantles any idea that one is too old to complete something, and is a testament to female hikers.
To read Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is to thumb through a well-researched and well-written account of the first woman who hiked the Appalachian Trail.
Winner of the 2014 National Outdoor Book Awards for History/Biography, Montgomery was given access to Gatewood’s diaries, journals, letters, and correspondences, and he did a fantastic job of weaving these into an engaging, humorous, and hopeful narrative.
Gatewood garnered a lot of media attention on her thru-hike, almost reaching ‘celebrity’ status. She was vocal about the poor trail conditions and fostered the conservation effort that most likely saved the AT. However, despite appearing on TV and in Sports Illustrated, this is the first time we are privy to who she was, why she undertook this journey, and how it changed her life.
She survived blizzards and rainstorms, rattlesnake strikes, a run-in with gangsters from Harlem, and the lurid heat before eventually standing atop Mount Katahdin in Maine at the end of the Appalachian Trail. But she didn’t do this once: Grandma Gatewood was the first person to complete the Appalachian Trail three times!
9. The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
The Southwest Coast Path runs from Minehead, Somerset, along the sea-swept coastline of Devon and Cornwall, to finally arrive in Poole Harbour, Dorset. At 630 miles, it is England’s longest waymarked trail, and is no easy feat.
Only a few days after Winn discovered that her husband of 32 years, Moth, was terminally ill, they set off to discover Devonshire’s rugged, windswept seascapes. They had little money and food. Like other hikers, they carried their shelter and essentials on their backs. But they were also carrying each other, perhaps for the last time.
Winn’s true story of their hiking adventure is tinged with melancholy, sadness, and resentment, but – always – love and hope, too. It is a tragic story, but between stone, sea, and sky we discover glimmers of poetry, healing, and new ways to reconstruct a home that is on the verge of collapse.
The Salt Path is a hiking book, yes, but above all, it is a universal portrayal of the power of love and the natural world.
10. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
In 1991, immediately after graduating from high school, Christopher McCandless – aka ‘Alexander Supertramp’ – drove across the United States in search of… something. Like his literary heroes Jack London, Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir, he was seeking something far more profound than the mundanity of suburban America.
In the Mojave Desert, he got caught in a sandstorm and abandoned his car. He donated his entire savings, $25,000, to charity. He worked on a farm, lived in a caravan, and hitchhiked all over the west coast. However, this still wasn’t enough. McCandless wanted complete isolation, to toil the land and experience the natural world as it is without a human print.
Fascinated by this 24-year-old’s story, John Krakauer uses McCandless’ diaries and interviews his family members to tell the story of what happened to this wandering soul. In 1992, with a light rucksack on his back, McCandless walked down a snowy track outside of Fairbanks to enter the Alaskan wilderness.
His journal of detailed information revealed that he survived 113 days in an abandoned school bus with only a meager supply of rations, and the company of books and wild animals. Although he was an experienced hiker, he, unfortunately, didn’t survive the winter.
Into the Wild was later turned into a film starring Sean Penn and features an incredible soundtrack by Eddie Vedder.
11. Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer Pharr Davis
Graduating from college can be a massive relief for some or a daunting, existential crisis for others. To give herself time to think about what she wants to do next, Jennifer Pharr Davis leaves her family and friends behind to go hike the Appalachian Trail.
Although many who read thru-hiking books begin to recognize the tropes and elements that make a good story, Davis reminds us that all adventures are different. Her writing is lyrical and snappy, at times poetic or terse, and she smoothly delivers keen observations of the natural world and practical tips for anyone interested in hiking.
Since completing her first thru-hike, Davis has hiked on various trails around the world and holds the current record for the Appalachian Trail – 57 days!
12. The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
Nan Shepherd’s nature memoir is a paean to the Cairngorm Mountains in the Scottish Highlands, one of Britain’s most incredible national parks. It will take you into the mountain as opposed to on it, and will surely change the way you see and interact with the natural world.
Written during the Second World War, this fascinating book was left untouched for nearly thirty years. It is a sensorial experience: you can hear the water flowing from the mountaintop, see through crystal-clear lochs, feel the brush of heather and breathe in the Highland air.
Each chapter focuses on a different part of the mountain environment, and one might be convinced that Nan Shepherd’s poetic prose is one of the Scottish elements, too.
13. The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho
Before publishing his internationally acclaimed novel The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho set off to walk the Camino de Santiago in 1986. This 800-mile pilgrimage from Saint-Jean-Pieds-de-Port in the southwest of France to Santiago in the west of Spain is the subject of The Pilgrimage, which remains one of the world’s best-selling hiking books.
Coelho’s enchanting parable is the most spiritual book on our reading list and makes the reader ponder life’s greatest questions. Where does meaning come from? Where can we find peace? He provides no concrete answers to these questions. However, it is clear that we shouldn’t look too far outward. Simplicity has endless beauty, and we must look within to find the tools of life.
In a way, this is the prelude to The Alchemist. One might speculate that both books are, perhaps, Coelho’s literary pilgrimage, putting pen to paper instead of foot to path.
14. On Trails by Robert Moor
While hiking, have you ever stopped to ponder the trail you’re on? Who built it, and why? In 2009, Robert Moor asked himself these very questions on the Appalachian Trail. This led him to an unexpected, decade-long journey on trails around the world to see how this simple line we walk on and follow can connect us to the natural world.
On Trails is more of an aimless journey through time than it is a linear hiking memoir. This book covers various aspects, ideas, and observations that seem to span the trail of history itself: from the dawn of life to our current digital age.
Whether scientific, artistic, philosophical, or psychological, Moor’s narrative contains plenty of interesting facts and it meanders like a hiking trail itself.
15. The Farthest Shore by Alex Roddie
The Scottish Highlands are wild and green, wet and dazzling. The only predictable thing about them is how unpredictable the weather is. But in the winter, white and barren with minimal daylight, things can go wrong quickly.
In February 2019, Alex Roddie embarked on a 300-mile-long journey in the most rugged and remote parts of Scotland. The Cape Wrath Trail weaves through isolated straths and glens, past derelict shealings, through bogs, by lonesome lochs…and there is no one around for miles and miles.
Whilst the award-winning author meditates on the profound restorative powers of nature, central to The Farthest Shore are issues of ecology and discerning our role in shaping landscapes. Why are Scotland’s great outdoors the way they are? What is threatening them?
Alone on the trail, Roddie discovers more about solitude and himself, but as his book highlights, he leaves with far more questions than he began with. This memoir is not only for winter thru-hikers but for everyone who has ever asked questions about landscapes.
Time to Get the First Book Off the Shelf!
Whether you’re looking for a spiritual journey, family testimony, practical advice, or physical adventures in the great outdoors, our list of hiking and backpacking books will evoke the spirit of hiking. We can’t always be on the trail, but our adventures shouldn’t stop simply because we’re not outside!
If you have any questions or comments, drop us a line in the box below! And if you liked this post, please feel free to share it with your friends!