18 of the greatest adventure books

Long, bright, spring and summer days put many of us in an outdoorsy mood, and now normal life beckons, the idea of adventure seems more appealing than ever. If you’re looking for inspiration – whether for your next travel destination or for an exciting new experience – few things can captivate our imaginations like a good book.

So whether you’re looking to be transported to an exotic country, learn about a fascinating new culture, or simply lose yourself in a thrilling book, here are 18 of the greatest adventure books to read today.

If you’re looking for a book to inspire and empower you, Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found might be up your street. Reeling from her mother’s death and the break up of her marriage, Cheryl Strayed felt lost – and so with nothing to lose, she decided to seek out adventure. In her award-winning memoir Wild, Strayed recounts her experience of hiking 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail: a walking route that stretches along America’s west coast. Alone, inexperienced, and struggling with grief and despair, Strayed’s trek brought her plenty of adventure – but it also showed her that travel and being amongst nature can be one of life’s biggest healers. Ultimately, Wild proves that it’s the journeys we go on that really matter – not just the destination.

If you haven’t yet Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, you’re in for a treat, as this inventive, intelligent and original book is probably unlike anything you’ve read before. The novel tells the tale of 16-year-old Pi, who survives the sinking of a cargo ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean by climbing aboard a solitary lifeboat. But he’s not alone – as he’s joined on the lifeboat by a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan—and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Each page offers up a new surprise, and Martel’s adept writing allows us to invest completely in what should be an utterly unbelievable scenario. A whimsical, entrancing and uplifting story that’s packed with adventure, Life of Pi redefines the very possibilities of storytelling.

If you’ve ever watched surfers swimming towards frighteningly big waves and wondered if they’re crazy, you might be interested to read Susan Casey’s book The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean. Being afraid of those huge, ship-swallowing waves is a natural human instinct – but one not all of us experience. In her New York Times bestselling book, Casey explores why some surfers travel the world chasing these ‘monsters of the ocean’ that represent the ultimate challenge, and why some scientists are prepared to risk death to study big waves – and understand what they mean for our planet. An exhilarating and fascinating read about what it takes for people to confront nature at its most terrifyingly ferocious.

One for the foodies among us now… Nearly 20 years after it was first published, the late Anthony Bourdain’s best-selling book A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines continues to inspire people to eat their way around the world – no matter where they live. A Cook’s Tour is essentially a chronicle of travelling the world in search of the perfect meal, and as he makes his way from California all the way to Cambodia, Bourdain experiences some of the world’s greatest – and most delicious – culinary adventures. Part travel memoir, part gastronomic journal, Bourdain’s passion for food and adventure shines through in this culinary classic. If it doesn’t inspire you to visit new places, it’ll inspire you to get creative in the kitchen at the very least!

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is considered one of the most important novels of the past century – and for good reason. This classic novel is a fictionalised account of the author’s travels across the US in the 1950s as he searched for hedonistic adventure and self-knowledge. Set against the backdrop of the underground American jazz scene, our protagonist and his friend try to find meaning and fulfillment through drink, drugs, sex, poetry and music – pushing the limits of the American dream as they do so. Widely considered the book that inspired the Beat Generation, and encouraged countless young people to go in search of adventure, this iconic novel is ultimately about freedom, longing, and the burning desire to explore.

If you’re fascinated by journeys of self-discovery, Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love may be for you. In her 30s, Elizabeth Gilbert had everything she thought she wanted – a good job, a husband, a lovely home. But when she realised none of it made her happy, she decided to make a radical decision: she sold her possessions, quit her job, and set off to travel. In her pursuit of what she really wanted out of life, Gilbert visited Italy, India and Bali, studying the art of pleasure and the power of spiritual devotion. An articulate and inspiring read, Eat, Pray, Love encourages people not to live in imitation of society’s own ideals, but to seek out their own path and adventures.

Ten years before he wrote Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton wrote Congo – and 40 years on, this adventure book is still as mysterious and thrilling as it was when it came out in 1980. Congo takes you deep into the Congolese rainforest, where an expedition of American geologists is mysteriously and violently killed beside the legendary ruins of the Lost City of Zinj. A new group is sent out to investigate their deaths (and search for diamonds…) but along the way they must escape near-constant danger – from plane crashes to civil wars and awakening volcanoes. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, an extraordinary gorilla called Amy may hold the key to uncovering this secret world… A compelling, unique and thrilling adventure novel.

Another adventure book classic for our list, Endurance tells the story of one of the most incredible feats of courage and survival ever known. In 1914, explorer Ernest Shackleton was attempting to cross the Antarctic overland – but when his ship Endurance became stuck in the ice, he and his crew of 27 men became castaways on one of the harshest and most demanding regions in the world. As they attempted to trek 850 miles to the nearest outpost, Shackleton endured more than most people can imagine, surviving attacks ƒrom leopard seals, living on remote ice, and fighting off various diseases. Author Alfred Lansing expertly narrates this gripping tale of adventure, heroism, and the indefatigability of the human spirit.

As an international bestseller and recipient of many awards, Kate Harris’s Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road is rightly considered a modern classic. Ever since she was a child, Kate Harris craved adventure, dreaming of being a swashbuckling explorer, becoming the next Marco Polo, or even heading to Mars. In between studying at Oxford and MIT, Harris and a friend decided to cycle the famous silk road – from Istanbul to India via Central Asia, China and Tibet. Combining adventure and reflection with the history of science and exploration, Land of Lost Borders is also an exploration of what it means to explore – and how it isn’t really about which way you go on a journey, but that you go on the journey in the first place. An enthralling travelogue that’s as inspiring as it is beautiful.

What could be more adventurous than leaving our own planet behind and heading off into space? Andy Weir’s The Martian is the survival novel for the modern era, and tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney who, six days ago, was one of the first people to walk on Mars. But now he’s stranded on the Red Planet, without any means of communicating with Earth, and in a habitat that’s only designed to last 31 days. Though he’s terrified he’ll now be the first person to die on Mars, Mark isn’t ready to give up, and decides to fight for his life with everything he has. Putting his intelligence, his engineering skills, and his tenacious desire to live to good use, he attempts to tackle one seemingly insurmountable challenge after the next. A fascinating saga of resourcefulness, humour and courage.

Our next book transports us to the mountains of Peru, where travel writer Mark Adams attempts to recreate the original expedition to the ‘lost’ city of Machu Picchu. In 1911, explorer Hiram Bingham III trekked through the Peruvean Andes and ‘discovered’ Machu Picchu – and now, more than a century on, Adams follows in Bingham’s footsteps to uncover the truth about this famous voyage. Turn Right at Machu Picchu explores some of Peru’s most fascinating landscape and historical sites, from the ruins of Vitcos and Vilcabambe to the awe-inspiring Machu Picchu itself – and along the way, Adams discovers how much of Peru is still ‘undiscovered’… yet populated with fascinating and eccentric characters. An inspiring adventure that may give you a severe case of wanderlust.

Listed as one of National Geographic’s top ten adventure books of all time, Wind, Sand and Stars is well deserving of its place on this list. Though Antoine de Saint-Exupéry may be best known as the author of The Little Prince, he was also a pioneering aviator who flew mail from Europe to Africa and across South America – and Wind, Sand and Stars is a fascinating insight into the first years of aviation. The book covers Saint-Exupéry’s encounters with nomadic Arabs, his miraculous survival after crashing in the Libyan Desert, and – in his own words – the experience of being a human in places where no human belongs. A beautifully written account of air adventure and bravery that might even get you thinking about flying lessons….

If you like the idea of Eat, Pray, Love but prefer novels to memoirs, then you might want to try reading The Signature of All Things by the same author. Set in the 18th and 19th centuries, this historical novel tells the story of Alma Whittaker, who is raised by her father, a rich explorer and botanist, in a house of curiosity and wonder. When Alma becomes a botanist in her own right, her studies compel her to travel – but the man she loves pulls her in the opposite direction. Jumping from London to Peru to Tahiti to Amsterdam, and featuring plenty of fascinating characters including abolitionists, adventurers and astronomers, The Signature of All Things is a spellbindingly unique tale of travel, mystery, romance and adventure.

If you want to enjoy an adventure with a side of humour, then why not add Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods to your reading list? In this classic book, best-selling travel writer Bryson documents his experiences walking the Appalachian Trail, an iconic hiking route that stretches from Georgia to Maine, along America’s east coast. Along the way, Bryson writes about the history and ecology of the trail, the wildlife that lives in this area, and the fascinating characters he meets (including a couple of bears!). Trekking over imposing mountains, through dense forests and past gleaming lakes, Bryon’s writing will make you long to explore the Great Outdoors and head out on your own adventure. 

As this reading list demonstrates, many people set off for their greatest adventures in order to “find themselves”, or because they’ve gone through a breakup or emotional upheaval and need to get away from it all. But there are also people who decide to explore the world without the influence of drama or disaster – and Audrey Sutherland is one of those people. One summer, at the age of 60, Sutherland decided to undertake a solo, months-long voyage along the coast of Alaska… in an inflatable kayak. Written with a simple, quiet confidence, Paddling North is the story of Sutherland’s experience, and her approach to adventure – to calmly assess her priorities and then go for it – is extremely inspiring.

For an adventure book that will get your heart pumping and your spine tingling, there’s The Road by Cormac McCarthy. This profoundly moving post-apocalyptic novel is the story of a father and son’s journey across what’s now a scorched, ravaged America. With only a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bandits and cannibals that stalk them, this is a gripping and haunting survival novel that is somehow bleak and terrible, but also beautiful and hopeful. Highlighting the very best and worst of humanity, The Road is ultimately a story about a journey, tenacity, and how the power of love can keep us alive.

When it first came out in 1996, Alex Garland’s The Beach was hailed as a ‘defining text in the history of imaginative travel writing’ – and Garland’s simple yet captivating prose perfectly suited what was dubbed ‘a brand new kind of adventure novel’. When our protagonist Richard arrives in Thailand, he’s given a map that promises to show him the way to a secret island paradise – as well as a brand new way of life. But what Richard discovers on the secret beach is both more terrifying and extraordinary than he could have imagined, and leaves him (and the reader) reeling. Captivating and haunting, The Beach is a modern telling of the classic story of paradise found, and then lost.

In May 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and sank – and only one young lieutenant survived. His name was Louis Zamperini, and in Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book Unbroken, you can discover his incredible story. Zamperini had already accomplished much in his life, turning himself from juvenile delinquent to an athlete who ran in the Berlin Olympics. But this story is about a bigger challenge: surviving an open ocean, hungry sharks, thirst and starvation, and the horrors of being alone at sea. One day, a plane approaches, and Zamperini believes he’s saved – but when he realises it’s an enemy aircraft taking him to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, he realises his trials are only beginning. An unbelievable-but-true adventure story about what people can accomplish by the strength of their will.

Final thoughts…

While our next great adventures may lie just around the corner, the beauty of reading is that we can discover new countries, new cultures, and new experiences while sitting in our living room, garden, or local park. Whether you want to lose yourself in a classic adventure novel, add new countries and activities to your list, or simply be inspired to seek your own adventure, we hope there’ll be a few books on the list that appeal to you.

For more travel inspiration, head over to the travel section of the site – and if you’re looking for more reading inspiration, you may want to check out our articles 27 of the best must-read novels and 14 of the most popular audiobooks.

Are any of our reading ideas inspiring you – or do you have your own suggestions for the best adventure books? Leave a comment below, or add your recommendations to our Rest Less Book Bucket List over on the community forum.

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