Books for Hikers and Backpackers (2021 Edition)

Updated and expanded since the last edition in 2019, “Books for Hikers and Backpackers” now includes more than 70 works separated into eight categories: 1. Educational; 2. Guidebooks; 3. Humour; 4. Inspirational; 5. Literature; 6. Memoirs; 7. Philosophy, and; 8. Ultralight. All of the books have a place on either my traditional or cyber bookshelves, and the featured authors include some of the most experienced and knowledgeable hikers on the planet.

Outdoorsy bookshelf at Casa Honan.

1.   Educational

  • Auerbach, Paul. Medicine for the Outdoors (6th edition, 2015): I first picked up a copy of this book in the late ’90s. Excellent reference text. According to Richard Carmona, 17th Surgeon General of the USA, Auerbach’s book is the “most comprehensive and authoritative work in the field.”
  • Burns, Bob. Wilderness Navigation (3rd Edition, 2015): Clearly written, useful for beginners as well as veterans looking for a refresher. Includes handy practical exercises at the back of the book. Written by the co-author of the ‘Navigation’ chapter of the classic, “Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills.” (see below).
  • Curtis, Rick. The Backpacker’s Field Manual (2005 edition): Arguably still the most comprehensive “how to” backpacking guide on the market. An excellent reference book that deserves a place on every hiker’s bookshelf.

Three of the best – Auerbach’s, “Medicine for the Outdoors“, Skurka’s “The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide” and Curtis’, “Backpacker’s Field Manual.”

  • Gonzales, Laurence. Deep Survival (2003): After hearing about this book for the past decade, I finally got around to reading “Deep Survival” during the pandemic. I found it to be a highly readable combination of survival stories, practical advice, and the psychology of how people deal with extreme adversity. On the not-so-great side, it was a little repetitive at times, and the author has an off-putting penchant for navel-gazing.
  • Hansen, Derek. The Ultimate Hang 2 (2017): Highly regarded illustrated guide to hammock camping. Recommended by serial thru-hiker and long-time hammock devotee, Brian “Beardoh” Ristola, who wrote “Hammocks for Thru-Hiking” for ‘The Hiking Life’ website in February 2018.
  • Lichter, Justin. Trail Tested (2020; 2nd Edition). Lightweight backpacking techniques and gear advice from a guy who has walked the walk for over 40,000 miles, including winter thru-hikes of the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trails, and pioneering routes in the Himalaya, New Zealand’s South Island, and Mexico’s Copper Canyon Region (with yours truly).
  • Magnanti, Paul. How to Survive Your First Trip into the Wild: Backpacking for Beginners (2019). Full of practical, to-the-point advice, How to Survive Your First Trip into the Wild, is ideal for those looking to make the transition from day hikes to overnight backpacking excursions. Magnanti’s decades of field experience combined with an often humorous writing style, make this book not only a great resource for beginners but also brings home the fact that as long as you are well prepared, heading out into the woods is an experience to be enjoyed, rather than simply endured.
  • Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (9th edition, 2017): This classic mountaineering text (first published in 1960) also has lots of information relevant to hikers and backpackers (e.g. snow skills, wilderness first aid, knots, and navigation).

  • Skurka, Andrew. The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide (2017; 2nd Edition). A thorough overview of lightweight backpacking gear and techniques from one of the sport’s leading authorities.
  • Thomas, Liz, Mastering the Art of the Thru Hike (2017). Over the past decade, Liz “Snorkel” Thomas has hiked many long-distance trails around North America, including the Triple Crown (i.e. PCT, CDT, and AT). That well of ambulatory experience combined with impressive attention to detail has resulted in a book full of practical, hard-won advice which took out the National Outdoor Book Award in 2017 (Instructional Category).
  • Townsend, Chris. The Backpackers Handbook (4th Edition; 2011). An excellent backpacking resource written in a personal, down-to-earth style by a man who definitely knows his stuff. Over the decades Townsend has published more than 20 hiking-related books, and since 1991 has been the Equipment Editor for The Great Outdoors magazine.
  • Waterman, Guy & Laura. Wilderness Ethics: Preserving the Spirit of Wildness (1993). This book was recommended to me by Paul “Mags” Magnanti (see above). I found it to be a well-written, balanced, and engaging examination of the ethical questions around how we use wilderness. Written some 28 years ago, its themes are more relevant than ever today.

2.   Guidebooks

  • Cicerone Press Guidebooks: For five decades, Cicerone Press has been producing highly regarded guidebooks for hiking, trekking, climbing, and cycling. Traditionally their focus has primarily been on the UK (where they are based) and Europe, however, in recent times they have been increasingly featuring other areas around the world such as the Himalaya, Andes, and Atlas mountains.

Four of my Cicerone Guides from the 90s and 2000s.

  • Falcon Press: The largest publisher of outdoor guidebooks in the United States. Their extensive hiking catalogue includes Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Joshua Tree National Park.
  • Trailblazer Guidebooks: Along with Cicerone Press, the principal hiking guidebook company for the UK and Europe over the past couple of decades. As with their counterpart, they have also expanded their geographic horizons in recent years, and now also feature books for South America, Asia, and other destinations around the globe.

3.   Humour

  • Bryson, Bill. A Walk in the Woods. The famed travel writer’s account of his time on America’s most iconic long-distance pathway. Some thru-hikers complain about what this book isn’t (i.e. the story of someone who hiked the whole Appalachian Trail), rather than focusing on what it is – a witty and often insightful account of an AT section hike by a very good writer.
  • Burns, John D. The Last Hillwalker (2017). A love letter to the hills. I picked up this thoroughly enjoyable account of four decades worth of adventures in the British mountains (and beyond) during my 2018 trip to the Scottish Highlands. On the same journey, I also read Burns’ excellent, Bothy Tales – an ode to the characterful mountain huts which dot the Scottish Highlands.
  • Grinter, Lawton. I Hike (2012) and I Hike Again (2019). Collections of short stories derived from more than 15,000 miles of hiking on some of America’s finest trails. Funny, poignant, thought-provoking, and entertaining, reading Grinter’s books makes you feel like you are sitting around a campfire, swapping yarns with a bunch of long-distance hikers over a beer or three.

  • McFarland, Boots. On the Trail with Boots McFarland (2019): Long-distance hikers are a quirky bunch. And rarely have those eccentricities been better captured than in Boots McFarland’s wonderful cartoons. Whether it be our questionable eating habits, debatable hygiene practices, or simply the crazy notion that people would want to walk thousands of miles just for the fun of it, Boots’ illustrations are a chafe-and-all celebration of what makes hikers tick.

  • Newby, Eric. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958). The (mis)adventures of a fashion executive and his mate who works for the British Foreign Service, who travel from London to Afghanistan with the goal of scaling a hitherto unclimbed peak (Mir Samir) in the Hindu Kush. One of the most entertaining books about climbing and trekking I’ve ever read.
  • Twain, Mark. Roughing It (1872). Personal recollections and tall tales from the author’s wanderings around America’s Wild West. My favourite of Twain travel narratives, just nudging out The Innocents Abroad. Not exactly a wilderness book, but what the hey; I love Mark Twain, I love the American West, and his stories never fail to bring a big smile to my face.

4.   Inspirational 

  • Berger, Karen. America’s Great Hiking Trails (2014): A beautiful coffee table book that features America’s 11 National Scenic Trails. It was one of Berger’s earlier works, “Hiking America’s Triple Crown” (2001), that first introduced me to the idea of one day hiking the big three of American long-distance hiking (i.e. the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails).
  • Honan, Cam. Wanderlust: Hiking on Legendary Trails (2017), The Hidden Tracks: Wanderlust off the Beaten Path (2018), and Wanderlust USA (2019). Odes to the beauty and wonder of experiencing the natural world on foot. Each work features roughly 30 of the finest trails and routes from around the globe, including Tibet’s Mount Kailash Circuit, California’s Lowest to Highest Route, Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit, and the legendary Haute Route between Chamonix and Zermatt. The books contain background history, trail descriptions, overview maps, and most notably, scores of spectacular wilderness photographs (stay tuned for “Wanderlust Himalaya“; release date May 2022).

  • Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild (1996): The cautionary, enthralling, and tragic story of Chris McCandless, an idealistic young man who walked alone into the Alaskan wilderness. I read this book during my own three-month journey in Alaska and the Yukon in 1998. From the time of its publication, the book polarized readers, with McCandless being painted as everything from a tragic hero to a reckless narcissist. Ultimately his tale stands as a grim reminder of what can occur in the wilderness when dreams and idealism aren’t balanced by objectivity, and the knowledge and skills necessary to safely negotiate your chosen environment.
  • Macfarlane, Robert. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (2012):  In “The Old Ways”, Macfarlane traces the ancient pathways of Britain and beyond, and explores the relationship between people, time, and landscapes. As with the writing of Nan Shepherd (see below), you get the feeling that the author walks into landscapes, rather than up and over them. I read this extraordinary book during my Alps trip of 2019, and as soon as I had finished, I ordered Macfarlane’s first two works – “Mountains of the Mind” and “The Wild Places.”
  • Shepherd, Nan. The Living Mountain (1977): Nan Shepherd was a Scottish poet and nationalist who is commemorated on the country’s five-pound note. “The Living Mountain” is Shepherd’s beautifully written testament to the joys and wonders of walking in nature, specifically in her beloved Cairngorm mountains:

“I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which the god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that makes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain.”

Yours truly hiking in the Cairngorms in September 2018.

5.   Literature

  • Snyder, Gary. Turtle Island (1974) & The Practice of the Wild (1990): Thought-provoking poems and essays. I didn’t get into Snyder until my early 30’s, when I randomly came across a copy of ‘Turtle Island’ in a used bookstore in Queensland, Australia. I’ve been a big fan of his writing ever since:

“Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind. Walking is the exact balance between spirit and humility.” (The Practice of the Wild).

  • Tolkien, JRR, The Lord of the Rings (1954). The story of a diverse bunch of guys who went out for a multi-month walk, had lots of memorable adventures, met some cool trail angels, took some zero-days, had some differences of opinion regarding route selection, lost one of their members due to chest pains, split into separate groups, stood by each other when times were tough, finished their trips at different termini, and, finally, all met up for celebratory beers on the Field of Cormallen at journey’s end.

“I want to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains, and then find somewhere where I can rest. In peace and quiet, without a lot of relatives prying around, and a string of confounded visitors hanging on the bell.” (Bilbo Baggins, “The Fellowship of the Ring”)

The boys from the Fellowship of the Ring.

  • Wallis, Velma. Two Old Women (1993). An Inuit legend of courage and survival. I first read this book while spending a summer up in Alaska in 1998. Not about hiking and backpacking per se, but instead about how spending time in the wilderness can remind us that when given no other choice, many of us are capable of more than we consciously realize.

6.   Memoirs

  • Abbey, Edward, Desert Solitaire (1968): A thought-provoking compilation of vignettes about life in the wilderness. He may not be everyone’s cup of literary tea, but there is no denying Abbey’s love and passion for America’s southwest:

“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”

  • Fletcher, Colin. The Thousand-Mile Summer (1964) and  The Man Who Walked through Time (1968): Over the past couple of decades, there has been an ever-increasing amount of books about long-distance backpacking. None that I’ve read are as compelling, thought-provoking, and inspirational as the works of Colin Fletcher. His book, River, about a multi-month rafting journey down the Colorado River, is equally outstanding. If I had to pick just one of Fletcher’s works, it would probably be “The Man Who Walked Through Time”, which chronicles his pioneering journey through the Grand Canyon. I read this incredible book during my Pyrenean Haute Route thru-hike in 1999 (Ed’s Note: Back in the day when I still carried paperback books while hiking):

“There is a powerful human compulsion to leave things tied up in neat little bundles. But every journey except your last has an open end. And any journey of value is above all a chapter in a personal odyssey. Its end is not so much a goal attained as another point in a continuing process. And the important thing at the end of a journey – or of a book – is to keep moving forward, refreshed, with as little pause as possible.”

Mike “The Gambler” Towne at the Nankoweap Granaries during the Hayduke Trail (March 2012). Fletcher slept in these cliff-hugging granaries during his 1963 journey through the Grand Canyon.

  • Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums (1958). Possibly my favourite Kerouac novel. I first read it in the late 1990s, not coincidentally during the same period I discovered the writing of Gary Synder (see below), who was the inspiration for one of the book’s main characters, Japhy Ryder.

“I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.”

  • Matthiessen, Peter. The Snow Leopard. (1978). I picked up a battered paperback version of this classic book while trekking in Ladakh in 2008. Recounting the author’s search for the elusive Himalayan ‘ghost cat’ throughout Nepal’s Dolpo region, “The Snow Leopard” is ultimately a ‘journey of the heart’, that vividly captures the abiding quality of the Himalayan range and its people:

    “I grow into these mountains like a moss. I am bewitched. The blinding snow peaks and the clarion air, the sound of earth and heaven in the silence, the requiem birds, the mythic beasts, the flags, great horns, and old carved stones……….Also, I love the common miracles-the murmur of my friends at evening, the clay fires of smudgy juniper, the coarse dull food, the hardship and simplicity, the contentment of doing one thing at a time.”
  • Muir, John. My First Summer in the Sierra (1911) and The Yosemite (1912). The father of the conservation movement. I first read Muir’s works as a teenager growing up in Australia. More than thirty years later, he remains one of my favourite wilderness writers.

“After ten years of wandering and wondering in the heart of it, rejoicing in its glorious floods of light, the white beams of the morning streaming through the passes, the noonday radiance on the crystal rocks, the flush of the alpenglow, and the irised spray of countless waterfalls, it still seems above all others the Range of Light.” (The Yosemite)

John Muir in his beloved High Sierra.

7.   Philosophical

  • Graham, Stephen. The Gentle Art of Tramping (1927): A wonderful book for wandering spirits and outdoor enthusiasts. Written some 90 years ago, it contains some memorable nuggets of wisdom such as:

The less you carry the more you will see, the less you spend the more you will experience.”

  • Fletcher, Colin. The CompleteWalker 3 (1984). I’ve re-read CW3 a couple of times over the years. Whilst the gear sections are understandably dated, Fletcher’s dry sense of humour and his passion for the natural world remains as fresh and poignant as ever.

“If you judge safety to be the paramount consideration in life you should never, under any circumstances, go on long hikes alone. Don’t take short hikes alone, either – or, for that matter, go anywhere alone. And avoid at all costs such foolhardy activities as driving, falling in love, or inhaling air that is almost certainly riddled with deadly germs………And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In your wisdom, you will probably live to be a ripe old age. But you may discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long time.” (The Complete Walker 3).

For fans of Fletcher’s work, I recommend picking up a copy of “Walking Man“, an excellent biography by Robert Wehrman.

  • Gros, Frederic, The Philosophy of Walking (2014).  An insightful look at how the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other, can affect our way of thinking and quality of life. Gros examines the essential role that walking played in the work of philosophers and writers such as Thoreau, Kant, Rimbaud, Rosseau, and Nietzsche:

“When there is really nothing left to do or believe, except to remember, walking helps retrieve the absolute simplicity of presence, beyond all hope, before any expectation.”

  • Kephart, Horace. Camping & Woodcraft (1906): Although gear may have changed, the philosophy & skills described in this wilderness classic are still relevant:

“To equip a pedestrian with shelter, bedding, utensils, food, and other necessities, in a pack so light and small that he can carry it without overstrain, is really a fine art.”  

Horace Kephart – one of the OG’s of lightweight backpacking.

  • Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac (1949). I revisited Leopold’s classic work in 2018, some 26 years after first reading it. For anyone interested in the nature of human’s relationship with the environment (and I hope that encompasses most folks who follow this site) I highly recommend it. It’s a relatively short book, and although it was first published some 70 years ago, the themes it examines remain more relevant than ever today.
  • Thoreau, Henry David. Walden (1854) and Walking (1861): Thoreau makes the most eloquent of cases for the physical, mental and spiritual benefits of spending time in the wilderness. I especially enjoy reading Thoreau when I’m backpacking, rather than when I’m indoors. The simplicity and directness of his words seem to resonate that little bit more.

8.   Ultralight Backpacking

  • Clelland, Mike. Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips (2011) 153 tips on going lighter, courtesy of the same guy who did the excellent illustrations for Don Ladigan’s book (see below). Practical information mixed in with liberal doses of quirkiness and humour. Makes ultralight backpacking sound fun and enjoyable. Double thumbs up.

  • Jardine, Ray. Beyond Backpacking (2001) and Trail Life (2009). Basically the same book with a different title. Jardine was the man who popularised the current movement towards going lighter in the early ’90s. Whilst some of his ideas may not be for everyone, there is no denying that his innovative approach is founded upon extensive personal experience in a wide range of environments.
  • Lichter, Justin & Forry, Shawn. Ultralight Winter Travel. In 2014/15, Lichter and Forry completed the first-ever winter traverse of the Pacific Crest Trail. The skills and techniques they used to accomplish this amazing feat are encapsulated in Ultralight Winter Travel, an informative guide that addresses worse-case scenarios, weather patterns, field repairs, and, of course, how to venture safely into sub-freezing conditions without carrying the proverbial kitchen sink on your back.

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9 Replies to “Books for Hikers and Backpackers (2021 Edition)”

  1. Always enjoy your lists, books website etc but cannot take this list seriously without Anish’s Thirst. And Yogi’s PCT Handbook deserves a place on this list as well.

    1. Hi Patrick,

      Thanks for the comment.

      Regarding the “thru-hiking memoir” genre in general, it’s just not my cup of tea. Nothing against Anish (who I know and like) or any of the other hikers that have written books documenting their long-distance journeys in recent years.

      As for Yogi (who I also know and like), I used her guidebook for the PCT in 2007 and 2012 (and the CDT in 2012) and found the information to be super useful. However, please note that the guidebook section of the article consists of publishers with a large series of guidebooks. Even the New Zealand Alpine Club’s Moir’s Guides cover scores of different hikes (“tramps” in Kiwi-speak) in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

      Cheers,

      Cam

  2. Eric Newby and Bill Bryson made it to your list now it is time to enjoy the gold standard of mountain/travel ( and later in life sailing ) books by HW Tilman.

  3. I enjoyed your list of hiking and backpacking books. Please permit me to add a few very much over looked outdoor authors and their books. My number one favorite book is “The Longest Walk” by George Meegan. Few people have walked from Chile to Alaska. Another over looked hiker/author and early pioneer is Cindy Ross, who’s books, “Journey On The Crest”, “A Woman’s Journey” and “A Hiker’s Companion” are to me, must reads. One other book I read over and over again is David Stoess’s, “Right Foot In The Pacific Left Foot In The Atlantic”. It may be just me but I have to read his book at least once a year.

  4. Thanks for the list – I look forward to picking some of them up. Not your cup of tea perhaps, but my favorite memoir by far is Carrot Quinn’s Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart. It’s one of the better memoirs for commmunicating how it feels to be out on the trail. I often recommend it to friends who are curious about thru-hiking.

  5. Ah yes. I’m looking out my office window right now at Aguereberry Point and remember fondly of Colin Fletcher and his campsite up there. Great story no matter how many times you read it.
    r

  6. This list is great! One of my last reads was Unlikely Destinations by the Wheeler’s (Lonely Planet) who talked up A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and seeing it secures it as my next read, thanks!

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