An outdoor library: Books to own

After publishing my overview of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills last week, and more than a few people referring to it as a book that is “The Bible” for the outdoors, it occurred to me that there a few books that will enhance any outdoors person’s library.


I recycled the same photo from last week, too!

Books that have stood the test of time. Books that inspire, teach, influence, or make us think about how the outdoors is perceived. And will often be picked up again years later.

Here are my picks for books on the outdoors. These are all books I have read, enjoyed, and learned from over the years. The only self-imposed stipulation I’ve had for this list is that the books had to be at least fifteen years old. I wanted to discuss relevant books for a while and, I think, will continue to be relevant going forward. This list is not complete. Other books probably should be read…and other books I’ve enjoyed that aren’t listed. Perhaps, someday, I’ll expand this list.

In the meantime, I feel these books will form an excellent personal library for any outdoors person.

  •  The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher: “(Walking) can in the end become an addiction, and that it is then as deadly in its fashion as heroin or television or the stock exchange. But even in this final stage it remains a delectable madness, very good for sanity, and I recommend it with passion.”   The last edition of this book, written by solely by Fletcher himself, is now over thirty years old.  But it is a book that still speaks to many.  The core advice will always apply even if the specific gear reviewed may no longer be in use.   However, you read Fletcher as much for the “Why?” of the outdoors as opposed to just the “How?” and “What?” of the outdoors.

 “The bible, huh?”
“Old Testament. The beginning of everything. When we thought we could make deserts bloom, and the water would always be there for us. When we thought we could move rivers and control water instead of it controlling us.”

Water is critical in the American West. And Cadillac Desert is an excellent book for understanding the nuances of this important and vital, resource.


  • Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure On The Presidential Range of New Hampshire by Nicholas Howe : The Presidential Range, aka “The Presies,” are small mountains with wicked weather. Being close to both the Boston and New York metro areas, millions of people are within a few hours’ drive of these mountains. A combination that has led to many mishaps and tragedies over the years and also very recentlyNot Without Peril is a chronicle of some of the more devastating tragedies from years past. Almost clinical in the telling of the tales,  the book is worth reading.  Chronicles of how bad luck, lack of preparation, fluke accidents, and hubris can all lead to tragedies when outdoors. As a New England native who did his formative backpacking in these mountains, the book held my interest.  However, the book and the incidents described in the pages, are cautionary tales any outdoors person should heed.

  • A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norm MacleanThe outdoors as a place of reflection for life’s questions is a recurring theme in outdoor literature. Walden is perhaps the most well-known and Big Two-Hearted River, also showing how nature can also offer solace along with the questioning.  But it is the quiet reflection of A River Runs Through It that I prefer in many ways. No grand pronouncements or thoughts. Just what seems a simple narrative revealing much as the tale is read more.   The stories of working in the Forest Service are also of interest to anyone curious about the American West at the turn of the last century. The frontier days were over, but Montana was still very much a wilderness area.
  • Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer : The story of Chris McCandless still stirs up controversy. An overly romantic and young twenty-something who went into the Alaskan wilderness unprepared. But Krakauer’s tale resonated as many people were, perhaps, a little overly romantic as well in their early 20s. Some see the book as celebrating a life squandered. I see it more like a book of a life examined and parts of it that could mirror ours: The yearning for something more and seeking it, especially during young adulthood.
  • Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon : The road trip is, in many ways, the classic American journey. Taking to the road, exploring out the way towns and meeting people on the way. Travels with Charley tackles similar themes. But the scope and feel are different between the two books. Least Heat-Moon was not a well-known author at the time and was in a different economic situation, to say the least versus Steinbeck.  Heat-Moon could travel, explore, and write without being The Great American Author. Travels with Charley is enjoyable at first then almost sad at the end.  Blue Highways is simply memorable. Perhaps not truly an outdoor book, but more about a journey. And still well worth reading.
  • The Appalachian Trail Reader edited by David Emblidge.  If there is a book to purchase about a long-distance hiking trail, it this
    one. As I wrote earlier:  “the editor of this anthology describes the book as a patch-work Appalachian quilt. And that is an apt analogy. The Appalachian Trail Reader collects writings on geology, history, and the culture surrounding the AT. The book also features musings on the trail and the Appalachians in general from the raw but powerful voices of everyday hikers to the eloquent musings of Thoreau and Wendell Berry. Whether reading about a conscientious objector in World War II working in the Smokies, David Horton’s historic speed hike,  Thoreau’s wanderings in the Maine woods or Wendell Berry’s musing on the end of the journey, there is something in this anthology for any person who has a passion for the Appalachian Trail.”  If you are curious about all aspects of the long trails beyond what is seen online and in popular media, read this anthology.


As mentioned, there are other books I could list. Or ones that interest me that I have not read yet.

Purchase these books, and an excellent outdoor library will be had. At the very least, read them…

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8 years ago

Thanks a good bit of inspiration to keep me tweaked

Nick Gatel
Nick Gatel
8 years ago

Instead of using bullet points, you should have used a numbered list… that way your first five would be my top 5 favorite outdoor books of all time! Scary… it means you have a twisted future 🙂

I’ll assume you have read most of Fletcher’s other works – highly recommended.

If you haven’t read it, you would like Grand Obsession: Harvey Butchart and the Exploration of Grand Canyon

John Foraker
John Foraker
4 years ago

Enjoyed Th musings so much that I went and got my The Complete Walker 3 and journeyed thru Th pages of time…can’t believe it’s almost been 30 yrs since I purchased it.

I also enjoyed Peter Jenkins’ Walk Across America books.

Have fun in New Mexico…next time I’m in Moab, let’s meet at Th brewery for a cold one!



[…] out this triple crown hiker’s virtual bookshelf is a great place to look for more […]

Colorado Jones
Colorado Jones
2 years ago

Speaking of Edward Abbey, another book worth reading is A Fool’s Progress, chronicling the life of the fictitious Henry Lightcap, an Easterner who is so captivated by the wonders of the West that he drops out of graduate school to pursue a Thoreauvian lifestyle as a seasonal forest ranger.  Perhaps my favorite Lightcap quote in the book is (my paraphrase), “I decided I wanted to be a philosopher not a teacher of philosophy.” 

Jay Cliftmann
Jay Cliftmann
2 months ago

I read the Industrial Tourism part of Desert Solitaire you linked and loved it. I don’t know if his suggestions would work, but in the southern part of Zion’s they have done what he said: shuttles up and down, bikes if you want to, and a walking path if you want to. They may have done it out of necessity, but at least his ideas are working somewhere! People have to get out of their cars and experience the wonder.