Five winters ago we started reading adventure stories together as a family. Damien wanted to focus our family adventure reading on modern day, non-fiction outdoor adventures, preferably human-powered hiking and backpacking trail stories. No Shackleton or Hillary, these stories are about adventurers like McKittrick and Miller.
Aren't familiar with these modern day adventurers? After reading the following book list you will be.
Since those first winter evenings of reading together, we have branched out into audio books. And these books that we shared as a family, sparked an interest in me to read trail stories and journals on my own, since not all of them are family-friendly.
Now, as we are getting ready for our own long hike we are reading and listening to trail stories from a whole different perspective.
This page of book reviews and recommendations is a running list of the inspiring trail books we've read, either individually or as a family. Because we are always looking for great books for the whole family I indicate in the reviews below those that are most appropriate for family read-alouds (and what ages) and those that are best suited to adult readers.
We are mountain-hiking loving folks so these books are in that vein, i.e.: there aren't any family cycling books in this list. In part, because we identify more with hiking stories and also because we read these books hoping to learn from the authors' experiences to apply those ideas to our own hikes and daily lives.
This list is in no way exhaustive. It's what we've read and been inspired by reading. I refuse to read books that don't hold my attention or engage my imagination. I also avoid poorly written books. I have better things to do with my time than slog through 200 pages of tedium and trail life minutiae.
As you'll see, these are not all "stories". Some are "lessons learned" type books and I'll specify those in the list.
These books are presented alphabetically. This article is somewhat long; to skip to a specific book, click on the appropriate link below.
- A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski by Erin McKittrick
- Appalachian Trials: A Psychological and Emotional Guide To Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail (Volume 1) by Zach Davis
- AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller
- Barefoot Sisters Southbound by Lucy Letcher and Susan Letcher
- Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail by Jennifer Pharr Davis
- Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Life Lessons from Backpacking Across America (Wanderlearn) by Francis Tapon
- I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool For Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail by Gail Storey
- Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home, and Family on the Edge of Alaska by Erin McKittrick
- Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
- Zero Days: The Real Life Adventure of Captain Bligh, Nellie Bly, and 10-year-old Scrambler on the Pacific Crest Trail by Barbara Egbert
A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski by Erin McKittrick
Full disclosure: Since first reading this book three years ago, we have had the privilege of getting to know Erin and her husband Bretwood Higman (Hig). We work with them from time to time and are super inspired by their lifestyle in Alaska. The fact that they are now parents of two young children and continuing in their human-powered adventures is pretty amazing.
A Long Trek Home was one of the first adventure stories we read together as family. Damien read this aloud to us, in paperback form.
This was a good adventure story on many levels but the most fascinating part for me was the fact that Erin and Hig were not following a trail but truly blazing their own path to make an epic, year-long, human-powered trek from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.
This book is not a how-to book, biography, or a travel guide. It is a collection of observations, stories, and reflections of their journey as it progressed through each of the seasons.
Part adventure story, part environmental assessment, part nature guide, and part love story, there is something here for everyone. We were treated to beautiful descriptions of interactions with nature and wildlife. We saw how human activity impacts that wildlife. We visited remote peoples and villages. We learned how this young couple's relationship progressed from being young urban city dwellers to a family living in a yurt (inaccessible by roads) in a small Alaskan town.
Erin and Hig inspire us on many levels. They are a couple adventuring together and passing on these values to their children. They care passionately about the Alaskan environment and work to bring awareness to that issue, through science and writing. The book is a great story and their lives are a testament to their values and goals.
A Long Trek Home is appropriate for families with elementary aged children with the exception of perhaps a few instances. I can't recall them right now but I think Damien may have G-rated certain words while reading this aloud to our kids.
Appalachian Trials: A Psychological and Emotional Guide To Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail (Volume 1) by Zach Davis
When we made the decision to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (taking an idea from dream stage to planning stage) we got serious about preparing ourselves for the realities of trail life.
Appalachian Trials is about preparing yourself for the mental work of long distance hiking. Our bodies can handle a lot of physical effort - we're built for that. But what many people discover on the trail is that the challenge is more mental than physical.
Our frame of mind is more indicative of our success than circumstance. Funny. That's true in non-trail life also. It seems that long distance hiking simply amplifies this truth. (As do physical endurance activities in general - like giving birth, running a marathon, etc.)
This is a well known truth about human psychology and physiology; your body will adapt and adjust (though it may be sore and tired), it's your mental outlook that will make or break you. This is also known as resiliency. And thru-hiking the AT is nothing, if not an exercise in resilience!
And that is what Appalachian Trials is all about. Zach Davis' aim is to lay it all out, the challenges you will face on the trail, in hopes of preparing you and equipping you mentally to have a successful hike.
It's an excellent premise and the book is a good read. Reading it was both sobering and informative. For me personally, hiking the AT is not a pie-in-the-sky fairytale, "I can't wait to have six months off work" type journey. I have always expected it will be physically demanding. At one point I thought that would be the hard part. I have come to believe, like Davis and any long distance hiker I've since talked to, that thru-hiking is a mental game.
Davis challenges us to go in armed with knowledge, not naivety. He points out where on the trail to expect your motivation to plummet (and what to do about it). And although he doesn't sugar coat the truth - this is going to kick you in the butt - his overall message is "you can do this".
Damien and I each read this book individually in Kindle format. Due to a fair amount of swearing it is not appropriate for a family read-aloud. I would recommend it for late teens and beyond, i.e.: our kids haven't read it.
AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller
This is a trail story by David Miller, an account of his 2003 thru-hike of the AT. At the time of publishing this list we have been listening to this as an audio book for a few months. We have not completed it yet but David's in the Whites so we're getting close the end.
This is an engaging trail story, strong writing and packed with trail details and trail life without a lot of philosophical "what is the meaning of my life out here" wanderings. David is a family man and on that account we can identify. However, unlike our full family thru-hike plans he went solo, a situation we find hard to imagine. You must miss your family a lot on such a journey and indeed I would say from Miller's own account that was the most difficult part for him. (Next to some painful feet issues.)
His own hike comes at crossroads in his life. And we get the sense as we're listening that Miller may choose a different career path once he leaves the trail. I think this is a common trail experience. Reaching a crisis or a crossroads in one's life and using an extended time in nature to re-evaluate your life and choose a new direction.
David Miller has since gone on to write an acclaimed trail guide - The A.T. Guide: A Handbook for Hiking the Appalachian Trail. We will be using the 2014 edition of this guide for our own hike.
I recommend this book, as a good story and trail journal. Definitely more authentic and worth reading than Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods; a book our family started reading together (with a lot of omitted and bleeped out portions) but never finished because it left a bad taste in our mouths.
Incidentally, I've done some snooping around and Bryson's book is not particularly liked or well received by the thru-hiker community. I only mention this because a lot of people ask, "Have you read A Walk in the Woods?" There's your answer.
AWOL on the Appalachian Trail is
completely family friendly for our late elementary and teenage crew. There may be a few cuss words but I can't recall. As we get closer to the end of this audio recording we encounter more language that, though hilarious and totally appropriate in the story context, is not appropriate for young listeners. At least not by our standards. If you were reading this aloud to your kids you could easily skip over these few words, substituting child friendly versions. In truth though, Damien and I appreciate the story more than the kids do. It might not be the greatest family read aloud.
Barefoot Sisters Southbound by Lucy Letcher and Susan Letcher
The Barefoot Sisters account of their 2000 southbound thru-hike is one of my favorite trail stories I've read so far. Out of all the books on this list it's my personal favorite.
The takeaway I got from reading Isis & jackrabbit's account of their mostly barefoot thru-hike was a sense of "I can do this". Most trail stories I've read, and you can see from this list there's been a few, have inspired me, challenged me, and sometimes overwhelmed me. (Like the Lyme disease section of Davis' book.) Very few have left me feeling confident in my own ability to thru-hike.
So what's so different about The Barefoot Sister's account? A couple things.
I read this book at a period of time in my life having already committed to attempting a thru-hike. With earlier books thru-hiking was a crazy dream of my husband's, a far off, if ever, eventuality.
But I think the most significant reason I felt encouraged by their story is because these sisters knew virtually nothing, at least as it comes across in their writing, about the trail, trail-life, trail-culture, etc. before starting their thru-hike. Their naivety about gear, drop boxes, and distances made me think that someone like me might actually be able to accomplish this feat.
What the Barefoot Sisters had going for them was each other (two are better than one) and a steely resolve and determination to keep going.
The fact that they accomplished most of the hike barefoot was not the part that engaged me most about this book. (They had to start wearing shoes when they hit significant amounts of snow and ice, as their hike extended into the southern Appalachian winter.) Though this part will certainly appeal to those of us who hike in minimalist and lightweight shoes.
The part that engaged me most was the writing. Lucy Letcher and Susan Letcher tell a compelling and honest story about their journey. They share, with compassion and kindness, the quirky ways of the people they meet and the relationships they form along the way. And these people stories, along with the unique element of barefooting, are what make their hike so interesting. In addition, the sister's give us access to their inner and interpersonal struggles with depression, disagreements, loneliness and injury. Conditions that anyone who's human can identify with.
The Barefoot Sisters Southbound is just a really excellent story. Once I started I couldn't put it down. I read this in Kindle format and it is not appropriate for a family read-aloud due to language and sexual references.
Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail by Jennifer Pharr Davis
A couple years ago I snagged a paperback copy of this book from Outdoor Retailer, where the author was promoting the book's release and giving away copies.
Becoming Odyssa is a memoir about a single woman's thru hike of the AT. And not just any single woman. Jennifer Pharr Davis went on to set speed records for the AT and other long distance trails. She has now hiked over 11,000 miles of long distance trails.
Pharr Davis is one tough cookie. Reading her hike account was intimidating in a way that the Barefoot Sisters were not. I think some of the struggles and hardships she encountered scared me, to be honest. I think I identified with the Letcher sisters earthy tone (they were barefoot) more than Pharr Davis' obvious athleticism and competitive nature. But just to be clear, all three of these women are amazing outdoorswomen.
Becoming Odyssa is a 5 out of 5 read, as far as I'm concerned. It is an excellent story, superbly written. The subject matter was compelling for me as a dedicated hiker and sometimes backpacker (at the time of reading). I learned about the trail but following Pharr Davis' personal growth was equally satisfying.
A lot of trail books are about personal growth, it just goes with the territory. You hike for months, live in the woods, get stinky and dirty, you challenge yourself physically and mentally; you can't help but change. That's part of the appeal and the draw to long distance hiking, finding out who you really are.
Some people can write about this personal growth well and Pharr Davis is one of those people. Pharr Davis' writing is honest and at times raw but not uncomfortably so (such as in the book Wild, see below). The author openly shares about her Christian faith, which is something I identify with. But for those with different beliefs, I don't think the amount she shares is distracting from the overall story.
Jennifer Pharr Davis seems to have discovered her life's purpose and mission on the trail - to continue hiking and to encourage others to experience wilderness trails. She now has an outdoors company, Blue Ridge Hiking Co., dedicated to "making the wilderness accessible and enjoyable through written and spoken word, instruction and guiding.” And it all started with her first book Becoming Odyssa.
At the time of publishing this review the Kindle edition of Becoming Odyssa is only $1.99. Unfortunately, because of a frightening situation in the book (which I won't share to spoil it) this story is not appropriate for children and young teens. I don't recall if there is inappropriate language or other subject matter you'd want to censor for young readers or listeners.
Damien came across Tapon's book a couple years ago while looking for family thru-hiking read alouds.
Originally, Damien was looking for adventure stories about the Appalachian Trail but we thought we'd give Tapon's self-help book a try. We figured that anyone who takes 4 - 6 months to embark on a thru-hike probably has learned a thing or two along the way. And we were admittedly curious what those things were and how those lessons could be translated into everyday life.
Just to be clear, this is not a thru-hike story. It's a life lessons book, based on the author's experience on the Appalachian Trail.
Listening to this book came at a very important time in our family life. We had made the decision to leave the familiarity and security of our home and steady employment in the United States to return to Canada, to have the freedom to pursue our family dreams.
It was a lonely time for us. And a bit scary also, making the decision to leave the familiar and head into the unknown.
Hike Your Own Hike helped ease some of our worries during that time. Mostly the self doubt type worries. Is it ok for us to do this? Am I living this right?
Francis' book encouraged us that this is our life and we get to choose how we want to live it. We're "allowed" to pursue our dreams (yes, even with three growing children we need to feed) and walk our own path. By the way, so are you.
Chapter after chapter we found ourselves encouraged by Francis' life philosophy as refined by his experience thru-hiking the AT. The material was relevant for everyday living but grounded in trail experiences and lessons.
Hike Your Own Hike lays out in very clear terms all of the principles required to maximize life. Not just live the life you want, but how to get the absolute most out if it that you can. Francis leaves no stone unturned. He deals with everything from finances and serving others to diet and fitness. Right down to the nitty gritty details of what you should and shouldn't eat.
This is not a book about moderation. This is not about middle-of-the-road mediocrity. It is about making hard choices, being disciplined, and living a life fueled with passion.
Hike Your Own Hike is not a trail story but it still made for a good family listening book. The principles presented are a great starting point for discussion. The book's contents are appropriate for middle elementary kids and up.
We listened to this as an audiobook but don't necessarily recommend that you do the same. If you do, make sure you get a print/ebook version as well. The material is much better suited to print as you will find yourself wanting to refer back to it often. You can read more about our experience with this book on this review at Outsideways.
You can grab yourself an incredibly cheap copy of this book for your Kindle.
It was the title that got me. And then the description:
"Gail Storey was definitely not a hiker or camper. But when her husband, Porter, leaves his job as a hospice doctor to hike the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, she refuses to let him go alone—even though the prospect of leaving their comfortable Houston home, hiking twenty miles a day while popping antidepressants and hormones, and sleeping outside for six months terrifies her."
"Carrying Porter’s homemade ultralight equipment, they sizzle in the Mojave Desert, nearly drown fording a swollen river, kick steps up icy mountains in the High Sierra, and stumble through the lava fields of Oregon."
Now here was finally a woman backpacker I could identify with a little more readily.
No, I'm not popping hormones and antidepressants but neither am I a twenty-something recent college grad looking to find herself on the trail or a competitive athlete wishing to find my physical limits.
I'm actually a comfort seeking homebody, who has fallen in love with the outdoors and is married to an adventurer who wants to thru-hike, with me.
I am intimidated by most trail stories written by women. Inspired yes, but intimidated also. These women are so hardcore, so bad-ass, so competitive. And I'm just... not.
And so, there were many things I could identify with in Storey's memoir about her husband's thru-hike and her near thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Perhaps the thing I appreciated most about Storey's book was her obvious devotion to her husband and commitment to her marriage, and his commitment likewise. This is a devotion I understand.
I understand wanting to go with your husband on a trek, even though you fear it just may be your undoing. Because, like Storey's poignant memoirs tells, the undoing is actually a becoming. Becoming more comfortable in your own skin. Becoming more loving and more forgiving, to yourself as much as anyone else. And while you feel temporarily homeless you learn important lessons about home, family, and love.
And so this trail story, like all good trail stories is about so much more than the challenges and highlights of hiking every day for months on end. It's about living well and loving well.
I was given a Kindle copy for review by the publisher. This was an excellent book. Everything from the actual story itself, "will they finish the trail?", to Storey's introspection is very well written, alternately humorous and heartfelt. I identified with the author's personal journey despite the age, socio-economic, and familial differences in our lives.
I Promise Not to Suffer is not a family read-aloud but is definitely laugh out loud funny, as my family can attest to.
Small Feet Big Land: Adventure, Home, and Family on the Edge of Alaska by Erin McKittrick
McKittrick is the only author to get a double bill on this book list. And for good reason. She is both an excellent writer and actually has interesting stories to tell. Stories about real life backpacking and hiking adventures.
What makes McKittrick's writing even more compelling, for me at least, is that she is now a mother, a new development from her first book. As such, her lastest book revolves around adventuring as a family.
While listening to McKittrick's first book, as Damien read it aloud to our family, I kept asking myself, "what kind of adventures would Erin and Hig be willing to embark on as parents?" And "how would they do it?"
A Long Trek Home ends with Erin and Hig arriving at the end of their adventure in small-town Alaska, having started out from Seattle, Washington the previous year. They determine to make Seldovia their home and we know they are expecting their first child. How will their lives change?
Small Feet Big Land: Adventure, Home, and Family on the Edge of Alaska answers these question and oh, so much more.
Small Feet Big Land: Adventure, Home, and Family on the Edge of Alaska is the kind of book I have been looking to read for years. A book about family adventuring, in the here and now. A family who uses modern and new backpacking technology (so much of the older family backpacking stories, there are a few, feature outdated methods and materials which can make the story itself more inaccessible), but is still so grounded in just getting out there, having the experiences, and making do with what you've got.
McKittrick's latest book is divided into chapters that focus on unique themes or seasons (sustainable northern gardening and gathering for example) over the course of a two year time period of their family life.
The family live in a yurt in small town Alaska. They care about the land, deeply, and their work and play are grounded in their environmental ethic.
As a family they are learning how to invest and contribute to their Alaskan community as well as figuring out how to balance family life with homesteading and with adventuring. There is a ton to relate to in this book, regardless of if you hike.
Again, McKittrick's concern, as a scientist, about climate change is strongly woven throughout. But this time around she sees things through a mother's eyes. And it is sobering - for writer and reader alike. These are the voices we need in the environmental movement. The question is - does anyone care to listen and then change?
Small Feet Big Land includes "the backpacking stories" (this is a page of backpacking story reviews after all) from two family treks. Long treks with small children, diapers, stormy weather, and very notably, a significantly reduced pace from the adventuring the couple was used to before children.
What I appreciate most about this backpacking and adventure book is that the "trail tales" are rooted in community, family living, and environmental ethic.
A lot of hiking adventures stories are, "look at me finding myself on the trail" (in some form or another). This is not necessarily bad. We need to read tales of personal growth and development. Better yet, we need to grow ourselves.
A grown up adventurer has a strong others-focused mentality that accompanies the joys and challenges of trekking. This is what McKittrick's book is - it's the grown up version of adventurer tales. Grown up in responsibility to family, community and the earth itself.
I was given this book by the publisher, in Kindle format. The subject matter is entirely appropriate for families and inspiring for families. Older children especially, 12 and up, (and adults of course) would benefit from Erin's "ground truth" environmental message and experience.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
This was recent read of mine. The book has experienced a lot of media hype and was even promoted by Oprah. Talk about a writer's dream.
I actually didn't know about any of this hype before or during the reading of this book. It was on a friend's booklist and I was able to loan it through the library, and that's how it landed on my Kindle.
In 1995 Cheryl Strayed hiked a long portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. This book is about her hike but also about her pre-hike life as a reckless and heartbroken young women. Through her backpacking experience she was able to take her life in a more positive direction.
Some people don't appreciate the personal story aspect of Strayed's book. I do. I loved reading about how she arrived at the trail. The hang-ups and heartbreaks are as important to her trail experience as the hiking itself.
However, this is not my favorite trail story to date because the book is just too personal for my tastes. Call me prudish, but I am just embarrassed that her grown boys will read this someday. Granted, the whole book is written with the same raw and sometimes-embarrassing openness so at least the book is consistent.
In the final analysis, I appreciated Strayed's honest portrayal of the joys and difficulties of thru-hiking. And I'm glad it was a library loan.
If it's not clear already this is totally inappropriate as a family read-aloud.
Zero Days: The Real Life Adventure of Captain Bligh, Nellie Bly, and 10-year-old Scrambler on the Pacific Crest Trail by Barbara Egbert
In 2004 Barbara Egbert, her husband Gary Chambers, and their 10-year-old daughter Mary thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Zero Days, published in 2007, is the story of that hike, written primarily by Egbert with photography by Chambers and some journal notes and reflections from Mary.
Zero Days is the only family trail story we've read and it's a great family read aloud. I really wish there were more of these!
As the publisher writes, "They discovered which family values, from love and equality to thrift and cleanliness, could withstand a long, narrow trail and 137 nights together in a 6-by-8-foot tent. Filled with tidbits of wisdom, practical advice, and humor, this story will both entertain and inspire readers to dream about and plan their own epic journey."
And it did exactly that for us, helped set the wheels in motion - in our hearts and minds - to dream and plan our own thru-hike.
We read this book three years ago and after finishing it Damien wrote this:
"One of my dreams is to do a long distance thru-hike with our family. We have been casually talking about this for about a year and a half now. I figured reading about someone else doing it would be a good next step. So far, I am happy to report that after reading the book we aren't deterred yet. Whether or not we could ever logistically make something like that happen remains to be seen. Maybe I am a little crazy, but I like to dream big and see what transpires."
If Egbert and her family set out to inspire readers to dream and plan their own adventures, by sharing the story of their own, they succeeded!
We have been talking about thru-hiking for almost five years now. We made the commitment to do it one year ago. And by the time we get to the trail, next spring, we'll have been dreaming, and then planning this journey for six years.
In a world of instant gratification and "overnight" success stories (that everyone loves), it's good to be reminded that big projects don't happen overnight and take an awful lot of perspiration. Just like the trail itself.
In Zero Days we enjoyed Egbert's story telling, the journal additions from Scrambler, and Chambers photography. As a family we could truly appreciate the family-hiking dynamic and challenges and the kids identified with a hiker their age. Trust me, there aren't many.
We read this as a paperback and gave it away on our blog when we were done with it. I wonder where it is now? Hopefully inspiring other families to get outdoors together.
Coming Soon (hopefully)
These are books we're in process of reading or hope to read in the near future:
Barefoot Sisters Walking Home (Adventures on the Appalachian Trail) by Lucy Letcher and Susan Letcher
After meeting the Letcher sisters in their first book I can't wait to read about their journey northbound as they hike back up to Maine.
Want to see your book featured here?
If you have written a modern day, non-fiction adventure story; a story about yourself or someone you know; a book that doesn't end in a grisly death (or grizzly death); a book that is about wilderness travel and adventure, please contact us about sending a book for review.
The Audiobook Advantage
We really enjoy reading aloud as a family but it's tricky for all five of us to make the time in our schedule to read a book together. Audio books to the rescue. Since purchasing an Audible subscription a couple years ago we have enjoyed wonderful family entertainment and education. We often listen to stories while driving to our weekend hikes. Click here to download your own free audiobook from Audible.
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