10 epic books and movies about survivors

10. Robinson Crusoe

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Most of us know what Robinson Crusoe is about, and maybe it was even part of your English classes back in high school. But if it wasn’t … have you read it?

First published in April of 1719, Daniel Defoe’s classic tale of human endurance is about the title character, a man (a bit of a spoiled Englishman) survives a shipwreck with little more than a knife, a couple of animals, and tobacco. He will end up spending 28 years of his life on the island, learning how to survive, and of course, undergoes transformations about his beliefs. Robinson Crusoe is considered to be the beginning of “realistic fiction” as a reading genre, and one of the earliest novels in the English language.

It is generally believed that Defoe got inspiration for his story from the real-life story of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned alone on Más a Tierra off the Chilean coast from 1704-1709. Selkirk had actually been serving aboard a ship called the Cinque Ports, and had had a dispute with the ship’s captain about the ship’s seaworthiness and asked to be left at the island. (Selkirk turned out to be correct, by the way.) Selkirk spent those years alone before being rescued by a privateer.

9. Too Far From Home: A Story of Life and Death in Space 

aa In February 2003, the world watched in shock as the Columbia disintegrated on its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, reminding us of the intense dangers of space travel and exploration.

Lost in the aftermath of the news and the indefinite suspension of the shuttle program was the fact that three astronauts – Donald Pettit (U.S.), Kenneth Bowersox (U.S.), and Nikolai Budarin (Russia) were still aboard the International Space Station for a routine mission — and now with the shuttle program on hold, how were they to get home?

In Too Far From Home, Chris Jones tells the story of the U.S. and Russian space agencies working together to find a way home — a solution that is practically straight out of the movies.

8. Gravity

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If Too Far From Home is the real-life story, then Gravity is the Oscar-winning version of a similar tale: two astronauts are on a spacewalk when disaster strikes: Russia uses a missile to destroy a defunct satellite, and it accidentally causes a chain reaction as the scattered debris strikes and destroys both their shuttle and the Hubble Telescope, which they had been servicing. They manage to make it to the International Space Station, but find out their possible escape pod is unusable. This heart-pounding adventure will have you breathless and on the edge of the seat as you follow mission specialist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and her attempts to get home to Earth after an intense crisis in space.

7. Between a Rock and a Hard Place

aaWhat would you do to survive?

Aron Ralston had to ask himself that after he had hiked into the Utah canyonlands alone, and a falling boulder pinned his right hand and wrist against a slot canyon wall. Ralston had broken the cardinal rule of solo adventurists: always tell somebody where you’re going, and when you’ll be back. So now he was unable to free himself, nobody knew where he was, and he would likely die of dehydration before anyone found him.

So he did what few of us could imagine doing: he cut off his own forearm in order to be able to survive. His story was eventually made into the movie, 127 Hours, starring James Franco and directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire).

6. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

aaIn May 1943, Lieutenant Louis Zamperini of the Army Air Forces and two other men survived the crash of their bomber, thousands of miles from civilization.

Zamperini was young and fit — just a couple years earlier, he’d been an Olympian — but he and his fellow two soldiers would endure machine gun strafing, starvation, dehydration, sharks, and a typhoon in their life boat — and that was only the beginning.

An extraordinary biography by the author who wrote Seabiscuit, Unbroken will keep you spellbound. The book was also the inspiration for the movies Unbroken and Unbroken: Path to Redemption.

5. Island of the Lost: An Extraordinary Story of Survival at the Edge of the World 

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What draws the line between those who are able to survive, and those who aren’t?

In Island of the Lost, Joan Druett tells the story of two ships that wreck in early 1864 on the remote Auckland Islands archipelago, 290 miles south of New Zealand — an inhospitable cluster of islands deep in the subarctic Southern Pacific Ocean.

At opposite ends of the main island, and separated by only about twenty miles but also impassable cliffs, the crews of the Grafton (wrecked January 3, 1864) and the  Invercauld (wrecked May 11, 1864) know nothing of each other’s misfortunes — but their outcomes could not be further apart. Despite Auckland Island’s miserable weather (several inches of rain per month, and temperatures ranging between the high 30s and low 60s), the Grafton crew is able to preserve discipline, build a cabin and forge, and find a way to eventually escape and rescue the remaining crew. The Invercauld crew turns upon itself, eventually leading to starvation and cannibalism — only three crew members survived to be rescued.

Two main things differentiated the two wrecks: the leadership of their respective captains, and the resources the crews were able to salvage from their ships. Island of the Lost is a solid illustration of the best and worst of man facing survival.

4. Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival

aaIn 1985, two men, Simon Yates and Joe Simpson, successfully attempted the previously unclimbed West Face of Peru’s Siula Grande. As they were descending back to base camp, connected by only 150 feet of line, Simpson fell and shattered his right leg. Yates did what he could to try to lower his friend to base camp, but when Simpson fell again, the exhausted Yates cut the rope, which dropped Simpson into a crevasse. Thinking his friend now dead, Yates eventually made his way back to base camp.

But Simpson wasn’t dead — although his right leg was useless. Through sheer willpower, he managed to pull himself out of the crevasse, and eventually, to survival. Touching the Void tells their story – or you can watch the 2012 movie which recreates their ordeal.

3. Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration

aaMost of us are at least vaguely familiar with the story of Ernest Shackleton’s famous expedition to the Antarctic aboard the Endurance. But much lesser known is the story of Douglas Mawson, who led the Australasian Antarctic Expedition in 1912-13, two years before Shackleton’s doomed expedition.

Mawson’s group wasn’t after South Pole glory, which is perhaps why their story has gotten lost under the shadow of the Endurance. Instead, he was leading a group making scientific observations about the continent. Mawson finds himself far from base camp, his two companions dead, his supplies minimal. Alone on the Ice tells the story of his month-long survival trek back to camp, as well as details of other Antarctic explorations of the time.

2. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

aaOne of the greatest tales of survival of all time: Endurance tells the saga of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to Antarctica. Their original plan was to cross the continent on foot; but only a day away from reaching land after sailing through pack ice, the ship became locked in the ice, and the crew lived aboard as the ship drifted with the ice pack.

The Endurance would be eventually crushed in the ice, and Shackleton and his 27 men would camp aboard an ice floe, in hopes of eventually drifting towards Paulet Island, where stores were cached, 250 miles away. Mother Nature had other plans, and Shackleton and his crew were finally able to gain land at Elephant Island, after spending nearly 500 days between the ship and crossing the ice.

From there, Shackleton and five of his men undertook a perilous journey across open seas in a modified lifeboat to reach South Georgia Island, where they would get help to rescue the rest of the crew.

1. The Martian

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Every so often, a book comes along that’s absolutely brilliant, and it gets made into a movie, and the movie is pretty spectacular. The Martian is one of the best to fall into both these categories.

Andy Weir’s meticulously researched novel is an incredible read, telling the story of astronaut Mark Watney, who gets inadvertently stranded on Mars when his fellow crew think he’s dead after an accident forces an emergency evacuation, how he survives, and how he eventually gets home. It is a fantastic story, and even if you don’t consider yourself a “fan” of science fiction, there is much more here about the strength of the human condition than the “sci-fi” part of the story.

In 2015, The Martian became a movie starring Matt Damon as the title character, and was so well-received that it received dozens of award nominations. Directed by Ridley Scott, it was filmed in the Wadi Rum desert of Jordan, which stood in for the surface of Mars.

Happy Earth Day! 14 Books to inspire you to get back to nature

PCT crossing sign, south of Lake Tahoe

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “We need the tonic of wildness… We can never have enough of nature.”

As most of the country is under coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, and spring unfolds outside our windows, it’s not surprising to have one’s thoughts wander to daydreams of strolling through the woods, or visiting a favorite park.

Here’s 14 books that will get you outside — without having to leave your couch.

14. The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs: Use Outdoor Clues to Find Your Way, Predict the Weather, Locate Water, Track Animals—and Other Forgotten Skills

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Remember when you were a kid, and you’d spend all day out in the woods? Okay – maybe today’s kids don’t have those experiences, but growing up in the 1970s, I definitely spent hours and hours wandering around the woods in our neighborhood, and I knew some of them like the back of my hand.

Whether you have a dream of doing an epic thru-hike on any of the great trails of the world, or are just looking to find some new skills to learn with your kids (or for yourself), The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs will hook you in.

You don’t have to be Bear Grylls to get useful information from  this book, either. These are the kind of simple skills that any of us could find helpful in while camping or hiking, just for fun in our neighborhood, or even in a true emergency.

13. Reclaiming the Wild Soul: How Earth’s Landscapes Restore Us to Wholeness

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In Reclaiming the Wild Soul, author Mary Thompson explores how nature can help us on a mental journey. It is part spiritual guide, and part poetic call to head out to the wilderness to find what can heal our souls.

At a time when technology surrounds us and colors nearly every moment of our days, how refreshing to think about standing under an open sky or a rich canopy of leaves, away from the pressure and noise of modern life. This book can help you decide what kind of environment might match with you the best – deserts, forests, oceans/rivers, mountains, or grasslands. And once you’ve read it, you’ll be eager to find the time to commune with nature and soothe your soul.

12. The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

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Most of us feel recharged by nature – whether it’s something as epic as a thru-hike, a walk through a local park, or even simply getting to stick our bare feet into a small patch of grass.

But what makes us so happy to be out in nature? Why does it recharge us? In The Nature Fix, Florence Williams uses science and research to answer those questions and more – to figure out why nature just makes us happier. She talks about her own experiences as well as other studies, and talks about the importance of getting back to nature, and away from the bustle and noise of the modern world. Good companion reading to Reclaiming the Wild Soul.

11. Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love with Camping

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Americans love camping: whether it is truly getting away from it all, or “glamping” in more upscale accommodations.

In Under the Stars, Dan White explores why camping is so popular, and his adventures are both fascinating and hilarious. He discusses how politicians, poets, writers, artists, and outdoor enthusiasts influenced America’s parklands and camping styles.

Along the way, he also shares his own camping experiences, ranging from touching family trips to hilarious adventures. Make some s’mores and cocoa, and curl up with this book.

10. The Pants of Perspective

aaNew Zealand is a fantastic place to visit. The people are friendly, the attitude is laid back, and the countryside is gorgeous. So who wouldn’t want to see as much of it as possible?

Author Anna McNuff once represented Great Britain as a rower; these days, she is an adventurer and endurance athlete. In The Pants of Perspective, McNuff tells the story of running — that’s right, long-distance endurance running the equivalent of more miles than a marathon each day — along New Zealand’s rugged Te Araroa trail, which stretches 1,600 km across the North Island from Cape Reinga to Wellington, and then another 1,300 km along the South Island, from Ship Cove on the Cook Strait to Bluff, at the southern end of the island nation. (Think of it as the Kiwi version of the Appalachian Trail.) The book is funny and inspiring, and you just might want to lace up your own pair of sneakers and hit a trail after reading it.

9. The Most Beautiful Walk in the Wolrd: A Pedestrian in Paris

aa Yes, Paris is a city, and may seem an odd inclusion about getting out in nature. But since the focus in this book is about walking, and Paris is a city designed to favor pedestrians, I feel compelled to include it on this list.

John Baxter spent a year as a professional “literary walking tour” guide, and Paris is a city rich in artistic and literary history to be explored. James Joyce, Hemingway, Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein — Baxter’s tales in A Pedestrian in Paris help bring this historical city to life, showing what inspired some of the greatest artists and writers of all time. If you’ve ever been to Paris, this book will take you back; if you’ve never been, you will practically feel as if you’re there.

8. Where’s the Next Shelter?

aaThere are many books about walking the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail; I’m going to skip A Walk In The Woods (which I mentioned in my last post) and Wild (which I didn’t enjoy reading), and tell you instead about some books about these two trails that I have really enjoyed.

In Where’s the Next Shelter?, former Marine Gary Sizer takes to the trail with two others, Lemmy and Megan. This book isn’t simply about the Appalachian Trail itself; it is about the bonding, the soul-searching, and the shared experiences of walking the trail from one end to the other. This book will have you laughing out loud often, and if you’re a fan of Bryson’s Walk, you’ll love this book as well.

7. Overweight, Undertrained, and Terrified: A Camino Diary

aaIrishman Connor O’Donoghue admits he isn’t the “average” person who attempts a thru-hike; in the opening pages, he admits his struggle with obesity, and wonders at times what he’s gotten himself into.

Having read several travel memoirs of walking the Camino de Santiago, I found most of them rather dry and straightforward. Perhaps it’s because the Camino is shorter than most thru-walks, and one is never very far away from civilization. Overweight, Undertraind, and Terrified is a bit different, mostly because O’Donoghue doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at himself. Sometimes you’ll groan at the obviousness of his mistakes, and at other times, he’ll have you laughing along with him. His persistance to complete the journey is inspiring. It’s different than your usual thru-hike book.

6. Whistler’s Walk: The Appalachian Trail in 142 Days

aa The motto of thru-hikers is “walk your own walk”, and nowhere is this better illustrated than when you get to reading several memoirs of the same trail, seeing how different people experience the same miles.

William Monk, a.k.a. “Whistler”, is perhaps a bit older than the average person who attempts an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. But he’s prepared for what he’s setting out to do, and in Whistler’s Walk, he takes you the full 2,189 miles, with all its ups and downs (mentally and physically) by his side, starting with preparing for the hike, to the final summit at Mount Katahdin in Maine.

5. On Trails: An Exploration

aaCompared to other books on this list, On Trails is a bit more cerebrial. It started when author Robert Moor was doing his own thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, and he began to wonder about paths and trails, how they are created, and why certain ones persist while others disappear.

So over the course of several years, Moor explored trails of all kinds, shapes, lengths, and varieties. This isn’t simply about building or maintaining what we think of as a path or trail through the woods; it is deeper than that. It will make you see and understand many aspects of our world on a different level.

4. Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail

aaWhat do you imagine yourself attempting at age 65? Would it including walking the entire Appalachian Trail – alone – and would you walk it three times?

Emma ‘Grandma’ Gatewood became a hiking celebrity in the 1950s and ’60s, being outspoken about the conditions on the still-young trail, which had opened in 1937. In Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, you’ll find out the story of the woman who is credited with saving the AT through her own words, as well as the memories of her family and hikers she met in her journeys. This isn’t your typical AT thru-hike memoir, and it’s an important piece of history for those interested in our national trail system.

3. Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart: An Adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail

aaMention the Pacific Crest Trail, and most people will probably talk about Wild, which was on Oprah’s book club and was made into a movie. But for me, Carrot Quinn’s Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart was the much more interesting read.

It’s honest, frank, and at times emotionally raw. Her writing style grows as she does, traveling further north along the trail, trying to make the Canadian border ahead of the snow that ends most thru-hikers’ attempts. She’ll laugh and she might even make you cry.

If you want a book that is simply, “We got up, walked x miles, the trail was like this, the weather like that, I was happy to set up camp and get to my ramen noodles”, well, this isn’t that book. Break Your Heart is much more about the mental journey that a thru-hiker trakes along the thousands of miles of trail.

2. Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail

aaFresh out of college, Jennifer Pharr Davis wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, so she decided to take a walk: or more precisely, a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

She’s young, fit, and hiking solo, but she quickly discovers that attempting a thru-hike is much more difficult than she anticipated. Like every thru-hiker, she experiences a lot of growth along the way, and discovers she’s capable of much more than she originally thought.

It is also a story of “trail magic”, not only the little positive surprises that people give to thru-hikers, but the larger warmth of the trail community, and how it comes together when somebody needs help.

Pharr Davis has consequently gone on to being one of the leading female long-distance hikers, setting speed records for hiking the Appalachian Trail. She has written two follow up books, Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph, and The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience.

1. The Last Englishman: A 2,640 Mile Hiking Adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail

aa Englishman Keith Foskett has written four excellent, award-winning books about long-distance hiking, covering the Camino de Santiago, the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and walking across Scotland. Picking one as the ‘best’ is a bit challenging; so I’ll go with the first of his books that I read – The Last Englishman.

Foskett’s writing is funny and spirited, and you can picture yourself on the trail with him. Additionally, unlike most PCT memoirs — which seem to lose any enthusiasm for details by the time the author hits Oregon — Foskett has a lot of adventures in Oregon and Washington, and he “hikes his own hike” in order to finish his thru-hike.

If you enjoy The Last Englishman, check out his other hiking tales: Balancing on Blue: A Thru-Hiking Adventure on the Appalachian Trail; The Journey in Between: A Thru-Hiking Adventure on El Camino de Santiago; and High and Low: How I Hiked Away From Depression Across Scotland.