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
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
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
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
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
New 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
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?
There 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
Irishman 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
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
Compared 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
What 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
Mention 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
Fresh 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
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.