I read, a lot. Not only when I’m travelling, but in general; and my tastes span many genres and authors. That said, there are always books that stand out for me as favourites. I’m a real stickler for fantasy fiction, history, philosophy, and theology books; but of course being a full-time traveller, I’m very fond of travel literature too.
The list below is a curated selection of (mostly) travel-related books that I have read before and during my travels. Some help you travel longer, some inspire you to head off in the first place, and others will encourage you to embark on the most epic of adventures. I’ve also included some books that seem to be incredibly popular with people who I’ve met on the road.
WARNING: Mild spoilers, but nothing you won’t find within the first 10 pages of each book.
Best for Inspiration
These books have inspired me not only to travel, but to continue travelling for as long as I can.
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
Here is an apt place to begin, as it is my all-time favourite book. Matthiessen’s magnum opus is a gorgeously written account of his expedition to Nepal in the 70’s where he tracked the Bharal, or Himalayan Blue Sheep. More an internal journey than an external one, Matthiessen often meanders away from the core account to discuss his past, the inner workings of his mind, and other things that he is passionate about, namely Zen Buddhism. I adore this book because I have a deep connection with the part of the world in which it is set, and have been studying the philosophy and history of Zen Buddhism for over a decade, so everything in this book really piques my interest. The Snow Leopard will inspire anyone who is looking to set out on an adventure, but also wants to venture into their own psyche and become more mindful in the process.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
This book could most definitely fit into the “Best for fitting in with other backpackers” category below, but I’ll put it here as it definitely inspired me personally as well. It is a bizarre phenomenon that a book (and fantastic film) about a young man whose desire to travel ultimately results in his demise has inspired so many people to hit the road. Perhaps it is his reckless nature and extreme sense of detachment that enables folks to head out in the first place, despite them not following such extreme methods. While the film version of this book is more or less a chronological, narrative account of Christopher McCandless’ (aka Alexander Supertramp’s) travels, the book reads more like a research paper and is far from a narrative. Krakauer is more interested in finding the truth about McCandless’ interesting journey and interviewing the people with whom he interacted with, than in telling a story. However, by virtue of the uniqueness and intriguing nature of the events that occur, it tells a story all by itself. Despite your average Joe (rightfully) not willing to risk his or her life in exchange for freedom through travel, the reasons for McCandless’ departure and the incredible adventures that he has still manage to inspire almost everyone who reads this book.
This is definitely not a travel book, but the essay collections by The Minimalists almost singlehandedly enabled me to leave everything behind and start travelling in the first place. Everything that Remains is a memoir that encapsulates their story from the beginning in a beautifully written narrative format. This book was released long after I started travelling (it was their earlier, more practical works that inspired me) but I will list this here as it is the best place to start if you’re interested in Minimalism. In my book Travel, Forever I briefly explore the concept of minimalism and how it has changed my life. If you are looking to detach yourself from excessive material possessions, poisonous relationships, and unnecessary stresses - this book, and minimalism; is for you! Certainly, not all minimalists are travellers, and vice-versa; but by becoming a minimalist I was able to leave ‘home’ with no baggage holding me back.
Best for Adventure
These books are all about getting off the beaten track, throwing caution into the wind, and risking it all for the adventure of a lifetime. You may not go to the extremes that these adventurers have, but they will certainly inspire you to up the ante a bit on your travels.
Alastair Humphreys is one of my adventure writers. He almost always travels alone and as a result his writing is extraordinarily honest and delves deep into what he feels and experiences. It all started for Alastair when, in his early 20s, he left his cozy home in Yorkshire to cycle around the world. The adventure took him four years, and the two titles above are a chronological account of his fascinating journey. These two books will most definitely inspire you to head out on an adventure of your own.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
Similar to Into the Wild by the same author, this is a book that oddly inspires travellers despite the tragic events that unfold. Within, Jon Krakauer writes a first-hand account of the 1996 Everest disaster. It is beautifully and viscerally written, and inspires a full spectrum of emotions in the reader. I literally could not put this one down. Perhaps reading this while I was hiking at high altitude in Nepal was silly in hindsight; but if anything the heroic feats of the people involved and the way in which they are willing to throw away everything for the sake of adventure inspired me to keep going. Everest, a film based on the book, was released in September 2015.
Tracks by Robyn Davidson
Tracks is the phenomenal true story of a young Australian woman (Davidson) who decided to walk with her dog and four camels from Alice Springs in central Australia all the way to the Western Australian coast. The fact that it was 1977, she was alone and unsupported, and trekking 1,700 miles across some of the harshest landscapes on earth, makes the story of her adventure nothing short of incredible. If you aren’t inspired by this, you’ll likely never be inspired by anything. Her efforts were documented on a very ad-hoc basis by an American photographer Rick Smolan, and when published; became a worldwide sensation. Her account is most definitely worth a read, but if you don’t have time; the 2013 film adaptation is also excellent, and is one of my favourite films.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Bryson’s account of his adventures on the Appalachian Trail is a standout in this category, purely because the whole thing is more of an anti-adventure, so to speak. I say this because Bryson and his trail-buddy Katz (who have a long and hilarious history) were ill-prepared, unfit, and definitely did not have an appropriate attitude for tackling the AT. The result, however, is a hilarious account that will appeal to anyone, but mainly to those not-so-adventurous types who need to be reassured that anyone can take a step out the door and tackle an extremely physical expedition. You don’t have to finish it, you don’t even have to enjoy it, but this book proves that you will experience things and change in ways that will last a lifetime. In typical fashion, Bryson also discusses much of the history, biology, and other curiosities about the areas in which he hikes. He also loses a lot of weight and develops a deeper appreciation for nature; which is great advertising for hiking as far as I’m concerned.
Best for Travel Tips
Here’s a shameless plug for my own book!
Travel, Forever: A Guide for Aspiring Adventurers by Trent Matthews
I wrote this book while on the road and it is designed to give you the resources you need to travel for as long as you like. It’s packed full of money-saving tips, mainly in the form of useful online resources, and also contains a healthy dose of travel philosophy, and general tips for adventuring on the cheap. If you’d like to make travelling your lifestyle, this book is for you. That said, it’s also a handy resource for shorter trips of any length.
Best for History Buffs
I enjoy studying history and I read a lot of history books, but many of them are pretty flat and do not relate at all to actually travelling in the region that they are relevant to. The books below are great because they are travel books first and foremost, but with almost equal amounts of historical info thrown in.
Zen Baggage by Red Pine (aka Bill Porter)
If you’re interested in Chinese history, Buddhism, and travel; I’d highly recommend reading Zen Baggage. Red Pine is an authority on Buddhist history, texts, and translations and after studying for many years in China and Taiwan he continues to produce excellent scriptural translations and other books on the subject. He specialises in Chan Buddhism (the name for Zen, before it spread to Japan and became the version of Buddhism most know of in the West), and this book is an account of a pilgrimage of sorts to historical Chan Buddhist sites throughout China. He had already visited most of these sites during his studies as a young man, and now returning in his middle age; makes for delightful reading. The historic detail isn’t too deep as to go over the average reader’s head, and the humour and interest with which he writes makes this an easy, educational, and entertaining read.
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor was born in 1915, died in 2011; and was a classic old-school British adventurer. A BBC journalist once described him as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene.” At the tender age of 18, he decided to walk the length of Europe from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul (or as he vehemently calls it, without exception, Constantinople). The adventure that ensues is documented in three books; A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and the posthumous The Broken Road. The reason that I have listed this under ‘best for history buffs’ is because the majority of the content of these books is historical information about the places Fermor visits, and the family history of the people, many of which are minor royalty and aristocracy, that he meets. His writing style is classical and flamboyant, but also exceptionally detailed. If you aren’t into books that meander along at a slow pace, with the gaps in chronology stuffed with segues into glorious times past; then you won’t enjoy these books. For me, however, these are some of my favourite books ever. Knowing also what an incredibly storied life Fermor continued to lead after his first big adventure makes his lust for history, culture, and the simple joys of putting one foot in front of the other even more tangible. I enjoyed his story so much that I even made my own journey on foot from Holland to Istanbul in 2017.
Best for fitting in with other backpackers
There seems to be a selection of books that almost all backpackers appear to have read. Some of them I have already listed above, such as Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, and The Snow Leopard; but I thought I’d list a few more. If you want something in common in with folks that you’ll undoubtedly meet in hostels, on hikes, or at the beach; read these.
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Shantaram experienced a real boom in the early 2000’s when it appeared on almost every best-seller list, all over the world. Aussie jailbird Gregory David Roberts’ tale of exile to India and the misadventures that ensue has been widely acclaimed for its gripping plot and visceral storytelling. Shantaram states on its cover that it is a novel, i.e. fictitious - however Roberts has stated in interviews that the events in the book are all true, but not necessarily in the same order. He also asserts that most of the ‘characters’ names were changed to protect the privacy of their real-world equivalents. Either way, I really enjoyed it, and most other travellers I have spoken to did as well. It is a very long book, so it is perfect to indulge in when you’re somewhere relaxing on your travels.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Here is a book that pretty much everyone I meet on the road has read and enjoyed. I however, didn’t really like it all that much. At the risk of sounding elitist, all of the philosophical elements (which are the core of the book) that The Alchemist contains are old news to me. It seems that Coelho has taken snippets of wisdom from many different belief systems and philosophical disciplines and distilled them into an easy-to-read narrative format. This is absolutely fine, as the message within is fantastic; but after reading early, academic, and philosophical texts related to psychology, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, various indigenous forms of Animism, ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, etc. I felt that The Alchemist was a little basic for my liking. If I had read it as a teen, or years ago before meeting so many people who had hyped it up, I think I may have enjoyed it more; but my expectations were far too high. Lesson learned: avoid expectations. I still believe that The Alchemist is a very useful book for this day and age, and should be read by all, perhaps as an introduction to or reminder of positive, holistic spiritual thought.
Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer
This is another classic true story that most backpackers seem to have read, or at least they have seen the famous 1997 film starring Brad Pitt. The book and film differ in many ways, as is often the case, but both are worth checking out. I much prefer the book as Harrer goes into more detail about his past, which makes the psychological depth of his transformation and journey all the more palpable. Harrer’s account of escaping a POW camp and fleeing to Tibet, where he begins a lifelong relationship with the then-young 14th Dalai Lama, is simply breathtaking. The many death defying risks associated with his adventure, his slowly developing appreciation for the beautiful Tibetan culture, and the peace-loving nature of the Tibetan people themselves has inspired many a traveller, and for good reason.
I hope that you enjoyed this article and that you have been inspired by the blurbs above. I can recommend reading all of the books listed, if you haven’t already!