Take a trip to the icy Arctic with these 8 awe-inspiring nonfiction books

Readers, I enjoy previewing summer’s hot releases to beat back the lingering winter chill, imagining myself in warmer climes. But on a bitingly cold day, sometimes the best thing to do is to not fight the season but embrace it—with a vicarious trip to the iciest place on earth.

While I admittedly sit in a cozy chair in my heated house with a cup of hot tea, I’m turning the pages to read about real people tackling treacherous climes and impossible challenges in the coldest places on earth. Suddenly, the snowflakes outside don’t seem quite so bad, and I appreciate my wool sweater and cozy socks all the more.

Today I’ve rounded up a collection of nonfiction titles about intrepid scientists, artistic adventurers, and talented writers who experienced the devastating beauty and terrifying realities of Arctic exploration—and then wrote about it for our benefit.

Whether you’re leaning in to your current cold weather or seeking vicarious escape from the heat, I hope you find your next page-turning read among these harrowing Arctic adventures.

8 nonfiction books about Arctic exploration

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Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

Author:
If you’re interested in the Arctic explorer who’s inspired countless leaders and intrepid travelers alike, you must read this unputdownable account of Ernest Shackleton and his crew. (The Baby-Sitters Club Club guys raved about it on What Should I Read Next Episode 51.) Sir Ernest Shackleton and his 27-man crew were stranded on the Antarctic ice for 20 months beginning in January 1915. The story (which is named for Shackleton's ship) is compiled largely from the detailed journals kept by Shackleton and his men. For a truly immersive read, check out the spellbinding audiobook narration by Simon Prebble, who gets major bonus points for his wonderful British accent. More info →
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The White Darkness

The White Darkness

Author:
By the bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon, this is the story of Henry Worsley, who was obsessed with Ernest Shackleton and determined to complete his unfinished journey. In 2015, at the age of 55, Worsley decided that he wanted to cross Antarctica alone on foot. With a giant sled, three hundred pounds of supplies, and a pair of cross country skis, he set off on his mission. David Grann gives us an inside look at Worsley’s mental state and his survival methods in this harrowing account. Part Into Thin Air, part National Geographic, there’s something here for fiction and nonfiction readers alike. More info →
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In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

Author:
Avid nonfiction readers know Hampton Sides to be a fantastic storyteller, and here he doesn’t disappoint. Beginning with their preparation to sail from San Francisco to mysterious Arctic waters, this book follows Captain George Washington De Long and his brave crew of thirty-two men as they embark on a doomed voyage aboard the USS Jeanette. How many survived after crashing into the ice, marching across Siberia, encountering polar bears, and losing important supplies? You’ll be tearing through the pages to find out as Sides reveals each thrilling—and tragic—twist in this true story. More info →
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A Woman in the Polar Night

A Woman in the Polar Night

"A year in the Arctic should be compulsory to everyone. Then you will come to realize what's important in life and what isn't," writes Christiane Ritter. This lesser-known memoir in translation is one of MMD team member Chelsey's favorites. Now that it's back in print from Pushkin Press, she can't stop recommending it. In 1933, Ritter, an Austrian painter, arrived on the island of Spitsbergen to live with her hunter husband in a tiny little hut. In her vividly detailed diary entries, she used her artistic eye to paint a picture of the barren landscape, its wonders, and its dangers. Introspective yet expansive, this memoir is one of very few 20th century accounts of the Arctic tundra by a woman. More info →
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Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World

Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World

Author:
Most Arctic explorers gained historic fame with only one tragic trip, but 16th century Dutch adventurer William Barents managed three expeditions before conditions caught up with him. He and his crew faced starvation—plus starving polar bears—after losing their ship in the treacherous ice. Ambitious, intelligent, and passionate, Barents is a courageous figure to root for as he faces navigational challenges and a mutinous crew. Andrea Pitzer not only researched Barents’ life—she learned to use the same navigation tools he relied on over 400 years ago and retraced his steps on her own Arctic expeditions. If you’re looking for an immersive read set in the Age of Exploration, this book is for you. More info →
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Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition

Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition

Author:
Survival is no guarantee in a place with subzero temperatures. Add in terrifying arctic wolves and months of pitch-black darkness, and you have one of the deadliest voyages ever recorded: the Greely Polar Expedition. This nonfiction thriller details the team’s trek through the arctic wilderness, where they established a 300-year-old record and returned to camp to rejoice…only to find no way to return home. The supply ship intended to take them back never came, leaving Lt. A.W. Greely with a tough decision. While his wife attempted to garner favor for a rescue mission, Greely and his crew packed up and set out in five small boats to face starvation, insanity, and the open seas. Read Levy’s intricately researched account to find out how these courageous men fared. More info →
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Arctic Dreams

Arctic Dreams

Author:
Readers, take note: this stunning selection from prolific essayist Barry Lopez won the National Book Award in 1986. No matter your niche interest, this book has something for you to learn about in anthropology, biology, zoology, history, travel, and the beauty of the natural world. Lopez manages to pack the pages with facts in a way that makes even the countless varieties of ice captivating. He combines the poetic and scientific, taking a seemingly barren, mysterious landscape and making it tangible to the reader. Expressive, fascinating, and bold—this award winner will please Arctic experts and novices alike. More info →
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Race to the Bottom of the Earth: Surviving Antarctica

Race to the Bottom of the Earth: Surviving Antarctica

If you have a kid in your life who devoured Jack London and Gary Paulsen’s survival stories (or if you were that kid once upon a time), this middle grade book is for you. The narrative alternates between a 1910 race to make history in the South Pole and a strikingly similar 2018 trek across Antarctica. The comparison between Captain Robert Scott’s historical endeavor and Captain Louis Rudd’s more recent feat creates an immediate and intense reading experience, and photos bring the Arctic to life. Descriptions of dangerous, even deadly conditions are presented in a straightforward tone, sparing no factual detail, so be mindful of content for sensitive young readers. More info →
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What are your favorite books set in the coldest corners of the earth? Please share your recommendations in comments!

P.S. Try these 12 narrative nonfiction books to satisfy your sense of adventure or 15 absorbing nonfiction books to inspire your inner scientist.

Take a trip to the icy Arctic with these 8 awe-inspiring nonfiction books

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54 comments

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  1. Scarlet says:

    Boundless by Kathleen Winter, her story of travelling the Northwest Passage in 2010 with a varied group of academics and other passengers. One of my favourite topics and book.

    • Rebekah in SoCal says:

      Arctic Exploration is the content I am here for. Endurance and Kingdom of I were fantastic. You know you are on a terrible adventure when you are hoping to make it to Siberia to find shelter.

  2. Terry says:

    I totally geeked out when I saw this topic highlighted this morning! I just returned from a dream anniversary vacation in the Yukon and fell in love with it! I have an Endurance coffee table book, but will have to listen to this one on Audible – thanks for the recommendation and the list for this topic! Not being a cold weather person, this is a beautiful way to live vicariously through the writer’s experience/imagination – tho my recent experience gave proof that you can do anything if dressed for it 🙂 Yay!

  3. Nicole says:

    Not an actual memoir but an imagined account based upon a real person, The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by Nathaniel Ian Miller, tells the story of Sven Ormson, who in the early 20th century, escapes busy Stockholm for a quiet life on an Arctic archipelago. I loved it and highly recommend it.

  4. Jelan Heidelberg says:

    If you want to really experience the cold and enjoy an excellent mystery / thriller at the same time, try The Deep Dark Descending by Allen Eskens. It’s set in far northern Minnesota in the dead of winter, and most of the action takes place outside. Eskens’ very effective prose will chill you to the bone.

  5. Janet says:

    Ice Bound by Dr Jerri Nielsen

    Mrs Chippy’s Last Expedition by Carolyn Alexander

    We had snow and hail today in SoCal. Fuzzy socks for everyone!

  6. Kelly says:

    My husband loved The Cruelest Mile by Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury about the history of the Iditarod during the 1925 typhoid epidemic in Nome. And my son loved the Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock, more of a YA coming of age story. Both on my TBR. 🙂

  7. Michelle Marshall says:

    The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey Into the Alaskan Wilds by Caroline Van Hemert

    Arctic Solitaire: A Boat, A Bay, and the Quest for the Perfect Bear by Paul Sounders

    Eiger Dreams by Jon Krakauer

  8. Merry says:

    The Sun is a Compass by Caroline Van Hemert is a book that I enjoyed about the author and her husband’s adventure trekking across Alaska.

  9. Patti K says:

    I recently read and loved the fiction book The Arctic Fury.

    One of my favorite books is partly set in Antarctica (not the Arctic obviously, but another cold climate!), Good Morning Midnight

  10. Sandra says:

    This is picky, but I believe Arctic refers to the N Pole and Antarctic the S Pole and most of these books are Antarctic themed. Still cold…

    Also The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard is fantastic Antarctic exploration memoir.

    • Deane says:

      The Palace of the Snow Queen by Barbara Sjoholm. She travels to Scandinavia to visit an ice hotel and continues north after a heart break. Beautiful memoir and one of my favorite books.

  11. Ann Mcphee says:

    I just finished How Iceland Changed the World by EB Jaanason audiobook. It was informative, funny and surprising that Iceland did affect the rest of us.

  12. Helen Kallenbach says:

    I’ve loved reading Arctic-themed books since I first discovered Barry Lopez. I love the ones you mentioned and here are some others I have enjoyed: Northern Edge by Barbara Quick, A Year in the Maine Woods by Berne Heinrich, Mallory & Irvine by Peter Firstbrook, Below Another Sky by Rick Riodgeway, Arctic Daughter by Jean Aspen, Spring on an Arctic Island by Katharine Sherman, Aurora Borealis by Emery Barrus, Winterdance by Gary Paulson, and The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven.

  13. Karen says:

    These are fiction — but I have long enjoyed the Kate Shugak mystery series set in Alaska (by Dana Stabenow). Makes me want to visit 🙂

  14. Sally says:

    Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak series is wonderful. Kate is Aleut, an ex-DA, and companion to a half-wolf, half-husky canine, Mutt. Together, they live in a national park wilderness among an amazing crew of park residents and a whole lot of trouble. There are twenty-odd books to the series. It pays to read them in order.

  15. Dawn says:

    Love this topic and list! The book that comes to mind is Into the Planet by Jill Heinerth, a Canadian woman cave diver. She dives all over the world so it’s not technically a book about exploring the Arctic, but it does include a thrilling section about diving under an iceberg in Antarctica (and other cold water dives) that has stuck with me.

  16. Karin says:

    Gavin Francis is a Scottish writer and doctor. He wrote Empire Antarctica about his experience working for the British Antarctic Survey. That was pretty good but having been to the Antarctic he decided he had to go north and True North: Travels in Arctic Europe was the result. That is a really good book entwining the author’s own experiences everywhere from Scotland’s Northern Isles to Greenland with a history of Arctic exploration and I highly recommend it.

  17. Sarah says:

    Love books like this! One of the first books I read along these lines was Ada Blackjack: A true story of survival in the Arctic by Jennifer Niven. It was so gripping!

  18. Caroline B. says:

    I am currently reading “The Last Winter” by Porter Fox about the people who live and research in the Arctic! I believe it was only published in 2021, so a newer addition to these suggestions.

  19. Heidi says:

    Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George is a great middle grade book about life in the Arctic. (Content warning: brief sexuality.) I’d also add The Bear And The Nightingale, since much of it is set in northern Russia.

  20. Karen Kahane says:

    I’ve read most of these, and will add the rest to my reading list. (I have been lucky to go on two small-ship cruises in the Antarctic and the Arctic.) Thanks to others for their recommendations. I also mention “Voyage of the Narwhal” by Andrea Barrett – outstanding fiction. And a nonfiction classic, “Never Cry Wolf.”

  21. Trisha says:

    Another fantastic nonfiction, very similar to Endurance, is Madhouse at the End of the Earth. It reads like an adventure story of survival about an Antarctic voyage where their ship gets stuck in the ice for the season. It’s fantastic for fans of the topic.

  22. JMartin says:

    Is Endurance appropriate for a 14 year old avid reader? It sounds like something my daughter would love, but I’m not sure if there’s any inappropriate content. Thanks!

    • Anne says:

      As always, it depends on the child’s reading level and emotional maturity. Many 14yos would love this book, but there are plenty who would prefer to avoid that kind of content. This review of a middle grade tale of the Endurance and its crew hints at some of the events that may trouble young (and old) readers.

  23. Jill Geisler says:

    Get inside the head of Ernest Shackleton on his Endurance voyage with When Your Life Depends on it: Extreme Decision Making Lessons From the Antarctic by Brad Borkan and David Hirzel. The book adds a layer to Shackleton’s story that I have found incredibly useful when applied to my own business and personal life.

  24. Rosie says:

    The Terror by Dan Simmons is one of my favorite books (and miniseries!). It’s the story of a doomed arctic expedition to find the NW passage but also throws in an extra supernatural element for fans of horror!

  25. Martha Borkan says:

    I highly recommend When Your Life Depends on It: Extreme Decision Making Lessons from the Antarctic. It’s fascinating. The book focuses on the life and death decisions made by the early Antarctic explorers, and what we can learn from them to improve our modern day decision making.

  26. Caroline says:

    “South Pole Epic: First Bike Expedition to the South Pole” by Daniel P. Burton.
    I listen to a fascinating podcast “What Was That Like” with Scott Johnson who interviewed Dan about his trip and that inspired me to read the book.

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