I’ve always enjoyed fresh air and beautiful scenery, but this year the outdoors feels even more vital to my mental health. Not only has camping provided a much-needed, low-risk respite from daily decision-making and pandemic-related stress—it’s also given me a greater appreciation for the beauty of my home state, simple trips that interrupt routine, and the giant exhale I feel when I’m in the woods with—crucially—terrible cell phone reception.
We’re just home from a stinking hot but still pretty great camping trip to Red River Gorge, where I thoroughly enjoyed reading an outdoorsy Appalachian novel and a not-a-bit-outdoorsy Regency romance with my feet in a blissfully chilly creek. (Did I mention it was stinking hot out?)
We’re not leaving town again anytime soon—at least not physically. But when I need a spontaneous outdoor adventure, I’ll turn again to books, as I so often do. Today I’m sharing 14 books that will take us on epic journeys, celebrate the beauty of nature, and help us connect to the natural world. With a mix of memoir, fiction, and detailed histories, this selection features a wide variety of nature experiences.
I hope you find a book (or four) that feels like a deep breath of fresh, clean air—or that vicariously takes you on a harrowing adventure.
Renowned travel writer Bryson takes to the Appalachian Trail in this laugh-out-loud travel memoir. After returning to America after 20 years in England, Bryson reconnects with his home country by walking 800 of the AT’s 2100 miles, many of them with his cranky companion Katz, who serves as a brilliant foil to Bryson’s scholarly wit. A superb hiking memoir that skillfully combines laugh-out-loud anecdotes with serious discussions about history, ecology, and wilderness trivia. Droll, witty, entertaining. This is one of those rare occasions where I'd recommend listening to the abridged version, because Bryson himself narrates it. More info →
Gilbert's sweeping novel follows the life of the enigmatic Alma Whittaker, a 19th century scientist (before that was even a word). A maker at heart, and very aware of her strengths and limitations, Alma struggles to develop her unifying "Theory of Competitive Alteration" to describe her findings. Gilbert brings the field of botany to life in this ambitious novel. (Who would have thought moss could be so interesting?) More info →
Bailey finds solace in the beauty of nature while an illness keeps her bedridden. When a snail crawls by on her nightstand, she observes the articulate design of its shell, the slippery way it moves, and its seemingly intuitive decision-making skills. Witty and engaging, her observations give us a peek at an under-appreciated creature and inspiration to marvel at the small, intricate moments of life. More info →
Part memoir, part nature story: her tale is moving, poignant, and surprising. When I talked with Mary Laura Philpott on episode 195 of WSIRN, we discussed her list of "ordinary lives" memoirs. She recommends this one in the vein of processing grief. After Helen Macdonald's father dies, she stumbles upon a unique way to assuage her grief: she purchases and attempts to train an English goshawk with the deceptively quaint name Mabel. McDonald had been a falconer since she was a child, but her hawk is wild, unpredictable, irascible—as is her grief. More info →
This is the kind of book they write about in Outside Magazine (and I've gotten some great book recs from Outside). In the early chapters, Powers explores the lives of nine different people in a series of stories, which share one common thread: they all involve dramatic experiences with trees. It's a slow build, but eventually the stories come together. (With 512 pages, Powers has lots of room to play.) This intricately crafted novel, which ultimately explores the connection between humans and nature, and the responsibility of one to the author, requires a patient reader. More info →
Though you may not recognize his name, Alexander von Humboldt was the father of modern environmentalism and the most famous scientist of his age. Born in the late 18th century, he had a deep love for outdoor exploration and traversed the globe in search of unusual environments. Von Humboldt was friends with Thomas Jefferson, inspired Darwin and Thoreau, and was passionate about helping humans understand our relationship to the natural world. In this biography, Wulf captures the man as endlessly passionate, progressive, and impactful. More info →
After weathering a broken engagement, CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Conor Knighton decided to spend the year visiting every single National Park. Thinking he needed a change of scenery, Knighton quickly went overboard with his planning, resulting in wonderful stories and a news segment. Read his account and then watch the On the Trail news segments that followed. More info →
In this compelling memoir about bravery, womanhood, and mountain-climbing, Redford shares harrowing moments from her days as a young climber, including heart-pounding rescues and glacier-crossings. She also tells personal stories of love, loss, and freedom. If you enjoy coming of age stories, books that explore female friendships, or outdoor adventures, be sure to pick this one up. More info →
Featured as favorites in What Should I Read Next episodes 163 and 188. Kimmerer combines her training as a botanist with her perspective as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, showing readers how each plant, animal, and ecosystem provides us with lessons and gifts. Combining folklore, stories, and scientific studies, Kimmerer urges us to pay attention, be grateful, and take responsibility for our natural world. More info →
I'm thankful What Should I Read Next guest Charlandra Jenkins put this great book on my radar (in episode 243, "Predicting the next great American classic.") Over the course of several years living and studying in the rural South and on the West Coast, Michele Elizabeth Lee compiled interviews, stories, and wisdom from African American healers. In between stories, Lee shares a collection of remedies, medicines, and the history behind them. These natural healing practices celebrate and honor the earth, and the history is both fascinating and well-told. More info →
I first read this book years ago and continue to recommend it ALL THE TIME. Follow a group of young botanists and naturalists as they explore a beautiful forest of redwood trees in this account of their discoveries, passions, and adventures. I'll never climb or sleep under a redwood tree, but it was certainly enjoyable to live vicariously through these explorers as they walk through the redwood canopies and "fire caves." Told in a narrative style, this one is great for readers who love nonfiction that reads like a novel. More info →
File this one under "books on a topic I didn't think I was interested in but ended up loving." Macfarlane takes readers on a journey from the beginning of time, through prehistoric caves and Parisian catacombs, and underground fungal networks to explore "what lies beneath the surface of both place and mind." Connecting the ancient world to our modern ideas and concerns, this book tackles so much, with lyrical storytelling and vivid descriptions. More info →
I love a good epigraph. This one reads: "Every landscape is an accumulation. Life must be lived amidst that which was made before." Earth historian Savoy weaves her own family's history together with sweeping stories of how journeys and race have marked the land, from fault-lines to national parks to countries' borders. I'm intrigued by the way Savoy links humanity and the land together in this work of nonfiction, and I can't wait to pick it up soon. More info →
What are YOUR favorite outdoorsy reads? Share your recommendations in comments!