14 books about nature to inspire your next outdoor adventure

14 books about nature to inspire your next outdoor adventure

Readers, as we approached the 2020 summer reading season, I never thought that I’d do most of my “beach reading” seated in a camping chair, surrounding by birds and trees instead of soothing ocean waves. But I am here for it.

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.

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14 books to inspire your next outdoor adventure

A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods

Author:
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 →
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The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things

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 →
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The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

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 →
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H Is for Hawk

H Is for Hawk

Author:
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 →
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The Overstory

The Overstory

Author:
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 →
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The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

Author:
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 →
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Harry’s Trees

Harry’s Trees

Author:
Have you ever read a book that made the world around you feeI just a little bit magical? This story features an unlikely friendship, a book-within-a-book, a battle to save the local library, and a mysterious good Samaritan, all set amidst the beautiful Pennsylvania forest. Listen to author Jon Cohen talk about books that capture the magic of everyday life on WSIRN episode 160. More info →
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Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park

Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park

Author:
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 →
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End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage, and Motherhood

End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage, and Motherhood

Author:
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 →
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Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants

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 →
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Working the Roots: Over 400 Years of Traditional African American Healing

Working the Roots: Over 400 Years of Traditional African American Healing

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 →
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The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring

The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring

Author:
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 →
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Underland: A Deep Time Journey

Underland: A Deep Time Journey

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 →
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Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape

Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape

Author:
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 →
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What are YOUR favorite outdoorsy reads? Share your recommendations in comments!

P.S. Enjoy 15 absorbing nonfiction books to inspire your inner scientist and 15 books for budding botanists. Plus, 20 travel memoirs to take you around the world.

14 books about nature to inspire your next outdoor adventure

77 comments | Comment

77 comments

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  1. Dee says:

    I recently finished Greenwood by Michael Christie, a wonderful literary, multi-generational family saga. “And throughout, there are trees…”

    • Wendy Barker says:

      I read that book last year and immediately bought several copies to give to friends and family. I love that Michael Christie challenges readers to plant a tree in the afterward.

  2. Hannah says:

    Hope is a Thing With Feathers, about vanished bird species, is a good book. The Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver, a especially good to read on a porch on summer nights. And everyone should read Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring.

  3. Betsy says:

    Anything by Edwin Way Teale is delightful! The Bluebird Effect by Zickefoose is another fun read, especially if you enjoy watching the birds in your own yard/at your own feeder.

  4. Heather Kaufman says:

    At the beginning of the pandemic I read Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey published in 1968. The autobiography relays Abbey’s time as a park ranger in Arches National Park in the late 1950’s. The tales told within his story are interesting and his description of the park is breathtaking. I was pleasantly surprised with this book and highly recommend it.

  5. Kim says:

    Robin Wall Kimmerer was the Ologist on a recent episode of the Ologies podcast. It was the “Bryology” episode.

  6. Sarah says:

    Ohhh, I am SO EXCITED about this list!! I read Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods during my last camping trip; it was such a fun read (especially his commentary about his hiking partner-HILARIOUS!), but I probably shouldn’t have stayed up late reading it after everyone else had gone to bed—as funny as parts of it were, there were also some rather harrowing parts! Harry’s Trees is also one of my all time favorites (one of those rare books that I actually hugged when it ended). I can’t wait to check out some of these others!! Thanks, Anne!

  7. Donna Hampton says:

    I LOVED Harry’s Trees and would add the fiction novel The River, by Peter Heller as a great transport yourself to nature book with a little adventure and anxiety.

  8. ChristinaH says:

    Ooooh these all look so good!

    Some outdoor/nature books that I love are
    * The Hidden Life Of Trees- everything you never knew about trees and forests. It’s non-fiction and based entirely on science but makes the woods magic like no other book I’ve read.
    * A Walk Across America- the classic memoir of a disillusioned hippy finding himself and America by walking. A must-read in my humble opinion.

  9. Cady says:

    I always think of myself as a fiction reader so I was surprised by how many of these I have read (completely different from each other but both beautifully written, I highly recommend both H is for Hawk and The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating). But I recently became hooked on Kathleen Jamie’s books of essays, mainly about being outdoors in Scotland – Findings, Sightlines, and Surfacing. She’s better known as a poet, but I prefer her prose. I also liked The Library of Ice: readings from a cold climate, by Nancy Campbell.

  10. Bob says:

    I would add A River Runs Through It by Norman MacLean. A poignant story with beautiful descriptions of rivers and fly fishing.

  11. Bushra says:

    Many podcasts ago, Anne recommended a nonfiction book about measuring the height of trees as one that read like a novel. I can’t remember or find that podcast or rec–anyone know the title?

  12. April Schmick says:

    I just finished and recommend Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail. Please note that this is part nature story of the AT and part biography of Emma Gatewood’s personal life. Very interesting woman and history of AT.

    • Deborah says:

      Bringing nature inside and adding some music: Mozart’s Starling by Haupt. Mozart head a starling singing the motif of his composition and brings the bird home. Starlings are a nuisance bird for North America, but it hasn’t always been this way.

    • Susie says:

      One of my favorite reads. I’m inspired by the spunk of the old gal taking on the Appalachian Trail in her 60’s -but, oh, the backstory…

  13. Susan says:

    The first book that came to my mind was Kristin Hannah’s “The Great Alone” for it’s beautiful depiction of the Alaskan wilderness.

  14. I read The Overstory and Underland last year as companion reads, and they are both phenomenal–especially if you need to add a little wonder into your life. I was on a kick of reading books about trees (Harry’s Trees, The Hidden Life of Trees, and the middle grade book Wishtree were all in there). I’d also add Lab Girl to this list, especially on audio. Hope Jahren has some beautiful descriptions of the wonders of nature.

  15. Maria Ontiveros says:

    Loved I Know Where the Crawdads Sing for many things, but especially its description of nature and its inhabitants.

  16. Sandy says:

    I would add Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams (Yes, of Hitchhiker fame) and Mark Carwardine. It is about the quest to see animals that were at the time in danger of extinction. Now the situation is even more dire.

  17. Milka says:

    Deep Creek by Pam Houston is a memoir about her buying a remote ranch in Colorado and the struggles and beauty of living out there: Fires and animals and history and views!

  18. Janice Hoaglin says:

    Backpacking With the Saints by Belden C.Lane is one of my all time favorites. And I second the person who mentioned Edwin Way Teale; his series of books about traveling through the U.S. in all of the four seasons are full of information about the natural world, and also I came to love he and his wife Nellie who made all the journeys with him.

  19. Julia says:

    Leave Only Footprints! After reading this post, I downloaded a sample & began reading…then I promptly downloaded the audible version and headed outside for yard work. Awesome read/listen (only through chapter 4 but SO enjoying it)! So glad you shared this list! I may never visit all the National Parks but the stories help me feel like I have! Takes a bit to lean into the author’s voice but then I really appreciate hearing his story, his words in his voice.

  20. Tanya Newson says:

    I read Harry’s Trees after it was recommended on your podcast. It is now one of my favourite books of all time, and I find myself recommending it to all of my reading friends. I love when books leave me with a warm sense of hope and wellbeing.

  21. Thanks for a great book list. I also recommend “Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers, and Mavericks Who Shape How We See the Natural World” by Kathryn Aalto. It will keep you in book titles and authors to explore for a dozen trips.

    Because of it I’m currently reading, “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains,” by Isabella L. Bird, and “Wanderlust: A History of Walking” by Rebecca Solnit. Also Nan Shepherd’s, “The Living Mountain,” a brilliant classic and Robert MacFarlane’s most recommended and lent book.

  22. My favorite recent nature book, without doubt is Sound of A Wild Snail Eating. Superb story! Although not new, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard is great. Anything by John Muir is well worth it–you can get them free for Kindle. Exceptional writing.

    I was not prepared for the “other” story in H Is for Hawk. Very raw and sexual. I was not prepared to learn about in a book on Hawking. I have long admired TH White’s writings, but I could have gone a lifetime not learning some of what I learned in that book about him. The Hawk parts of the book were a magnificent look at those birds. I have re-read many of those parts of the book since.

    Signature of All Things had so much prurient sexual content I nearly gave up. It should have been a great read, but had stuff put into the story to “shock” that just annoyed.

      • Pam says:

        My daughter found a copy of My Side of the Mountain at our rental cabin in the Adirondacks when she was about that age. She loved it.

    • Karen says:

      Gone-Away Lake and Return to Gone-Away by Elizabeth Enright, about discovering a swamp that was once a lake, and the long-abandoned summer homes clustered around it. Great interactions between the kids and the elderly brother and sister who fell on hard times and returned to live there. My kids and I loved them!

  23. Dinah says:

    Yes, Harry’s Trees was such a treat. Birds, Art, Life by Kyo Maclear is beautiful, too, a memoir about an artist who decides to spend a year birdwatching in the city.

  24. Kristin says:

    I loved Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Not all of it happens outdoors. But you’ll never look at trees the same way again. 🙂

  25. Tiersa Laskey says:

    Thank you for this list! The Overstory was my favorite read of 2019 because it changed how I view nature and caused me to make changes to how I live my life….a sign of a powerful book. It is not an “easy” read but it is beautifully written and worth the effort. I also really enjoyed Harry’s stress on your recommendation in another post and look forward to reading the others on this list. My other favorite nature book of the last year was Where The Crawdads Sing because of its intimate and loving exposure to me of that swampy landscape.

  26. Susan says:

    I loved The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, as well as anything Bill Bryson writes, and Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl. To all the books about trees, I have to add Rules for Visiting, by Jessica Francis Kane. The main character is a botanist/landscaper of sorts, and trees come into the story as personalities…a lot about trees here and a character I loved.

  27. Elizabeth says:

    I would recommend The River by Peter Heller and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Looking forward to trying some of these others!

  28. Carol S says:

    Two of my favorite nature books are A Very Small Farm by William Paul Winchester and Great Possessions by David Kline. Both books chronicle sustainable small scale farming, and the natural world the farmers interact with on a daily basis.

  29. Alicia says:

    A much lesser known fiction book I recently read and loved is Take Me With You by Catherine Ryan Hyde. A lot of RVing involved with trips to national parks but the story itself is beautiful.

  30. Emma says:

    Definitely the classic young adult novel ‘My Side of the Mountain’ by Jean Craighead George, about a boy who runs away to live in a hollow tree in the Catskills.

  31. Kate says:

    I love this list! So many good ones, including one of my all-time favorites: Braiding Sweetgrass.
    I had to stop reading The Overstory because it was stressing me out so much – it turns out that deforestation and cutting down ancient trees is a trigger for me!

    I’m looking forward to diving into Leave Only Footprints as an antidote to my thwarted travel plans.

  32. Candy says:

    I’ve been wanting to read “The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story” by Dierdre Wolownick and would love to hear if anyone else has read it. She is a runner and rock climber and became the oldest woman to climb El Capitan. Her son is Alex Honnold, who is amazing as well.

  33. Sarah says:

    H is for Hawk was the first book our book club read. As mentioned earlier, interwoven with the story of loss and grief is another treatise on TH White and his book about training his first hawk. The book was not a favorite with anyone, but generated some great discussion, with different opinions on which parts (the personal memoir vs the literary commentary) were more enjoyable. I loved a Walk in the Woods, and keep meaning to read more of Bryson’s work, this may inspire me to search through my TBR for another of his titles.

    • Kate says:

      Some of my favorite non-fiction nature reads are:

      The Curious Naturalist – Sy Montgomery (also her Journey of the Pink Dolphins)
      A Year in the Maine Woods – Bernd Heinrich
      Birds by the Shore – Jennifer Ackerman (also The Genius of Birds)

  34. Kim Micham says:

    On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor.
    Part memoir of his hikes on the Appalachian trail and part science, history, philosophy, and nature writing. I found the majority of this book fascinating. The part about ants, maybe not so much.

  35. Elisabeth says:

    A Place in the Woods, a memoir by Helen Hoover, of her years living with her husband in a cabin with no electricity in the Northwoods of Minnesota is a lovely and bracing read (it doesn’t sugar coat how hard the life was) that always makes me want to head out to the woods.

  36. Fiona says:

    Hey Anne, it’s Fiona from Episode 110. I have an Australian book for the nature list – Island Home by Tim Winton. It is a ‘landscape memoir’. I hadn’t heard of that category before! It certainly speaks to the power of place and it is written incredibly beautifully.

  37. S says:

    Recommend The Salt Path, which I picked up based on a shelf talker in my local indie. It’s the middle age version of Wild set in the UK.

  38. Irene says:

    Anything by John McPhee is fascinating. You need to be the kind of reader who loves lots of thorough descriptive detail to enjoy his writing, though. My favorites are Oranges, Encounters with the Archdruid, and The Control of Nature.

    From your list, I’ve read A Walk in the Woods and liked it – I’d love to see the movie. My 31-year-old son hated it, though. His girlfriend, who works in a lab, hated Lab Girl and said all her co-workers disliked it, too.

    I read Trace and it was hard going and far-ranging, but worthwhile. I had to read it a second time to fully appreciate it.

    I abandoned The Invention of Nature after about 50 pages. Wulf writes with a scolding, school-marmish tone that I found annoying.

    From the comments so far: yes to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and another Dillard book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, which has a wonderful account of a solar eclipse.

    A Walk Across America was mostly enjoyable, but I wish I’d never read about what happened to his dog, Cooper. The Overstory is on my TBR shelf, but thanks for the trigger warning, Kate!

  39. Karen says:

    Thanks, Anne and everyone, for some great recommendations. Some I’ve read and some for the TBR List. I’ve been wanting to read “The Secret Life of Trees,” now I’ll have to find a copy. I was happy to see Kathleen Jamie’s books recommended; she has such a good eye and a great voice. I recommend anything by Robert Macfarlane, such a magnificent writer, though my favorites are “The Old Ways” and “The Wild Places.” Other suggestions – “The Outermost House” by Henry Beston; “The Solace of Open Spaces” by Gretel Ehrlich; “A Country Year” by Sue Hubbell; “Nature Cure” by Richard Mabey; “The Homing Instinct” by Bernd Heinrich. And, of course, there’s always “Walden.”

  40. Wendy Barker says:

    I’m Canadian and I read a lot of books written by Canadians. One that changed my life is Grass, Sky, Song by Trevor Herriot. It is part memoir, part report on the decline of songbirds in the prairies as natural prairie habitat gets used for cropland, oil wells and human habitation. It turned me into a birder and it also convinced me to source almost all of my animal protein from local producers who raise their animals on pastures instead of in buildings. Having grass fed cows, pigs and chickens is one of the best ways of keeping grassland available for birds.

  41. Ashley says:

    I love this list, Anne! I am happy to see diverse authors included – thank you for that! There are some of my very favorite books on here including Harry’s Trees and The Overstory which you recommended to me! There are also some previous Alpine Trails Book Club picks as well.
    I also want to thank you for including a link to Writing Wild in one of your emails recently, I was so excited that I ordered the book immediately and made it our August book club pick. 🙂

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