When my husband Will hands me a book and says “you need to read this,” I make every effort to prioritize it—not only because he’s recommended some of my all time favorite books, but also because a shared reading experience paves the way for great discussions over morning coffee.
Last spring, he persuaded me to read Chasing the Thrill by David Barbarisi. Having followed the Forest Fenn treasure hunt in Outdoor Magazine for months, Will couldn’t wait to read the full story from beginning to end—but I wasn’t sure this book was for me.
Readers, once again, Will’s recommendation did not disappoint. Chasing the Thrill earned a spot in the 2021 Summer Reading Guide and on last week’s episode of One Great Book because I could not put it down.
This unexpected favorite got me thinking about what to read next when my appetite for adventure and intrigue strikes again. Inspired by Will’s narrative nonfiction recommendations, I gathered a list of books brimming with real accounts of world travels, dangerous expeditions, and outdoor adventures.
Because these well-researched works read like novels, you’ll be completely swept away by stories of lost cities in the Amazon rainforest, alligator hunting, or surfing down the coast of California.
I hope you find an unputdownable tale of adventure that’s just right for you—or your favorite nonfiction reader—on today’s list.
12 nonfiction books filled with treasure hunts and epic travels
I've found myself recommending this book more and more in recent years. Beryl Markham was an amazing woman, and one of the first people to successfully cross the Atlantic by plane. Yet she's not nearly as well known as others who share her arial accomplishments. In her autobiography, she preserves the moments that meant the most to her—from her childhood, spent in Africa with her British colonial family, to her adult years, when she became the first professional pilot in Africa and successfully crossed the Atlantic, alone. Absolutely riveting, on the first read or the sixth. More info →
I recommended this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story in episode 87 of WSIRN. "Swashbuckling journalist" Theodore Morde returned from a trip to the rainforest in 1940 with an unbelievable story about The Lost City of the Monkey God, but he died before revealing its location. Fast forward to 2012, when Douglas Preston joins a crew of scientists as they venture into the wilderness in search of the supposed ancient civilization hiding beneath the dense rainforest canopy. Along the way they encounter lethal snakes, horrifying diseases, and torrential downpours that threaten to take their lives. This remarkable true story is perfect for fans of fast-paced fiction from Clive Cussler or Dan Brown. More info →
Originally published in newspaper in 1955, this secondhand account of one sailor's survival brings Robinson Crusoe to mind. In February 1955, eight crew members disappeared after being washed overboard the Caldas, a Columbian ship. Ten days later, one man was found clinging to life on shore, and he later recounted his tale to reporter Gabriel García Márquez. (Yes, that García Márquez!) At the time, the story caused quite a stir, as the ship was both ill-suited for its mission and loaded with contraband. The government wanted to bury the story, putting the journalists in a precarious position. At around 100 pages, this short book combines political intrigue with a remarkable survival story. More info →
If you love too-weird-to-be-true stories or stumbling upon a new-to-you topic you had no idea could be so fascinating, this is the book for you. Author Kirk Wallace Johnson was fly-fishing in New Mexico when he first heard the strange story of Edward Rist, the thief who stole hundreds of bird skins from the British Museum of Natural History: he brazenly walked into the museum with a suitcase and walked out with a collection of valuable and exotic specimens. Though the police knew Rist was selling his stolen treasure online, many of the precious specimens went missing—and Johnson was determined to discover where they went. Motivated by natural curiosity, a regard for science, and a sense of justice, he became an amateur detective-of-sorts and shares his experiences in this engaging narrative. More info →
I first read this book years ago and continue to recommend it ALL THE TIME to nature lovers and readers who say they'd never go camping. Follow a group of young botanists and naturalists as they explore and seek to measure the tallest trees in the world; this riveting narrative chronicles their passions, adventures, and discoveries. Though I've slept under a redwood tree, I certainly won't be climbing one anytime soon (and definitely not the way they climb in this book!). Instead I'll live vicariously through these explorers as they walk through the redwood canopies and "fire caves." Combining a narrative style with lush nature descriptions, this one is great for readers who love nonfiction that reads like a novel. More info →
Goodreads VP Suzanne Skyvara named this a favorite book in What Should I Read Next Episode 242 ("Sharing Good Reads with good friends). Part presidential biography and part Amazonian adventure, Millard's debut nonfiction book follows Theodore Roosevelt after his 1912 election loss. To overcome his defeat, Roosevelt embarked on a psychologically and physically challenging trip to Brazil with his son Kermit and a group of explorers. Though the former president was famously known for his outdoorsmanship, this trip nearly killed him. Millard recounts the harrowing experiences of Roosevelt and his crew in vidid detail as they encounter whitewater rapids, deadly diseases, and murder while trekking through the Amazon. More info →
This was a "just trust me" recommendation from my husband Will, who’s followed the Forest Fenn treasure hunt for years. I’m so glad I picked it up—because once I did I couldn’t put it down. Fenn launched the hunt in 2010, when he hid treasure worth several million dollars deep in the Rocky Mountains and pointed would-be hunters to a poem with nine clues for finding it. Barbarisi became a treasure hunter himself, becoming deeply enmeshed in the close-but-combative Fenn community. Though many believed the hunt was pure myth and the treasure didn’t exist, a Michigan med student found the treasure not long before the book went to print, which provides a nice resolution to the story. For more details on this 100% bonkers adventure story, listen to One Great Book Volume V Book 8 wherever you download your podcasts. More info →
In this dramatic collection of essays, Junger recounts heart-pounding stories from around the globe. These previously published magazine articles include his reporting on the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, wildfires in North America, and interviews from on the ground in Afghanistan. Well-known for his transportive, evocative writing, Junger takes the reader to dangerous locations and explores hazardous occupations with concise, heart-pounding accounts of his experiences. I read this over a decade ago and still think about his title piece all the time. More info →
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter John Branch says, "I write stories you didn't know you wanted to read," which is my favorite sort of nonfiction! In this collection of his most popular published works, Branch covers both epic and small town sports stories. He takes readers to Yosemite, where rock climbers attempt to scale El Capitan, or into the water with alligator hunters. He also shares his reporting on local sports heroes and personal experiences on the field or in the stands with just as much heart and dedication. I picked this up for my husband Will because of its promised blend of unique adventure stories and compelling human interest pieces sounded just right for him. He loved it. More info →
Having loved his backlist novels, I aim to be a Peter Heller completist, which means this memoir might be next on my list. (Especially because, while Will read it years ago, lately he's been talking about it all the time!) As an avid kayaker and explorer, Heller is no stranger to adventure or the water, having paddled through rivers and rapids around the world. When he approaches a milestone birthday, a new water sport gains sudden appeal. On a mission to conquer the waves as an amateur surfer in just one year, Heller and his girlfriend pack up and travel from Southern California to New Mexico. Along the way, Heller seeks surfing lessons from enthusiastic and eccentric experts, learns about the environmental state of the beaches where he rides, and opens his heart to love. More info →
Readers who loved Killers of the Flower Moon won’t want to miss Grann’s backlist book about an Amazonian expedition gone wrong. In 1925, Percy Fawcett and his son journeyed into the Amazon wilderness in search of an ancient civilization. The whole crew vanished, untraceable in the thick of the forest, but Fawcett did leave a few clues behind about the undiscovered city he called "Z". For years, scientists and explorers have searched for answers to Fawcett’s fate and what he might have discovered before his disappearance. After discovering a collection of Fawcett’s diaries, David Grann embarked on his own quest to solve the mystery, joining other truth-seekers in the dangerous jungle. This propulsive narrative reveals Grann’s dedication to uncovering the truth at all costs: you won't be able to put it down. More info →
By tracing a ship's journey from construction to abandonment to rediscovery, Palin paints a picture of its epic voyages and the brave crew members on deck. After serving as a warship in the Mediterranean, the small but mighty HMS Erebus journeyed to the arctic under the command of James Clark Ross, a charismatic captain who pioneered many early scientific experiments on the icy terrain. The Erebus was not so lucky when Sir John Franklin took her to Antarctica for her final, ill-fated voyage. Everyone on that expedition died, leaving the Erebus and her sister ship abandoned in the icy waters. She was rediscovered in the Queen Maud Gulf in 2014, prompting Palin to write her biography. His adoration for the ship and her unique story come across in his engaging prose and careful attention to detail. More info →
Have you read any adventure-filled nonfiction books this summer? We’d love to hear about them in the comments.