12 narrative nonfiction books to satisfy your sense of adventure

12 narrative nonfiction books to satisfy your sense of adventure

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

West with the Night

West with the Night

Author:
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 →
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The Lost City of the Monkey God

The Lost City of the Monkey God

Author:
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 →
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The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor

The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor

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 →
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The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

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 →
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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 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 →
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The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey

Author:
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 →
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Chasing the Thrill: Obsession, Death, and Glory in America’s Most Extraordinary Treasure Hunt

Chasing the Thrill: Obsession, Death, and Glory in America’s Most Extraordinary Treasure Hunt

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 →
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Fire

Fire

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 →
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Sidecountry: Tales of Death and Life from the Back Roads of Sports

Sidecountry: Tales of Death and Life from the Back Roads of Sports

Author:
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 →
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Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave

Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave

Author:
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 →
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The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

Author:
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 →
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Erebus: The Story of a Ship

Erebus: The Story of a Ship

Author:
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 →
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Have you read any adventure-filled nonfiction books this summer? We’d love to hear about them in the comments.

P.S. Check out these 10 nonfiction books that read like novels or 25 fascinating true stories you didn’t learn about in history class.

12 narrative nonfiction books to satisfy your sense of adventure

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102 comments | Comment

102 comments

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    • Lori says:

      Say Nothing A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keene

      I was so good at tuning out the troubles in Northern Ireland while hearing daily news report. The book opens with the murder of a widow mother to 10 young children. The book does a deep dive on wha
      What happened over 40 years and gives you the full story , mainly focusing on 5 main character and the people that revolve around their life.

  1. Heidi says:

    Three cheers for The Feather Thief! I know more about Victorian fly-tying than I ever thought I would, and I’m not sorry about it.

  2. Julie says:

    You must add Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King to your list! This is a true story of sailors shipwrecked in the Sahara and is spellbinding. I always mention it as one of my favorite books which is quite a feat as I am more drawn to literature.

  3. Katie says:

    I purchased the book West with the Night at the International Women’s Air & Space Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s a free museum with many interesting displays, and I learned a lot. I thought the book was interesting and although it wasn’t one of my favorite reads I’m still glad I read it. At the museum I also learned about the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) during WWII. Well worth a visit if you are in the area.

  4. Amy says:

    I just finished Into Thin Air, about a 1996 Mt. Everest climbing disaster, and couldn’t put it down. I have been desperate for more adventure narrative non-fiction, so this list comes at the perfect time.

  5. Rebekah Jacobs says:

    I read & loved a lot nonfiction this summer: Chatter, Think Again, Empire of Pain, Israel (Tishby), Yearbook (Rogan). I want to read Cecily Strong’s new one.

  6. Tierney says:

    In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette By Sides is an amazing adventure book. It’s about a voyage to the Artic that doesn’t go particularly well. The book has a lot of direct sources from the crew logs and as things go on, I wondered how did anyone (and these logs) survive. It’s an excellent book!

    • Jaimee says:

      YES! I was coming here to mention this book. It was fascinating, exciting, and I felt the whole range of emotions as I read. This was a hard one to put down for sure!

  7. Oh my gosh! I have to read CHASING THE THRILL! My JASPER AND THE RIDDLE OF RILEY’S MINE was partly inspired by Forest Fenn’s treasure hunt. Bet my younger son would love it, too.

    My book club read read WEST OF THE NIGHT before I joined, and I’ve been meaning to get to it. Listened to LOST CITY OF THE MONKEY GOD a few years back. It made me think a bit of Justin Cronin’s THE PASSAGE. Curious if others found a similarity.

    A non-fiction title I devoured last year that might interest you is FIRE SEASON by Phillip Connor. It takes place in a fire tower in NM’s Gila Wilderness (the first designated wilderness area in the world). There were once over 9000 fire towers across the country (in all states but KS), but now only a few hundred are still in operation, mainly in the southwest and northwest. I read it as research for a new novel and was spellbound.

  8. Sandra says:

    Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risk Everything to Solve one of the last Mysteries of World War II, by Robert Kurson is an incredible tale.

  9. Hannah says:

    The River of Doubt is one of my favorite books ever! One of the best nonfiction books I’ve read this year so far is The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko. Highly recommended.

  10. Adrienne says:

    Just when I thought I had made progress in getting my TBR under control….. Lol. Thanks for the great list Anne and Will!

  11. Kathy Rose says:

    Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon, by Edward Dolnick. Also, The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History through the Heart of the Grand Canyon, by Kevin Fedarko. Both of these stories will get your heart racing!

  12. Emily Krauss says:

    Add On Thin Ice by Mattie Mcnair on to your list. This book is so good. I had to buy the book and I love it.

    Add Once Upon An Island as well By David Conover. He actually wrote three non fiction books. They are all really good.

    Would you consider Mrs. Mike by Nancy and Benedict Freedman to be non-fiction? Also very good.

  13. I love reading nonfiction. My favorite narrative nonfiction from this year is All the Presidents Men. I always wanted to read it, and finally did. Riveting! Another good one is The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington by Brad Meltzer. And Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods is one of my all-time faves!

  14. Lynn Kluge says:

    Four of my favorites (and my most recommended books) are on this list so I eagerly made note of all the others so I could enjoy them!
    I have to add In the Heart of the Sea by Nathanial Philbrick. It is, of course, 10x better than the movie. And it is the true story of The whaleship Essex, which inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. I read these 2 in tandem for a sublime experience. I read The Indifferent Stars Above:The Harrowing Saga of The Donner Party by Daniel James Brown, last month. Riveting, gruesome and harrowing, indeed. Not for ththefaint of heart. Also adding Into Thin Air by John Krakauer, which I re-read in November to get me out of my reading slump. Krakauer never disappoints and this is, in my opinion, his best work.

  15. Cady says:

    The Feather Thief is the book I’ve recommended most in the last 5 years – a cracking story, and a real ‘my bloke only reads one book a year, what should I get’ winner.

  16. Amapola says:

    For fans of stories about the Cold War, Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre tells the true story of the greatest female Soviet spy. The pace is fast and intense.

  17. Mary says:

    I am currently reading All Thirteen by Christina Sootornvat with my 12 year old. It is about the Thailand boys soccer team who made international news when they were trapped in a cave a few years ago. It would fit in this category and it is riveting. Really fabulous book! (And not a huge time commitment, which can be a plus.) It is written for younger readers but I think it’s great for all ages.

    • Meg Craig says:

      I was going to add this one!! It is so good and suspenseful even though you already know the ending! I wish it didn’t look so “middle grade library” because it’s hard to get adults to read it!

  18. Debbie Symonds says:

    Loved ‘Wild Swans’ about three generations of Chinese women from the days of concubines, to the cultural revolution and the Red Guard it was a story that has stayed with me for years.

    • Laura says:

      Wild Swans was one of the most illuminating books I’ve ever read! I learned so much about Chinese history- just excellent.

  19. Patty says:

    West with the Night is one of my most beloved listens. I recommend it all the time. Make sure you get the version read by Julie Harris. Her reading is wonderful.

  20. Helen Williams says:

    My recommendation in The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin. I don’t know if it is even still in print, I read it when I was very young, but it is such a good story and has stayed with me – I’ve re-read a few times too

  21. Sara says:

    Astoria by Peter Stark is a must read for fans of this genre. So incredibly action packed, and hard to believe it’s a true story. What those people endured…

  22. Diane C says:

    Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry An amazing, beautiful autobiography by the author of The Little Prince.

  23. Monica Gardner says:

    All of Candace Millard’s books are excellent and she has a new one coming out in a few months! I also highly recommend The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel as well as his other book Murder, Memoir ,Mea Culpa and The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean!

  24. Deborah Begley says:

    Yes, to River of Doubt, Endurance, Into Thin Air. Introduced me to narrative non-fiction and I’m sold on the genre! Thanks for more fuel to my fire.

  25. Scottie says:

    Loved The Feather Thief!!
    Try the Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. It’s the story of saving ancient scrolls from destruction by Al-Qaeda… fascinating!!

  26. Caroline says:

    Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethaway is the best narrative nonfiction of our time. Poet Laureate turned memoirist. It’s tragic yet lyrical.

  27. Kandace Riddle says:

    One of the best “non-fiction book that reads like a novel” I’ve read is “Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates”. It was amazing! You’ll pick up all kinds of tidbits about the start of issues between America and the Middle East a few hundred years ago, find out how the Marine Corp started, and just generally enjoy the read for the tale.

  28. I highly recommend Owls of the Eastern Ice, A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaughter. A well-written account about locating and studying fish owls in very remote areas along the Japan Sea. The book highlights the difficult conditions and the unusual people met along the way.

  29. Teresa Anne Rust says:

    Reading A New Earth and The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle this summer has had a transformative effect on my life. I highly recommend them to anyone with curiosity about deep spirituality.

  30. Michelle Wilson says:

    The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetuated in the Name of Science-Sam Kean

    Unwell Women-Misdiagnosis and Myth in a Man Made World-Elinor Cleghorn

    Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine-Geoff Manaugh, Nicola Twilley

    Although I read and love many of the MMD recommendations for narrative NF, it appears from those noted above that I am really drawn towards those medical history books.

    • Meg says:

      Own it; added it to TBR; have on wishlist! Looks like we are medical history book twins! Have you tried Dr Butcher and Mr Humble? It was about trying to do a brain transplant (well, technically, a full-body transplant). I also have The Butchering Art (Victorian Era medicine) in my TBR stack. Scientists Greater than Einstein is also a fascinating look at the discoveries that have saved the most lives (e.g. insulin, statins). Paul Offet also has a lot of great books!

      I would also recommend the TV show The Knick on HBO. Knickerbocker Hospital in 1900, not for the faint of heart!

  31. Cheryl Couch-Thomas says:

    River of Doubt is my favorite non-fiction book! What an adventure! TR was truly a rugged and unique individual.

  32. Mary Jo Durivage says:

    RIVER OF DOUBT is always one of the history books I recommend to folks along with UNDAUNTED COURAGE by Stephen Ambrose (Lewis and Clark journey).

    • Cecile says:

      I have read several books on the Lewis & Clark journey and they are all fascinating. I live in Oregon and cannot imagine how they felt at seeing all the wild country, the Columbia, the Pacific Ocean, the trees.

  33. Margie says:

    I am currently reading Islands of Abandonment (20 pages to go) and would recommend it to anyone who loves the Lost City of books. It’s about areas that have been environmentally degraded and are therefore off limits to man and discusses how nature is reinhabiting these areas.

  34. Carolyn says:

    For adventurous travelers, I recommend The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World…via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes.

    (That title really speaks for itself, no?)

  35. Rebekah in Socal says:

    I had the day off and my library happened to have “Chasing the Thrill” available. This is a crazy story and super interesting so far.

  36. Jennifer says:

    Loved all the books on the list. Agree Jon Krakauer needs to be here. Also Ben Macintyre, Erik Larsen, Timothy Egan.

  37. Cindy DeChellis says:

    Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery. In 1955 63 year old Emma Gatewood told her family she was going for a walk.

  38. Diane Armijo says:

    I read West With the Night – a memoir by the aviator Beryl Markham – in March of this year and it is still one of my favorite reads of 2021. A biography about Amelia Earhart is also well done: The Sound of Wings by Mary S. Lovell. Into Thin Air by Krakauer is a modern classic in my opinion. Great list, Anne! I’ve added 2 or 3 of your suggestions to my TBR.

  39. Radene Winkelman says:

    I would recommend “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean:
    Young Men and Fire is a non-fiction book written by Norman Maclean. It is an account of Norman Maclean’s research of the Mann Gulch fire of 1949 and the 13 men who died there. The fire occurred in Mann Gulch in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness on August 5. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Wikipedia
    Originally published: September 1992

  40. Laurie Gillespie says:

    Please look into Mitka s Secret. Tru story about a child growing up during Holocaust. Becoming a slave and eventually coming to U.S. He is still alive. Written by a Steve Baillier And Lynn Beck. Lots of research. On audible too

  41. Susan says:

    Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick is a five star book about the lives of ordinary people in North Korea. Evicted by Matthew Desmond completely changed my thinking about the “bootstrap theory” and people who are jobless. Rabbit by Patricia Williams is a funny and fascinating memoir of a Black woman who grew up very disadvantaged but became a successful comedian.

    • Mary Hawkins says:

      The Third Pole by Mark Synnott. Mark was part of the 2019 expedition to Everest in search of the body of Sandy Irvine who perished in 1924 along with George Mallory. A fascinating read full of interesting asides.

  42. Kathy LeBlanc says:

    One book that has stuck with me for many years is Ada Blackjack by Jennifer Niven. It is an amazing story about a young woman who survived 6 months alone on an isolated Arctic Island . It is an amazing story and I highly recommend it.

  43. Leigh Grantham says:

    On an early edition of What Should I Read Next, a reader told of a book she loved that was a travelogue of Italy. Anybody remember what that book was?

  44. Morgan says:

    Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard! 100% my husband who is not typically a reader read this after I did, and we both loved the story of President Garfield.
    Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan is also a great one, a medical memoir.

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