Is this ranking of hiking books subjective? Of course. Are there listed books that I strongly believe are eye-opening and will add value to your own hikes? You bet. Will you find them a waste of time? Not a chance. Welcome to my small walking library.
If you love reading books about walking and that’s the important part to keep you sane between your own hikes but at the same time you have already read all well-known classics and are fed up with personal stories based on the same style of writing and presenting memories (that all fell into the pattern “I woke up/ hiked X miles / ate ramen / enjoyed views / hiked another x miles / was tired / met nice person / ate idahoan potatoes / was happy / hiked last x miles / set up a tent / crawl into a sleeping bag), I have for you a couple of truly outstanding reads.
Being a dedicated bookworm for my entire life I’m happy to share with you those world-class masterpieces of literature that surely enrich not only your times between hikes but – and I absolutely sure about that – will teach you how to understand every single step you will take on the trail as well as everything you see and experience.
Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit
Solnit takes your hand and walks you through (pun intended) the ideas, concepts, varieties, and history of walking. Sounds boring? You will be amazed at how fascinating different views on such a simple activity as walking could be. Solnit goes way beyond personal experiences – she shows hiking as an act of art, part of the culture, or a political or philosophical statement. Also, she analyzes who had the right to walk and who had this right refused and shows walking in cultural and local contexts. It is also very probable that you are one of those people who think better while walking (scientifically proven for huge groups of people) so reading stories about great thinkers/walkers presented by Solnit will make you feel like a part of a great group of people.
You cannot rush through this book, it requires many stops for thinking over what you have just read. Warning: your brain can itch a little bit while reading. Plus: her ability to dance with words and her literacy talent is mesmerizing. This essay won’t ignite your walking flame intensively just to fade out equally fast. It will keep it burning for years.
Walking or hiking for many occurs as a trivial activity and many fell into the trap of writing about it in a trivial way. It’s not the case with “Wanderlust…” and that’s it the most enchanting thing about this book. My definite number one.
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert MacFarlane
This is a book about old paths that should disappear with time but stubbornly last – not only as the trail on the ground but also in people’s needs and minds. For me, it is very true, especially for some of the trails in the United Kingdom the book is about. I walked through Scotland there and back a couple of times and some of the paths I have taken I find kind of ancient. They seem eternal because the moors, glens, and Munros themselves are almost eternal. They were shaped by many climates: tropical, deserts, and of course several Ice Ages. Not to mention they were formed 150 million years earlier than the Rockies, so their erosion is way more progressed. You can feel and touch it and honestly, that’s one of the main reasons I keep coming back for Scottish trails. But it is not a surprise at all that MacFarlane used that title for his book.
Of course, it doesn’t matter if you personally hiked in the United Kingdom, because the book is universal. Macfarlane teaches you how to properly read your surroundings while walking or hiking. How to truly understand what means that very specific species of tree or type of rock? He goes beyond the point where most of the writers stop. “There was a spruce” isn’t information for him, it’s just a starting point for analyzing what that means. Is it a regular place where spruces grow? What is the condition of the tree? What kind of dirt does the spruce like and what does it mean in geological terms? Were spruces here a century ago? If not, why and what happened that the vegetation has changed? What direction does the spruce face and what are the shapes of its branches and what does it tell us about weather patterns in the area? What animals use spruces to hide and search for food?
I love this book because I can learn from it how to be the observant hiker I wish to be.
The Continental Divide Trail: Exploring America’s Ridgeline Trail by Barney Scout Mann
I got this book as a birthday gift when I was still deciding whether to hike CDT upcoming summer. And I loved every page of it. It is an album so you can just look at beautiful photos and picture yourself in those mesmerizing landscapes. But at the same time, it is the greatest collection of information about the trail itself. From history, through geology, great hikers and plants to modern times – all greatly written, explained, and detailed. I love knowing what’s around me and knowing it in many contexts. As an aspiring CDT thru-hiker, I diligently and joyfully learn not only resupply strategies but also about pioneers, fauna, and how the trail was designed and protected.
Also, I remember staying at Scout’s home on the so-called “Mile 0” in San Diego before my PCT thru-hike. That was the world-class experience of trail magic and I couldn’t have a better welcome to an American hiking family than I had at Scout’s home. Not to mention he predicted that I will get my trail name after my shoes and damn, he was right and 24h later I become Patchwork. Hence for me having and reading Scout’s book has also a personal dimension.
Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles: Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail by Chris Townsend
This is my honorable mention. It is more of a classic hiking book, from-point-A-to-point-B type of narrative. But I like it a lot because Chris set out on an adventure on PCT over 40 years ago. I read this book after my own PCT hike so it was a great publication to learn what has changed on the trail since then. I loved both: finding out that so many things are practically the same as they were almost half a century ago and realizing how completely different we look at the trail now and organizing our logistics. Not to mention – old photos from the trail are fascinating and I enjoy studying them a lot. You can find an example here.
Vaggi Varri. W tundrze Saamów by Anna Nacher and Marek Styczyński
And this one is a bonus for Polish-speaking readers. The authors of this book keep coming back for trails in Lapland and the book is a combination of a journal, notebook, and professional records. They both are cultural experts and music producers and that mirrors in their book. I really enjoyed the excerpts showing how they recorded all the sounds of their surroundings like creeks, ptarmigans, insects, or simply Lappish silence. I know, bringing your professional recording devices by no means can be considered ultralight, but surely it is delightful! I’m sure that focusing on sounds while hiking expands the experience of absorbing nature. And can you imagine listening to all those records later, bringing back vivid memories from the trail to your home?
Plus extra points for the beautiful cover!
What would you add to the list of lesser-known but superb hiking reads? Or what are your thoughts on the books I have mentioned?
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