Survival books are an awesome way to get into the head of someone who’s been in a gnarly life or death situation without having to experience the actual terror yourself. You can taste the adventure and learn good survival tips and sense from the comfort and safety of wherever you happen to be reading.
Survival books have a great history and a power to inspire like no other literature. Whether the survival story takes place up a mountain or at sea or even in a deep supercave, these 10 adventure books, many of which were made into survival movies, will enrich your life and make you want to plan your next adventure right away.
1) Alive by Piers Paul Read
Alive is one of the most epic, not to mention gruesome, survival books of all time.
In 1972 a plane crashed in the Andes. It had been carrying a rugby team from Uruguay and their family and friends, and only 16 of the 45 passengers survived. The temperature was sub-zero and the crash site in such an inhospitable stretch of mountains that rescuers gave up the search within a few days.
Yet the survivors lasted for 72 days before a rescue team finally returned for them. They’d survived by rationing food found in the wreckage and then later by eating their dead team mates, whose flesh had been preserved in the cold.
Their amazing survival story was written up by Piers Paul Read two years after the event. His book was later made into a film starring Ethan Hawke.
2) Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
It tells of a 24-hour period in 1996 when eight people died climbing the mountain in three separate expeditions. At the time it was Everest’s deadliest day, since eclipsed by the avalanche in 2014 and now this year’s earthquake-induced avalanche at Base Camp.
Krakauer was on the mountain that day in one of the teams and he threads together the dramatic events from his memory with a broader discussion on the commercialisation of climbing Everest. Gripping and thought-provoking stuff.
3) Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
Barbarian Days tells of a life spent chasing dangerous waves with near-death experiences aplenty. William Finnegan grew up in California and Hawaii in the 1960s surfing everyday and experiencing the shortboard revolution first-hand. In the 1970s he took to the Pacific with a friend using nautical charts to find barely surfed breaks in Fiji, where they camped on an island beach dodging sea snakes and surviving off tinned food.
Later he surfed sharky, cold waves off Cape Town and San Francisco, massive waves in Madeira and his most recent scare was from a wipeout in Oahu.
Barbarian Days is an awesome surf adventure book, but it’s also beautifully written, Finnegan is a staff writer for The New Yorker and it shows.
4) Between A Rock And A Hard Place by Aron Ralston
Another survival story to which the word gruesome could be applied… Between a Rock and a Hard Place is Aron Ralston’s story of how a happy day’s hiking in the remote Utah canyons went seriously wrong.
In a deep and narrow canyon a boulder came loose and fell wedging Ralston’s wrist against the canyon wall. He stayed stuck and increasingly desperate for six days with limited food, drink or warm clothing, before realising he had one, almost unthinkable, way home, and that was to self-amputate. This hard-hitting book was later made into the film 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle.
5) The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz
This classic survival book was first published in 1956.
The author Slavomir Rawicz was a young Polish army officer. At the start of World War II, he was arrested by the Russians and sentenced to 25 years in a notorious Gulag labour camp in Siberia.
Realising such a fate meant certain death he escaped with six friends crossing the trans-Siberian railway, the Gobi desert on foot and finally ending up in Tibet nine months later. A heroic and compelling adventure.
6) Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer
Another epic survival book by Jon Krakauer, though Into The Wild is also a cautionary tale to would-be adventurers and wilderness seekers.
Christopher McCandless graduated from college with good grades but rather than treading the well-worn career to riches life path he went travelling across America in the steps of his heroes Jack London and John Muir.
He rejected the material world, abandoning his car, burning his cash and hitchhiking to the Alaskan wilderness to further immerse himself in nature.
There he began a serious survival stint of over 100 days living off berries and roots and game, which he shot. Though his body was later found in an abandoned bus. Using McCandless’s journal entries and interviews Jon Krakauer attempts to piece together what went wrong. This book was also made into a film starring Emile Hirsh.
7) Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl
Travelling across the Pacific on a balsa-wooden raft might just be the most amazing survival adventure story ever.
In 1947 it took Thor Heyerdahl and his five friends 101 days covering 4,340 miles in the process. And their raft was no state of the art construction for the time either, it was made using only skills and materials that would have been available to the pre-conquest Peruvians.
Kon-Tiki is a truly classic tale of daring sea adventure.
8) Touching The Void by Joe Simpson
Touching The Void tells one of the most dramatic mountain survival stories ever.
The author Joe Simpson and his climbing partner Simon Yates had just summited the 6,400m Siula Grande peak in the Peruvian Andes when disaster struck on their way down. Simpson fell and smashed his knee, so Yates had to lower him down the slope on the end of a rope. Then Simpson fell over a cliff and Yates couldn’t haul him back so he was forced to cut the rope to ensure his own survival.
Yates returned to camp, distraught that he’d left his friend, yet Simpson had also survived, crawling from the crevasse where he’d landed to safety three days later, just before his friend left the camp. A harrowing account.
9) Blind Descent by Brian Dickinson
Try to imagine the height of Mount Everest. Now try to picture it underground… that’s a supercave. Blind Descent tells the story of the people that descend these amazing natural wonders and the survival stories that surround them.
Space can be tight in the caves, with some as narrow as a post box. Drowning, inhaling poisonous gases and electrocution are all dangers the cave explorers face. There is also an psychological illness caused by the darkness and depth coined ‘The Rapture’ and described by those who have experienced it as like an anxiety attack on meth. An amazing account of these underground pioneers.
10) The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The only fiction entry on this list of ultimate survival books but The Road is a masterpiece of an adventure book all the same.
A man and his son walk through a scorched America. We don’t know who they are or what happened to them but we know they’re trying to survive and doing the best they can to keep the hope alive.
Stark and dark but nonetheless a poignant survival story for our uncertain, globally warmed future.
You may also like…