The 10 Greatest Real-Life Adventure Books

1) The Kon-Tiki Expedition (1950) by Thor Heyerdahl

Nominated by To The End Of The Earth author Tom Avery.

In 1947, to “prove” that the Pacific was settled from the West (they couldn’t), Norwegian Heyerdahl and his companions sailed 4,300 miles from Peru towards Polynesia in – or, rather, on – the kind of primitive sea-craft the aboriginal settlers would have used. “I read it as a boy, and recently re-read it,” says Avery. “Six men crossing the Earth’s largest ocean on a balsa raft? Surely the most inspiring adventure story ever told.”

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2)The Long Walk (1955) by Slavomir Rawicz

Nominated by British explorer and Into The Abyss author Benedict Allen.

“The narrator escapes from a gulag in 1941, near the Arctic Circle,” says Allen. “He walks for a year through blizzards and deserts before crossing the Himalayas to reach safety in Calcutta.” Rawicz probably based his account on the escapades of another Polish gulag survivor, but Allen remains awestruck. “Even though it seemed wildly implausible, I found his stirring tale of endurance wonderfully inspiring as a child.” We agree. This escape yarn makes Papillon look like Porridge.

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3)The Worst Journey In The World (1922) by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Nominated by Polar explorer Ben Saunders.

Ditch any suspicion of titular hyperbole: this story, told by a young member of Captain Scott’s expedition team, sees three men haul 300 kilos through a dark Polar wilderness in -70ºC. Yet the narrator – British upper lip, stiffened by cold – shows stoic wit throughout. “It’s an epic tale of suffering and derring-do,” says Saunders. “The New York Review Of Books said it was, ‘To travel, what War And Peace is to the novel – a masterpiece.’ I’d go along with that!”

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4)Mawson’s Will (1999) by Lennard Bickel

Nominated by Between A Rock And A Hard Place author Aron Ralston.

“These men added more territory to the maps of Antarctica than Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton or anyone else from this heroic age of exploration,” says Ralston of the team whose diaries formed the basis for Australian author Bickel’s harrowing account of a blighted 1911 mission. “Douglas Mawson lost his supplies and his team-mates, ate the sled dogs then, alone and with flesh falling off in slabs, walked 320 miles across mountains and crevasse fields to his support crew. He missed them by hours, forcing him to await rescue at base the following year.”

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5)Lost In The Jungle (2005) by Yossi Ghinsberg

Nominated by Touching The Void author Joe Simpson (

“So harrowing – impossible to put down,” is how Simpson describes Israeli adventurer Ghinsberg’s account of a reckless trek through the Bolivian Amazon which he undertook with a disparate, ill-organised band of backpackers in 1982 – braving leeches, fire-ants, jaguars, snakes and foot-rot along the way. “I had to resist shouting at the protagonists to turn back, but found it impossible not to carry on reading as the grisly tale unfolded. Paradoxically, it’s both tragic and inspiring.”

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6)In The Heart Of The Sea (2001) by Nathaniel Philbrick

Nominated by climber and Esquire contributor David Pickford.

In 1819, the 238-ton Essex set sail from Nantucket on a routine voyage to hunt whales. Fifteen months later the Essex was rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale. Fearing cannibals on the islands to the west, the 20-man crew set out in three small boats for South America, almost 3,000 miles away. Three months later, only eight were left alive. This book shares a fantastic saga of survival and adventure, steeped in the lore of the whaling tradition, with deep resonance in literature and American history, and in the life of the Nantucket community. – Back cover.

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7)No Picnic On Mount Kenya (1974) by Felice Benuzzi

Nominated by mountaineer and Learning To Breathe author Andy Cave.

“I love the preposterousness of this story,” says Cave of Benuzzi’s suspense-rich account of one of history’s more tenacious prisoner-of-war escape capers. “Three Italian POWs break out of an East African prison camp and ascend Mount Kenya using ice axes and crampons fashioned from rubbish found on a dump and bits of the barbed-wire fence imprisoning them,” he says. “It’s deeply moving – it provides a unique perspective on the effects of war and the power of imagination.”

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8)Touching The Void (1988) by Joe Simpson

Nominated by Polar explorer and mountaineer Adrian Hayes.

Touching the Void is the heart-stopping account of Joe Simpson’s terrifying adventure in the Peruvian Andes. He and his climbing partner, Simon, reached the the summit of the remote Siula Grande in June 1995. A few days later, Simon staggered into Base Camp, exhausted and frost-bitten, with news that that Joe was dead.

What happened to Joe, and how the pair dealt with the psychological traumas that resulted when Simon was forced into the appalling decision to cut the rope, makes not only an epic of survival but a compelling testament of friendship.

9)The Dig Tree (2002) by Sarah Murgatroyd

Nominated by adventurer Ben Fogle.

“When you read the opening chapter you can’t fail to be amazed at the sheer scale of the expedition,” says Fogle of Burke and Wills’ pioneering journey into the Australian outback back in 1860. “Opinions are divided as to whether they were reckless mavericks or heroic adventurers. I would say they were heroic mavericks. They didn’t know if they were going to fall off the edge of the world or be eaten by cannibals. It’s a captivating read which reminds us that today we might pretend to be great explorers but we aren’t really – we are simply following in other people’s footsteps.”

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10)Into The Heart Of Borneo (1987) by Redmond O’Hanlon

Nominated by American explorer Todd Carmichael.

We ve left a lot of men in Borneo know what I mean? With their SAS trainer s warnings ringing in their ears, the naturalist, Redmond O Hanlon, and the poet, James Fenton, set out to rediscover the lost rhinoceros of Borneo. They were loaded with enough back-breaking kit to survive two months in a steaming 95 (in the shade) jungle of creeping, crawling, biting things. O Hanlon could also rely on his encyclopaedic knowledge of the region s flora and fauna, and had read-up on how to avoid being eaten by anything (stick your thumbs in a crocodile s eyes, if you have time). And yet they proceeded to have an adventure that neither O Hanlon, nor his friend, nor even his guides were remotely prepared for

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