Most outdoor adventure books are by and about men. I’ve made it a point over the past few years to seek out women’s adventure books. I love reading memoirs from female hikers, skiers, mountaineers, and adventurers because I’m a woman, but also because they provide a different perspective on the outdoor world.
I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I love the outdoors, so I’ve read a lot of adventure books. (I love reading so much that I actually had a book review blog years ago!)
If you read online reviews of women’s adventure books, sometimes you’ll find negative reviews (mostly from men) who complain that women are whiny or angsty if they express emotion about how hard their expedition is, how things are challenging because they are female in a male-dominated sport, or how they miss home.
But the open and honest emotion is what I love about outdoor books written by women.
The traditional narrative of adventure stories is a strong (male) protagonist who sets off on an impossible task and “conquers” nature.
You won’t find that in most of these female-authored books. Instead, I’ve picked books that celebrate oneness with nature, self-discovery, and honesty. And of course lots of cool outdoor adventures and accomplishments.
I’ve read dozens of women’s adventure books over the years, but the ones on this list are my favourites. I hope you enjoy them too.
Hey there: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means I earn a small commission at no cost to you. Thanks for your support. -Taryn
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
You’ve probably heard of Wild. It’s on every single list of outdoor adventure books ever. They even made it into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon! But it is worth reading. After her mother dies and her marriage falls apart, Cheryl Strayed sets out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone. She’s totally inexperienced, but she pushes through and heals herself along the way.
Rising by Sharon Wood
Sharon Wood was the first woman from the Americas to summit Mount Everest in 1986. She tells the story of that climb in Rising, but what I found more interesting was her exploration of the way the climb and the fame that it brought has shaped her life since. (Sharon is Canadian too! As a proud Canadian, I’ve also got a whole post about the best Canadian adventure books.)
Higher Love by Kit Deslauriers
Kit Deslauriers was the first person to ski the highest mountain on each continent, known as the seven summits. Honestly, I’ve read outdoor books like this one written by men, and they get quite boastful. But Kit is so humble. She is quick to credit members of her team and she is frank about how challenging some things were for her. And above all else, Higher Love is a well-written and fun adventure story, worthy of being on this list of the best women’s adventure books.
Check prices: Amazon
The Pants Of Perspective by Anna McNuff
Today Anna McNuff is a well-known British adventurer. But in 2015 she was a woman with no real distance running experience who set out to run the length of New Zealand, mostly to see if she could. She’s open and honest about the struggles she faced on her journey, but she also knows how to look on the bright side. And that the best thing to pack for an adventure is a pair of loudly patterned cheer-you-up leggings, a.k.a. the Pants of Perspective.
(Update: I just finished Anna’s new book, Llama Drama about her cycling trip through South America with her friend Faye. It’s a great adventure story, but the stand-out for me was the amazing and supportive female friendship the two women forged along their journey.)
All That Glitters by Margo Talbot
This is a book about ice climbing, but it’s also a book about pain and a book about hope. Margo Talbot shares everything, warts and all, in this intensely personal memoir. She battles through some rough times, finding solace in climbing. All That Glitters is a tough read, but a powerful one.
Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart by Carrot Quinn
I enjoyed Carrot Quinn’s perspective on the PCT since it’s a bit different. She’s not an experienced hiker. She’s queer. And she gets personal (and sexual) and tells it like it is. This book is a detailed, day-by-day account of life on the trail, which I sometimes find tedious in other thru-hiking books. But Carrot’s words let you into her heart, so I couldn’t put it down and I recommend it as one of the best women’s adventure books.
Check prices: Amazon
Be Brave, Be Strong by Jill Homer
Jill Homer has written several memoirs about her long-distance biking adventures, but this one is my favourite. It chronicles her 2009 race in the Tour Divide, an off-road, self-supported mountain bike race through the Rocky Mountains from Banff to the Mexican border. Her courage on this trip inspired me, and I often use her mantra “Be brave, be strong” when I find myself in tough situations outdoors.
Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds by Kara Richardson Whitely
The outdoor community is becoming more inclusive, but we still have a long way to go. I loved Kara Richardson Whitely’s memoir about her journey to trek to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro as a plus-sized woman. She’s open, honest, and emotional. And it turns out the mountain she needed to conqueror was not Kilimanjaro but instead self-acceptance.
Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery
Did you know the first woman to walk the entire Appalachian Trail was a 67-year-old grandmother from Ohio? Neither did I! This book tells the story of Emma Gatewood who hiked the trail alone and didn’t tell her family she was going since she thought they would disapprove. She became a bit of a celebrity in the 1950s. We have her advocacy to thank today for increased trail preservation and maintenance on the AT.
Check prices: Amazon
Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road by Kate Harris
This beautifully written book is the story of Kate Harris’ cycling trip along Asia’s Silk Road. But Lands of Lost Borders is really so much more than that. It’s about transcending borders and cultures, connecting to nature, and exploring our place in the world.
Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube by Blair Braverman
Blair’s last name literally has “brave: in it. And this book is definitely brave. Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube is a memoir about a girl from California who works desperately hard to become a sled dog musher, a very male-dominated field. It’s a coming of age story, but absolutely not a typical one.
A Beautiful Work In Progress by Mirna Valerio
If you haven’t heard of Mirna Valerio yet, go google her now. She’s awesome. Mirna is an African American, female, plus-sized trail runner. In a sport dominated by thin, white men, she stands out. Mirna’s book, A Beautiful Work in Progress, is definitely inspirational.
Pure Land by Annette McGivney
Pure Land is a true crime book, but with an outdoorsy twist. It tells the story of Tomomi Hanamure, a Japanese woman who was murdered on the Havasupai Indian Reservation at the bottom of Grand Canyon in 2006. But it’s also the story of the author, Annette McGivney.
After she wrote a magazine article about Tomomi, she couldn’t stop thinking about her and her killer. In the years Annette spent learning about the murder, she recognized parallels to the trauma she faced in her own long-buried history and could finally heal.
Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home by Heather Anderson
Also known by her trail name, Anish, Heather Anderson has been quietly chalking up insane outdoor accomplishments for years. Thirst is an intensely personal and emotional memoir that takes you inside her attempt to set the fastest known time for a self-supported hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. A must read for anyone who loves women’s adventure books.
Unbound: A Story of Snow and Self-Discovery by Steph Jagger
Steph Jagger was riding the ski lift one day when she literally saw a sign: “Raise restraining device”. She took the hint and left her corporate life, bought a bunch of plane tickets and set out to ski 4 million vertical feet in a year. Unbound is partly a travelogue, recounting the adventures of that year. But mostly it’s a memoir about finding yourself and learning how to be a strong woman in a masculine world. Inspiring.
Honouring High Places by Junko Tabei
Junko Tabei was the first woman to climb Mount Everest and the first woman to climb all of the Seven Summits. At only 5 feet tall, so she was often underestimated by other mountaineers, and by the public. Honouring High Places is a collection of highlights from her mountaineering career, translated from her native Japanese.
Her storytelling and ruminations on nature are beautiful. And it’s interesting to read about the experience of a woman in a male-dominated sport, in a male-dominated Japanese culture, in an earlier very male-dominated era.
Go Find by Susan Purvis
When I took my avalanche course a few years ago, my instructor had her avalanche rescue dog with her. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of dogs that dig through ice and snow to recover buried people ever since. I initially picked up Go Find because I wanted to learn about Susan Purvis’ journey training an avalanche dog.
But by the end of the book, I realized that Susan wasn’t just trying to find avalanche victims. She was trying to find and redefine herself.
A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski by Erin McKittrick
In 2007 Erin and her husband Hig decided to move to Alaska from their home near Seattle. But they decided to do it entirely by human-power. In this fabulous adventure story, Erin explains how they hiked, paddled and skied up the Pacific coast.
They wanted to raise awareness about environmental and conservation issues along their route. I think anyone who reads A Long Trek Home and learns about the wildlands they travelled through will feel compelled to help protect them.
Tracks by Robyn Davidson
Who would have thought trekking across the red center of Australia’s outback with camels would be a good idea? Robyn Davidson apparently. Nevermind that she didn’t know anything about camels. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was made into a movie in 2013). Tracks is a great women’s adventure book about a solo trek, set in the sexism of 1970s Australia.
Found: A Life in Mountain Rescue by Bree Loewen
Found is a gritty book that explains what it’s like to volunteer for search and rescue in the busy Seattle area, with lots of depictions of harrowing rescues. But it also shows what life is like for the humans underneath the climbing helmets and reflective vests: how they process the trauma of their jobs and why they keep heading out into the dark and the rain time and time again.
Into the Planet by Jill Heinerth
Caves have fascinated me for a long time, but they are an inherently scary place. Add in water and frankly they get a bit terrifying. So I found Jill Heinerth’s memoir Into the Planet, about her life as a cave diver both fascinating and scary. Jill is a woman in a macho and male-dominated field, so it was also interesting to get her perspective on pushing the limits of her sport.
The Sun is a Compass by Caroline van Hemert
Caroline is studying deformed bird beaks as part of her PhD, but she feels stuck. So she and her husband take off on their version of the ultimate wilderness journey: paddling, hiking and skiing from Washington State to Alaska, via the Arctic Ocean. The Sun is a Compass is her memoir of the journey, but it also includes healthy doses of introspection and some beautifully written descriptions of nature.
Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill
I loved Eating Dirt when it first came out in 2013 and I recently reread it. It’s a memoir about tree planting and the realities of the tough lives that planters live. It was interesting to read a women’s adventure book that was about work, rather than play.
But Charlotte Gill’s words are often poetic, and the book is also a love letter to forests, especially the coastal forests of British Columbia. A portion of the book also takes place around Holberg near Cape Scott Provincial Park, which is an area close to my heart.
Girl in the Woods by Aspen Matis
Girl in the Woods is about a young woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to escape trauma and learn how to be an adult after growing up with an exceptionally overprotective mother. Aspen’s writing is poetically beautiful and I couldn’t put it down.
Breaking Trail by Arlene Blum
I recently finished Arlene Blum’s memoir, Breaking Trail, and before I had finished it, I knew it was one of my favourite women’s adventure books. It is divided into chapters detailing her many expeditions to Everest, Denali, Annapurna, and other high peaks. But it was the themes that tied the chapters together that really drew me in to her writing: her struggle for acceptance in the male-dominated worlds of mountaineering and science, and more broadly, her struggle to find her place in the world after a tough childhood.
My Favourite Ways to Read New Books
- Download an ebook reading app: There are lots of options including the Kindle app from Amazon, Kobo, Google Play Books, and Apple Books. The apps are free and there are versions for your phone, computer, or iPad. If I have to wait in line, I often use the Kindle app on my phone instead of mindlessly scrolling Instagram.
- Order an ebook reader: I have been using an Amazon Kindle for over a decade and love it – especially when I’m in the backcountry or travellling. It has a backlight so I can read it in bed without bothering my husband. And I love having hundreds of books all stored in one place.
- Check your public library: They often have a great selection. Most lend out ebooks too. But check to make sure that the format they use is compatible with your ebook reader or app.
- Buy ebooks online: You can order from Amazon or directly from a publisher or author. You can also sign up for services like Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited that let you read as many books as you want for a monthly fee (typically around $10/month). You can even try it for free for a month.
- Download an audiobook: If you sign up with a service like Audible, the first month is free, then it’s $15/month.
- Buy used books: Searching through the shelves of a used bookstore is like hunting for treasure. I can’t leave without at least a few things I didn’t know I needed. Ask the staff to help you find something specific or get their recommendations.
- Buy physical books: Of course you could use Amazon, but a better option is to buy online from an independent bookstore. Many will order something for you if they don’t have it, and they could use your support.
Hopefully, I’ve given you a few things to add to your reading list. I loved each of these women’s adventure books and will probably re-read some of them again soon. Do you have any other outdoor books by or about women to add to the list? Leave them in the comments. Happy reading!
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