Best walking books for the outdoor traveller

Spectacular glacial lake in Mongolia | Cam Cope
Spectacular glacial lake in Mongolia | Cam Cope

Walking is a transformative activity. It takes us places we never expect on the trail and in our minds. It’s what we’re made do and it’s one of the best mediums through which to understand who we are.

Well travelled author and curator at the National Museum of Australia Jono Lineen shares four novels that will inspire your own walking journey, whisk you into the mountains and fuel your dose for adventure with a pair of hiking boots.

None of these books are walking guides, they are stories of great personal change brought about by putting one foot in front of the other.

Wanderlust – Rebecca Solnit

Solnit’s masterpiece was the first book that made me realize that walking is much more than just about getting from A to B. In a way, it was the inspiration behind my last book Perfect Motion: How Walking Makes Us Wiser.

Solnit reminds us that walking is a thoughtful, spiritual even a revolutionary activity that can become an empowering and creative act.

The book moves from thinking to gardens, urban design to creativity, romantic poets to women’s rights, the politics of trespass to the symbolism of mountains, all on two feet.

Like a good long walk, it meanders and the fascination is in the details discovered on the way; at points, you wonder how you got there but you press on and on the next page, or the next, you see the destination.

Solnit combines her walking journeys with deep research into the breadth of an activity that we all take for granted. As she says, ‘exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.’

Her love is with how walking makes us reconsider ourselves and our place in the world and this is the gift that readers can take away from the book.

If you like to walk, read, create and want to feel like you have agency in the world then Wanderlust is the book for you. It will encourage you to walk not as a tool for transportation but as a medium to change the way you think and act.

>>> Embark on your own personal journey of reflection as you walk a pilgrimage trail in Europe such as the Camino in Spain or the Via Francigena in Italy. 

Rebecca Solnit: Wanderlust

The Salt Path – Raynor Win

The Salt Path is an incredible story of how Raynor Win and her husband Moth lose the family farm, he gets diagnosed with a terminal illness and with their options radically constrained they decide the best thing to do is walk the South Coast Path in England.

It’s a 630-mile trek, an admirable undertaking for any walker, but it turns out that Ray and Moth are in their mid-50s and haven’t done any serious walking in decades. They are completely broke and have to scrounge together the money to buy a second-hand tent and a sleeping bag. But somehow they do it and off they set.

One line from early on in the book struck me. Raynor said right at the start of their journey: ‘Excited, afraid, homeless, fat, dying but at least we made that first step, we had somewhere to go, we had a purpose.’ I love that fact that walking became the vehicle for their purpose. They turned their lives around by putting one foot in front of the other. All of sudden from being casualties of a series of tragic events they took back control of their lives. They had a purpose, a goal, a path and two feet to get them there.

This is a beautiful book that highlights that adventure is not just about Red Bull extremists jumping off cliffs it’s about the fact that everyone can make that leap into the unknown and in the chaos that ensues answers can evolve.

Daring to push ourselves to the limits. That’s what Raynor and Moth did and the results are a new life and a fantastic book.

>>> Make every step and every encounter count as you walk a section of the South West Coastal Path in England.

Raynor Win: The Salt Path

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

In 1995, suffering from the loss of her beloved mother and the break up of her marriage and then a dangerous detour into heroin, Strayed hits rock bottom and decides she has to do something. The thing she decides to do is walk the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from California to Washington State.

Talk about turning your life around. Strayed is a woman of great fortitude because she had no hiking experience and starts the walk with a backpack that weighs about half her weight.

Over the first few weeks, she spends her time learning through trial and error and suffering physically. As with so many great stories, it’s a tale of transformation and over those months on the trail, she takes control of her life.

In one interview Strayed mentions that the most important line in the book for her is what her mother says: ‘I’ve never been in the driver seat of my own life, I’ve always been somebody’s daughter or mother, or wife.’

For Strayed the walk becomes a vehicle, walking the PCT enables her to pull away all the masks that she had imposed on herself.

At one point late in the trek, she sees herself in a mirror for the first time in weeks and wonders ‘whether I was a babe or a gargoyle.’ Strayed had to throw herself into the deep end and learn to swim and when she rose from depths she reached the wonderfully named Bridge of the Gods that crosses the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington she was someone new. Walking can do that for you.

>>> Retrace the footsteps of Cheryl Strayed through the California mountains as you walk the John Muir Trail to the Yosemite Valley.

Cheryl Strayed: Wild

The Snow Leopard – Peter Matthiessen

This is one of my favourite books of all-time. I remember first reading it 30 years ago, it was one of the main reasons I went to the Himalayas and it became an inspiration for my book Into the Heart of the Himalayas.

It’s the story of Matthiessen’s trek with wildlife biologist George Schaller to Crystal Mountain in the Dolpo region of Nepal. Matthiessen had recently lost his wife and had become deeply interested in Tibetan Buddhism. The trek was a chance for him to come to terms with the death and move more deeply into the practice of Buddhism.

Matthiessen records in stunning and poetic detail the Himalayan flora and fauna, it is a masterpiece of nature writing, but as with all great pieces of nature writing is multilayered.

We learn about the history, religion and culture of the region and the book reaches a higher level when Matthiessen delves into his personal life and the growing catalogue of difficulties that had pushed him to join Schaller in a trip to the ends of the earth.

The writing is beautiful, sparse and lucid which is exactly what you would expect from a noted practitioner of Zen Buddhism and when the party reaches the high valleys around Crystal Mountain, Matthiessen’s prose takes on the kind of clarity that those high, bright altitudes can induce.

I’m forever in debt to Peter Matthiessen for writing this book. It set a high bar for my expectations around my first days in the Himalayas but I’m happy to say that the region and more importantly the people lived up to the writer’s description, and my time in those mountains pushed my life in a new and exciting trajectory.

>>> Discover the natural beauty and authentic Tibetan culture with a trek in Nepal’s remote Dolpo region.

Peter Matthiessen: The Snow Leopard

About the writer
Jono Lineen has written three books focused on the Himalayas: River Trilogy, which looks at the Ganges, Into the Heart of the Himalayas, which recounts a 2700-kilometre solo trek he made from Pakistan to Nepal, and his latest bestseller Perfect Motion, which investigates the relationship between walking, creativity and human evolution.

Have a great walking book you'd recommend? Let us know in the comments below.

Book club, himalayas, snow leopard, south coast path, Pacific Crest Trail

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