A selection of the best books about travelling on foot, from arduous hikes in far-flung lands to rambles much closer to home, and meditations on the nature of walking.
A few years ago I learned about the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod, which translates into English as the Christmas book flood, and was immediately hooked by the intention. Icelanders gift family and friends with new books on Christmas Eve, with the idea that the evening is spent reading together in cosy company gathered around the fire, while sipping hot chocolate, mulled wine, or a traditional Icelandic concoction of ale and soft drinks known as Jolabland*.
*It sounds very much like a shandy made of Guinness and Fanta if you’re tempted.
So for this festive instalment of my Armchair Travel Series, I encourage you to cosy up by the fire among friends and family, and crack open the spine on a new book about an adventure on foot (or given the lateness of this post, treat yourself to an e-book download). The list includes feats of endurance in remote and challenging environments, more gentle rambles close to home rich in observations of history and nature, and some journeys on foot where the landscapes tramped are as much internal insights as outwith the mind.
Here’s my selection of the best books about walking.
Between the Woods and the Water – Patrick Leigh Fermor
This is the second book in a trilogy of classic travel writing, which begins with A Time of Gifts and concludes with The Broken Road. In the early 1930s, Patrick Leigh Fermor decided to walk from Hook of Holland to Istanbul, as was then Constantinople. Writing decades later, the books recall the continent long gone, reshaped by WWII and the rise of Communism in Eastern Europe, with a beautiful nostalgia tempered by insights into the present situation at the time of writing.
I chose this volume as it covers his time walking in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Romania, and it is evident from the list of country names alone that this is the region of Europe which has changed most significantly since his walk was completed. Find it here.
One Woman Walks Wales – Ursula Martin
A candid account of Martin’s redemptive walk around the border and coast of Wales following her diagnosis of ovarian cancer and drastic treatment at the age of 32. Trekking almost 6,000km (3,700 miles) over 17 months, taking in mountains, riversides, post-industrial landscapes and urban sprawl, Martin encounters the kindness of strangers and learns to rebuild herself after the biggest of knock-downs. Read Ursula’s fantastic blog and buy her book here.
The Old Ways – Robert Macfarlane
Macfarlane walks the paths and passes of the British Isles, illuminating the connections between people and place, the landscapes revealed and the inner journey taken. He examines folklore and fairy tale, ancient histories, and ties to locations further afield. I was particularly taken by his reflections on sailing ancient sea roads, “dissolving paths whose passage leaves no trace beyond a wake, a brief turbulence astern.”
The most haunting chapter describes a walk on the Broomway, a route along the intertidal sandflats between Wakering Stairs and Foulness in Essex, leading into an uncanny landscape where sea, sand and sky meet, inundated by the tide twice daily. Buy the book here.
The Rings of Saturn – W.G. Sebald
This remarkable book broke new ground for writers of psychogeography like Macfarlane, and broke the boundaries of genre for travel writing. While meandering slowly along the Suffolk coast, the narrator takes the reader on an intellectual journey that feels far greater than his physical endeavour. Compelling descriptions of place, punctuated with snapshot images, lead to meditations on history, biography, folklore, literary criticism, in a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction.
The book also lays out principles for travellers looking to immerse themselves more deeply in a destination. Take it slow, seek out the stories behind the scenes, cultivate your curiosity, and become a more mindful explorer. Find it here.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail – Cheryl Strayed
Rocked by the grief of losing her mother at the age of 22, Strayed’s life quickly spiralled out of control through a series of poor choices and no small amount of self-sabotage. But on reaching her nadir, she recognises that she must do something, anything to escape her present.
That something turns out to be the Pacific Crest Trail, a 4,270km (2,650 mile) hiking trail through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains, from the US border with Mexico to the border with Canada. Walking solo, with virtually no experience, outdoor skills, or prior preparation, Strayed completes a portion of the trail as she slowly rebuilds herself, learning lessons about pushing on through pain, grief at the loss of a loved parent and the loss of one’s own youth, and coming back from the point of almost giving up.
The book is filled with raw, visceral emotion as she faces up to her reality, and the landscapes and nature of the PCT, and the arduous nature of the hike serve mainly to spark flashbacks to other times in Strayed’s life, which may not appeal to all readers. Read it here.
Walking the Amazon – Ed Stafford
A gripping account of a recent gruelling expedition in the style of a classic adventure. Stafford sets out to be the first person to walk the length of the Amazon River from source to sea. Setting off from the Pacific coast of Peru and crossing the Andes to reach the source of the river, his journey of over 6,500km (+4,000 miles) to the mouth of the river in Brazil took 860 days.
Along the way Stafford negotiates challenging terrain, wildlife and variable weather conditions, meets indigenous people in the forest, and witnesses at first hand the devastation of deforestation and the impact it has on the lives of the people of the Amazon. He also encounters discomfort and injury, and navigates his own internal landscape of fear and doubt.
Criticism has been levelled at Stafford for descriptions of the indigenous people he encounters and his lack of awareness of his entitled expectations to be hosted and guided by them on his expedition, and the book should be read with that in mind. Find it here.
Walking the Nile – Levison Wood
With a similar premise to the previous book, Wood aims to walk the length of the Nile river, from the source of the White Nile tributary in Rwanda to the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, a journey of more than 6,800km (+4,250 miles). Wood is transparent that safety concerns over the conflict in South Sudan leads to him bypassing some parts of the route, but the journey is remarkable nonetheless.
Wood journals the expedition engagingly, shares conversations with the people he meets along the way, and writes with insight about the history, culture, and complex political situations that he passes through. He doesn’t shy away from detailing the challenges of the expedition, physical, bureaucratic, and emotional, particularly the unexpected death of journalist Matt Power, who had decided to walk with him in Uganda.
It has some hallmarks of the same colonial mindset as Stafford, though Wood recognises that he cannot impose his western views on local situations and listens respectfully to the perspectives of Africans he talks with. This is the first of many books on similar long distance walks by Wood, and you can find it here.
BeWILDered – Laura Waters
Waters takes on the 3,000km (1,900 mile) Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand, stretching the length of country from Cape Reinga at the northernmost point, to Bluff (and onto Stewart Island) in the south, over a period of five months. Of my selection of books, this is the one closest to my heart, as the route is one I desperately want to walk for myself.
Waters’ aims to take control of her personal situation with the hike, feeling like her life has been treading water for some time. She is frank about the struggle to overcome paralysing anxiety and self-doubt throughout the undertaking, as she discovers the full extent of her physical and mental capabilities. The honest account of her emotional state and living with depression also resonated with me, as did the way she was able to change and find a sense of purpose through the wildness of her experience. I preferred this to Strayed’s Wild, and you can pick it up here.
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush – Eric Newby
Another classic of travel and adventure writing by one of my favourite authors, this is the account of a decidedly amateur expedition to ascend Mir Samir (5,089m / 19,058′) in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan. After four days of training in Snowdonia, the woefully underprepared duo of Newby and Carless set off on their transcontinental expedition to reach Kabul, and into the mountains of Nuristan.
The book is a light and entertaining read, though for all its levity contains a dense and detailed history of colonial exploration and expansion into South and Central Asia and the Himalayas, and the insight into the Nuristan region is a glimpse of somewhere much changed by events of subsequent years. It was written in 1958, and has some elements that are very much of its time. Read it here.
Wanderlust: A History of Walking – Rebecca Solnit
No-one has written about the meaning of walking as insightfully and as beautifully as Rebecca Solnit. In this compelling cultural history, she weaves together strands of thought from fields as diverse as anthropology and evolutionary development, to literature, art and architecture, stravaiging though geography, politics, religion and spirituality, sexuality, and notions of freedom on the way.
Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit
She also meditates on the perception of thinking as idleness in a society focused on productivity, and how it can be best achieved through the subterfuge of walking, a means to create the space and time for thought and intuition. Read it here.
How many of these books on walking have you read? Do you have any recommendations for me?
Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Were you inspired by this post? Why not pin it for later?
This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you. These help me to continue to run this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures. Thank you for supporting me.
*Maybe enough for a coffee. Not enough for a yacht.