Armchair Travel: 10 Best Books about Disaster and Survival

A selection of the best non-fiction books about tragedy and disaster, survival against the odds, and adventures gone awry.

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There are a few travel and adventure books I’ve read that make me really envious of the experiences described within. Expeditions I’d have loved to be part of and thrilling adventures I wish I’d had. Satisfying challenges with successful outcomes, taking place in locations I desperately want to explore for myself.

I’ve also read many books telling the story of devastating disasters, adventures gone way wrong, and epic accounts of survival against the odds. Tales that make me very glad that I wasn’t there in that place, at that time, doing that thing. Not in a gawking, voyeuristic way, but to marvel at the strength and adaptability of the people involved, and the enduring hope that many of them can hold on to through their ordeal.

Here are 10 of what I consider to be the best non-fiction adventure books about disaster, survival, and human resilience.

*Warning: there’s potentially a couple of spoilers in this list.*

Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home – Nando Parrado

I first encountered this story in the film Alive, reading the book by Piers Paul Read on which it was based shortly after. It’s probably the first story of this type I read, and it piqued my interest in these tales of human resilience in unimaginable circumstances.

The story of a rugby team, along with some of their friends and family, whose plane crashed into the high Andes in 1972 on the way between Uruguay and Chile, is perhaps one of the best-known survival stories.

Survivors were stranded on the mountainside for 72 days and forced into an unconscionable decision to avoid succumbing to their situation. Parrado is one of the survivors, and one of the pair that set out to find rescue for their friends, and this is a deeply personal account of his experience. Buy it here.

Touching the Void – Joe Simpson.

Experienced climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates make a challenging first ascent of the west face of Siula Grande in the Huayhuash mountains of Peru, and run into difficulty on the descent. Simpson is injured and unable to climb down, relying on Yates to lower him on a rope. But a series of unfortunate events leaves them trapped on the mountain in deteriorating conditions, unable to see or communicate with each other, while roped together.

Unable to determine the fate of his friend, Yates is forced into the nightmarish decision to cut the rope and save his own life. Remarkably Simpson survives to tell the tale, and probe the huge psychological trauma resulting from the event. Find it here.

We Die Alone: A WWII Epic of Escape and Endurance – David Howarth.

This book tells the story of Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian resistance leader and commando during WWII. Following a botched raid on a Nazi installation in Northern Norway and the sinking of his vessel, he’s forced to swim ashore and flee into the Arctic hinterland at the end of the winter.

Evading capture for more than two months, he battled against snow blindness and frostbite, with cold injury leaving him unable to walk from the blizzard-lashed high plateau for 27 days, before he was able to make contact with Sami reindeer herders and plan an evacuation into neutral Sweden. Find it here.

438 Days: An Incredible True Story of Survival at Sea – Jonathan Franklin

In an incredible turn of events, missing Salvadoran fisherman Salvador Alvarenga made his way ashore on a remote atoll in the Marshall Islands, 14 months after his seven-metre long skiff disappeared off the coast of Mexico in a storm. With no sails or oars, and a broken radio, he and his fishing mate, Ezequiel Córdoba, drifted out into the Pacific.

The author carried out a series of interviews with Alvarenga, piecing together the events of the storm and subsequent 9,000 nautical mile drift, learning how he managed to find food and water, and avoid scurvy. He also probes into the fragile mental state of Alvarenga, especially following the death of Córdoba, and being passed by several ships that had the potential to be rescuers. Read it here.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex – Nathaniel Philbrick.

One the most notorious maritime disasters from the so-called golden era of the whaling industry, and said to have inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick (the device used to unravel the story in the fictionalised film of the book).

Using material from the memoirs of two survivors, the first mate of the ship and a teenaged cabin boy, Philbrick reconstructs the events leading to the destruction of the Essex by a wounded sperm whale, and their subsequent ordeal. Of the twenty crew to take to the open whaleboats, only eight survived the 90 days before they were rescued. Buy it here.

Raising the Dead: A True Story of Death and Survival – Phillip Finch.

I bought this book for my ex, also my usual SCUBA diving buddy, while we were starting to get into wreck diving around the coast of the UK. We read it together and discovered exactly what our worst nightmare would be.

Two divers enter a cave system in the South African Kalahari known as Boesmansgat (the Bushman’s Hole), searching for evidence of a previous diver that had perished. They penetrated the flooded sinkhole to an incredible depth of 127 metres (886′), 127 METRES!!!!, which required a decompression time of several hours and flawless dive planning. Needless to say, it does not go well for the pair. Find it here.

Last Man Off: A True Story of Disaster, Survival and One Man’s Ultimate Test – Matt Lewis

A fast-paced and compelling account of the loss of an ancient and unseaworthy fishing vessel in the mighty Southern Ocean, written by the scientific observer placed on board. Fresh from graduating, marine biologist Lewis is the most inexperienced crew member on the ship, but plays a key role in the rescue of the others as they take to the life rafts in a severe storm.

He also writes on safety, security, and survival at sea, and on preparedness and training for working in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth, in an engaging way that is accessible for seasoned sailors and landlubbers alike. Buy it here.

127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place – Aron Ralston.

I think most people will be aware of the consequences of Ralston’s notable self-rescue after he became trapped while hiking in a canyon, and that dramatic act is why the book features on this list. However, I find the character of Ralston hard to warm to and struggle with reading about his compulsion to seek out unnecessary risk in his outdoor activities.

I actually preferred the Danny Boyle directed film of 127 Hours, which cuts through a lot of the extraneous material of the book to the core of the survival story. Read the book before you see the film as you gain nothing from the other way round. Pick it up here.

Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic – Jennifer Niven

In 1921 Ada Blackjack, an Iñupiat woman, joined a team of five men on an expedition to Wrangel Island in the Chukchi Sea in a speculative attempt to claim the island for Canada (or the United Kingdom), backed by controversial explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. After two years facing starvation, scurvy, and the disappearance of three of the team, the only survivors were Blackjack, and Vic, the expedition cat.

It’s rare to read an account of an expedition where the voices of indigenous people are central, and more so that of a woman. During her life, Stefansson and her rescuer, Harald Noice, created a media furore to attempt to exploit her story, causing her to retreat from the public eye. Niven creates a deep and respectful portrait of a remarkable woman. Buy it here.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage – Alfred Lansing.

This list would be incomplete without mention of Shackleton. The survival of the Endurance’s crew after the loss of the ship in the Antarctic pack ice, the subsequent voyage of the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and the crossing of the island from King Haakon Bay to Stromness against all odds are the stuff of legend.

Lansing’s gripping account of the expedition is my favourite of the ones I’ve read, drawing on detailed first-hand accounts from surviving crew members and diary excerpts, to create an enthralling historical narrative and a fascinating study of leadership in the most challenging of conditions. Read it here.

Have you enjoyed any of these books?  Which epic adventures would you recommend for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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My Lockdown Reading List

Like many of you, the COVID-19 lockdown turned my life upside down.  Plans I’d made as I prepared to leave Antarctica have been completely shelved, any potential opportunities remain just that.  Both the travel and the outdoor industries where I’ve usually found work have had to shut up shop and furlough staff.  I’ve signed up as a volunteer, but it has taken time for organisations to process the volume of applications they’ve received.

So, I’ve encountered an abundance of idle time in the last week or so.  It’s been an unexpected chance to indulge in the things that are usually side-lined for more pressing tasks.  For me, it’s reading for pleasure.  In the last week, I’ve been able to immerse myself in a few good books to help fend off the cabin fever.

While lockdown has clipped my wings, and travel is an impossibility right now, a book can take the mind flying anywhere beyond the immediate four walls.  Here’s what I’ve read, and my to-do list for the coming weeks.

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Armchair Travel: 10 Films about Sailing

I’ve put together a list of my favourite sailing movies, including Hollywood blockbusters, all-time classic films, and inspiring documentaries. 

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In my previous edition of Armchair Travel, focused on Ocean films, I struggled narrow it down to just 10 of my favourites, and not to fill up the list with sailing movies filled with beautiful boats.  So I split the two, and decide to offer you up a second helping.

I’ve put together a list of the best sailing movies I’ve seen, a mix of modern and classic, drama and documentary film.  Tragedy and terrifying ordeals, unimaginable tales of survival, tempestuous adventures, and inspiring journeys of discovery all feature in my selection of sea-soaked cinema.  Perfect for a dry night in on the sofa.

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Armchair Travel: 10 Films about the Ocean

I’ve compiled a selection of inspiring ocean-themed films, including Hollywood blockbusters, all-time classic films, and inspiring documentaries. 

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This edition of Armchair Travel is returning to the seas for a selection of my favourite films with an oceanic flavour.  Many of these films are documentaries or dramas based on true events, though there are a few tales of thrilling adventure and suspense. 

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Armchair Travel: 10 Books to Explore Antarctica

I’ve compiled a list of my favourite books about Antarctica, including biographies, travelogues, and expedition tales. 

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I’ve long had a fascination with Antarctica, being captivated by stories of exploration and discovery in Readers Digest books at my grandparent’s house on long Scottish summer afternoons.  Primary school trips to see the polar vessel RRS Discovery in Dundee, the three-masted barque that took Scott and Shackleton on their successful first voyage south, and to the penguin enclosure in Edinburgh Zoo, where I met Sir Nils Olav (then just RSM of the Norwegian King’s Guard), further fuelled that interest.

So I’ve been in an absolute whirlwind of excitement since finding out I’ve finally got the opportunity to go for myself; the realisation of a long-burning ambition.  I’m part of the team from the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust that will be based at Port Lockroy, to run the famous Penguin Post Office, for the 19/20 season.

In preparation, I immersed myself in Antarctic-themed reading, and these are some of my favourite books.  Until you get the chance for yourself, these books will transport you South.  I’ve also rated each book by the amount of penguin content it contains, not as a comment on the quality of the writing.  They’re all good books, Brent. Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 Books to Explore Antarctica”

Armchair Travel: 10 Books about the Ocean

I’ve put together a selection of my favourite books with an ocean theme, including nature writing, biography, and childhood favourites. 

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I’m incredibly fortunate to have spent almost all of the spring and summer of 2019 working as a deckhand and wildlife guide on board Irene of Bridgewater, a traditional gaff ketch with over a hundred years of history, exploring the stunning coastline and islands around the British and Irish Isles, with occasional trips to the other side of the channel too.

I know I’ve already presented you with a selection of sailing adventures in this Armchair Travel series, but I just can’t stay out of the ocean.  So here are some of the books that have excited and inspired me about the sea. Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 Books about the Ocean”

Armchair Travel: 10 Mountain Movies

A compilation of some of my favourite mountain movies, including dramas and documentaries, but all filled with mountain action.

This edition of Armchair Travel is staying in the mountains, but we’re going to the movies with a selection of my favourite mountain films.

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Many of these films are documentaries or based on true events.  Brace yourself for exhilarating thrills, edge-of-your-seat drama, and some of the most stunning landscapes you’ve ever seen, all from the comfort of your own sofa.

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Armchair Travel: 10 Books on Mountains

I’ve compiled a list of my favourite books with a mountain setting, including accounts of expeditions, favourites from my childhood, biography, and nature writing. 

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Welcome to the first edition of Armchair Travel for 2019, and a breath of pine-fresh, mountain air for the New Year.  The weather outside might be frightful, though not as bad as conditions in some of the books I’ve recommended, so in this post, I’m planning on making myself a massive mug of cocoa, wrapping up in a blanket, and vicariously scaling the heights in ten of my favourite books about mountains…

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Armchair Travel: 5 Travel Podcasts

This newest edition of Armchair Travel steps away from previous form, to bring you inspiration and escape from the everyday through some of the podcasts I’ve enjoyed.

I love the flexibility that listening to podcasts and audiobooks gives.  Unlike with reading a book, I can get deeply engrossed in a story or conversation as I walk or run, drive my car, or soak in the bath.  (I’m quite obsessive about the condition of my books*, and there’s no way I’d allow anyone, even myself, to risk taking them into the steamy, damp bathroom).  I even listen to podcasts while I’m working as a bosun on a ship, perched aloft in the rigging to serve, seize, and whip.

*Fold corners over?  You’re now on the list of people I don’t lend books to, along with other barbarians like my Dad and my oldest friend Shel.

So here are five of my favourite podcasts to travel without moving.

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Armchair Travel: 10 Books about Sailing Adventures

I’ve compiled a selection of my favourite books about sailing adventures, both real and imagined, idyllic and horrific. 

This instalment of the Armchair Travel series is brought to you with a healthy dose of vitamin sea.  Like travelling (and sailing), these books could bring you complete escapism, teach you new skills, and ideas or throw you in at the deep end.  So hoist the mainsail and catch the wind, and head off into the sunset with ten of my favourite books about sailing adventures…

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