Books for Backpacking

On backpacking trips longer than about three days, especially on solo trips, I like to bring a book along. I hardly ever get bored just relaxing and soaking in the views, but still it’s nice to have some extra brain food.

Because of the demands of backpacking, any good backcountry book needs to meet certain physical criteria. It must be compact and lightweight – so it must be a paperback, ideally with small condensed print. I had a brilliant idea once of publishing little “backpacker” editions of books, on thin Bible paper with really small print and perhaps a little companion dry bag. But for now, regular thin paperbacks will do.

Subject matter is also important to consider. Novels can be a poor choice because of the danger of ripping through the story too fast. You don’t want to haul around a book for five days if you’ll only get to enjoy it for one or two. Some novels can also seem like a petty distraction compared to the magnificence of nature around you. If I wanted petty distractions, I’d stay at home and browse YouTube.

I also try to avoid bringing books that have a singular disturbing topic; Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer is good example of this. Interesting book for sure, but the last thing I want to do for five days in the mountains is immerse myself in the world of fundamentalist Mormonism.

In my opinion, the best backpacking books are non-fiction, in particular philosophy or spirituality related books. The subject matter can be every bit as profound as your surroundings, perhaps even leading to a deeper connection with the surrounding landscapes. Philosophical books demand closer concentration and slower, more deliberate reading than novels. One chapter can often provide enough food-for-thought to digest all day long, and being out in the wilderness provides the time and focus to do so. These books can also withstand multiple reads; sometimes you can even get more out of it the second time through.

Alan Watts

So far, my favorite book for backpacking has been The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts. What makes this book so perfect for backpacking is that its main theme is about “the illusion that the self is a separate ego, housed in a bag of skin, which confronts a universe of physical objects which are alien and stupid.” Watts explains a different point of view in which we as conscious beings are inseparably intertwined with everything else; that we and the world around us are truly one and the same entity. The ideas in this book provide a perfect compliment to the experience of walking through the wilderness. I’ve already read this book twice over the years, and will likely bring it along on another trip for a third read.

If you have any other suggestions for good backpacking books, please leave a comment here.

5 thoughts on “Books for Backpacking

  1. Great topic. And I’m with you on your reading preferences/selections. I enjoy poetry on the trail for many of the same reasons you mentioned. I can read the classics over and over – Longfellow and Shelley are some of my favorites.

  2. Cool blog, Jack. I too, like non-fiction and tend to read about adventures while adventuring. Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” while in the 4-corners region. “Into The Wild”, and various climbing books, Lance Armstrong’s “It’s not about the bike” was a great inspiration, Ghost Grizzlies while hiking in the South San Juan Wilderness, Richard Manning’s “Grassland” and Dan O’Brien’s “:Buffalo For The Broken Heart” are great prairie books – but Mark of the Grizzly, or any of those grizzly attack books aren’t so good for sleep when in the backcountry.

  3. Dave – Add to the adventure book list:

    Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing, and

    The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, by Slavomir Rawicz

  4. Joseph Conrad “Heart of Darkness” has been a perfect read while pinned down by weather high on a mountain.

  5. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse is perfect for backpacking. Buddha became enlightened by the process of deprivation and contemplation. When I even contemplate a twinge of a whine coming on, I think of the self-imposed suffering of Siddhartha, and how it transformed him. Plus it’s a skinny book 🙂

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