The Outdoor Books that Shaped the Last Decade


Digital media continued its march across the cultural landscape in the past decade, but its proliferation didnt diminish the importance of bookseven if these days were thumbing through real pages less often than were swiping pixels on our screens. Books challenge our perceptions and paradigms, provoke curiosity, and inspire action. And for many of us, engaging with big ideas felt more important during this decade than ever before.

In that spirit, here are tenbooks from the past ten years that sparked debate, changed discourse, and spawned movements in the outdoor world. These stories made us marvel at the seemingly impossible limits of the human body and feel enthralled with the wonders of nature. They mobilized us to stand up against environmental injustice, taught us about climate change, and inspired us to take our ideas out into the world. Weve alsomatched each book with recommended reading from the same genre or subject area.

The Forest Unseen: A Years Watch in Nature by David George Haskell (2012)

(Photo: Courtesy Penguin Random House)

DiggingIntoNatures Wisdom

Biologist David George Haskell is like the nature aficionados Malcolm Gladwell: he has a knack for getting geeky about the outdoors in a way that brings the rest of us along for the ride. In his debut book, Haskell waxespoetic about a year spent surveying a small plot of Tennessee old-growth forest as it weathersthe seasons, using a tiny square of forest to explore much larger observations about the workings of the natural world. Blending literary finesse with scientific know-how, The Forest Unseeninjectsmuch-needed vibrancy into the stuffy world of nature writingand was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, to boot.

Further Reading

Wild by Cheryl Strayed(2012)

(Photo: Courtesy Knopf)

Celebrating the Heroines Journey

Two camps seemed to emerge when Wild was published: one criticized Cheryl Strayed for not digging deeply enough into the nitty-gritty of backpacking on the Pacific Crest Trail; the other understood the book to be mostly about Strayeds personal transformation and was less concerned about the backpacking technicalities.Wild has inspired countless people of all genders to hit the dirt in search of adventure and self-discovery. It also cultivated a mainstream audiences desire for more narratives centered on womens experiences outdoorsand storiesin generalabout the internal journeys we experience in wild places.


  • Just before Wild dominated literary adventure discourse, journalist and Outside contributor Tracy Ross published The Source of All Things (2011). Its an unflinching account of how the wilderness helped her to not just copebut thriveas she confronted the lasting effects of childhood sexual abuse.
  • The gorgeous prose of dogsledder and Outside columnist Blair Bravermans Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube(2016) will sock you straight in the gutas will the story line about the arctic alchemy that helped the author transform trauma into courage.
  • Climber Jan Redfords End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage, and Motherhood(2018) contains plenty of dashing detail about her decades in the Canadian alpine whileserving up some real talk: adventure isnt always the cure-all we wish it to be.
  • In Running Home(2019),OutsidecontributorKatie Arnold traces her parallel journeys as an elite ultrarunner and a bereaved daughter fighting through a fog of grief and anxiety after her fathers death.
  • Carrot Quinn is kind of like the Patti Smith of long-distance hiking: a sensual punk-rock poet who unveils both the mystique and minutiae of trekking in her self-published memoir, Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart(2015).

The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors by James Edward Mills (2014)

(Photo: Courtesy Mountaineers)

Reclaiming Space

When multimedia journalist James Edward Mills followed the members of Expedition Denali during their push on the famed Alaskan peak in 2013, he knew he would document something special. After all, it was the first summit of Denali by a team of entirely African American climbers. But Mills took The Adventure Gap beyond the scope of a traditional expedition narrative, exploring the reasons for the glaring outdoor cultural divide and noting that bridging that gap would help people and the planet. Once published, the book ignited a firestorm of productive conversations about justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in the outdoor adventure world.

Further Reading

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvationby Dan Fagin (2013)

(Photo: Courtesy Bantam)

Fighting for Environmental Justice

When a Swiss chemical company arrived in Toms River, New Jersey, in 1952, itpromised the small township an influx of jobs. In the decades that followed, the company left the town with a legacy of contamination. When an alarming number of children received cancer diagnoses, investigative reporter Dan Fagin joined residents in searching for whoor whatwas to blame. The richly detailed account, which earned the author a Pulitzer Prize, didnt land on any hard findings. But it has become a benchmark for reporting the compelling, David and Goliath environmental justice stories that continue to play out across the country, such as in the water crisis of Flint, Michigan, or the Standing Rock Siouxs battle against the Dakota Access pipeline. Toms River may soon appear on the silver screen:Danny DeVitos production company, which helped bring Erin Brockovich to theaters, optioned the film rights earlier this year.

Further Reading

Wave: Life and Memories After the Tsunamiby Sonali Deraniyagala(2013)

(Photo: Courtesy Virago Press)

The Aftermath of Natural Disasters

On December 26, 2004, a massive earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused a tsunami that would claim the lives of roughly a quarter-million people. Those losses included the husband, children, and parents of Sri Lankan economist Sonali Deraniyagala, whose account of the incomprehensible tragedy is an excruciating read. While most of us watched the news with a detached mixture of horror and fascination, Deraniyagala drags readers right into the undertow of her grief; we cant look away, nor should we. While natural disasters are often chronicled in scientific and sensational tones, Wave rightly humanizes an outsized tragedy.

Further Reading

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural Historyby Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)

(Photo: Courtesy Macmillan)

Inspiring Conservations New Wave

The title of Elizabeth Kolberts Pulitzer-winning bookreferences the undeniable fact that our planet is well into its sixth wave of mass die-offs, a canaryor, more accurately, a snow leopardin the coal mine for whats to come. Drawing on the work of scientists she encounters while reporting across this rapidly changing world, the environmental journalist contends that at this stage of the Anthropocene (the era in which humankind left an indelible and perhaps irreversible mark on the landscape), its pretty much all our fault. While thats a sobering pill to swallow, Kolbert does throw us a sliver of bone: the clocks ticking, but it hasnt yet stopped.

Carrying a torch lit decades ago by Rachel Carsons groundbreaking Silent Spring, Kolbert unmasks the gritty truth about our role in the ongoing destruction of nature and asks a question echoed by all of the recommended works below: what are we going to do about it?

Further Reading

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seenby Christopher McDougall (2009)

(Photo: Courtesy Knopf Doubleday)

Pushing Human Limits

Journalist and runner Christopher McDougall traveled to Mexicos Copper Canyon in search of the secret to an injury-free stride. He soon became convinced that the secret wasnt a matter of improving his form, but of converting to a more minimalist style of footwear favored by the runners of the Tarahumara tribe, who log ultra distances in nothing more than a pair of thin sandals. While Born to Run ignited the barefoot running craze that reverberated in athletic shoe design for years after it published, the real reason we stretched the timeline to include it here is because McDougalls book helped to launcha collective obsession with long-haul runningand the limits of physical endurance.

Further Reading

The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorderby Richard Louv (2011)

(Photo: Courtesy Algonquin)

Plugging into Nature

When prolific author Richard Louv dropped Last Child in the Woodsin 2005, he proposed a then-groundbreaking idea that modern kids suffer from nature-deficit disorder. In The Nature Principle, Louv extends that revelation to adultsimploring us to deepen our relationship with the natural world as a means to improve our existence and ensure our survival. Chances are youll see one of Louvs books name-checked whenever someone connects the dots between human health and the natural world.

Further Reading

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climateby Naomi Klein (2014)

(Photo: Courtesy Simon & Schuster)

Sounding the Climate Change Alarm

Al Gore is often credited for raising the collective consciousness about global warming in 2006 with An Inconvenient Truth,but the former vice presidents book and subsequent film were just the tip of the proverbial, rapidly melting iceberg. Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein doubled down with the fiery and polarizing This Changes Everything, a book that proposes well never right the climate ship if we continue clinging to the very framework thats sinking it: capitalism. Kleins vision of environmental liberation requires detaching ourselves from the sticky grip of fossil fuelsand envisions a collective effort far beyond switching to stainless-steel straws. Of course, we still have a long way to go.

Further Reading

Enginering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight Over Controlling Natureby Jordan Fisher Smith (2016)

(Photo: Courtesy Crown)

Unearthing Natures Seedy Underbelly

When a young man named Harry Walker was fatally mauled by a Yellowstone grizzly in 1972, his family sued the National Park Service. Former ranger Jordan Fisher Smith uses this incident to seduce the reader with a public lands parable masquerading as a wildly entertaining thriller. Along the way, he exposes a lengthy history of criminal mismanagement that left peopleand far more bearsdead in its wake. While our endless appetite for the nasty business of true crime likely stretches back for time eternal, Engineering Eden proved that the natural world proves just as compelling a backdrop as a serial killers den for the devious hand of man.

Further Reading

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