Online Index to National Geographic's Top 100 Adventure/Exploration Books

In 2004 NatGeo published a list of 100 Best Adventure Books of All Time, probably the best list of its type. If a canon of Outdoor/Adventure/Exploration literature could reasonably be made, this might be it, at least from an American/UK perspective. The selection process National Geographic used was rigerous and the books are mostly primary source first-person accounts taken from all periods of history. You won't find last years best sellers or second-hand journalist accounts. Luckily many of the books are in the public domain and thus freely available online in first edition scans. The scans contain everything that made the book famous - often lacking in later reprints - such as pictures, maps and drawings. Below are those books from the list, that are also freely online. Descriptions are from the National Geographic article linked above.

#98: Narrative of a Journey Across the Rocky Mountains by John Kirk Townsend (1839)
Townsend, a naturalist, tagged along on a fur-trading expedition to Oregon and writes with great exuberance about his adventures among Indians, grizzlies, buffalo, and mountain men.
#94: North American Indians Vol 1 & Vol 2 by George Catlin (1841)
Catlin spent six years among the Plains Indians, and his paintings of them are world renowned. His book should be, too. He was a brave man.ready to take on a grizzly unaided.and a sensitive one. His book glows with respect for these people. Much of what we know about their lives we know because of him. Read, and give thanks.
#91: The Valleys of the Assassins1 by Freya Stark (1934)
Amateur archaeologist Stark takes the usual British attitude to adventure.What, me worry?.as she crosses vast empty places in Persia, dodging bandits, dodging the police, and "passing through fear to the absence of fear." A fine memoir.
#90: Journal of the Voyage to the Pacific Vol 1 & Vol 2 by Alexander Mackenzie (1801)
Ten years before Lewis and Clark, the Canadian Mackenzie, traveling with a group of voyageurs, became the first white man to cross North America. The story of their struggle to take their birch-bark canoe against the current up the Peace River is worth a book in itself.
#87: Adventures in the Wilderness by William H. H. Murray (1869)
The wilderness is the Adirondacks, and Murray's book about camping, fishing, running rapids, and generally having a blast there helped begin a national craze to get out in the open.
#84: Kabloona1 by Gontran de Poncins (1941)
"If you see a man in a blizzard bending over a rock you may be sure it is me and that I am lost." So says de Poncins in this intense and very beautiful book about his sojourn among the Inuit in the Canadian north, where he goes to assuage a restlessness in his soul. This is his story of finding himself.
#80: Journal of a Trapper by Osborne Russell (1914)
Angry wounded grizzly bears, boats made out of buffalo hide, fights with the Blackfeet,'s all here, the life of a trapper in the Rockies in the 1830s and '40s, as told by one of the survivors, who kept this raw journal.
#75: Through the Brazilian Wilderness by Theodore Roosevelt (1914)
All bluff and bluster? Not Teddy. People died on this trip down the Rio da Duvida, or the River of Doubt, which had never been mapped. Poisonous snakes were common, close calls frequent, starvation a possibility, fever inevitable. A thrilling book.
#71: The Adventures of Captain Bonneville by Washington Irving (1837)
Irving bought an unpolished memoir by a trapper named Benjamin Bonneville for $1,000 and then rewrote it. It was a good investment; this lively account, stocked with incident and grand in its sweep, is the happy result.
#68: The Journey of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and His Companions from Florida to the Pacific, 1528- 1536 by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (1555)
Three hundred would-be conquistadores land near present-day Tampa in 1528 to make Florida their own. Eight years later, four naked survivors, our author among them, emerge from the wilderness of Mexico. Though little known outside historical circles, this is one of the most extraordinary survival stories ever told.
#66: Mutiny on the Bounty by William Bligh (1790)
The movies have taught us to see Captain Bligh as a villain and the mutineers as justified, but Bligh's own account, naturally, tells a different story. Once the rebellious sailors force Bligh and 18 loyal crew members onto the Bounty's 23-foot (7 meter) longboat, it becomes a remarkable survival story: an open-boat voyage of nearly 4,000 miles (6,440 km), on a scrap of bread and a half cup of water per man per day.
#62: Life in the Far West by George Frederick Ruxton (1849)
Ruxton was an English adventurer who visited the American West, then returned to England and wrote this book. Technically, it's a novel (he changed a few names), but in fact it's a more accurate look at the lives of the mountain men than most nonfiction accounts. It's full of marvelous stories, and its heroes are just what we'd expect: strong, resourceful men of few words.
#60: Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens (1843)
Imagine hacking your way through thick jungle while racked with malaria. The country around you is in chaos and on the brink of civil war. And you discover, despite all this, the lost city of Tikal. And 43 other Maya ruins. Stephens is the father of American archaeology, and this is his beautiful account of the expedition that made him so.
#59: Principall Navigations by Richard Hakluyt (1589-1590)
Hakluyt believed that England should rule the seas and develop colonies before Spain gobbled up the whole world, and he compiled this book to fire the ambitions of his countrymen. At a million and a half words, it's less a book than an encyclopedia, packed with exploration and adventure stories that run from the tales of King Arthur to Drake, Raleigh, and beyond. It was, of course, influential beyond measure.
#56: Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile by John Hanning Speke (1863)
Herodotus tells us about five young men of the Nasamones tribe who tried and failed to find the source of the Nile. More than 2,200 years later, it was still unknown. In two separate expeditions, in 1858 and 1860, British explorer Speke located and named Lake Victoria and at last determined that this was the origin of the Nile. His book reads like Victorian fiction-sweeping, detailed, and hip-deep in exploits.
#54: Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada by Clarence King (1872)
King was a Yale man, a ladies' man, a friend of Henry Adams's, and a geologist. While still in his 20s, he began a survey of the 40th parallel, from the Sierra to the Rockies. He had adventures galore and was a natural storyteller. He was also one of the first Americans to climb mountains simply because they were there.
#51: Travels in Arabia Deserta by Charles M. Doughty (1888)
During his two years in the desert, Doughty traveled with camel caravans, lived in Bedouin tents, went hungry, and faced much danger. Then he wrote it all up in the most stylized, peculiar prose, which nevertheless gives us a fascinating picture of a type of Arab life that has been all but forgotten today.
#48: Man-Eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett (1944)
Corbett was an Indian-born Englishman who became legendary for his ability to track and kill man-eating tigers and leopards.a valuable skill in a region where a single tiger could kill as many as 400 people. This is old-fashioned storytelling at its best.
#42: My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir (1911)
In the summer of 1869, young and fresh, Muir traveled through the Sierra Nevada with a shepherd and his flock. This book is his journal, and it, too, is young and fresh. Muir, who would become a legendary advocate for wilderness and the founder of the Sierra Club, always played down the dangers he faced. But this book is full, nevertheless, of bears. And charm. It reminds you of how much wildness we have lost.
#40: Journey Without Maps 1 by Graham Greene (1936)
Liberia, 1935: "The great majority of all mosquitoes caught in Monrovia are of a species known to carry yellow fever." The U.S. Army map of the country's interior filled in the blanks with the word "Cannibals." "Have you thought of the leeches?" someone asked Greene. He went anyway, into the forest, on foot, village to village. Be glad. The book is just plain great.
#38: Scott's Last Expedition: The Journals by Robert Falcon Scott (1913)
Whatever else English explorers can do, they can almost always write. And when things are at their worst, they manage, somehow, to be most eloquent. That's the only word for Scott's Journals, with its entries running right to the end of his desperate race home from the South Pole. Scott's courage.and his mistakes.are known to everyone. Here it all is as he lived it, and as he died.
#36: Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper (1871)
Whymper is famous for his first ascent of the Matterhorn and for the accident coming down, in which four of his companions died when their rope broke. He was irritable and sour but also a true iron man of the mountains. And his book ranks high among the classics of mountaineering in part for having helped promote the very notion that peaks are meant to be climbed.
#33: A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella L. Bird (1879)
Bird was no lady in the conventional Victorian sense but a world traveler. She ventured through the Rockies when they were still wild, met up with grizzly bears, and climbed Longs Peak when it was thought impossible for a woman to do so. She had to thaw her ink on the cabin stove to write, and she wrote delightfully.
#32: Through the Dark Continent by Henry M. Stanley (1878)
We know him for finding Livingstone, who wasn't lost, in 1871, but the truly adventurous trip was Stanley's next, in 1874, when the British explorer became one of the first Europeans to run the length of the Congo. His account of that journey reads like some wonderful old boys' adventure tale.except that it's true.
#31: The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman (1849)
In 1846, the future historian of the American West went west himself, following the trail of the emigrant trains into the Rockies. "A month ago," he writes along the way, "I should have thought it rather a startling affair to have an acquaintance ride out in the morning and lose his scalp before night, but here it seems the most natural thing in the world." Generations of readers have loved this book; you will, too.
#29: First Footsteps in East Africa by Richard Burton (1856)
He spoke fluent Arabic and traveled in disguise to places barred to infidels. Harer, in East Africa, was one such place, and he wrote this extraordinary book about his adventures there. Burton was the very archetype of the British explorer.eccentric, restless, brave. A product of his time, he was consciously superior to the natives, but remarkably adept at making his way through alien cultures nonetheless. You read him for him as much as for what he accomplished.
#27: Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum (1900)
At loose ends and in your 50s, what better way to pass the time than to sail alone around the world? The journey took three years and covered 46,000 miles (74,000 kilometer); Slocum was chased by pirates, survived major storms, suffered hallucinations. But he made it. He was the first to do it alone. Then he wrote this marvelous, salty book. In 1909, he put to sea again. This time, he disappeared.
#25: Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa by Mungo Park (1799)
In 1795, Park enters the African interior with a servant, a horse, some clothing, a few trade goods, a pair of pistols, and two days' worth of provisions. Eighteen months later, he emerges with nothing but the clothes on his back and his notes, which he'd kept in his hat. In between lies perhaps the best of the great early African explorations.
#23: The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin (1839)
The grand old man of modern biology was a gentleman of leisure, a crack shot, and no scientist when, at 22, he boarded the Beagle for its long survey voyage to South America and the Pacific. His record of the trip is rich in anthropology and science. (His shipmates called him "the Fly-catcher.") The adventure comes in watching over Darwin's shoulder as he works out the first glimmerings of his theory of evolution.
#22: Home of the Blizzard by Douglas Mawson (1915)
It is Antarctica, 1912, and the Australian Mawson and two other men set out across King George Land. They find themselves in treacherous terrain, and one vanishes into a crevasse, along with dogs, a sledge, and most of the food. Then the second man dies of starvation and dysentery. Blizzards rage for days, a week. Mawson endures. Mawson lives. A fine read that has never gotten quite the attention it deserves.
#21: Journals by James Cook (1768-1779)
Captain Cook made three voyages to the Pacific, discovered the east coast of Australia, stove a hole in his boat within the Great Barrier Reef, tried to find the Northwest Passage, had countless encounters with natives.and died during one of them.and was one of the greatest explorers the world has ever known. His Journals are a sober but fascinating account of how it felt to redefine the boundaries of the known world.
#18: Travels in West Africa by Mary Kingsley (1897)
She went by steamboat and canoe, accompanied by native crewmen, up the Ogooue. She fought off crocodiles with a paddle, hit a leopard over the head with a pot, and wrote with equal charm about beetles and burial customs. Other African explorers were more daring, none more engaging. When she died, the British buried her at sea with full military honors.
#17: Kon-Tiki1 by Thor Heyerdahl (1950)
Nine balsa-wood logs, a big square sail, a bamboo "cabin" with a roof made of banana leaves.thus did Norwegian Heyerdahl and his companions set sail from Peru toward Polynesia to prove a point: that the South Pacific was settled from the east. Point proved? Maybe not, but it's one hell of a ride.a daring tale, dramatically told.
#15: South by Ernest Shackleton (1919)
Shackleton's story bears endless retelling (and it has been retold, in fine accounts by Alfred Lansing and, more recently, Caroline Alexander). Here we have it in the great British explorer's own words, quiet, understated, enormously compelling. We all know the story: the expedition to Antarctica in the Endurance, the ship breaking up in the ice, the incredible journey in an open boat across the world's stormiest seas. Though Shackleton's literary gifts may not equal those of Cherry-Garrard or Nansen, his book is a testament, plain and true, to what human beings can endure.
#14: Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana (1840)
Scion of a prominent Boston family, Dana dropped out of Harvard and, hoping to recover the strength of his eyes, weakened by measles, signed on with a merchant ship as a common sailor. His book about his time at sea is an American classic, vivid in its description of the sailor's life and all its dangers and delights.
#13: Roughing It by Mark Twain (1872)
Twain lit out for the territory when the Civil War started and knocked around the West for six years. Roughing It is the record of that time, a great comic bonanza, hilarious when it isn't simply funny, full of the most outrageous characters and events. It is not an adventure book, it is an anti-adventure book, but no less indispensable.
#11: Farthest North by Fridtjof Nansen (1897)
In 1893, Nansen purposely froze his ship into the Arctic ice and traveled with the drift of the pack. When the ship approached striking distance of the Pole, he set out for it by dogsled, reaching the highest latitude yet attained by man before turning back to Norway. He was gone three years. The book is both an epic and a lyric masterpiece.
#10: Travels by Marco Polo (1298)
Polo dictated these tales to a scribe, a writer of romances named Rustichello, while the two men shared a cell in a Genoese prison. Just how much Rustichello added to the text nobody knows. Yet most of what Polo tells us about his overland journey to Asia checks out. He traveled during a relatively peaceful time, so this is not a book about taking physical risks. Nor is it as accessible to modern readers as many of the books on this list. Yet it is without question the founding adventure book of the modern world. Polo gave to the age of exploration that followed the marvels of the East, the strange customs, the fabulous riches, the tribes with gold teeth. It was a Book of Dreams, an incentive, a goad. Out of it came Columbus (whose own copy of the book was heavily annotated), Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and the rest of modern history.
#4: Exploration of the Colorado River by John Wesley Powell (1875)
Powell lost most of his right arm fighting for the Union, but that didn't stop him from leading the first descent of the Grand Canyon. The year was 1869, and he and his nine men started on the Green River in wooden boats. "We have an unknown distance yet to run," writes Powell, "an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not. Ah, well!" Ah, well, indeed. The rapids were overpowering. They lost boats and supplies. They ran out of food. Near the end, three of the men lost their nerve and climbed out of the canyon; they were killed by Indians. The others stayed with Powell and survived. Powell himself was an unusual man.tough, driven, hard to please. He was also a thoughtful man, a friend of Native Americans, and a gifted geologist. It is this combination.deep curiosity allied with great courage.that makes the book a classic.
#2: Journals by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (1814)
Are there two American explorers more famous? Were there any braver? When they left St. Louis in 1804 to find a water route to the Pacific, no one knew how extensive the Rocky Mountains were or even exactly where they were, and the land beyond was terra incognita. Lewis and Clark's Journals are the closest thing we have to a national epic, and they are magnificent, full of the wonder of the Great West. Here are the first sightings of the vast prairie dog cities; here are huge bears that keep on coming at you with five or six bullets in them, Indian tribes with no knowledge of white men, the mountains stretching for a thousand miles; here are the long rapids, the deep snows, the ways of the Sioux, Crow, Assiniboin; here are buffalo by the millions. Here is the West in its true mythic proportions. Historian Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage gives a fine overview, but to hear the adventure in the two captains' own dogged, rough-hewn words, you need the complete Elliott Coues edition in three volumes. Buy all three. Dive in. Rediscover heroism.


1. Click on "All Files: HTTP" and download the DjVu copy. The best DjVu viewer can be found here by LizardTech.

C:Stephen Balbach