Stories of the Appalachian Trail: A Recommended Book List

 Thru-hikers and section hikers always have a story about what brought them to the trail. The Appalachian Trail in particular is swarming with folklore, so nearly everyone remembers the first story they heard about the 2,000+ mile footpath that weaves uninterrupted from Georgia to Maine. Sometimes the magic is captivated in a single moment; for others of us, several instances over time bound us closer and closer to the trail.

Personally, I found magic in the words and stories of others. When I read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson I was intrigued. I thought perhaps one day I’d hike it. But then Jennifer Pharr Davis gave me a story I could really attach too—one that I could see myself in—and I knew it was game over for me. I had to make the trek. For many of life’s greatest endeavors, that’s all it takes: someone’s story to inspire us, blaze a path, and serve as a beacon to guide us.

Because stories are so powerful, below I’ve listed some of the powerful stories that set the stage for my 2020 thru-hike. It’s not all-inclusive, but it contains the books that had the most powerful effects on me and my dreams. Many of you may have already read these stories, but if not, I highly recommend. 

The Books that Brought Me to the AT

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
This is an iconic AT book. Bryson, in all his wit and humor, describes his attempt at thru-hiking the trail with his old friend Katz. The two men—neither in peak physical condition nor totally aware of the difficulties that lie before them—bumble along (most of) the trail and learn a lot about themselves along the way. Bryson alternates his hilarious encounters with stories and facts about the AT, ultimately leading to a profound respect for the trail and its hikers.

Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer Pharr Davis
As a kid you hear so many stories about a young hero (usually a boy) who feels out of place in society, but eventually discovers his strength and turns into the hero he was destined to become (think Hercules, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, etc.). Jennifer Pharr Davis is that (s)hero. This story follows her first thru-hiking experience as she “finds” herself—her strength, beauty, confidence, passion, and values. I love this story for how well it captures the trail and for the inspiring way it clearly altered the course of Pharr Davis’ life. A truly wonderful read, especially for young women considering a thru-hike.

AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller
Another great story of finding oneself on the trail. Miller describes his thru-hike the way you might expect a former computer programmer to describe it: in seriously specific detail. I may as well have been right there with him. Additionally, Miller does not hold back in describing the difficulties of thru-hiking. You read this and you feel like you get a pretty good sense of the mess you’re getting yourself into.

The Grandma Gatewood Memorial Trail in Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio showcases beautiful waterfalls like this one.

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery
If you want to thru-hike the AT and you’re unfamiliar with “Grandma” Emma Gatewood, read this story. She’s an AT legend.

Walking Home: A Woman’s Pilgrimage on the Appalachian Trail by Kelly Winters
Another great story of how a journey on the AT mirrored a journey to self-discovery.

North by Scott Jurek
For those who don’t know, Jurek is a badass in the ultramarathon world. He’s won several of the world’s toughest endurance races (ahem, SEVEN TIME Western States champion, excuse me??), all on an entirely plant-based diet (side note: I recommend the latest documentary on Netflix called The Game Changers, especially if you’re contemplating a plant-based diet and have questions). Anyway, in 2015 he set the fastest known time on the AT in 46 days, eight hours, and seven minutes (breaking Pharr Davis’ previous record) and wrote about it in North. His wife, Jenny, also writes sections of the book from her perspective crewing for him. It’s a fun read.

The Pursuit of Endurance by Jennifer Pharr Davis
Pharr Davis held the fastest known time for the AT for four years (46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes), all without running a single step. She’s a total badass. This book shares some of that experience, but also discusses other great endurance feats and examines the work that goes into endurance. The endurance athlete in me geeked out pretty hard.

These books were key in nudging me closer and closer to the AT, but my hunger for the books is never satiated. They provide me with a chance to escape reality and travel to the place I want to be. That said, below is a list of my planned future reading. I’m not limiting myself to these reads alone, but they are ones I’m looking forward to at this time.

There Are Mountains to Climb by Jean Deeds
I’m making an emergency edit to this list by adding this on. I can’t believe I forgot it, because this book pushed me into the realm of “I’m really going to do this.” Deeds is from my home of Indianapolis, so the story of her AT thru-hike felt even more close and  special. Much like Pharr Davis, Miller, and Winters, she shares her story in an intimate and honest way. It’s another great read.

My To-Read List

Where’s the Next Shelter? by Gary Sizer
I discovered this one while google searching AT books awhile back and it just sounds fun. Tales from the thru-hikes of an unlikely group of friends, what’s not to love?

Skywalker: Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Walker
OK, basically I just love hearing people’s thru-hiking stories. Maybe I’m living vicariously. Whatever.

Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph by Jennifer Pharr Davis
You may notice a theme here. What can I say, JPD is a shero.

Dead Men Hike No Trails by Rick McKinney
In the wake of a friend’s suicide, a man struggling with depression himself finds joy on the trail. Seems like good trial inspiration to me.

Walking with Spring: The First Thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail by Earl Victor Shaffer
I’ve heard a lot about this book. Seems iconic. Probably should read that.

Appalachian Trials: The Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail by Zach Davis
If you’re reading this on The Trek’s website (you are), then this choice is self-explanatory. If you don’t know why it’s self-explanatory just google it. (OK, I’ll tell you. Zach Davis runs this website.)

The AT Guide 2019 (or 2020) Northbound by David Miller
AWOL’s AT Guide is said to be the best, so this is an obvious must-read for my 2020 thru-hike preparations.

Bonus: While walking up and down the aisles of the public library I found a book called The Natural Navigator by Tristan Gooley. It’s about using clues from your surroundings to understand the geography around you and navigate yourself without the help of GPS or other technology. The book is meant to help people feel more in-tune with their surroundings. I haven’t reached past the first couple chapters yet, but it has helped me be more mindful when walking around outside.

What’s your go-to AT book? I’d love to hear more recommendations!

 

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Comments 27

  • joanne alvarez : Oct 22nd

    Lost on the Appalachian Trail

    Reply
    • joanne alvarez : Oct 22nd

      Lost on the Appalachian Trail by Kyle Rohrig. He also has a great blog out that’s fun to follow – he is hiking the CDT now. Love the first three you mentioned too. Jennifer Pharr Davis is amazing and her books are so honest. I did not realize she had a new one out so thanks!

      Reply
      • Becca : Oct 22nd

        I can’t believe I forgot to add “Lost on the Appalachian Trail” to my “to-read” list! Good call.

        Reply
  • Yermo Adam : Oct 22nd

    I hope you give it a look see. One of my absolute favorites. Read it four time already.
    _Three Hundred Zeros_: Lessons of the Heart on the Appalachian Trail. 2010 by Dennis Blanchard
    I believe you will be well pleased.

    Reply
    • Becca : Oct 22nd

      Thanks for the recommendation!

      Reply
  • SMB (Rocketman) : Oct 22nd

    “As Far As The Eye Can See: Reflections Of An Appalachian Trail Hiker” by David Brill. Classic read about the trail, which has held up over time. He hiked it in 1979 when most people had never heard of it. Published in the 80s I believe, but it was reprinted in 2013 so there are plenty of copies on Amazon.

    I’ve tried to re-read “A Walk in the Woods”, but I just can’t. Couple of real losers. I’ve read several of his other books too; some where funny, but eventually I realized he is actually a pretty mean person whose whole sense of humor involves putting other people down.

    You’ll really like “Called Again” by JPD. I still need to read her other books.

    Not about the AT specifically, but you should also pick up Mirna Valerio’s book “A Beautiful Dork in Progress”. Based on your profession and book choices, I think your appreciate it.

    Reply
    • SMB (Rocketman) : Oct 22nd

      Make that “A Beautiful Work in Progress”.

      Bad autocorrect. Bad….

      Reply
      • Becca : Oct 22nd

        You know, I was really intrigued by this beautiful dork in progress! 🙂

        Reply
        • SMB (Rocketman) : Oct 22nd

          That’s the working title for my autobiography. 😉

          ……
          Side note: you should poll people for their recommended reads while thru-hiking. Might get some different ideas than just books about hikers/trails.

          Reply
          • Becca : Oct 23rd

            Great idea!

            Reply
    • Dee : Oct 23rd

      Rocketman– I thought it was just me; can’t read more than 4-5 pages of Bryson for the same reasons.
      Maybe we should start a hiker’s “bad Bryson support group.”
      By far the best non-fiction American writers are John McPhee, or if you like history, David McCullough, of course– but neither has written about the AT.

      Dee

      Reply
      • Becca : Oct 23rd

        Everyone is cracking me up with the Bryson dissing! While I’m a huge fan of his writing, I can see where you all are coming from. I think to appreciate the book you have to appreciate his humor and his perspective. It’s definitely not the same type of read as some of the other books I listed. I’m going to stand up for him but definitely laugh in understanding each time someone says they hate his book. (I didn’t watch the movie adaptation but it truly looks terrible.)

        Reply
      • SMB (Rocketman) : Oct 23rd

        Sign me up for the Hikers Opposed to Bill Bryson’s Insufferable Travelogues (HOBBIT).

        I admit I like “Walk…” the first time I read it. “Neither Here Nor There” showed how hateful his really is. “Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” really shows what an a$s he and Katz were growing up in Iowa.

        The movie was dreadful. But, it is worth youtubing the scenes with Kristen Schaal. She is hilarious and nails the role of the most annoying hiker ever.

        McPhee is a legend. Period. His best book that is anywhere close to the AT is The Pine Barrens.

        If you want some McPhee-like reading, go with “The Emerald Mile” by Kevin Fedarko. If you want a modern-day McPhee/Abbey eco crusader, try “This Land…” by Christopher Ketcham.

        Reply
  • Dee : Oct 23rd

    Well done. I hope you eventually get to read “When You Find My Body: The Disappearance of Geraldine Largay on the Appalachian Trail,” because of the importance of the message for all hikers.

    Safe hiking!

    Dee

    Reply
  • Jeff PinterParsons : Oct 23rd

    Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”, even though written for the PCT, does a decent job of capturing the mindset of a thru hiker. I found the Bill Bryson book a complete joke as he never mentions food and how much a thru hiker can eat, Cheryl does.

    Reply
    • Becca : Oct 23rd

      I agree that Wild is another good read! I considered including it on my list despite being about the PCT, but ultimately left it off.

      Reply
  • Scott A Brotherton : Oct 23rd

    I appreciate the pic of where I grew up hiking (& maybe sometimes skipping school to do so…hmmmm) in Hocking Hills. W/anyone unfamiliar w/the area there are several differing parks w/in the Hocking Hills area. Some of which are connected by trails as well. http://parks.ohiodnr.gov/hockinghills
    Additionally there are any kind of accommodation you can think of as well as places to swim, kayak, fish, climb etc.
    I encourage people to check out the area, esp. some of the off the beaten path places like Cantwell Cliffs and Conkles Hollow (& its Rim Trail)
    Thanks much for the reminder !

    Reply
    • Becca : Oct 23rd

      I second this recommendation! Hocking Hills is packed even on an “off” times, so off the beaten path recommendations are great!

      Reply
  • Nikki : Oct 23rd

    On the Beaten Path : An Appalachian Pilgrimage by Robert Aldin Ruben is my favorite of all the AT trail stories. Would argue it is better than Bryson and AWOL’s accounts.

    Reply
    • Becca : Oct 23rd

      Thanks for the recommendation!

      Reply
  • Rebecca : Oct 23rd

    I love reading AT books – thanks for the list! I just last night finished The Barefoot Sisters Southbound and I was so stoked to find out that they chose to yo yo and have another book of their northern adventures The Barefoot Sisters Walking Home which arrives in my mailbox tomorrow. AWOL will follow.

    I have no intention of thru hiking I just love to hike and love to read about the lives of those who choose such a long trek.

    Best of luck to you!

    Reply
  • Team Sandyhead : Oct 23rd

    I would add “Where You’ll Find Me: Risk, Decisions, and the Last Climb of Kate Matrosova”. Not strictly on the AT but very near it, and a great read about the risks we take in the outdoors.

    Reply
  • Colleen Welch : Oct 23rd

    Almost finished with “The Unlikely Thru-Hiker” by Derick Lugo. From the back of the book: The Unlikely Thru-Hiker is the story of a young black man setting off from the city with an extremely overweight pack and a willfully can-do attitude.

    Reply
  • Pilgrim : Oct 23rd

    “Walking on the Happy side of misery” by J. R. Tate aka Model T and Hiking Thru by Paul Stutzman aka Apostle. Two of my favorite books

    Reply
  • Lance Goehring : Oct 27th

    Great list, Becca! I hadn’t seen your list until after I posted my book list. I love the variety. It’s impossible to overstate how important books like Bryson’s and Davis’ are. Plus, I loved the book about Grandma Gatewood. I just read it this summer. We’re so caught up in modern gear now. I’m sure Grandma Gatewood would have found it laughable.

    Reply
  • Ben : Oct 29th

    How about “The Barefoot Sisters: Southbound” and “The Barefoot Sisters: Northbound” by Lucy and Susan Letcher? These were my first AT trail log books and I really enjoyed them. Also gives a different perspective of hiking (mostly) barefoot in both directions in back to back years.

    Reply

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