Hiking into the Grand Canyon is like listening to a Mozart symphony. It’s beautiful, undeniably moving, and just when you think it’s about to end, you realize you’re not even halfway through.

The first time I descended 6800 feet from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the base at Phantom Ranch and ascended the same trail the next morning, I was reading A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, a description of the author’s efforts to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. In this passage, he describes the paradox of euphoria and fatigue he experienced during his hike:

I wanted to quit and do this forever, sleep in a bed and in a tent, see what was over the next hill and never see a hill again. All of this all at once, every moment, on the trail or off.

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Author at the Grand Canyon ©Greg Christensen

Here was an author I’d never met, talking about a trail I’d never been on, who’d had the exact same experience I was having on the other side of the continent. I felt a kinship with him and found myself enjoying my own trail even more.

C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know that we are not alone.” And my experience with Bryson’s book is one of the reasons I always throw something to read into my backpack. Not just a standard book of trails or a random novel to pass the time after everyone else has conked out. And definitely not an audiobook I have to plug into. No, I’m looking for a connection to others who’ve had similar experiences and who’ve described them with a little wit, passion and insight I might have missed.

So in addition to Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, here’s my selection of the Best Books for Backpacking:

Seven Summits by Dick Bass and Frank Wells

The story of the first (and oldest) man to climb the tallest mountain on each continent. From Everest to Kilimanjaro to Denali to the Antarctic Vinson Massif, you don’t have to be on a technical climb to appreciate the challenges, victories, and obsessions Bass faced.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Imagine Thoreau’s Walden written by a park ranger at what was formerly Utah’s Arches National Monument. It’s a collection of Abbey’s essays ranging from his distaste for increased tourism in national parks to a search and rescue team’s effort to pull a body out of the desert.

The Mountains of California by John Muir

The father of American conservation and the man responsible for protecting Yosemite as a national park shares his own experiences hiking through 19th Century California’s mountains, valleys, glaciers and forests. For a micro synopsis, see the tail side of the 2005 California quarter.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

A first-hand account of a disastrous attempt to climb Mt. Everest in 1996. Unlike many nonfiction adventure novels, Into Thin Air was written by someone who was there, and who happens to be a professional writer (Krakauer was formerly a journalist at Outside). Krakauer is not only an experienced mountaineer, his prose is spellbinding. So you don’t have to be eating Spam in a tent and fighting pulmonary edema to share in this sense of high adventure.

Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose

How the American West was open by the nation’s original backpack heroes, Meriweather Lewis and William Clark. The early chapters describing Lewis’s time as Louisiana’s governor and his friendship with Thomas Jefferson may be a little weighty for reading on the trail. But the bulk of the book describes confrontations with the Sioux, Blackfeet and grizzlies, as well as numerous descriptions of wildlife, like herds of countless bison and mass squirrel migrations in unsettled America. Lewis and Clark were there before any of us, and Ambrose does a fine job of letting us see the country through their eyes.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Admittedly, this is a little bit of a stretch. But how can you not associate with a group of backpackers who spend their days on the trail and their nights in the mountains and dark forests? At least you’ll think twice before taking shelter in a cave.

Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson

For when you’re feeling esoteric on the trail. Not exactly light reading, but when you come across a passage like, “To the body and mind which have been cramped by noxious work or company, nature is medicinal and restores their tone,” you’ll see Emerson knows exactly what he’s talking about.

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On the Appalachian Trail ©Greg Christensen
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