The books that sparked debate, changed discourse, and spawned movements in the outdoor world in the last ten years. (Photo: Kyra Kennedy)
Books

The Outdoor Books that Shaped the Last Decade

Ten books that sparked debate, started conversations, and launched movements in the past ten years—and what to read next

Digital media continued its march across the cultural landscape in the past decade, but its proliferation didn’t diminish the importance of books—even if these days we’re thumbing through real pages less often than we’re 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 ten books 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. We’ve also matched each book with recommended reading from the same genre or subject area.

‘The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature’ by David George Haskell (2012)

Books
(Photo: Courtesy Penguin Random House)

Digging Into Nature’s Wisdom

Biologist David George Haskell is like the nature aficionado’s 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 waxes poetic about a year spent surveying a small plot of Tennessee old-growth forest as it weathers the 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 Unseen injects much-needed vibrancy into the stuffy world of nature writing—and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, to boot.  

Further Reading 

‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed (2012)

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(Photo: Courtesy Knopf)

Celebrating the Heroine’s 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 Strayed’s 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 audience’s desire for more narratives centered on women’s experiences outdoors—and stories in general about the internal journeys we experience in wild places.

Further Reading

  • Just before Wild dominated literary adventure discourse, journalist and Outside contributor Tracy Ross published The Source of All Things (2011). It’s an unflinching account of how the wilderness helped her to not just cope but thrive as she confronted the lasting effects of childhood sexual abuse.
  • The gorgeous prose of dogsledder and Outside columnist Blair Braverman’s Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube (2016) will sock you straight in the gut—as will the story line about the arctic alchemy that helped the author transform trauma into courage.
  • Climber Jan Redford’s End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage, and Motherhood (2018) contains plenty of dashing detail about her decades in the Canadian alpine while serving up some real talk: adventure isn’t always the cure-all we wish it to be.
  • In Running Home (2019), Outside contributor Katie Arnold traces her parallel journeys as an elite ultrarunner and a bereaved daughter fighting through a fog of grief and anxiety after her father’s 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)

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(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

‘Tom’s River: A Story of Science and Salvation’ by Dan Fagin (2013)

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(Photo: Courtesy Bantam)

Fighting for Environmental Justice

When a Swiss chemical company arrived in Tom’s River, New Jersey, in 1952, it promised 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 who—or what—was to blame. The richly detailed account, which earned the author a Pulitzer Prize, didn’t 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 Sioux’s battle against the Dakota Access pipeline. Tom’s River may soon appear on the silver screen: Danny DeVito’s production company, which helped bring Erin Brockovich to theaters, optioned the film rights earlier this year.

Further Reading

‘Wave: Life and Memories After the Tsunami’ by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)

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(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 can’t 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 History’ by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)

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(Photo: Courtesy Macmillan)

Inspiring Conservation’s New Wave

The title of Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-winning book references the undeniable fact that our planet is well into its sixth wave of mass die-offs, a canary—or, more accurately, a snow leopard—in the coal mine for what’s 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), it’s pretty much all our fault. While that’s a sobering pill to swallow, Kolbert does throw us a sliver of bone: the clock’s ticking, but it hasn’t yet stopped. 

Carrying a torch lit decades ago by Rachel Carson’s 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 Seen’ by Christopher McDougall (2009)

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(Photo: Courtesy Knopf Doubleday)

Pushing Human Limits

Journalist and runner Christopher McDougall traveled to Mexico’s Copper Canyon in search of the secret to an injury-free stride. He soon became convinced that the secret wasn’t 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 McDougall’s book helped to launch a collective obsession with long-haul running and the limits of physical endurance. 

Further Reading

‘The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder’ by Richard Louv (2011)

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(Photo: Courtesy Algonquin)

Plugging into Nature

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

Further Reading

‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate’ by Naomi Klein (2014) 

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(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 president’s 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 we’ll never right the climate ship if we continue clinging to the very framework that’s sinking it: capitalism. Klein’s vision of environmental liberation requires detaching ourselves from the sticky grip of fossil fuels and 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 Nature’ by Jordan Fisher Smith (2016)

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(Photo: Courtesy Crown)

Unearthing Nature’s 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 people—and far more bears—dead 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 killer’s den for the devious hand of man.

Further Reading

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the title of Michael Kodas' book. Outside regrets the error.

Filed To: BooksNatureMediaScienceClimate ChangeExplorationThru-HikingRunning
Lead Photo: Kyra Kennedy
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