14 survival stories to keep you on the edge of your seat

14 survival stories to keep you on the edge of your seat

In Reading Lists by Molly Hurford

14 survival stories to keep you on the edge of your seat

Technically summer isn’t over yet, so an adventure isn’t out of the question. But if school has started and the routine of life has resumed, getting that adventure out of a good book more than suffices. Lead a double life by diving into stories of epic adventure and survival. It’s hard not to love a good tale of survival and human triumph, but we also have a soft spot for an old ‘lost in the Bermuda Triangle’ narrative as well.

If you love true crime and survival podcasts, you’ll love these audiobooks and ebooks that share stories of adventure, mystery, survival, and a celebration of the human spirit.

If you love reading about unexplained phenomena and true crime, this New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller dishes out ample doses of both. Eichar explores the mysterious incident at Dyatlov Pass in the Russian Ural Mountains that dates back to 1959. A group of elite hikers left on a fairly standard hike, and none returned. Later, their bodies were found inexplicably outside of their tent, with the tent slashed open. The hikers were found underdressed for the cold, emitting heightened levels of radiation. The story is eerie, and Eichar’s well-researched investigation of the tragic incident is fascinating. 

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It’s nice to read survival stories that feature both positive experiences that inspire you to head into the wilderness and harrowing stories of survival and strife. Author and famed mountain runner Jornet’s memoir, recounting his adventure-packed run up Everest in record time, is the kind that will inspire and shock you. Everest is the challenge that everyone knows about, but few understand the mountain the way Jornet — who once summited the peak twice in a single week without oxygen — does. 

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There are many survival stories that came out of the mid-20th century, likely because at least a few survivors have been able to tell their tales, and documentation of the incidents makes writing historical accounts of a plane crash in 1942 easier than, say, trying to uncover the truth behind a shipwreck in the 1700s. This is a good thing, because it’s resulted in great accounts like Frozen in Time. You’ll be transported back to World War II, where a small U.S. cargo plane crashed in Greenland — as did the plane sent to rescue the survivors. The next rescue also failed, leaving soldiers trapped in the Arctic for 148 days.

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In this gripping, poignant account, a World War I vet decides to summit Everest in 1933 to recover his psyche from a war that took so much from him. He flies a small Gypsy Moth biplane to the base of Everest, purposely crash lands, and then summits the mountain solo. Unsurprisingly, Maurice Wilson’s story contains plenty of twists and turns, and you’ll be tempted to skip ahead to see how the story turns out. 

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The American Adrenaline Narrative by Kristin J. Jacobson

For a more intellectual approach to adventure, Professor Jacobson offers a critical lens from which to view the genre. She argues that these adrenaline narratives like Krakauer’s Into Thin Air typically contain a gender bias, and ignore the ecological catastrophe caused by seeking adventures in far-flung destinations. This book will make you think hard by offering a behind-the-scenes approach to adventure. 

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How do 7,000 bikes end up abandoned just beyond the Mexican border, on the edge of Tijuana? Taylor, a journalist, was perplexed by this phenomenon, and wanted to figure out how and why they were left behind. The result is The Coyote's Bicycle, the story of how 7,000 bikes ended up in the U.S. through the efforts of one coyote — a human smuggler — who built an empire at the border and eventually disappeared. 

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The Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson

It doesn’t get more ‘Roaring 20s’ than barrel jumping, where people would cram into barrels and heave themselves over the edge of Niagara Falls. Clarkson investigates why someone would want to do this by chronicling the stories of the men and women who risked their lives for a brief moment of flight and glory. He focuses on the Hill family, a father and son who popularized the sport. 

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What happens when a normal person with a desk job decides to quit and head into the wilderness and off the grid? Dunn did just that, and realized that life in the wilderness has its ups and downs. My Year Without Matches is an adventurous recount of Dunn’s year in the wild as she learns how to survive, and then, how to thrive. It’s a great reminder that any of us can take big risks and have these grand adventures. 

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The year was 1909. The goal: To push to the edges of the earth and finally explore the Poles. The world was largely mapped, but a few places still remained unexplored, and the race was on. Larson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, recounts the three expeditions that changed the world. Ernest Shackleton made it to Antarctica and the furthest point south, while Douglas Mawson reached the magnetic south pole, and Robert Peary and Matthew Henson “discovered” the North Pole. The expeditions were successful, but not without tragedy and danger, and Larson captures the feeling of that time beautifully. 

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Hound of the Sea: Wild Man. Wild Waves. Wild Wisdom. by Garrett McNamara and Karen Karbo

What kind of person purposely seeks out the biggest waves on earth and tries to tame them? That’s what you’ll find out if you read this book. McNamara, the world record-holding big wave surfer (and star of the HBO show 100 Foot Wave), tries to explain what makes him tick and what drives his record-breaking attempts to ride the biggest, most dangerous waves on Earth. This memoir gives the reader insight not just into McNamara, but also into every person who goes out in search of an adventure that might take their life. 

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Probably one of the most intense stories of survival ever lived (and written about), 438 Days recounts the story of captain Salvador Alvarenga, who survived more than 14 months adrift in a small boat on the Pacific Ocean before miraculously drifting onto an island 7,000 miles from his home. Dubbed “the best survival book in a decade” by Outside Magazine, Franklin’s recounting of Alvarenga’s story is a serious page-turner. You’ll be so pulled in that you’ll feel the kind of fear, frustration, boredom, willpower and terror that Alvarenga experienced. 

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Not all adventure stories have to be so intense. For something more lighthearted with a happy ending, McCullough’s memoir of her adventures at sea with her husband is worth reading. The Box Wine Sailors recounts their year-long experience of sailing with minimal boating experience and only a desire for adventure and a change. While inspiring, it’s also a reminder that adventures like this may look idyllic on Instagram, but there can be harrowing moments that come from living this kind of life.

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This New York Times Notable Book and NPR Best Book of the Year is the modern-day survival tale of the 2015 hurricane that swallowed the El Faro container ship. Dubbed the worst shipping disaster in 35 years, the vanished container ship sparked speculation based on where it disappeared: right in the Bermuda Triangle. Despite being equipped with the most modern tracking equipment, the ship simply vanished. Slade recounts the last 24 hours onboard the ship, and the book — which, spoiler alert, does not have a happy ending — has the makings of a blockbuster hit.

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It’s fascinating to read stories of survival and loss in similar circumstances back-to-back. If you enjoyed Into the Raging Sea, read Island of the Lost by Druett. This book recounts the bizarre, incredible stories of two ships that happened to wreck on opposite ends of the same island at the same time during a brutal storm. While one crew comes together and works to survive, the other crew turns on each other, fighting and starving. It’s an incredibly fascinating look at the ways that different people approach survival and tragedy.

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About the Author: Molly Hurford

Molly is a writer and bookworm in love with all things wellness related. When not playing outside, she’s writing or podcasting about being outside and healthy habits for The Consummate Athlete. She also writes books, including the Shred Girls series. In her spare time, she runs, rides bikes, and hikes with her mini-dachshund and husband.
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