What are the essential ingredients in a great adventure story? The Latin root of the word, oddly enough, means "an arrival," but adventure almost always entails a going out, and not just any going out but a bold one: Sail the Pacific on a balsa raft; pit your skills against K2; sledge to the South Pole. It is a quest whose outcome is unknown but whose risks are tangible, a challenge someone meets with courage, brains, and effort—and then survives, we hope, to tell the tale.
"Safe return doubtful," as the famous apocryphal newspaper ad soliciting Antarctica volunteers put it. No matter: There's seldom a shortage of applicants. Humans hunger for adventure, and most is voluntary—people choose to go out and explore or climb or fly alone across vast oceans. But sometimes adventure is thrust upon us: A jet crashes in the high Andes, stranding its passengers in the snows. A whale staves and sinks a ship. These, too, are tests of courage, endurance, resourcefulness. We stay up all night reading to see what happens.
Such stories are as old as civilization. The ancient Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh is an adventure story. So are the Odyssey, the Viking sagas, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And they have mythological roots: Culture heroes go out into the unknown, endure various tests, bring back a boon—the Golden Fleece; the Holy Grail; the knowledge, at the very least, of strange new lands, strange new people.
The adventurer's rewards today are more personal but no less considerable. And those of us who stay behind still ask: What was it like? These are the books that answer that question. To help us choose and rank them, we gathered a panel of writers, critics, and other experts. We asked them to help us find the best stories of exploration, survival, and daring recreation—true stories, we should add; fiction is something else. (War stories are something else as well, and not included here.)
It might seem an impossible task to rank 100 great, but very diverse, books in terms of fine gradations of greatness. Yet anyone can tell you why they prefer one book over another. And that's what our panelists did. We asked them to assign a number of points to each book, taking several factors into account: the book's pure literary merit; its "adrenaline factor," or the level of excitement they felt reading it; and its impact on our history and culture. When we tallied the scores, we found the books that rose to the top were those that succeed on more than one front: great writing about great deeds.
In order to keep the list focused on adventure—as opposed to travel or nature writing, both of which deserve lists of their own—we excluded books that didn't involve at least a measure of physical risk or audacity. And we leaned toward first-person accounts over later retellings. Until quite recently, writing about one's adventures has been largely a luxury of men—and usually white, Western men at that. This is an unfortunate fact of history that a list like this cannot help but reflect, despite our inclusion of some neglected classics by others. Finally, for all the scientific rigor we brought to the task, our rankings reflect the personal tastes of our panelists. Readers may well disagree. So quarrel away. But read.