Travel is one of the most inspiring experiences a person can have, so it’s no wonder that so many people put pen to paper to write books about just this topic. However, the vast majority of lists setting out the best travel books of history are written by men. Trust me – I read several of them for this article, and in the average 25-book list, I found about 2 entries were penned by women.
Perhaps this is unsurprising. Historically, travel has been far less accessible to women than it has to men, so the classics are more likely to be written by male travellers. But surely today this should be different? Plenty of women go on incredible journeys and take on valiant challenges, from climbing mountains to sailing around the world.
So where are all the female travel writers?
Well, to celebrate World Book Day on 7th March and International Women’s Day on 8th March, I set out to compile a list of ten travel-related books by female authors to suit readers of any taste. From the lighthearted and funny, to the jaw-dropping journeys and even the thought-provoking travelogues, here are 10 books about travel by women authors you should check out before your next bucket list trip.
Looking for the boost you need to take on that big travel challenge? These books by unstoppable female travellers will inspire you to take that first step towards achieving whatever trek, summit or adventure you’ve been dreaming up…
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
One book that you can almost guarantee to find on any list of travel books written by female authors is Wild. This 2012 memoir by Cheryl Strayed follows her journey hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mojave Desert, through California and Oregeon to Washington. Along the way, Strayed reflects on the life events that led to her decision to take on this challenging long-distance hike. At 22, Strayed lost her mother to cancer and divorced her husband, her family fell apart and she lost her sense of self. However, at the age of 26, Strayed decided to face her grief head-on and set out to hike 1,100 miles across the United States – with no prior experience.
Strayed describes, with a compelling energy and honesty, the “the exhaustion and the deprivation; the cold and the heat; the monotony and the pain; the thirst and the hunger; the glory and the ghosts that haunted me as I hiked eleven hundred miles from the Mojave Desert to the state of Washington by myself.” Nothing in this memoir is sugar-coated, but in the end it does stand testament to the power that hiking can have for self-discovery and healing. Above all, it shows that in each of us is a strength deeper than that we usually see in tales of explorers and adventurers.
Gorge by Kara Richardson Whitely
Gorge is something a little different when it comes to solo female trekking travelogues. This isn’t about a journey over thousands of miles, alone. Author Kara Richardson Whitely had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in the past. Then, on a second attempt, she couldn’t reach the summit. Hugely affected by this, she fell into food addiction whilst dealing with feelings of shame and insecurity. She reached the weight of 300 pounds, and then came to a revelation: she had to try again.
So, instead of saying “one day” and waiting for her circumstances to change – to lose weight, to feel energised and ‘ready’, she just did it. This book follows the difficult journey to the Roof of Africa, and is recounted with a real sense of endurance, passion and resolve. Along the way, Richardson Whitely reaches a place of self-acceptance – realising that, no matter how society tells women they should look or behave – each of us can decide our own standard of success, and, with pure determination, reach it.
The honest truths
For travellers who are simply looking for a good time and fond memories in some of the most incredible parts of the world, a lighthearted travel book is in order. If this sounds like you, check out these funny and bracingly honest accounts of around-the-world travel by female writers…
How Not to Travel the World by Lauren Juliff
How Not to Travel the World is a book that makes unlikely circumstances into a hilarious story of one woman’s mishaps whilst travelling the world. Lauren Juliff admits having “no life experience, zero common sense and [having] never eaten rice” when she set out for her solo trip around the world. Her story is typical for many people setting out on a long trip – she had just gone through a heatbreak and was looking for space and clarity.
However, this is not the story of a life-changing journey you might usually expect. Juliff’s trip entails less ‘finding herself” and much more “finding herself in uncomfortable and/or life-threatening situations”. She gets scammed, swallows a cockroach, loses teeth and gets caught up in a tsunami before eventually deciding to give up travel for good. Of course, this is when she falls for a fellow traveller. If you’re looking for a frank account of the travails of solo travel combined with a bit of lighthearted feel-good factor, look no further than How Not to Travel the World. You’ll cringe, laugh and also learn a lot about how (and why) to persevere through the challenges travel can present.
All Over the Place by Geraldine DeRuiter
Geraldine DeRuiter’s book, All Over the Place is not about a woman who one day realised her fate was to travel the world. In fact, DeRuiter asserts that, between acute motion sickness and a non-existent sense of direction, she is better suited to “stay home and eat nachos”. However, after losing her job, she set off to travel the world anyway, beginning five years of eye-opening globetrotting that left her no more adept at reading a map.
She did, however, experience plenty of incredible cultures, landscapes and situations, which enrich this memoir with a wanderlust-fuelling texture from page to page. All Over the Place proves that, even when travel doesn’t come easy, it always helps us grow as individuals. During her trip, DeRuiter learnt about everything from sustaining a marriage to connecting with her parents’ cultures and even living through a brain tumour. The takeaway lesson of this relatable and unpolished story is that, “sometimes you can find yourself exactly where you need to be — even if you aren’t quite sure where you are.”
Journeys of a lifetime
Ready to take on the journey of a lifetime? No, not quite? Take a read of these books and you will see just how transformative travelling can be – whether it be for your personal relationships, career, or just your personal development.
Eight Feet in the Andes: Travels with a Mule in Unknown Peru by Dervla Murphy
Imagine being taken to hike 1,300 miles by your mum as a nine-year-old kid. Well, that’s what happened to Rachel Murphy, when her mother, Dervla, decided that they would walk the length of Peru with nothing other than a mule as company. In Eight Feet in the Andes, we see the mother-daughter duo navigate themselves from Cajamarca by the Ecuador border, to Cuzco in the south to see the famous Inca ruins of Machu Picchu.
Despite all of the discomfort and risk, Dervla and Rachel are audacious and determined. Mishaps punctuate their perilous journey – at one point Juana even falls over a precipice (but is, mercifully, retrieved), however, Dervla remains uncompromising in her toughness. This day-by-day journal style may not be for everyone, but it does give a real feel for the impressive landscape of the Peruvian Andes. Unfortunately, Murphy’s descriptions of local people are not always sympathetic – a poor example for travellers looking to truly connect with and appreciate a culture. Let’s hope that one day, Rachel will write her own version of the story to illustrate just how much taking this intense journey at such a young age has shaped her life.
The Kindness of Strangers by Kate Adie
If you’re looking for a book about travel written by a woman who is both truly courageous and a natural writer, you will love Kate Adie’s The Kindness of Strangers. Kate Adie is one of the most renowned UK journalists, having reported for the BBC from the frontline of conflict zones since 1969, be it in Libya, Northern Ireland or the Gulf War. This autobiography follows her inspiring career travelling around the world as a journalist, sharing gripping anecdotes in an evocative style.
One of the most striking aspects of Adie’s book is her take on what it’s like to be one of the first notable female journalists in a male-dominated sphere. Despite all of the challenges of representation, discomfort and warfare – from struggling with autocratic media managers to being shot point-blank by a Libyan army commander – she soldiers on to get the story out. Along the way, she recounts meeting with countless strangers who showed her unadulterated kindness. Reading this candid book by a woman who still has part of a Sarajevo bullet in one of her toes is certainly inspiring.
These books are written by and about some of the most valiant vagabonds of history – and they are women. If you have a travel dream in mind but aren’t sure if it’s doable, read these books and you will see that anything is possible, with a little determination (and maybe a canny disguise…)
The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt by Isabelle Eberhardt
Isabelle Eberhardt was a truly remarkable woman living way ahead of her time, and The Nomad is her legacy in diary form. Born in 1877, Eberhardt was one of the first female explorers to pave the way for women travellers today. Due to the restrictions of her era, she published under a male pseudonym, and regularly cross-dressed to disguise her identity during her international travels to what were then some of the world’s most unchartered territories.
After becoming intrigued by North Africa, Eberhardt moved to Algeria in 1897, converting to Islam and taking on the male identity, Si Mahmoud Saadi. In The Nomad, she wanders the Sahara Desert on horseback, poses as a Muslim mystic and, during trips back to Europe, marries a soldier. Her diaries are fascinating both for their depiction of a woman travelling intrepidly in the 19th century, but also as a portrait of a woman of contrasts: at once incredibly resilient and somewhat adolescent, privileged of mind yet living in challenging situations. Today, Eberhardt is considered an advocate of feminism and decolonisation – making her the perfect figure to study for women keen to learn about the world.
West With The Night by Beryl Markham
West with the Night was published at the perfect moment. Realeased in 1942, in the midst of World War Two, with thousands of women flourishing in industrial roles they would never previously have been allowed to occupy, this female aviator’s memoir became a symbol of the new horizons of women’s self-determinism. As a result, it appeared on 13 bestseller lists, and remains a must-read today.
Beryl Markham was, by any estimation, a remarkable woman. A pilot, racehorse trainer and general badass, Markham grew up in Kenya. One day she joined friend Denys Finch-Hatton in his aeroplane. She was immediately hooked on life in the skies, and went on to become the first woman in Kenya to receive commercial pilot’s license. Then, in 1936, she decided to fly solo across the Atlantic. No-one believed she would do it, yet, even with a strong headwind and a plane that only flew at 163 miles her hour, she proved them wrong. This book follows her incredible journey, from Britain, to Africa and back, and finally across the Atlantic to Nova Scotia.
Finally, I wanted to share a couple of books that approach the topic of travel from a slightly different angle. These books shed light on the intersections of travel and politics, showing how international journeys can shape not only individuals, but also societies. These aren’t your typical feel-good travelogues, but they are very important reads. After all, what else is travel for if not broadening the mind?
Without You, There is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim
North Korea is generally considered to be one of the most politically fraught countries, and yet it is one of the countries which those outside know least about. Without You, There is No Us is the account of Suki Kim, one of few people to successfully infiltrate North Korea undercover. In 2011, she posed as a missionary teacher and began a job at the elite Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, teaching the 19-year-old sons of North Korea’s most powerful men. In this engrossing work of literary nonfiction, she decribes the last six months of Kim Jong-il’s reign through the eyes of a teacher watching her students sing songs of their leader’s greatness, lie for the regime and – in promising moments – display curiosity about the world beyond the border.
This book offers a rare glimpse into the world created by an insular government – one that, until recently, hid the existence of the Internet from its citizens. Kim claims her book is”based on undercover investigative journalism to convey the psychology of North Korea’s future leaders and their very complex and human and inhumane world, seen through my eyes.” Without You, There is No Us is a testament to the truths travel can reveal, and a seed of hope for its ability to connect people from seemingly irreconcilable worlds.
A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
This book-length essay illustrates life in the Caribbean island of Antigua from a perspective you won’t read about in travel guides. A Small Place is a very significant book that provides an insight to travel from the other side of the transaction – the perspective of a local. In a book that is often described as “lyrical” and “sardonic”, author Jamaica Kincaid amplifies the idiosyncrasies of Antigua, the country in which she was born, and holds a mirror to the tourist, showing them the often undesirable effects that their ‘escape to the sun’ can have for the country itself.
Those interested in the history of colonialism in the Caribbean will find this to be a fascinating, if unsettling, read. However, every traveller can benefit from reading Kincaid’s book, as it forces us to consider the impact our travel has on people and societies. In A Small Place, Kincaid demonstrates how unethical travel can perpetuate the injuries of colonialism, and in providing such an indictment, encourages travellers to do better to ensure their experiences are ones of mutually-beneficial cultural connection.
So there you have it – ten brilliant travel books by female authors to add to your reading list. While you’re at it, why not take your new-found itchy feet and tick off a trip from your travel bucket list, too? To find out about our unforgettable adventure travel experiences from the Africa to China and beyond, contact us today on 0176 930 9007.