Top Five Books to Read While Backpacking

Although cruising through the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide can be an exciting escape, the overdose of information can leave you stressed, overwhelmed, and constantly planning. Travel guides are an excellent reference, but they shouldn’t be the only thing you read on your journey.

Travelling is filled with a great deal of high-energy moments, but those moments are matched by a great deal of down time. The abundance of ‘chilling’ is the ultimate opportunity to check out those books you’ve been meaning to read and enjoy others that you’ve never heard of. There is only so much staring out the bus window you can do. And isn’t travel about expanding your horizons? So why not expand them even further beyond the places you’re seeing, the cultures you’re experiencing, and the people you’re meeting to the insights and stories that only books can offer.

Leah and Devin doing some concentrated reading on the Salar de Uyuni tour

Obviously you don’t want to fill your backpack with only books, so bring 1- 3 with you (depending on the length of your trip) and trade them in along the way. Most hostels and some cafes have really great book exchanges in multiple languages.

Here are some suggestions based on what we have read on the road. They may seem like a hodge-podge because many were picked up at book exchanges but we enjoyed them all.

Love in the Time of Cholera


1. Culturally Relevant

The first instinct for anyone visiting a new and wonderful place is to read books about the culture and history in that area. It’s the best way to get a feel for what the people have been through and how it has shaped the nation. Churches, historical sites, and ancient ruins will mean more to you. Ultimately your trip will be more engaging.

For us, reading culturally relevant books has helped piece together the conquests of the Spanish, the influence of Che Guevara, and power of Gabriel Garcia Márquez literature. For South America try:

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Márquez
The Motorcycle Diaries – Ernesto “Che” Guevara
Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Márquez

Jurassic Park

2. Movie Books

Movie books are those books that are so entertaining and suspenseful that you just have to keep turning the page. In effect, it feels like you’re watching a movie. In most cases books of this nature will have probably been turned into movies. These are great for moments when you just need a little brain candy.

Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton
The Help – Kathryn Stockett
The Lost World – Michael Crichton
The Secret Life of Bees – Sue Monk Kidd

Half the Sky


3. Motivational

You know those moments when you flip through a National Geographic or read a motivational quote and wish you were out there travelling the world? Wouldn’t it feel great to read those words while you’re actually travelling? Nothing gives you better confirmation that life is really great on the road than reading inspirational stories pushing you to do what you love. Motivational books are also the best medicine for travel fatigue, when you think everyone at home is having more fun than you.

Half the Sky – Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn (necessary reading for every human)
The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures – Heidi Postlewait, Kenneth Cain, Andrew Thompson

World Without End


4. Tomes

A large, epic novel is an obvious pick to bring on your journey – they last forever and you’ll have a story to be engrossed in at any moment. Nothing beats a good, long, layered adventure.

Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
World Without End – Ken Follett (the sequel to Pillars of the Earth)

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius


5. Classics (or soon-to-be classics)

These are the books that you’ve always been meaning to read, but have never gotten around to. They’re the books that everyone references, assuming that every human with a heartbeat has read them. Now is the time to catch up and become an educated literary genius. Don’t bother bringing any of these with you, book exchanges along the Gringo Trail are littered with them.

On The Road – Jack Kerouac
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers