Our Picks For The Best Survival Stories Based On True Events – We love the outdoors and having our own adventures, but sometimes it’s nice to hear what other people go through. Here is our guide to the best books about survival based on real events and true stories.
Over the last several months, we have written a lot about outdoor adventures, picking the right gear for going into the backcountry, and talked in depth about navigation in the wilderness and getting “un-lost.” Sometimes it may seem that all this preparedness is a little overkill…that is until you realize how close we are to a serious injury or disaster when we are deep in the great outdoors.
Even on what would seem to be a “safe” and easy Church camping trip, I was personally faced with extracting an older gentleman who just wasn’t physically able to handle a multi-day camping trip. At the end of the second day of a four night trip, this gentleman was in series trouble both physically and mentally. He was out of shape and exhausted.
Ultimately, we had to make contact with a fishing boat captain to arrange a pick-up and get him back to safety. Thankfully, we were hiking around a large body of water that had a lot of recreational use and we were able to make cell phone contact by hiking to a peak to get a signal. That experience has since shaped my mindset when leading groups in the backcountry, whether prepared or not.
I fully assess all members of the group and have taken the hard line with some folks who I thought couldn’t handle a wilderness trip. Even so, I still have ended up carrying many a person’s gear so they could make it to camp.
That experience, along with my love of reading adventure novels, is the inspiration for this list of what I think are some of the best books about survival. This is a list of survival stories, not necessarily how-to guides. The theme here is that things can go haywire in a moment’s notice…and then still get worse!
Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors
First published in 1974, two years after its real-life events took place, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors has become a classic in the genre of true survival tales. The book recounts the story of a team of rugby players whose Uruguayan Air Force plane crashed in the snow-peaked Andes Mountains, leaving its passengers stranded.
Only 16 of the plane’s 45 passengers survived, and Alive—written in gripping prose by Piers Paul Read—details the extraordinary and often gruesome measures the survivors had to take to stay alive, from eking out a shelter in the wrecked fuselage to subsisting on the frozen flesh of their dead teammates.
But it’s a story of triumph as well. The challenges of survival and the brotherhood of the teammates against impossible odds makes Alive equal parts harrowing and inspiring. It’s an endlessly gripping read.
The Twenty-Ninth Day: Surviving a Grizzly Attack in the Canadian Tundra
A riveting true-life survival epic, The Twenty-Ninth Day is a firsthand account of Alex Messenger’s near-lethal encounter with a grizzly bear during a canoe trip in the Canadian tundra. Separated from his five companions on the 29th day of the trek, Messenger was mauled and left for dead by a grizzly bear, turning a wilderness adventure into a struggle for survival.
Since the events of The Twenty-Ninth Day took place, the author has worked as a wilderness guide and been published by the New York Times, Men’s Journal and National Parks Magazine, among others. Just seventeen at the time of the book’s true events, Messenger spins the yarn with page-turning intensity, acute attention to detail, and a deep love and respect for the wilderness that shines on every page.
Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival
There are different kinds of survival in Norman Ollestad’s bestselling 2009 memoir, making the book equal parts wilderness adventure and coming-of-age-tale. The author survives his parents’ tumultuous marriage, being thrust into the world of competitive downhill skiing and surfing at the tender age of three, and ultimately must survive a catastrophic plane crash atop a remote peak at just eleven years old.
But as Ollestad guides us through his life story in succinct, concise fashion, what becomes clear is that every obstacle overcome and every trauma survived has led him to be the man he is. In the end, Crazy for the Storm becomes a meditation not only on survival, but on growing up and on the nature of manhood itself.
438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea
It’s hard to imagine any greater challenge than being stranded at sea, or a more unforgiving environment in which to pit oneself against nature’s fury. But for two fishermen who left the coast of Mexico in a tiny fishing boat in 2012, survival at sea became their reality for over a year.
Forced away from shore by a sudden and violent storm, captain Salvador Alvarenga and his crewmate were forced to overcome gale-force winds, pummeling waves and almost certain death. The story of how they made it out alive is thrilling, and packs an emotional punch.
The fourteen months the two fishermen spent adrift on the Pacific Ocean are recounted in vivid detail in 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea by author and journalist Jonathan Franklin. Upon publication, Outdoor Magazine called it “the best survival book in a decade.”
Bad Karma: The True Story of a Mexican Surf Trip from Hell
A dream surfing trip becomes a struggle for survival in Bad Karma: The True Story of a Mexican Surf Trip from Hell. Set in Mexico in 1978, Paul Wilson’s memoir follows the young author at the age of 21 as he dives headfirst into an adventure with a pair of his surfing heroes, in what turns out to be the heart of drug cartel country.
And that’s where things really get interesting. From robbing a supermarket to learning that one of his companions is a convicted killer on the run, Wilson’s incredible true story tumbles off the page at breakneck speed, pulling the reader along for the ride.
Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why
Many books tell stories of disaster and survival. Few delve into the science and psychology of how we deal with crisis as compellingly as Laurence Gonzales’s bestselling Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. After all, survival is about mental preparedness as much as physical, and the book brims scientific insights and practical advice that might just save your life someday.
In addition to strong research and an accessible take on the scientific side of survival, Gonzales also tells gripping stories of men and women who have survived horrific ordeals, from avalanches and storms to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It leads the reader to wonder how they themselves would survive in such seemingly impossible situations and, perhaps, leaves us a little better prepared to do so.
The Greatest Survival Stories of All Time
Adrift at sea. Lost in the Amazon. Abandoned on Mount Everest. Some of the most thrilling and inspiring survival stories are collected in this volume, some of them seemingly too unbelievable to be true.
The most famous account in The Greatest Survival Stories of All Time is that of Aron Lee Ralston, who cut off his arm to escape the canyon he’d been trapped in, and who was portrayed by James Franco in the film 127 Hours. But the book abounds with equally remarkable true tales of survival.
From stories of plane crashes and sinking ships to surviving parched deserts and frigid tundras, The Greatest Survival Stories of All Time lives up to its title. It’s a great collection to use as a jumping-off point if you’re just getting into the survival genre.
Kon-Tiki: By Raft Across the South Seas
Many survival stories start with an accident. A plane crashes, a sudden storm appears, an animal attacks. Others, like Kon-Tiki, begin deliberately, but that makes the adventure no less thrilling.
Kon-Tiki is the true story of a 1947 expedition led by Norwegian scientist and writer Thor Heyerdahl, who theorized that the South Sea Islands had been settled by an ancient race from South America, thousands of miles to the east. To test his hypothesis, Heyerdahl built a raft using only materials that would have been available in ancient times, and set it adrift in the Pacific with himself and a team of five sailors aboard.
Kon-Tiki has no doubt inspired countless young adventurers—not to mention a documentary, a TV series and a feature film—since it was first published in 1948. It remains a classic saga of courage and survival at sea.
In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis
The sinking of the USS Indianapolis, in 1945, is widely considered to be the worst disaster in U.S. Naval history. The story is told in thrilling, poignant detail by historian Doug Stanton on the pages of In Harm’s Way.
After delivering parts required for the assembly of the first atomic atomic bomb, the USS Indianapolis was struck by two Japanese torpedoes in the open Pacific Ocean. The ship sank in just 12 minutes, taking approximately 300 of its 1,195 crewmen with it.
Those who escaped would face an even more harrowing ordeal: days adrift at sea. Many had no lifeboats or life jackets, and hundreds succumbed to dehydration, saltwater poisoning, exposure and shark attacks. In Harm’s Way honors those who survived and those who did not, drawing its narrative from extensive interviews with survivors and rescuers.
For me personally, I could read adventure books and stories about great escapes all day long. I am also a huge historical fiction nut and have been known to tear through many Richard Sharpe novels. In fact, I recently wrote about my favorite Sharpe Novels that you should read. If you read a few of these stories above, one thing is apparent, you just never know when danger will strike!
Blair Witkowski is an avid watch nut, loves pocket knives and flashlights, and when he is not trying to be a good dad to his nine kids, you will find him running or posting pics on Instagram. Besides writing articles for Tech Writer EDC he is also the founder of Lowcountry Style & Living. In addition to writing, he is focused on improving his client’s websites for his other passion, Search Engine Optimization. His wife Jennifer and he live in coastal South Carolina.